In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a troop of rather insolent squirrels that lives right outside our house that I have named the Squirrel Punks. Because these aren’t your ordinary squirrels. They have managed to enlarge what was once a small hole in our trash bin to just their size so that they can crawl in and help themselves to all the leftovers. Which means that when you open the trash bin unawares, you often happen upon the squirrel party of the century. And then of course they have the nerve to perch themselves directly in front of our front porch windows, as if to taunt us. Like I said, squirrel punks.
Of course, I know that there is nothing at all intentional about their behavior, let alone malicious. Because I know that at the end of the day, they’re just squirrels; and squirrels are incapable of being punks. Squirrels, like the rest of the animal kingdom, live by the instinct. Squirrels don’t have to try to act like squirrels -- you could say that being a squirrel just “comes naturally” to them. So despite my suspicions, the squirrel punks are just being squirrels.
I begin with this little treatise on my unneighborly squirrels to set up a contrast with which to compare human beings. Because it is only through a proper understanding of what it means to be a human creature versus some other kind of creature that we can properly understand what Jesus is teaching us today about the law and what it means for us to be accountable to it.
The thing with human beings is that, unlike squirrels, we do actually have to try to act like human beings. God created humanity to be a kind of task. God has given us the gifts of reason and the will: these gifts are inherent to us as humans; indeed, they are in large part what make us human. And we are also inherently social creatures, which means that the gift of friendship is the ultimate goal of human life, whether friendship with others on earth or friendship with God in heaven. But the catch that comes with these gifts is that being human in the fullest sense is no longer a given for us: while squirrels are always squirrels to the fullest because they live by natural instinct, humans must acquire our humanity to the fullest. So being human is not entirely a matter of just walking around as a thing called a “human,” but rather consists in the full and proper use of these gifts: of reason, the will, and friendship with God and others. We have to become what we are.
And this is why it’s even possible to speak of human life in terms of law or morality at all. Because we have to be human intentionally in order to be fully human, the implication is that we can be less than human just as intentionally. And it is this possibility of being more or less human that makes being human an inherently moral task. So to commit sin is to violate what it is to be human; to act in a way that is contrary to what you are; to quite literally become less than human. Conversely, to act virtuously is become more human; to incline ourselves to the full humanity found in the proper ordering of our selves and our friendship with God and others. Virtue and vice, sin and good works, friendship and discord, these opposites therefore establish a spectrum of humanity on which there are any number of possible points that we can find ourselves at. This presents us with a serious problem, however, but I’ll get to that later.
Now, to confess our belief in the Incarnation -- the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human -- is not merely to claim that the Son of God was born as a human creature as opposed to some other kind of creature. He was certainly that -- fully, physically, identifiably human -- but if full humanity involves the perfect exercise of oneself, in perfect friendship with God and neighbor, then to confess that Jesus Christ is fully human is to claim that Jesus exercised just this kind of perfection. It is what we confess when we say, much more simply, than Jesus Christ was without sin: there was never any moment in his life on earth when he was anything less than human.
This is also what Christ means when he says just before our Gospel reading today, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The law that he is referring to is summed up in what the 8:00-ers hear every Sunday in Rite I:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments
hang all the Law and the Prophets.
For Jesus to claim that he is the one who fulfills the law and the prophets is to claim that he is the one who really does love God with all his heart, soul, and mind; who really does love his neighbor as himself. And thus it is to claim that he is fully human -- more human than the rest of us -- since the law and the prophets set the standard for what full humanity demands. And having fulfilled the law and the prophets, Christ effectively becomes that standard.
The point is that the law is not a bunch of rules that Jesus obeyed so that we don’t have to -- that would have been to abolish the law. But this is worth our attention because it’s very common for people to imagine Jesus as representing whatever they find agreeable over against whatever they find harsh or restrictive. And it always sets up an opposition when it comes to Jesus, some kind of “this vs. that.” You hear versions of this all the time: New Testament vs Old Testament; Law vs Gospel; Spiritual not Religious; the love of Jesus vs the judgment of God; “It’s not a Religion, it’s a Relationship”; and on and on it goes. But what Matthew in particular reveals is that all of these false distinctions are dissolved in Christ because Christ fulfills the law.
So now we can see that when Jesus makes the various comparisons found in our reading this morning, he is focusing our attention on what these commandments actually command of us:
Of course, by internalizing the law, Jesus wasn’t adding his own new spin on it. The law was always concerned with the internal dimension of our actions; it’s just that the scribes and Pharisees had conveniently neglected the much heavier demand on the soul and instead preferred to focus on their own merely external obedience. Which is exactly what we do too, all the time.
What we learn from Jesus’ restatement of the law and the prophets is that it’s never enough for humans to just do something and consider it done. And we all know this deep down, for honesty would demand that we all admit that our lives are continually defined by a less than full humanity, even when we technically “do the right thing” -- perhaps even especially when we do the right thing.
In light of such honesty, how are we to hear Jesus’ warning that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” without falling into complete despair? Because despair really would be the result. If Christ alone fulfills the law because he alone is human to the fullest, then the paradoxical implication is that only God can love God with all of the heart, soul, and mind; only God can love a neighbor as himself. Which is to say that only God can be fully human. And that leaves us in failure, for we are very clearly not God. As long as the standard of full humanity remains at a height that we would have to strive to reach, we stand condemned by it. We would never exceed the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and thus would never enter the kingdom of heaven. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, the letter kills; which means that to pronounce the law in words is to make it into something that stands over and above us. And as long as the law stands over and above us, it will always lead to our death.
The only way to escape the despair of our inevitable failure and death, therefore, is to be filled with the Spirit that gives life. And fortunately, for those of us who are in Christ, the New Law of the Gospel does not remain over and above us, but instead has been written on our hearts. The very life of Christ -- the only human life that fulfilled the law -- has taken up residence in us by grace such that we are now partakers of that life. Indeed, it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives in us, to paraphrase St. Paul again. And as a result, we are now enabled by the grace of faith in Christ to become what we are at last: to share in the full humanity of Christ. Such sharing enables us not only to “tear out” and “cut off” that which leads us to persist in hateful anger or to make others into means to our own ends, but also goes beyond that and enables us to actually love God and our neighbor. For we now love them in and through the one who is himself that love made flesh, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
With that, let us pray again the words of our Collect this morning: O God, because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.