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Seeing Scripture through the Lens of Love

Matthew 5:21-37

Photo by ATC Comm Photo: https://www.pexels.com/photo/human-hands-forming-heart-on-white-surface-305530/

The way we choose to look at something can change the entire way we see and understand it. One philosopher gives the example of a mother-in-law who dislikes her daughter-in-law. She finds her undignified, rude, and immature. But after feeling this way for a while and not liking the fact that she dislikes her son’s wife, the mother-in-law makes a conscious effort to see her daughter-in-law in a new light. So instead of thinking she’s undignified she calls her refreshingly simple. Instead of rude she thinks of her as spontaneous. Instead of immature she tells herself she’s delightfully youthful. The daughter-in-law hasn’t changed, but the way the mother-in-law feels about her does. She starts to see her differently.[1] Seeing her through the lens of love changed everything. This example shows that the attitude we have toward something, or someone, can make a tremendous difference in how we understand them and how we feel about them. The lens through which we interpret things matters.


The same is true for how we look at scripture. And I think it’s clear that the same was true for how Jesus looked at scripture. You see, in the Gospel reading today we have some very strict teachings from Jesus. We’re still in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking about what the kingdom looks like. What a world looks like where people embody the will of God, where people live fully into the peace and justice and righteousness God intends for us. And this kingdom, apparently, has very high standards.


But remember, this is not a list of requirements for being saved or earning forgiveness. This is Jesus’ vision for the world as it should be, the world as God intends it. What prophets called the peaceable kingdom or the new heavens and new earth, what Jesus called the kingdom of God, what Paul called the new creation. Living in the world to come now is a tall task to live out.


Instead of simply, “You shall not murder” Jesus basically says, don’t even get angry. And instead of using the court system to promote justice, Jesus says, figure things out between yourselves so you don’t even need to go to court. And instead of taking oaths in the name of God, Jesus says, just tell the truth all the time and be so honest that you don’t have to take oaths to make a contract. (That one would be like hiring a new employee without having them sign anything and simply agreeing to pay their salary without any legally binding contract. It would be foolish in the world as we know it, but Jesus is presenting a new vision for the world.)


So one way to look at this passage is that Jesus is setting incredibly high standards for how his followers are to act. How we are to manifest this new world of the kingdom in the midst of the old world so full of sin and selfishness. But there’s something else going on here too. You see, rather than simply being high standards of righteousness, it’s important to understand the theological debates of the day that Jesus is addressing when it comes to interpreting the Law of Moses.


A generation before Jesus there were two well-known rabbis, Shammai and Hillel. These rabbis and their respective schools were very influential in how Jewish people understood the Torah, that is the Law of Moses. Shammai was generally the more strict teacher. He looked at the Torah through a very serious lens. He taught that you are not allowed to divorce except for a very serious transgression. He also taught that you were to observe the Sabbath very strictly. Hillel on the other hand, was generally the more lenient one. He taught you could divorce for any reason you wanted, even if your wife cooked a bad meal. And about the Sabbath, he said it was basically a day to relax and not overstress about.


And then there’s Jesus’ teaching. He did not side with the strict school of Shammai or the lenient school of Hillel. Jesus did something different. He looked at the Torah through a different lens. At times we see Jesus siding with the more strict interpretations, such as in this passage. But at other times we see Jesus siding with more lenient interpretations, such as when it comes to healing on the Sabbath or picking grain on the Sabbath. Why would Jesus do this? Why would Jesus fluctuate between more strict and more lenient interpretations of Torah? Did Jesus think it was more important to be strict or lenient, or did he have a different priority altogether?


Jesus had different lens than Shammai or Hillel or the Pharisees or Sadducees. When we look at the way Jesus interpreted Torah across the Gospels as a whole, it becomes clear: Jesus always interpreted things in a way that favored the most vulnerable. He always understood Torah through the lens of love and compassion, and considered how an interpretation would affect the poor and marginalized, how it would affect the most vulnerable in any given situation.


So in the case of divorce, for example, Jesus came down more strictly. Because he lived in a very patriarchal society that left divorced women very vulnerable. (And only husbands could initiate divorce by the way.) So if a husband divorced his wife for no good reason, the woman found herself in a very precarious situation. Jesus’ teaching on how to interpret the Law on divorce protects vulnerable women from being thrown out of their homes.


On the flip side, something like Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath is much more lenient. Again, that is because Jesus sides with the vulnerable and interprets the Torah through the lens of love and compassion. What is the most loving thing to do in a situation where someone needs healing? Do you heal on the Sabbath or make them wait? And if your animal falls into a ditch on the Sabbath, do you help it get out or wait a day before rescuing it? Jesus taught that it was ok to do such things on the Sabbath, lining up with the more lenient school on that issue. Not because he was trying to be more lenient all the time, but because his way of understanding scripture was always focused on caring for the most vulnerable. Seeing scripture through the lens of love.


When we understand this, it becomes pretty clear why Jesus comes across as more strict in some places and much more lenient in others. Recognizing that Jesus always interpreted scripture through the lens of love should inspire us to do the same. When we interpret scripture in a way that leads us to love and serve those in need, then we’re reading the Bible the way Jesus did. But if we interpret scripture in a way that excludes or oppresses or judges, then we’re not reading the Bible the way Jesus taught us.


How would Christian interpretation of the Bible change if we read scripture the same way Jesus did? If we followed Jesus in interpreting scripture through the lens of love, what difference would it make here at St. Matthew or in the church worldwide? How would the church respond to refugees and asylum seekers? How would the church respond to addicts and the incarcerated? How would the church respond to LGBT people? How would the church respond to today’s most vulnerable?


Today’s readers of the Bible, both Jews and Christians, have various methods of interpretation. Everybody reads through a lens; you can’t avoid that. Some are more strict. Some are more lenient. Some are oblivious to what their lens is. Jesus teaches us to intentionally see scripture through the lens of love.


And it’s good news for us that God also looks at us through the lens of love. God doesn’t focus on our sin, but looks at us like the most loving mother or father you can imagine. God’s loving gaze shines upon us. Wraps us in unconditional love. Heals our brokenness and sin. And transforms us into loving children of God. Jesus looks at us the same way he looks at scripture—the same way he looks at everything—through the lens of love. Teaching us to see things in the same way, to have the mind of Christ. And all the while revealing to us how incredibly loved we are!


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Pastor Brian, 2/12/23


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[1] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (p. 17).

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