Today I would like to reflect on Jesus as the Rabbi, or teacher, to his followers, which means thinking about the Law, or Torah, and how Jesus would have understood it. First about the disciples: in these passages, Jesus says, “You have heard….” This is at least partially because very few of his disciples would have been literate so they would have heard only what they had been taught orally. Jesus undertakes the act of interpreting Torah for them, in the tradition of the rabbis. Much of what he says is not new but his audience is not the elite, but the poor of his time. He, however, is teaching them with the conviction that they can learn the deeper insights of the law. He is saying that you do not have to be educated to follow Torah; you do not have to be smart or rich. You do have to love God and your neighbour as yourself.
Let us think about Torah for a moment. Michael Lerner wrote, in 1994, about Jewish renewal; that is, recovering the essential nature of Judaism that is creation concerned, ethical, just, in awe of the creator, and aware of the wisdom of the righteous community. Christianity has obscured the fact that Jesus was speaking as a Jew about Jewish matters, about how to recover the community of those who were chosen to model justice, reverence, compassion. He had no intention of separating people from their religion. He was interested in making the Law and the Prophets accessible to the ordinary people of his own time, to give them hope, faith and empowerment.
When Jesus interprets Torah, it is not to rewrite it, but to open up the possibilities that exist in the text. His sermons are not oppositional but explorative. In Judaism, there is a rich tradition of opening up new possibilities for hearing God’s word. Thus, Torah is not rewritten, but it is new in every generation because its students will understand it through fresh perspectives.
Torah is properly understood as a gift for people to reflect upon in the context of their own lives. Its origins are not legalistic but are practical, spiritual guides for living. Thus the context becomes the lens through which Torah is read and Torah is the lens through which life is examined. Torah is neither a rule book, nor doctrine. It is meant to be inspirational, a “truing” of the ethical spirit of God in humanity.
Earlier in Matthew, we heard Jesus say that he had come to fulfill the Law and that no one could find heaven unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes. This is not about individual piety, but about the evolution of community. Traditionally, heaven marked not an other worldly existence, but the time when God’s presence would so fill the earth that war and struggle would cease. It is not utopian because it was understood as something that would have to be worked for and worked at. It would require a community of the righteous working together, in concert, to realize this dream. It would require sacrifice and commitment beyond a person’s own desires. The point that Jesus is making is this I think. As people we need structure, ritual and expectations, to help us know how to live. These expectations and rituals may develop and change over the ages, but their essential purpose must not. And that purpose is to help us know how to be ethical, loving humans. The second part is that The Law is a tool for this, not a goal. Torah is a way to see God at work in this life, to experience the beauty of life lived in harmony, compassion and justice.
I would like to end with a quote from Michael Lerner’s book:
What is unique about Judaism is that it entwines this sense of awe, wonder, amazement, and this spiritual reality that surrounds us, with a vision of the God who not only created the universe but also is the Force that makes possible an ethically guided universe. Many non-biblical religions separate these two dimensions and celebrate creation as the central reality Judaism, on the other hand, insists that these two elements are inseparable; the Force that creates the world is the same Force that makes possible the triumph of goodness. (Jewish Renewal, p.96)