MESSAGE “The Stroke of a Letter” Rev. James Renfrew
Can you think of a law that you have to be aware of every single day of your life? Stop signs, speed limits, don’t kill people.
And can you name a law that is broken all of the time? Speeding!
This morning we’re going to talk about law, not just any law, but “The Law”. Not the kind of law that you see on TV court room dramas, not traffic law, but the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, as the slaves escaping Pharaoh in Egypt were on a forty-year journey to reach their new home in the Promised Land of Israel.
You are most likely familiar with one part of the Law, the Ten Commandments, written on tablets of stone, that Moses brought down from the mountain to the people. But there are actually 613 laws that you can find in the 5 books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These laws cover everything in life, how to treat your livestock, how to treat your food, how to treat strangers, how to treat your children, and how to treat your spouse. There are even laws about getting rid of mildew.
The purpose of the Law was to shape the former slaves into a new community centered on God. It was not enough to be free of slavery; the new community needed purpose, structure, and moral direction.
Moses presented the Law to Israel around 1400 BC, so Jesus speaks about the Law 1400 years after that, and now we’re talking about the Law 2000 years after that. What Jesus says about the Law in Matthew 5 is not a legal seminar, but a direct response to Pharisees and other critics who called Jesus a law-breaker.
His critics said “here’s the law, study it, memorize it, live it”. Here’s all you need to know about Jesus: he wants to destroy the Law.
Jesus said, “let’s remember what the Law is for, it is to build us up, not tear us down. That’s what we need to remember! I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law.”
In this text Jesus gives a beautiful answer, but it did not satisfy his critics, and, in the end, the accusation of law-breaking was one of the key accusations against him when they nailed him to the Cross.
So what laws did Jesus break? A serious violation of the Law was the day he healed a man unable to walk. The man was a beggar, unable to move, and he sat on his mat all day long looking for hand-outs. It wasn’t the healing that broke the law, it was the fact that Jesus did the healing on the Sabbath day of rest. Healing was considered work, and work was prohibited on the Sabbath day. The violation was compounded when Jesus told the man to pick up his mat and walk, because picking up the mat was also a violation of the law against work on the Sabbath day. So Jesus was branded a law-breaker and as one who encouraged others to break the Law, too.
On another occasion, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field of grain. Because they were hungry, they plucked some wheat grains. The Pharisees were outraged. Not because they might have been stealing someone’s crop, but because it happened on the Sabbath day. Even plucking a single grain of wheat was considered work. The accusation was against Jesus as well as his disciples. Jesus is a law-breaker and all of his followers, too!
When criticized like this, Jesus kept returning to his core teaching. The Law is for training us to be loving, compassionate and just. But too many people use the Law to harm others, or to ignore their needs. So he pressed their illogical application of the Law. “If your sheep falls into well on the Sabbath, will you do something to save the sheep, or will you let it die?” You wouldn’t allow your sheep to die because faith is all about life.
Jesus’ point was that the Law is not an end in itself. It has a purpose to nurture life. Another time Jesus said, “the Sabbath was made for people, not people made for the Sabbath.”
Now all of this may seem arcane to you, some ancient lesson that appears to have no application in the present After all, when was the last time someone quoted one of Moses’ laws to you, when was the last time one of your sheep fell in a well?
We don’t teach our children in Sunday School to memorize the 613 laws of Moses; we teach them to be loving, generous and peaceful. That’s what matters, and we live that way to fulfill the Law, the spiritual guidance and encouragement given by God for us to be good people in a complicated world. SO we don’t talk about the Law of Moses all that much.
So it is very interesting that the Apostle Paul spends of lot of space in his many letters to young Christians speaking about the Law. He’s was part of an on-going debate about the role of the Law, because it was a huge sticking point. Some Christians with a Jewish background believed that to become a Christian you must first be a Jew and completely immersed in every aspect of the Law. Paul took the side of those who believed that the entry point into salvation is Christ, his death and resurrection, not the Law, so you don’t have to be Jewish first to become a Christian. Initially, Paul was condemned for his views, but in the end his argument prevailed. You don’t have to become Jewish before you can become a Christian. You can become a Christian by turning to Jesus Christ, dead on the Cross, but risen for you.
Does anyone here know what language Jesus spoke? Jesus and his friends spoke a language known as Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect. But when they read Scripture, the few who knew how to read, they read formal Hebrew, a written language very different from English.
First, the letters are different. Take a look. Not one of them looks like one of our English letters.
Second, Hebrew is read from right to left on the page, not left to right. Which may indicate that God is left-handed! Wow, that’s something I never considered before. But all of you left-handers already knew that, right!
And third, ancient Hebrew has no written vowels. The only clues are little commas and dots that tip you off. Here’s a picture of Hebrew writing. You can see all of those little dots. What were referred to in the King James Version of this reading as jots and tittle, We have some jots and tittles in our English letters, too, A “Q” without the little stroke is only an O, a “G” missing the little hook stroke becomes a “C”. An “i” or “j” without a dot above it is improperly written. In Hebrew writing it’s a serious matter, just a little hint of a stroke changes a “b” to a “k”.
Finally, Jesus offers one of the greatest defenses ever: “You call me a law-breaker, but I have not come to undermine the Law, I have come to fulfill it. I will hold onto every letter, every stroke or a letter, every jot, every tittle, in the Law, because fulfilling the Law is our greatest purpose”.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”