Our User Manual
When I was in middle school, so long ago that we called it Junior High, a teacher whom I did not fully appreciate at the time had a motto, “Learning by doing”. She taught us geography by having us form continents in modeling clay. I thought that was pretty stupid at the time, but to this day I have a clear picture of the contours of America.
We do learn by doing. You can read all the books you want about how to swing a golf club, but until you get out on a driving range or work with the pro, your muscles don't get a chance to learn. It's awkward at first. Concentrating on keeping your head down, controlling your grip, modulating your back swing, all the body postures and weight shifts don't seem to have much to do with the joy of the game.
The truth is our muscles learn. If we have the patience and persistence, the movements, the physical movements become automatic, grooved. Once we are freed from having to focus on the mechanics, we are able to concentrate on the strategy of the game, the distance and placement of shots, and experience the joy and happiness all that practice prepared us for. Unless of course, we had bad instruction, or practiced without correction and developed hooks, slices and other errata.
This is true of almost any activity; crocheting, windsurfing, painting, basketball, soccer, riding a bicycle–any activity requiring us to teach our muscles the basics so that we are able to enter into the spirit of the activity and do it successfully.
In our lesson today Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law not to abolish it.
Since I’m just a layman, it’s not my role to preach or moralize, but as a student of the Bible it is my job to struggle with the meaning of Scriptures, and share that struggle with others. So let’s do that today. Let’s struggle with what Jesus meant. He also made some pretty outrageous statements in the fifth chapter of Matthew. He said if you’re right eye offends you, then pluck it out to save the rest of you. If your right hand offends you, cut it off. It’s better that one of your members should die that your whole body should not be cast into hell. Wow!
It sounds like Jesus is encouraging maiming, amputation and blindness. Yet we know this is not what Jesus meant literally. So, what was Jesus thinking?
In this passage Jesus said the Law remained in force, down to the last dotting of an i or crossing of a t. Yet, at the same time he seemed to teach that just doing or fulfilling the rules and commandments of the Law was not enough – in fact, he seemed to go beyond the Law and make it even tougher. Not only must you not kill another human, but if you are unreasonably angry with your brother, or call someone a fool, you are in danger of judgment.
And, gifts to God are invalid if you have an outstanding debt to somebody. Or famously, just looking at someone with illicit desire is as bad as actually going through with your intentions.
Doesn’t it sound like Jesus was laying on a new law much tougher than the old Law? But the message of the New Testament is that we are freed from the old Law. So, what’s going on here? This sounds like an occasion for a Bible study.
What is the Law anyway? Before Moses, there was no Law, other than whatever the king, or pharaoh or local baron demanded. Moses is called the Lawgiver. More accurate to call him the Law receiver. We have a picture in our minds of him receiving the Ten Commandments. That was the high level. But it takes pretty near the whole long book of Leviticus to read the 613 details. The Law Jesus is referring to is, of course the Jewish Law, the 613 Laws detailed in Leviticus. This was the burden Jews carried, and still carry. From experience, I can tell you it is a very difficult, in fact impossible burden to carry.
Jesus freed us, Jews and gentiles; he freed us from this Law given to mankind by God. But, at the same time, he also said not a jot or a tittle of the Law would pass away. In fact he seemed to make it more stringent. For example, even intending something wrong in your mind is as bad as actually doing something wrong! Or publically calling a man a fool or an idiot is as bad as killing him. Or, if you are unhappy with your wife you no longer just need to give her a bill of divorce as the Law requires. You cannot divorce a wife except under certain circumstances. How do we explain this new stringency of the Law?
Consulting our User Manual for the human being, the Bible, we get the answers. We read from the prophet Jeremiah (31:31) this morning. God speaking through Jeremiah is foretelling the future, the time of Jesus, when he would give us a new deal, a new promise better than the old one, a promise to replace the Old Testament, which we broke with all our failures to keep the Law. Because we broke it - as he knew we would - our generous, merciful loving God gave us a new covenant, a new deal, a new testament. In Jeremiah 31 God tells us what he is going to do:
The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
This is a big change. God was foretelling the time when mankind would be ready for the next big step. This is the time we live in now.
The human mind is very much like human muscles. It needs training. Humanity was pretty juvenile – we really still are if you look at what we do. We needed to start somewhere. Paul compares the Law to going to school, sort of early grade school to train us. In Galatians Paul literally says the Law was like a schoolmaster until Christ came. And, now that faith has come, we no longer need the guardian.
Jesus didn’t come to erase the Law, but to show us where it was pointing. How many learned to ride a bike with training wheels? Think of the Law as training wheels. God in his wisdom decided we were ready for Jesus, ready to have our training wheels removed. Jesus coming gave us the new understanding, the faith that we now know where we are going. And, the faith that we can get there through faith. When the training wheels are removed, if we are ready, we don’t immediately crash into a wall, we continue moving forward, but now without the restraints that training wheels put on our bicycle. This new freedom is what the training wheels prepared us for.
When Jesus says not a jot or a tittle of the law passes away, he isn’t saying the laws of gravity are repealed and we cannot fall when our training wheels are removed. He is telling us to exercise our mature judgment, our discernment to decide what to do in life, where and how to steer. And, that we are now more than ever responsible for our decisions. Jesus called out the Scribes and the Pharisees who kept the Law, they kept it literally, superficially and in great detail. They rode hard on the training wheels, but did not understand the purpose of the training wheels was to learn how to live, how to judge, how to see, how to love.
Living as a fully mature, loving human being is also an activity requiring us to teach our muscles the basics. Only after mastering the basics are we are able to enter into the spirit of the activity, and do it successfully. The Law was our training wheels.
We do not worship the training wheels, we worship the God who gave us them. We do not worship the Law, we worship the God who gave us them. Rituals and religious services are also advanced training wheels, and we need them continually to keep our training sharp. But, we do not worship the rituals, we worship him to whom the rituals point.
When we are told that calling a man a fool is as bad as killing him, we now understand that man’s inner life is as important as his physical life, and we do not destroy that. When we are told that nurturing inappropriate desires is as bad as acting on them, we now understand that our inner life is as important as our physical actions. When we are told that we can no longer with a legal paper capriciously divorce a woman who displeases us, we now understand that the inner life of the marriage relationship is itself a life, and that life persists until death of one of the partners – or death of the relationship itself - brings the marriage to a close. Jesus meaning was that to capriciously divorce is to kill a life.
Jesus taught that the human being is more than a creature of exteriors and superficialities. Jesus told us Life is more than the body, reality is more than matter. He gave us a Users Manual for the human being. This Users Manual is not an Owners Manual, because you do not own your body. It is on loan to you as a steward, you are a user of this physical life. It is very important for us to use this brief human life and body well, because we will be judged on how we did it.
How do we know if we are doing it right? God wants you to have happiness and joy in life. That doesn’t mean no troubles, no heartache, no compassions with others who are suffering. Happiness isn’t absence of pain. Happiness and joy come from getting to know the God who made us and resting in him. Happiness is seeing the small stuff of life and feeling the miracle of it. Happiness is... well, the Users Manual for the human being lays out what happiness and joy is and how to find it. It’s right there in the book.
But, we don’t worship the Users Manual or the Law, we worship the giver of the Word and the Law. There are a great many sincere believers, in all religions, who focus on the details of their Law, whether Old Testament, New Testament or Holy Koran. The details of the Law were for a time, they were useful as training wheels were useful. The ritual slaughtering required by the Levitical Laws are still in your Bible. But, you are no longer required to sacrifice pigeons, bulls or sheep to understand the holiness of life and the debt you owe to God. Jesus came to replace not only the Temple, but to replace the Law. The Temple did not pass away, it took a new glorified form. The Temple of God is now us. The Law did not pass away. The Law is in us. It is written on our heart. The purpose, the intent to which the Law points is nothing less than that we no longer adapt to the model of the world as it appears, but that we wake up to the conversion of our heart and the renewing of our mind.
We have a handy User Manual for how to do this. Opening it, reading it, savoring it, imagining it, asking it, thinking on it will surprise you every day. You will wonder how the Bible keeps changing to show you something new every time you open it. Friends, the Bible never changes. We do. Every time we open our Manual, we are different. We are ready for something new. We have grown. We start with simple stories as children. We see the great truths as adults. We keep on reading our User Manual every day and let the Holy Spirit use it to slowly teach our spirit. The truths and wisdom become inscribed on our hearts as we live as Christians and grow older in body and wiser in spirit. And the good news is this. Your spiritual growth will continue until and past the day you leave your physical body behind. Our User Manual will have done its job.