When Koby was little he’d often tell me about how hard life was as the middle boy. He lived the unglorified, misunderstood life of a middle child. He’s not the trailblazer and he’s not the baby. He would moan about it to me for a while, and then he’d almost always reach the same conclusion: the only option for him was the circus.
I would answer, “Koby, I don’t know what it’s like to be the middle brother, but I do know what it’s like to be the middle sister. I do know what it’s like to feel like you’re not the first and you’re not the last so you need to carve out some in-between path that gets you attention. And I don’t know for sure how I know this—because I’ve never tried it myself—but I know that there are better options for you than joining the circus. I can’t explain how I know this, but I know.
Sometimes I’m pretty sure I know things, and it turns out I’m right. (I’m certain this is the case with Koby and the circus.) But there’ve been times when I thought I knew what I knew and I didn’t want to budge, until it became clear that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.
When Jesus gave His Sermon on the Mount, He was speaking as a first century Jew to other first century Jews. People who had the Old Testament Scriptures and who knew them well. People who worked hard to follow them. People who were pretty sure they knew what they knew. What they knew is that they were chosen people. Sure, they’d had a bit of a rough ride the past couple of centuries, but that didn’t change who they were. It didn’t change their Law.
Knowing who they were, they knew what to do: follow the Law until their Deliverer came for them. Many of them had mastered this system and they were determined to live by the letter of the law and bide their time. It was their line in the sand. (Or in the rock?) But what many of them didn’t recognize, is that they’d started walking the line. They stayed as close to the line as possible just trying not to fall off of it. Maybe they knew they were walking the high-wire tightrope of joyless obedience, but the level of difficulty just showed how good they were if they made it across to the other side.
Then came Jesus.
Jesus made it clear that, yes, crossing the tightrope line of the law was difficult. (In fact, if you keep reading, (see Matthew 5:48) you’ll see how impossible it actually is.) To those confident they’d mastered the act, Jesus added to it. He said if you want to make it about following the Law to the letter, here’s the letter of it. Perfection. Not just in action but intention, too. To those laying battered and bruised underneath the wire Jesus offered the ultimate safety harness: tether to Him. To those swinging wildly off the wire wanting to abandon the Law completely, Jesus gives a warning: the Law is a safety net, be careful about abandoning it.
Jesus’ listeners saw that He was connecting Kingdom life with behavior and some were scared He’d lower the bar and make it easier. Some were scared He’d raise the bar and make it impossible. Some were scared to be tethered to any idea of the Law at all.
We are not so different than Jesus’ listeners. Some are sure that Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law and that not one dot of it will pass away until it all is accomplished (which He did) and that this means we’re duty bound to live in strict obedience to every command in the law. Others are sure that no matter what, they’ve fallen too far to get back up again; it’s all over. Then there are those who think Jesus pretty much said just love everybody and it’s all good—don’t worry about behavior at all. And often, these different groups are pretty sure that they know what they know.
Let me throw an idea out there: how about we go to what Jesus said and try to understand what He meant before we decide what we are sure of?
So what did Jesus say? Matthew 5:1-12 shows us the kind of character Kingdom people should have. Matthew 5:13-16 shows us that if Kingdom people live like they should, they’ll get noticed. Matthew 5:17-20 shows Jesus being clear with His listeners that as the One that all their Scriptures point to, He is the One most able to clarify what exactly they mean.
And He is clarifying the Scriptures for them. When Jesus corrects His listeners with the phrase, ‘you have heard that it was said, but I say to you,’ He’s not saying, ‘here’s the Scripture, let me change it.’ He’s addressing people who thought they’d successfully crossed the tight-rope and then got busy making it harder for others to do the same. They added juggling balls and fiery hoops by adding to the Scriptures. Jesus strips away what they’ve added and clarifies what they’ve misunderstood. The Law was never an arbitrary act dreamed up as a form of entertainment for God or His people. God’s law was given to show who He is. And He doesn’t change. Ever.
I know what I know and murder is definitely bad—I’m safe as long as I’m not literally shoving a knife into someone’s back. Jesus says what about anger? What if it’s not merely the act itself that’s the problem (which it clearly is) but what if the heart behind the act is just as dangerous? What if the fact that we are quick to angrily demand justice when we’re wronged but slow to feel anger over sin and unrighteousness is the real danger to our souls? When God came in the flesh, He never displayed anger over His own mistreatment but rather reserved His anger for arrogant sin and unrighteousness.
I know what I know and I’ve never cheated on my partner—I’m safe because my marriage certificate is intact. Jesus says what about your eyes, your mind, your heart? How clean are they? Are you off the hook because you’re legally married? When you measure yourself against the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God, how do you stack up?
Jesus is cautioning people caught up in a circus act; those performing for the benefit of the crowd. You think you know what you know and that your act is impressive. Jesus directs His listener’s eyes off of themselves or others and points them to Himself. Here’s what you really need to know: if I’m the king and this is my Kingdom, I get to define it.
Kingdom life is more difficult than we can imagine. But Jesus makes it so much easier than we deserve. We are in much greater danger than we can fathom. But we can be safer than we could comprehend. The King is more powerful than we can grasp. And He is more beautiful than we can behold.
Until the day the King returns and we who have only seen and known in part will see and know in full.