“Wholly Whole and Holy” on Matthew 5:17-20 by Michelle Ellis – Oct. 2, 2022
Before we dig into this reading from the Sermon on the Mount, I want to hold a few questions before you. What does wholeness look like? What does it look like to be fully and wholly human in the best possible sense? What does it look like to live a whole life? What kind of behaviours might foster wholeness? What does it feel like to be whole?
These are the some of the main questions that Jesus is addressing in the Sermon on the Mount. I want to orient us today in these questions to ground us so we don’t get lost in the details of what we will be exploring today. At the heart of the discussion today lie these questions about what it looks like to be whole.
Jesus grew up into a world that had deeply rooted answers to those questions. The nation of Israel had a really strong sense of who they were rooted in God’s action in the world, and rooted in their ancestors who went back thousands of years. Israel knew that God had called them in a particular way to show the people around them what God was like. They were to be a kind of light, just like Joe talked about last week, that would draw others into the Light of God. God had a covenant relationship with the people of Israel. He would be their God, he would bless them so that they in turn could be a blessing to those around them, and so they could witness through the nation of Israel to what God was like. God’s plan was to save the world through the nation of Israel. Purely because of God’s choice of them, small and seemingly insignificant as they were, they were to be the channel of God’s restoration and his renewal of the whole creation.
They had many practices as a people that were unique to them that were meant to empower them to live into this calling. Some of these practices set them apart from other people. They had the practice of circumcision as a sign that they were God’s covenant people. They had other practices around purity, practices that were meant to honour the relationship they had with a holy God. They had practices around sacrificing animals as a way of acknowledging the gap that existed between them and their holy God as broken, sinful people. Throughout the years, prophets would come and continue to call them to the vision of being a whole, holy people for the sake of the life of the world.
Wholeness for the Israelite would be the ability to wholly live into the calling that they had been given. Wholeness would be the nations all knowing God though their witness. Wholeness would mean the freedom and the power to be their own nation for the sake of the world. Wholeness would be seeing God’s kingdom come through the rule of Israel in the here and now, and seeing God’s just, peaceful kingdom come as a result.
This would be the vision that most of Jesus’ listeners would have deep in their hearts and imaginations. You might remember that a couple weeks ago, Joe invited us to hear how startling the Beatitudes would be to the original hearers on that mountain top. Because of the implications of what Jesus was saying to their vision of political power and influence that Israel saw as their God-given calling, these statements we call Beatitudes seemed as though they were undermining that vision.
In the text we read today, Jesus, perhaps responding to this reaction says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to abolish, but to fulfill.” When Jesus talks about ‘the Law and the Prophets’ here, it’s kind of a short-hand way of referencing the whole story of God’s action in the world and in the nation of Israel in particular. The Law and the Prophets is a nickname at Jesus’ time for the whole Old Testament—the Pentateuch (that’s the first 5 books of the Bible), the books of the law, the books of the prophets, the Psalms, Proverbs, the whole thing, the whole story of God’s covenant relationship with his people. I note this because I think we can sometimes read this verse as Jesus saying, ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Jewish rules and laws.’ Though the story of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel certainly includes laws and practices that guide them in this covenant relationship, the laws themselves are not the only, or even the primary thing, Jesus is talking about in this passage. He is saying, ‘You know the whole story of God’s action in the world, how God called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how He kept covenant with them and their ancestors, how He gave them the special role of being His people, of shining His light, do you remember His plan that all nations of the world would be saved through them?’ Jesus is saying, “I’m not throwing that all out the window. I haven’t come to abolish any of that. I’ve come to fulfill it.”
Jesus is saying I have not come to dismiss that story or trash it and start from the beginning again. No, Jesus says, “In my coming, that story is coming true. The hope that Israel really would be a light to the nations, that all creation would be renewed and restored through the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth through Israel, that is all being fulfilled, it is coming true here and now in me.” That is what Jesus is saying.
This is a delightful and unexpected development in the story of the Istaelites. And now we, and Jesus’ hearers at the time, have a new question before us. As we mentioned earlier, so much of the Jewish identity and purpose had to do with following practices that were meant to empower them to live into their calling of being a light to the nations and have God’s blessing flow through them to the world. What changes when God’s kingdom comes not through the whole nation of Israel gaining political power and influence, but instead through God becoming one Israelite man, Jesus, and that man taking the calling of all the people of Israel upon himself and dying for the life of the world? What does wholeness look like now with this new and unexpected development in the story of God’s covenant with his people?
This is the question that Jesus goes on to explore in the coming verses and chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. What are ways of living that foster wholeness in light of the coming of Jesus, in light of Jesus taking on himself the calling of Israel? As we’ll see wholeness for Jesus means the freedom to love God with your whole person—your whole mind, your whole heart, your whole body—it will mean love and faithfulness that brings together each facet of who you are, your outer behaviours and the secret places of your heart. It will mean the freedom to love your neighbour as yourself.
When Jesus says that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, this wholeness in terms of bringing together our inner and outer worlds is part of what Jesus is getting at. He says the scribes and Pharisees are not righteous, they are not whole when their very faithful outward practices do not line up with the disposition of their hearts. You probably know that the scribes and the Pharisees were the ones in Jesus’ day who were incredibly faithful in meticulously following the law. They most likely did this with very good intentions. They wanted to be faithful to the covenant God had made with them. We have a kid’s Bible that calls the Pharisees the ‘extra-super-holy people.’ And that’s how they were viewed by others, often in a positive way. Saying that you have to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees would have seemed impossible to Jesus’ listeners, as the scribes and Pharisees would’ve been the ones they would’ve pointed to as people who had devoted their lives to being faithful to God in every way they knew how.
To be more righteous than a scribe or a Pharisee or to be more whole than a scribe or a Pharisee could only come through having the outer behaviour line up with the inner disposition — to not only have hands that don’t physically kill someone, but also have hearts that don’t spew hatred. To not only not cheat on a spouse or engage in casual sex, but also not to view others primarily by sexualizing them, to be free and able to engage in relationships with the other person’s flourishing at the heart — not just our own gratification. To not only not steal, but also to have a posture of genuine thankfulness and contentment with what has been given, not to always be hungering after more. To be free and able on a regular basis not only to not work for a day, but to enter into and taste God’s rest, trusting in his provision, goodness and care outside of our own work and our own effort.
With the coming of Jesus, the story of Israel has developed in such a way that Jesus is calling them further and deeper into what was always intended. God’s kingdom goes further and deeper than the hoped for political power of the nation of Israel. It doesn’t respect geographical or political boundaries like that. It is far bigger, far more powerful, yet also far more mysterious. Likewise, God calls his people to far more than outwardly following a bunch of rules. The laws Israel had been given are good, but they are not and were never intended to be ends in and of themselves. They were never meant to be things God somehow required for us to do to pretend to be whole, when in fact we were not. They were always meant to give us the help and structures to live into wholeness — wholeness as the freedom and ability to love God fully, wholly with our whole person — body, mind, heart — with our outer and inner lives all pulling together in unity. It’s in these ways that what the law was intended for will never pass away.
I want to share with you a short 2 minute clip from a video that is a picture to me of God’s law moving from only outer behaviour to being written on our hearts. The clip is from a movie called Forrest Gump which came out around 30 years ago. The movie is made up of the recollections on his life that a man named Forrest Gump shares with mostly strangers he sits beside as he’s waiting for a bus. In this clip, you’ll see Forrest as a young boy. Forrest is a little guy who’s got something going on in his brain that makes him slightly different. He’s also got some intense braces on his legs so he is a target in terms of being bullied. Forrest was born with strong legs but a crooked spine. To help his spine, he was forced to wear leg braces which made walking difficult and running nearly impossible. That’s what he’s facing in this clip I’d like to show you.
Forrest is pelted with rocks thrown by some boys as he’s walking with his friend. She yells at him to run, and he begins running very awkwardly by swinging his legs which are encased in braces. As he runs (in slow motion) the braces gradually fall apart and fall away, so Forrest is able to outrun the boys chasing him on their bikes. He leaves them behind in a cloud of dust.
What I see in this clip is Jesus invitation to wholeness. It’s a picture of the invitation to move towards love and faithfulness coming from the inside out. You’ll note in the clip that there is a big shift for Forrest. Something changes in his body so that his legs are able to do what they were always meant to, without the help of the braces. I wonder if this is a picture of what Jesus might be talking about when he says your righteousness, your wholeness needs to surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Forrest is invited in this clip to deeper wholeness than the outward help of his braces. He’s invited into deeper wholeness and also deeper joy in the process. Maybe what I like best about this clip is the look on Forrest’s face when he realizes his legs are running on their own, without the support of the braces. It’s pure invigoration, joy, purpose. He can go faster and farther than he could before. Just imagine the joy he feels to be whole.
My prayer is that Jesus gives us this wholeness as a church and wholeness as dearly loved children, to follow him into deeper wholeness, into more integration of our bodies, minds, hearts, actions, into deeper freedom to have our hearts and our action align in loving him and in loving others. Amen.