The Law of Unintended Consequences / Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Sunday, February 9, 2020
Rev. Donald P. Beaumont

Matthew 5:13-20

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

How many of us consider ourselves to be law-abiding individuals? Let me see your hands. Most of us take it for granted that most of the laws in our society are worthwhile and reasonable, and we’re thankful for them. Laws are absolutely essential to keeping us safe and providing us with an orderly society. But every so often we encounter a law that has unintended consequences.

For example, many states enact laws to protect the general public from those who have previously committed a crime. One way they do this is by limiting the types of jobs that former criminals can hold. The state of Ohio alone has created over 500 laws to ensure that former criminals who have served their time can’t do such things as vote, “operate a racetrack, sit on a jury, provide hospice care, deal in livestock, broker real estate and obtain a license to repair air conditioning systems.”

The American Bar Association did a study to see how many laws such as these are related to keeping former criminals out of certain jobs. They found 46,000 laws across the United States that limit the activities of former criminals. The unintended consequence of many of these laws, as you might guess, is higher unemployment levels among former criminals which results quite naturally in higher crime rates. That’s not what the lawmakers intended, but often that’s what happens. The law of unintended consequences. This law is sometimes referred to as the “cobra effect.”

This name came about because parts of India were overrun with cobras. The British government began offering financial rewards to Indian citizens who caught and killed cobras and turned in their dead bodies to local authorities. Would you like to guess what happened? The incentives for turning in dead cobras were so good that some began breeding cobras just so they could kill them and turn them in for reward money. That, in turn, produced a bumper crop of cobras, which is sort of scary.

Our Bible passage today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first major teaching in the book of Matthew. Jesus has been preaching, teaching, casting out demons and healing sickness. A big crowd has gathered to see what He is going to do or say next. So, Jesus sits down and begins to teach the gathered crowd about the kingdom of God.

In Jesus’ day, the religious leadership of the Jews was composed of four different groups, each with its own interpretation of the Torah. Thee Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Essenes. The Pharisees believed in following traditions and laws. They looked to the past for their standards and beliefs. The more liberal Sadducees claimed that the old laws and traditions needed to be re-interpreted for more modern times. The Essenes believed that happiness came from separating one’s self from the world. They moved out into the wilderness and lived like modern day monks. They gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. Finally, there were the Zealots. The Zealots believed in political revolution. They believed that their faith called them to rebel against any power that in any way threatened the Jews. 

So, the Pharisees were saying go back. The Sadducees were saying go forward. The Essenes were saying go out. And the Zealots were saying go against. And what were the average peeps in Jesus’ day saying? Go away!

I’m kidding, of course, but they probably got tired of the religious leaders creating more rules and more roadblocks between them and God. Naturally each of these groups wanted Jesus to support their cause. And Jesus, of course, as usual baffled their expectations.

A country preacher had a teenage son who was trying to choose a future profession. One day, while the boy was away at school, his father decided to try an experiment. He went into the boy’s room and placed on his study table three objects: a Bible, a silver dollar and a bottle of whiskey.

Now, I’ll just hide behind the door here and when my son comes home from school this afternoon, I’ll see which of these three objects he picks up. If he picks up the Bible, he’s going to be a preacher like me! If he picks up the dollar, he’s going to be a businessman. But if he picks up the bottle, he’s going to be a drunkard, a no-good drunkard and Lord, what a shame that would be.

Soon the preacher heard his son’s footsteps as he headed back to his room. The young man spotted the objects on the table. He studied them for a moment. Then, the moment of truth arrived! The young man picked up the Bible and placed it under his arm. Then he picked up the silver dollar and dropped it into his pocket. Finally, he uncorked the bottle and took a big gulp of the whiskey. Lord, have mercy, the old man whispered, He’s gonna be a politician!

The people were waiting and watching to see if Jesus would be a politician, if He would shape His message to please His listeners. Would He please the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes or the Zealots? My guess is that He shocked them all. Listen to His words in verses 17-20: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore, anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

What’s going on here? On some occasions Jesus seems like a wild-eyed radical welcoming prostitutes and tax-collectors and all kind of riff-raff into the kingdom and saying things like, you have heard it said, but I say to you. But here, He sounds like a traditionalist, saying that you can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you’re more righteous than the Pharisees.

Many of His listeners thought it was impossible to be as righteous as the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and now you’re saying we have to surpass them in righteousness before we can enter the kingdom of heaven? We might as well give up now. And I think that’s exactly what Jesus wanted them to feel. Whether they were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots or just ordinary folks like us, I believe that Jesus wanted them to rethink the role of the Law in their lives.

The Law was given to bring us into a relationship with God. The Law wasn’t created for itself; it was created to keep God’s people in a safe, harmonious relationship with God and with each other. The Law is God’s protective love for us. But the religious leaders replaced a living relationship with God with a list of rules. They fixated on rigid obedience to the Law rather than a loving relationship with the Lord.

The first laws given by God were given in the Garden of Eden. God created a beautiful, orderly, fruitful world for Adam and Eve to enjoy. In Genesis 2:15, we read that God had one rule, one law to protect Adam and Eve in this perfect new world: the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.

Let me ask you a question: when God told Adam and Eve that there was a tree in the garden that was poisonous, that if they ate from it, they would die, was He threatening them or was He simply warning them of what would happen if they ate the fruit of that tree?

Adam and Eve were created to live in a close relationship with God and with each other. They were created to live in freedom, so long as they lived under the protection of God’s one law. But Adam and Eve didn’t trust God enough to honor that relationship. By disobeying the one law given by God, they lost that relationship.

Later, God gave the Law to Moses as a way to bring Israel back into relationship with Him and with each other. God’s law was always rooted in love. The first of the 10 Commandments is; I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.

The Law establishes a relationship with God and serves as a reminder of God’s love for us. This is the God who set us free from slavery. Don’t spend your lives chasing after and making sacrifices to false gods. Says our Father God, I am your God, and I have set you free. The Law was given to bring us into a relationship with God. That’s the first thing we need to see.

A relationship with God helps us understand the purpose of the law. God’s law has always been rooted in love and freedom.

A woman was married to an abusive husband. After they were married, he gave her a list of all the things he expected her to do. In time she grew to hate that list and the man who gave it to her. After a few years her husband died. Later she remarried another man who was kind and loving to her. This husband had no list, he loved her unconditionally. While going through some old boxes she found her first husband’s list. She realized that she was now doing all the things on the old list, but they were not a chore because they were done out of love and gratitude and not out of compulsion.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had turned the Law into an act of external obedience instead of a reflection of the love of God. They removed the joy of living in obedient submission to God and made it into a list of rules that burdened people.

Jesus says to us that the Law was given to bring us into relationship with God and that, conversely, a relationship with God helps us understand the purpose of the law. Jesus fulfilled the Law for us by giving us His righteousness so we could enter His kingdom. That’s the meaning of grace.

That’s what Jesus meant when He said He didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. He fulfilled it in His life by living in perfect relationship with and perfect obedience to God. And He fulfilled it in His death when He took on the penalty of the Law, death, and gave us His righteous relationship with God so that we could have eternal life. So, to all of us, who think we’ll never be good enough to earn their way into the kingdom of heaven, you’re right. Give it up. You’ve failed before you’ve even started. That’s the good news Jesus came to bring.   

We could never be good enough to fulfill all the requirements of the Law. But Jesus was good enough to fulfill all the Law’s requirements. Like a lamb to the slaughter, He took the penalty for us and gave us His goodness, His righteousness in its place. We can stand before a holy God next to the perfect Son of God who will stand in our place and open the gates of the kingdom for us.

Bethel Lutheran Church

32410 Willowick Drive
Willowick, OH 44095

P: (440) 943-5000

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