There are not Enough Rules

At our church we have been studying the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. The focus is on the broad overview of the sermon as a carefully assembled whole and also a detailed look at individual sections. The preacher this last Sunday focused on 5:21-37.  There is an important structure here: You have heard that it was said … But I tell you.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’

But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

It is common for Christian who comment or preach on the Sermon on the Mount to claim that the aim of the sermon is to drive home the point that we are sinners who cannot aspire to righteousness, that we need the atoning death of Jesus for this. The ethical statements in the sermon are not to be taken seriously, but as an unattainable ideal. While I think we need a robust Christology and theology of atonement, I do not think that this is the intent of the Sermon on the Mount on any significant level.

The preacher on Sunday made the point that there are not enough rules. People who focus on rules will always find a way around them. My husband leaned over and whispered that the NCAA rulebook is an excellent case in point. Too often, our very human desire is to circumvent the rules not to follow the intent of the rules. There cannot be enough rules and laws to legislate people into righteousness.

The point of the Sermon on the Mount, and much of the rest of Jesus’ teaching recorded in the Gospels, is that we are called to be people after the heart and mind of God, not to be mere rule followers.

Paul circumcised Timothy, but not Titus because simple rules are not enough.

In the book of Proverbs we read back to back (26:4-5):

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Simple rules do not lead us to wisdom.

Micah wrote (6:6-8):

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly (or prudently) with your God.

God doesn’t need sacrifice, sacrifice is only valuable if it symbolizes something bigger.

Returning to the Sermon on the Mount (5:43-45):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Basically, Jesus tells us to love our enemies because they are God’s creation, we are not judge and jury, perhaps because we have not the wisdom for this function (7:1-4).  And later:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (7:12)

Jesus came not to abolish the law, and it is not abolished, it is fulfilled.

Lord, grant us the wisdom to be people after your own heart and mind.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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1 Response to There are not Enough Rules

  1. rjs5 says:

    A commenter noted, rather aggressively, that the idea that anyone could burn in hell for thoughts, without actions, is appalling. Teaching this is a problem. The commenter’s point, if not way of expressing it, is an excellent one. Unfortunately there have been people who have taken it so seriously they mutilated themselves.

    Personally, I think Jesus makes rhetorical use of over statement to make a point, but this is worth discussion.

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