Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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The Inner Side of the Law

Category: Discipleship, Faith, Righteousness

Speaker: The Rev. Eric O. Springsted

Tags: beatitudes, inner life, righteousness, sermon on the mount

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By a peculiarity of the church calendar, there are stretches when it can be some time between our readings of much of the Sermon on the Mount. If Ash Wednesday comes early, these readings that we are now launched into suddenly stop and we move into the readings for Lent. As it turns out, Easter is not particularly early this year, and so we have a chance to look at the Sermon on the Mount in some depth. That is both fortunate and important, for if there is a core to Jesus’ moral teaching, surely it is the Sermon on the Mount. We may interpolate his parables for such teaching, we may read the epistles to hear what his apostles discerned from listening to him about the moral life, but it is in the Sermon on the Mount that he makes himself clear in no uncertain terms. To look at this deeply is to listen to what we are expected to do, and even how to do it as people of faith.

            This is deliberately so, at least as far as Matthew is concerned when he writes his Gospel. For he portrays Jesus in delivering the Sermon on the Mount as the new Moses, the giver of the divine Law. Consider Matthew’s narrative about Jesus up to this point. After his birth, he escapes to Egypt, we see him again when he crosses the water in his baptism, and then he is driven out into the wilderness for forty days. So far, all like the history of his people at the time of the Exodus. Then, at that point, like Moses at Mount Sinai, he ascends the mountain and delivers the Law to the people who are to live by it. In all this he replays what Moses has done. Here we especially need to remember what Moses has done and why he did it. Most important, we need to remember the purpose of the Law. This is given when the people first arrive at Mount Sinai. There, God explains to Moses that he has brought the people to himself here, so that they might be his own possession out of all the people on earth, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Then, in order that they might be that people, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus ascends the mountain, sits down and begins to teach his disciples about what they need to be a holy and righteous community.

            There is more. For what he is giving them, as he makes very clear, is not to replace what Moses had said before. He has not come to abolish the Law and the prophets; rather, he tells the disciples, he has come to fulfill them, “for until heaven and earth pass away, not a letter, not one jot of a letter will pass away from the law until all is accomplished.” Therefore, he adds, “whoever does not keep the law, and whoever teaches others not to keep it, will be the least in the kingdom of heaven; those who do keep it, he says, and who teach it to others, will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” From that point on, he recounts items of the Law as they had been understood before, and then teaches the disciples how they are to be understood now. Before it was said, you shall not kill. But now, he says, “I tell you anyone who is even angry at his brother or sister shall be liable to judgment.” You are not even allowed to call anyone a fool. This, I suppose, puts the souls of most drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike in mortal danger.

            Now, at this point we need to stop and ask questions. How is all that he seems to add on top of the old interpretation not a change in the Law? How is this not a matter of adding new, very stringent requirements to the Law that had not been there before? How is this not a matter of legalism, even at the same time that he tells the disciples they had better exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees?

            The answer is simply that what Jesus is teaching them is what might be called the inner side of the Law. That is to say, he is teaching them that it is not enough simply to observe the Law in externals, the way the Pharisees do. They need to do what the Law aims at from inside, from their hearts. To live like this would be to fulfill the Law; it would be, as Jeremiah had prophesied, a matter of having God’s Law written on one’s heart. This would be finally to have a people who really were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, God’s possession out of all the nations of the earth.

            But what exactly does that mean? What is it to keep the inner side of the Law?

            Perhaps, at first, it is something that we understand more in the breach than in the observation. Consider an example Jesus himself gives. In criticizing the Pharisees, who keep the Law in its externals very well indeed, at one point he compares them to whitewashed tombs. That is to say, on the outside there is a lot of beautiful white marble, carefully attended, great to look at, but inside, there is rot and corruption, nothing very pretty at all. Or, think about the story of the rich young man who comes to him and wants to know what it takes to have eternal life. When Jesus tells him that he needs to keep the Law, he proudly asserts that he has done that. When Jesus then tells him that he needs to go and sell all that he has, he is crestfallen, for his keeping of the Law does not make him free or righteous, but only self-righteous. So, not to keep the inner side of the Law is to engage in mere formalism. Or perhaps what is far worse, it is hypocrisy because one is keeping the Law that is meant to make one righteous, but one is actually resisting righteousness in one’s very core.

            So, as we now talk about the Sermon on the Mount as the core of Jesus’ moral teaching it is this inner side of the Law that we need most to pay attention to. Why? Because if there is a spiritual malaise of our age and our social class, it is the loss of the inner life that alone fulfills the inner side of the Law. We need to learn this because it speaks to us.

            The lack of an inner life in our age has long been observed.  In 1925, T.S. Eliot wrote a poem, The Hollow Men, about it:


We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece stuffed with straw.

Alas! Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass...


More recently, the philosopher Charles Taylor, borrowing from Eliot and Oscar Wilde has claimed that the flatness of modern society that we are now seeing is “the final triumph of the Hollow Men, who knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, have lost the ability to feel or think deeply about anything.”

            Let’s think, then, about what it means to say of someone that there is an absence or impoverishment of his inner life. It does not mean that the person is socially awkward, or is in some sense marginal. It means that there is no depth or beauty to his or her life, no feeling for others, no striving for goodness. Such people can be powerful; they can belong to the so-called beautiful people – in fact it seems like the lack of an inner life is a requirement to belong to this set. So, those without an inner life can be disciplined, shrewd, educated, ambitious, and even within certain broad publicly acceptable norms, sticking to the rules. The lack of an inner life does not mean one looks like a personal mess, at least not to people whose lives are similarly vacuous. Nor does it disqualify one from getting ahead. In fact, it may actually help.

            But if this is so, what exactly is it that we all recognize as being missing? What is the difference between a life that may well not be dissolute and perhaps even successful but that has no inside to it, and one that does have an inside, one that actually fulfills all righteousness? What is the difference between the nice and the good? Between the right and the good? Between an active, empty life, and a full, good life? Between success and love?

            Well, consider what else Jesus teaches the disciples up there on the mountain. He teaches them that they are to be the salt of the earth, and that they are to be the light of the world. What does that mean? Well, salt is something that preserves food, it also brings out flavor and makes it palatable and interesting. Light is what lets things be seen for what they are, it reveals them; it is also what lets us see our way. It is the source of warmth and growth. And, as he tells them, in being light, they are to shine before the world so that others may see and give thanks to God in heaven. Thus, light is also what leads others to God, to the source of life.

            Now, I am going to assume here that being salt and light have a lot to do with living from the inner side of the Law, and a lot to do with having an inner life. For one can be successful, and one can be a rule follower, but if there is no inner life, then what one does is rarely regarded as something that preserves life or makes life interesting. If there is no inner life, then what one does rarely shines, it doesn’t give light to the path of others, revealing the world, or leading anyone to think of God, and to give thanks to God. But for those who do have an inner life, that they are like salt and light to the world is precisely what leads us to believe that they do have an inner life.

            Therein lies a crucial difference between having an inner life and not having one. I think we easily recognize it by our own experience. On the one hand, there are those men and women who lack an inner life. They may be interesting, they may be successful, they may be right most of the time, they may be powerful, they may be knowledgeable and authoritative, they may trumpet their righteousness and importance loudly, but if we recognize them for what they are, we do not see them as salt; we realize that little or nothing is actually illuminated by what they do or say. If they are not dangerous, and it is more and more the case that they are, still they point to nothing beyond themselves. There is something hollow and disappointing here. Those who do have an inner life, on the other hand, though, even if they aren’t so smart, or impressive, still we somehow get a sense of light from what they do, and the taste of the bite of salt. We get a heightened sense of life from them, of its gracious and mysterious depths, and of its exalted heights. We see by the light they shed something of life that we hadn’t seen before. Maybe not all the time, but at least often enough for us to recognize that there is something important going on inside them.

            So, that is the difference. Now, there are a couple of important conclusions that should be drawn once we see this distinction and see what it means to talk about the inner side of the Law. The first of them is that we should have a better sense of the righteousness that God meant for humanity when God gave the Law. Righteousness is not just being right or without criticism or being able to deflect blame, or always able to justify oneself. When God wanted righteousness for his people, God didn’t just want us to be right or smart, although both of those things are good things. No, righteousness is more than that; it is about life, it is about giving life. That is what God meant to give the Israelites at Mount Sinai; that is what Jesus Christ meant to give his disciples when he taught them what it meant to fulfill the Law and the prophets. And that is what we ought to see as we listen to what Jesus teaches in the latter parts of the Sermon on the Mount, not just stricter standards that make righteousness appear onerous and impossible.

            Second, we should also get a sense of what it means for us to have an inner life. If someone by virtue of fulfilling righteousness sheds light for others, one may well presume that she has light within her as well, and that he has something salty within him. And in that regard, having an inner life is also a matter of living a fulfilled life for oneself as well as others. As we said last week about the Beatitudes, they can all be translated as beginning with the claim, “Happy are those...” Indeed, happy are those who have an inner life.

            Remember, then, what Jesus says a happy life consists of. It is not the exercise of power, or of being admired, or of being right, or of being smart. No, to be blessed, to be happy, to fulfill the inner side of the Law is, as the Beatitudes tell us, to be humble and without violence, and even to mourn our faults; it is to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful and pure in heart; it is to be a peacemaker, and even to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Those who live like that are happy people themselves, all the while, giving taste and light to the world, despite everything that people with flat and hollow lives say about being happy and fulfilled.

            Blessed indeed are those who have an inner life. They have life and they give life. Thanks be to God!