Episode 4 Transcript

Episode 4: First, Do No Harm


Simeon: Matthew, you say Jesus didn’t come to do away with the law, and then you talk about him like he’s a new Moses, delivering a new Deuteronomy. Replacing the Law of Moses with a new one seems to be the very definition of doing away with the law. You christians excel at lofty sounding paradoxes and hand-waving, but you’re only fooling the weak-minded.

Matthew: Simeon, how many statutes are there in the Law of Moses?

Simeon: You also excel at asking questions you already know the answer to. 613, why?

Matthew: And how many did you add to those 613?

Simeon: Add?! We haven’t added anything to the law! That would be heresy!

Matthew: Don’t you have something like 30 prohibitions about the command to keep the Sabbath?

Simeon: 39. But those aren’t laws. Those are a hedge, a safety net. Those guidelines are to keep us from straying too close to breaking a law. They keep us from offending God.

I see where you’re going with this. But it wasn’t just our hedge that Jesus ignored. He flat out declared that all foods are clean. We didn’t make those food laws up. They weren’t part of our safety net.

Matthew: Simeon, what if it is your great respect for the law that actually offends God?

Simeon: That’s crazy. How could that offend God? He gave us the Law!

Matthew: I’m thinking about the words of the prophets. About Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. They said what God cares about is something deeper than honoring the statutes of the law. That there’s something more fundamental that he wants from us. And if those fundamentals are not there, he actually hates our law-keeping. 

What if your great respect for the law, and your hedge, have actually taken us closer to something God hates, and we’ve missed the point he was trying to get us to see all along?

Opening Titles:

This is—

Jesus for Sex Workers, Church People, and Me

A podcast hosted by Todd Austin

Episode Four: First, Do No Harm

The Teaching

What is it that God wants from us? What are the things he’s looking for from the citizens of his kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is announcing in Matthew? In every nation there is a defined set of expectations for its citizens, a set of laws—things we must do, and things we must not do; commands, and prohibitions.

In the legal code of the Hebrew Scriptures, there are 613 commands and prohibitions. In the American legal code there are over 6,000 statutes just in the field of criminal law. Some estimate there are over 30,000 laws in total, although no one, in government or out, knows for sure what the real number is. 

This legal structure is so familiar to us that we can’t imagine any other way of doing it. We have a word for a country where there are no commands and prohibitions. That word is anarchy. It’s not a good word. It’s not a place where we want to live. 

So when we hear talk of a new constitution, a new covenant, a New Testament, we immediately want to know what the commands and prohibitions are. What are the rules we’re supposed to follow in order to be good standing citizens of this new nation?

Salt & Light

In Matthew chapter five, right after the preamble that we call the beatitudes, Jesus gives us two metaphors for how the people of this new nation will impact the world around them. 

In verse 13 he says, “You are the salt of the earth…” 

Salt is the ingredient that enhances all the other flavors in a dish. It makes food taste better. Jesus is saying the people of this nation make life taste better for everyone else. He goes on to say if the salt loses its saltiness—if his citizens don’t make life taste better, what good are they? Making life better for everyone is a fundamental trait of the people of this kingdom.

In verse 14 he gives us the second metaphor, “You are the light of the world…” 

When you’re driving late at night in an unfamiliar place, which gas station do you choose? The one that is poorly lit, with flickering bulbs and lots of dark, shady places? or the one that is brightly lit, shining out to illuminate everything around it? 

Light provides safety and comfort. Light is welcoming. The people of this new nation are a beacon of welcoming comfort and safety for anyone and everyone traveling in dark places. 

If instead the people of this nation choose to reserve the light for themselves, to shroud it so that welcome, safety and comfort are only for insiders, then they are hiding the light, placing it under a bushel, and are not true citizens of this new nation.

These metaphors shouldn’t be a surprise to us. They reflect the same purpose God established for Israel when that nation was founded. The people of Israel were to be a blessing to all nations. Salt and Light. And so are we.

When we think about the laws of this new nation, what it is that God wants from us, we have to start with salt and light, that the purpose of this nation is to be a blessing to everyone else. 

The Law

But these metaphors don’t tell us what to DO, and what NOT to do. They are descriptive, but not prescriptive. There has to be more. We need to know where the fences are, the laws that define what matters to God. Because, if something matters to God, if there is a fence, we want to make sure we’re on the right side of that fence.

In chapter five, starting in verse 17, Jesus talks about the fences:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This would seem to prove the point that there are laws, there are fences, that matter to God, right? But this is where that way of thinking starts to go off the rails.

The laws Jesus is talking about here are the statutes of the Hebrew law. He says he hasn’t come to abolish this law, but to fulfill it. However, as Simeon so astutely told us, Jesus is the one who later declares all foods clean. That declaration effectively does away with laws 143 through 169. Erasing 27 laws is making much more than “one stroke of a letter” disappear.

So what’s going on here? Our typical response is that those are “just the food laws,” and God doesn’t care about those anymore. So what does that mean about the rest of the laws? The ones Jesus didn’t specifically set aside? For example, what are we supposed to do with law 601, which commands us not to let any individual from the seven canaanite nations live?  Or law 24, which instructs us to recite grace AFTER meals? Do we get to pick and choose which laws matter based on what makes sense to us? That seems… a little loosey-goosey. Shouldn’t the standard be more clear?

Which brings us to the second problem. Jesus says our righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, or we will NEVER enter the kingdom of heaven. You may be thinking, “yeah, but the Pharisees were all hypocrites.” The Pharisees were NOT all hypocrites. Some of them were, sure, probably about in the same proportions as among good church people today. The Pharisees were zealous about keeping the law.

They were so careful and respectful of the law that they built hedges up against the fences. Think of it like a warning track in baseball. When you get to this point you need to slow down and turn the other way, because you’re getting close to the fence. One of their most famous hedges was a list of 39 things to avoid on the sabbath. If you stayed clear of the 39, you could be sure not to violate the commandment.

This may sound extreme to you. You don’t need 39 rules, just follow the law. But when I was growing up, learning to be a good church person, we did the same thing. We still do. 

Our little band of good church people set up hedges around hedges around hedges to keep us on the right side of the fornication fence. The outermost hedges included rules against dancing and what was called mixed bathing. Mixed bathing is not what you’re thinking. Yes, things would certainly get out of hand if a boy and girl were showering together. This was about boys and girls swimming together, in groups, even dressed in modest swimwear. 

The reason there was a hedge against dancing and “mixed bathing” was that these could ignite desires that would lead to crossing the next hedge. If you crossed that hedge, you might cross the next hedge, and soon you would be jumping the fornication fence. So, we didn’t dance in my church. Or “bathe” together. 

If you are trying to be respectful of the law, there is a certain logic to building hedges. If God has clear expectations for our behavior—well defined fences—then building a warning track next to the fence will help us make sure we stay on the right side of the fence. Right?

But according to Jesus, that’s not good enough. Our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees. A righteousness built on hedges and fences won’t cut it. There’s something more God is looking for. 

But what is it?

Not to Abolish, But to Fulfill

Let’s look back at verse 17. Jesus said that he came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. What did he mean by that? What does it mean to fulfill the law? 

It is likely that Galatians is one of the earliest of the books of the New Testament. In it, Paul is helping a community of believers come to an understanding of God’s expectations for his people. In chapter five, he uses the same language about fulfilling the law that Jesus uses here in Matthew. Paul says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Does Paul really mean that? If we can keep just one command, if we stay on the right side of just this one fence, of loving our neighbor, it’s the same as keeping all 613 of those original laws? Is that really what Jesus meant?

Let’s look at Romans 13. This one is more expansive:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Wow! It seems pretty clear that this is not hyperbole. Paul even gives specific examples of laws that are fulfilled by loving your neighbor, and then goes on to say that love fulfills any other commands there may be. 

In Matthew 22, Jesus himself will say something very similar to what Paul says in Galatians and Romans. When asked what the most important commandment in the law is, Jesus responds:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

While our tendency is to build an ever proliferating series of fences and hedges, where every command turns into 39 more, and before you know it you have a legal system with 30,000 statutes and no one is allowed to dance, Jesus goes the other direction. He simplifies it all down to one idea: love. 

God’s expectation for his people is love. The constitution of the kingdom of heaven contains one law: love. That is the standard. Meeting that standard will fulfill every other commandment that could be written. 

But can it really be that simple? How would that even work?

The 6 Legal Examples

In the rest of chapter five, Jesus gives six examples, pulled from the Hebrew legal code, that show how love is the fulfillment of the law. His examples cover murder, adultery, divorce law, contract law, crime and punishment, and the obligations to fellow citizens. In each example, Jesus will use the same formula: “you have heard it said… but I say…”

The first example starts with “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” 

Jesus is referring to the sixth of the 10 Commandments, which is statute 278 in the criminal law section of the legal code. He continues,

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” 

In my little band of good church people, we were taught never to call anyone a fool. Because, if you did, you were going to hell. It says it right here in Matthew. Mr. T on the A-Team was always problematic for me, because he called everyone a fool. 

But honestly, when Jesus said we would go to hell if we called someone a fool, we kind of thought it was hyperbole. But we weren’t sure what to do with this. What if Jesus really was defining a fence?

“Thou shalt not murder” is a clear fence in the Hebrew law. Maybe Jesus is erecting new hedges around the law, hedges that prohibit getting angry, insulting, or name-calling.

 No. Jesus is laying out an even tougher standard, one that suppasses the righteousness of hedges and fences. That standard is love. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Jesus is teaching that we have to find a way to love the person we’re angry with. That’s much harder than simply refraining from murdering them, or from calling them a fool.

The second example starts in verse 27. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” 

Here Jesus is talking about the seventh of the 10 Commandments, which I think is statute 102 in the section on forbidden sexual relations. He continues,

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

If you’ve been to the same men’s retreats that I have, then you’ve probably heard this rule of thumb about lust: “Looking at a woman for less than two seconds is not lust. If you look longer, or if you look twice, that’s lust.” Where did 2 seconds come from?

Can you see that we’re trying to read this as a legal standard? As a fence that we don’t want to cross so as not to offend God? Is the 2-second rule REALLY what Jesus is teaching here? Or is his point something else?

And, why is it that we only interpret part of this as a legal standard and not all of it? I haven’t been to one single men’s retreat where I watched someone tear out their right eye. Have you? I wonder if women do something like that at their retreats? They’re usually better at this stuff than men are…

This is not a new legal standard about lust and the punishment for lust. It’s about what love looks like. You can refrain from committing adultery, but still not love, and that’s not good enough. Love is the fulfillment of the law.

The third example starts in verse 31. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” 

Jesus is referencing statute 77 in the section on Marriage, Divorce, and Family Law. He continues,

“But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

This is the only statement in the sermon on the mount where my band of good church people treated every word as a literal law. Despite what we saw as hyperbole in all the statements before and after, we didn’t see any room for hyperbole here. If you were unfortunate enough to be in a marriage that didn’t work, then you were an adulterer if you got divorced. Except we didn’t stone you, which was the punishment for adultery.

We miss the point of this, in part because we assume Jesus is talking about 21st century divorce, where men and women are on pretty much equal legal standing. But he’s not. 

Under Jewish law, a man could have as many wives as he could afford to support. But most could only support one. So if a man wanted to marry another woman, but couldn’t afford to support two wives, he could get out of his marriage to his first wife by giving her a certificate of divorce. 

Many thought a man could divorce his wife for any reason, with the stated examples being if she burnt the toast, or if he thought another woman was more attractive. Divorcing his wife allowed the man to walk away from his economic responsibilities toward her. And as we’ve seen in the stories of Tamar and Ruth, the loss of the support of a man often led to devastating consequences for the woman. 

This is the issue Jesus is addressing. It’s not a new legal standard. It’s about what love looks like. These women cannot be abandoned with no hope for their future. That’s not love.

The fourth example starts in verse 33. “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’” 

This refers to laws 203 through 209, in the section on Vows, Oaths, and Swearing. 

“But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

I have always liked the simplicity of this one. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” is how I learned it. One of the fundamental problems with contracts and legal codes is that you can always find a loophole, especially if you’re rich or powerful. You can fulfill your vow on a technicality, while still breaking your promise. But there are no loopholes in love. Do what you said you would do. Period. Love is the fulfillment of the law.

The fifth example starts in verse 38. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This quote comes from Exodus 21, but I’m not sure which specific law it refers to. It is covered in the section on Punishment and Restitution. Jesus continues,

But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

There is a lot going on here. More than we have time to cover. Let’s focus on two ideas. 

First, the instruction in the law does not command retribution. It doesn’t say you are required to take an eye for an eye. Instead, it places limits on retribution. The punishment has to fit the crime. This is an idea that is embedded in our legal code, as well. 

Jesus is saying that the citizens of this new nation will have an even higher standard regarding retribution. These people won’t return evil for evil, but rather they will respond to evil with good. They’re oriented toward forgiveness, not retribution. That’s what love looks like, and wow, that’s a really high standard. 

The second idea here is about rights. The Hebrew legal code included protections for the rights of citizens. If a borrower could not afford to pay back a debt, the lender could not foreclose on items the borrower needed for daily living. This would be a violation of the borrower’s rights. When Jesus talks about someone suing you for your cloak, this is what he is talking about. It would be a violation of your rights for them to demand the clothes off your back. 

So what is Jesus teaching? He’s saying the people of this nation will not be preoccupied with their own legal rights. They will be focused on love, not on getting fair treatment. If someone violates their rights, they’ll go the extra mile with them. The principle guiding their behavior, again, is to respond to evil with good. As with everything else he has said so far, this is a tough standard.

And it’s one that especially resonates at the time I am recording this episode. In the past few days, a person who purports to follow Jesus has gone to the US Supreme Court to demand their right not to serve someone they perceive to be on the wrong side of a fence. The court determined that, because it would be a violation of the free expression of their religion, this christian did indeed have a right under the US Constitution not to serve some people. 

Think about that. Based on the constitution Jesus is laying out here in the Sermon on the Mount, is there anyone we should be claiming we have a right not to serve, specifically because of our affiliation with Jesus? Can we imagine him ever acting this way toward anyone? I think it’s pretty clear what Jesus is demanding from the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and good church people are not living up to his standard. Not even close.

Which leads right into the final example in this chapter, which starts in verse 38. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” 

Love your neighbor is statute 26 from the section on Love and Community Life. There is no statute or Old Testament reference that commands us to hate our enemies. I think this is just the assumed corollary. If there is a certain group that we are commanded to love, then there must be outsiders it’s ok not to love, even to hate. Jesus continues,

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Do you see how love is the thread tying all of these examples together?

If God makes the sun shine on the evil and the good, if he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, if he returns good for evil, shouldn’t the people of his kingdom do the same? That IS his expectation. That’s what love looks like. Love is the fulfillment of the law.

Jesus summarizes the teaching of this chapter with one challenging verse: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The teaching here isn’t about perfection as a standard. It’s actually something much more beautiful than that. But we’ll save that for the next episode. For now, hear this as an instruction to take your cues from God. If God responds to evil with good, then so should we. 


Simeon, when Jesus invited me to join him, your predecessors took issue with it. They saw it as another sign of his disrespect for the law, because they said I was on the wrong side of the fence. That I was a sinner

They said it with so much disdain.

I’ve never felt more low, more hopeless than I did in that moment. What if they were right? What if he agreed with them?

I’ll never forget what he said. 

[clears throat]

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to [invite] not the righteous but sinners.”

[choking up]

And that was the end of it. He motioned for me to follow, and I ran to him!

Test This Teaching

Let’s circle back to where we started: What is it that God wants from us? In this new nation, this kingdom of heaven, what are the standards the people are supposed to live by? Are there specific commands and prohibitions that we’re supposed to follow?

That’s what we, the good church people, have tried to make it about. But one of the problems with that approach is that in the New Testament, unlike the Hebrew scriptures, there isn’t a clear legal code. The closest we ever come are the six examples right here in the Sermon on the Mount. If you want to read these as a legal code, good luck. I expect to see many more men in church who are missing their right eyes and their right hands.

Also, if it is supposed to be about commands and prohibitions, isn’t it interesting that no two groups of church people can seem to agree on exactly what those commands and prohibitions are? The main reason there are so many different flavors of churches out there is because of arguments about whether something is or is not a fence. 

Maybe this should tell us something. Maybe we’re trying to make this book into something that was never intended. For a movement that originated with the poor and the illiterate, something is wrong if you have to have a doctorate in theology in order to understand what God wants, don’t you think?

So what does God want? If he hasn’t given us a new legal code made up of commands and prohibitions, does that leave us with “anything goes?” With anarchy? That’s the fear I hear in the voices of many good church people when we talk about these things. 

But Jesus gives us very clear instructions on what he wants. He established his new nation on the foundation of love, not on law.

That doesn’t comfort a lot of good church people. Love is too squishy. It can mean anything. For them, love is the equivalent of everyone being ok with everyone else. It’s the same thing as anarchy.

But that’s not true. Love is one of the most well defined concepts in the New Testament. There’s an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians dedicated to it. It’s not squishy at all. Just unfamiliar.

Even the passage we quoted from Romans contains guidance on what love looks like. It says “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” It’s a guiding principle, like the hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. And, boy, have we ever done a whole lot of harm to our neighbors, in the name of a law that we can’t even all agree on.

These are big ideas we’re talking about. If you grew up as a good church person, it’s likely you’ve never seen the Sermon on the Mount in this light. So, you know the drill. You have to test this teaching.

Test number one: Is what I’m teaching here consistent with what we see later in Matthew? Does the single idea of “love fulfilling the law” make sense of the teachings and behaviors we see in the stories Matthew tells us? When Jesus is confronted with tests where there is a clear legal standard to follow, but love demands something else, what does he choose? 

Conversely, if there is supposed to be a list of legal standards for us to follow, where is it? I challenge you to go find them. They’re not there.

Test number two, the big test: Is what I’m teaching here consistent with the example lived out by Jesus? If you applied this teaching to your life, would it make you look more like Jesus? Or less? What was the path he walked regarding law and love? 

When Jesus modeled being salt of the earth, who were the people for whom he made life taste better? When he lived out being a light on a hill, who were the people who were drawn to him for comfort and safety?

I’m convinced that trying to read the Sermon on the Mount as a legal code has led us to looking a lot like the Pharisees, and not very much like Jesus at all. But you need to perform this test for yourself.

As we close, there’s one more big idea in chapter five that we didn’t cover, and maybe you’ve thought of it. If love is the standard, how could anyone possibly live up to that standard? It is an impossible standard to uphold.

Which should lead us to mercy. If we can’t live up to the standard of love, shouldn’t we be showing mercy to those around us who are struggling with the lower legal standards we’ve been holding them accountable to? Yes, we should. Mercy is tied to that word “perfect,” which we’ll talk about next time.

That’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening.

Closing Credits

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