The Alternate Remedy
Some years ago, Virginia Stem Owens assigned the reading of the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, and she asked the students to write a short essay on what they had read. Some of her students wrote:
- The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin.
- I did not like the essay “Sermon on the Mount.” It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect, and no one is.
- The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard. (Reported by Philip Yancey in The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 130)
Those responses seem to be particularly focused on Matthew 5:17-48, where Jesus declares that to call a person a name is akin to murdering the person, and to look upon a person lustfully is tantamount to committing adultery, and that if a person strikes us on the right cheek we are to turn our other cheek to our assailant. He concludes the section by telling us to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
If we perceive this section of Scripture to be a formula, detailing what is necessary from us to be able to get into heaven, then we have reason for confusion, frustration, and despair. If we have to measure up to standards of perfection in order to get into heaven, then we are doomed.
But if we understand this section of the Sermon on the Mount to be more of a diagnosis of our situation than a formula for our advancement, then we have grounds for hope.
As a diagnosis, this section of the Sermon on the Mount reveals that we have a fatal problem (we are all sinners), that the legalistic approach will never work (none of us can come close to being as perfect as our heavenly Father), so we must look for an alternate remedy.
The alternate remedy is brought up in Matthew 5:17, when Jesus announces that He came not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them. From a legalistic perspective, fulfillment of the Law would require personal, moral perfection. But from a Biblical perspective, fulfillment of the Law is the sacrificial system for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus came into the world to be that kind of fulfillment of the Law. He came to be the sacrifice for our sins.
On July 30, 1941, the guards at Auschwitz concentration camp assembled the prisoners because it had been discovered that one of them had escaped. To discourage anyone else from trying to get away, Sub-Commandant Karl Fritzsch ordered that ten prisoners be selected at random to die by starvation. One of the ten chosen was Franciszek Gajowniczek, prisoner number 5659. On hearing his number called, Gajowniczek cried out in agony over the fate of his wife and his children. At that, a Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” After two weeks of agonizing starvation, Kolbe was eventually executed with an injection of carbolic acid.
Maximilian Kolbe became the fulfillment of the law for Franciszek Gajowniczek by taking his place in death. In deep gratitude, Gajowniczek spent much of the rest of his life telling people about the heroic love by Maximilian Kolbe.
Jesus did the same for us. He became the fulfillment of the Law by taking upon Himself the full weight of the Law’s judgment against sin. As a result, we do not have to strive to try to attain legalistic perfection but can rejoice that we have been welcomed into the realm of God’s grace through the alternate remedy of Jesus fulfilling the weight of the Law by dying on the cross for us.