Sermon for Epiphany +5A, February 9, 2014, on Matthew 5:17-20 The Antitheses
(the text today is long, but we are taking a big-picture approach today, so hang in there with it)
Matthew 5:21-48 The Antitheses
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 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.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.
“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.’ 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.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
“The Jesus Alternative: “But I say…”
You have heard the expression: “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Sometimes too many details can spoil your understanding of the big picture. We just read a text with a lot of trees – important trees. But today is more of a forest day. I want us to look at the big picture.
So, the subject today is about this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount called the Six Antitheses. Six times Jesus says a variant of “You have heard that it was said” and then he says “but” – usually “but I say to you…”
All six are powerful and full of important teaching, but today we will try to see the big picture, which is also powerful and important.
Context: Sermon on the Mount
Remember, this is Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Matthew, in which he stands, Moses-like on a new mountain and delivers the new Torah to the new Israel. He announced that “the age to come,” the Kingdom had already begun, and we hear Jesus telling us how to live in the kingdom.
We have heard Jesus pronounce his beatitudes – his statement of congratulations to the people who have true kingdom values – like the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers and others. We have heard him say that people who live with kingdom values like these are as indispensable to the world as salt and light itself.
Last week we heard Jesus say that he has not come to abolish Moses’ torah, but rather, to fulfill it: to bring it to its true intended purpose. Now, today, by these six antitheses, he is illustrating what fulfilling the indented purpose of Torah looks like. We can think of these as six examples; if you get these six, you will have the right perspective.
A Word about Hell
So, the subject today is not hell, but hell comes up in these six antitheses, so we need to get it out of the way first. The big question is: am I going to hell?
The short answer is: yes, you are going to hell. In fact, we are all going to hell.
Why am I so sure? Because Jesus said that even if we did not murder anyone, we will go to hell just for being angry or insulting someone. Who has not done both of those?
He also said that even if you manage to get through life without committing adultery, if you have looked with lust, your whole body will be thrown into hell. Does anybody here claim innocence from lustful thoughts? No? Neither do I.
So, we are all going to hell. That is, we are going to hell if we are meant to take this literally. But Jesus, the master story-teller, the master teacher, is using exaggeration for effect, or hyperbole. He does this from beginning to end of this sermon.
I think we all understand this already: I don’t see people gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand to stop their lustful thoughts – everyone understands this kind of language as exaggeration for effect. Well, so is the language about being thrown into hell for anger, insult or lust. It is exaggeration for effect.
Hell: Gehenna – the valley of Hinnom
Anyway, when Jesus uses the word that we translate “hell” he is actually saying, in his language, “Gehenna.” “Ge” means valley, so Gehenna means the valley of Hinnom, which is just south of Jerusalem.
It was a nasty place, actually a trash dump in Jesus’ times, with a perpetual fire going. In Israel’s history it was notorious as a place where people worshiped the god Moloch, by means of child sacrifice.
Likewise, Jeremiah warned that when the Babylonians came to attack, the Jews would be throwing their dead bodies over the Jerusalem wall into that valley for having run out of room in the city to bury their dead – quite a gruesome image! (Jer 7:31-32).
Exaggeration for Effect
The point of the hyperbole is this: Don’t waste your life. Don’t live in such a way that your life is worth no more than garbage to be tossed over the wall and burned in the dump. That would be the exact opposite of living in such a way as to be indispensable to the world, like salt is, like light is.
Jesus’ use of exaggeration continues throughout this section both negatively and positively. The ending line is “be perfect.”
Why is Jesus pulling out these rhetorical big guns of overstatement? To make the point that this is incredibly important. This is crucial. If you want to be identifiably a Jesus-follower, if you want to be “children of your Father in heaven” this is the way to live.
It was said…but I say”
So let us notice the forest-view of Jesus’ teaching. For each of these six examples he begins with his scriptures – the Hebrew Bible (what we normally call the Old Testament). In fact he begins in the ten commandments themselves and then extends beyond them to other parts of Torah.
He begins by saying “You have heard that it was said…” Let us pause and notice one large forest-sized fact. He is not recalling fleeting rumors, like “you have heard that the fish are biting today.” No, he is referring to the very heart of the scriptures: the words Moses himself brought down from Mt. Sinai, written, as the story says, by the very finger of God (which, I hope you can see, is not to be taken literally!).
So when he follows each time by saying “but” Jesus was saying that the law he came not to abolish, but to fulfill, though important, did not have the last word. This is crucial.
I just saw an article in which Christians were reflecting on what the bible may or may not say concerning the use of marijuana. Turns out, the bible says nothing about marijuana. Nor anything about stem cell research. It doesn’t even mention abortion. The idea that we should begin and end our ethical, moral decision making by finding a verse or two on the subject is simply wrong.
Is murder wrong? Yes. Is adultery wrong? Yes. Why? Because the Ten Commandments mentions them? No! That’s just the surface.
Murder and Anger
Murder is wrong because God made each one of us; we all have worth and dignity to God. Human life is to be protected, not harmed.
So thinking about it this way should lead us to consider the role anger plays in our relationships. Anger leads us to despise people instead of respecting and valuing them. Name calling and insulting only leads to more anger and therefore less valuing the precious gift that every life is.
Adultery and Lust
Adultery also is wrong, not because there is a law against it, but because of what it does to marriage covenants – it betrays them. Someone always gets hurt – often many people get hurt. Often it breaks the marriage – and the children always suffer for it, economically, academically, even in increased sick days from school. So attack adultery at its roots – lust.
And while you are at it, stop feeding lust with porn. Every example of porn is an example of people objectifying other people, using them as a means to our own ends. Lust treats people like objects. And a culture that thinks it is okay to treat women as sexual objects will be one that does not feel the need to pay them equal pay or promote them to high level positions.
And here we see the forest-picture of all of these antitheses: Jesus is focused on people. His goal is to look beyond the literal law to the effects on real humans. This is God’s perspective. This is the kingdom perspective.
Divorce and Adultery
So, what about divorce? Well in Jesus days, in Palestine, divorce was easy. And the very law of Moses, written by the finger of God, as the story goes, made it easy. Just write a certificate of divorce. Jesus said again, “It was said…but I say to you…” And again he thinks beyond the confines of the law to the ethical foundation.
God cares about people, especially the weak and vulnerable. And in Jesus’ context, women were in a very weak position legally, and very vulnerable to abuse. What possible options did a divorced woman have? Return to her father’s house – if he was still living, had a house, and had the option of taking her back (almost certainly including her children too). Or she could hit the streets practicing the world’s oldest occupation. In other words, be driven right into adultery and degradation, not to mention vulnerability to gross physical abuse.
In each case, Jesus thinks beyond the law, to the ethics behind them. Each time, the driving motivation is the care and protection of people.
Oaths and Truth-telling
So, no oaths: just let your “yes” or your “no” be enough for anyone because you are an honest person. Any society of people who cannot trust each other to tell the truth is a miserable, alienated place. Kingdom people are truth-tellers.
And Kingdom people are people with spiritual maturity enough to stop the cycle of violence. They do not feel compelled to return eye for eye, tooth for tooth, slap on the cheek with a return blow. Kingdom people know that vengeance never produces solutions. The cycle of violence stops with us. We are the peacemakers.
Love of enemies
The climax comes at the end. Love is what this is all about. On the one hand this is easy: everybody loves. We love our kids, we love our country, we love people who vote like we do.
Jesus says, big deal.
If God is magnanimous enough to send sun and rain on the good guys and the bad guys, then whom should we feel smugly able to despise? Don’t just love those who love you back – anybody can do that. In fact love your enemies. Pray for them. If they are truly in the wrong, they need redemption, not retaliation.
It ends with one simple rule: “be perfect.” C.S. Lewis said that this, like all moral standards is categorical. Your mom never told you to tell the truth most of the time. Moral guidance always aims at perfection.
But this is the point: don’t go looking for a law to follow, just be perfect. Do the right thing. You know what it is. Soon in this same sermon Jesus will sum it up saying, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Do you know that during the struggle to end slavery in this country, there was a struggle over how to interpret the bible. The pro-slavery people had verses they could quote in support of slavery. They pointed out that bible tells masters to be good masters, and slaves to be obedient. It’s clear.
The abolitionists, however, looked at the whole bible and saw a sweep of teaching, a trajectory we might call it, in which God is at work bringing liberation. God created all of us in his image, and God constantly provides for the weakest among us, the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien. So how could slavery be justified? Like Jesus, they reflected morally beyond the literal words of scripture.
The Sermon on the Mount shows us clearly how Jesus approached issues: he asked the question: how would this behavior affect the people concerned?
We often say that we come to know God by observing Jesus. This is a perfect example. God loves us so much that he wants our good. God calls us to seek good for others as well. Jesus is calling us to a high standard.
Now, back to where we started: should we worry about being thrown into hell, as in he Medieval artistic depictions with devils and flames? No. Let’s be grown up enough to understand metaphor, exaggeration and hyperbole for what it is.
But we should worry about wasting our lives. We should be concerned about living in the trivial pursuit of our own gratification or comfort at other people’s expense.
We are called to disciplined lives of discipleship in which we are agents of God’s kingdom values of compassion, mercy, and respect, and most of all love.