Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 for Feb. 16, 2020 Epiphany 6A.
Audio can be found hhttps://soundcloud.com/stevendkurtz/february-16-2020-jesus-saysere for several weeks
[Jesus said:] “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.”
They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.” I don’t know if it always does, but I know it can. And familiarity can breed less strong emotions too, like simple apathy.
Every famous person probably has family or close associates who see them all the time, and are simply not at all star-struck by them like the rest of us are.
I think that can happen with us and Jesus. We talk about him all the time. We sing about him, we make our kids put on bathrobes at Christmas time to be in cute plays about him as a baby in a manger. Does that have an effect on us with respect to Jesus?
In the film Talladega Nights, there is a scene at the dinner table in which someone offers prayers to the “Lord baby Jesus.” His wife challenges him, saying, “Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” But he says, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”
Familiarity breeds — what do we call that? — benign dismissal; or at least total disrespect. Are we too familiar with Jesus to hear him? I wonder.
Well, if so, let us just try to hear him as if for the first time today. What he says should first shock us, then make us curious, and finally utterly amaze us. What was Jesus doing in this part of his famous “Sermon on the Mount?” And how does it affect us today? Let’s look at it together.
Six times, of which we read the first four, Jesus says something like, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” In every case, the thing that people have heard it was said was not just rumor or hearsay, Jesus is quoting scripture. So, we should hear each one as Jesus saying, “I know that the bible says this…but I say that.”
Now, we should just stop right there and take a breath. “The bible says this, but I say something different.” That should shock us. Even more shocking is that most of the time, the part of the bible Jesus is quoting is the ten commandments; the very heart and soul of the Law of Moses. Remember, according to the story, told both in Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses got them directly from God.
So what does that mean when Jesus starts with the ten commandments and then says, “but I say to you…?” Each time, Jesus invites us to pause and think. What’s going on in that law? Why is it there? What does God really want from us? Whatever it is, in the first place, it is not simply slavish obedience to a law, just because it’s a law. In each case, Jesus challenges us to ask questions and reflect ethically. So, after being shocked that Jesus calls us to reflect beyond the level of law-keeping, let us be curious and look at what he calls us to.
Anger and Relationships
The first case is about anger and relationships.
“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;”
So Jesus is not approving of murder, but he is elaborating the commandment. There are words that destroy relationships and people. That’s a form of murder. It kills the ability of people to work together; it kills the spirit of cooperation in groups, it makes relationships toxic. We all know families, churches, clubs, bands, and all kinds of human associations that are ruined by reckless, hurtful words.
Why is this significant? This is not just Dear Abby’s moralistic manners-advice. This is serious because Jesus had an agenda. He was about creating communities of people who could disrupt the whole social structure, as it was accepted and practiced, and replace it with justice, equity, and inclusion.
These Jesus-communities were supposed to model a radically alternative way of being. Men and women, slaves and free people, people of every ethnicity, from Jews to Greeks were to break bread as equals, share their resources to meet each other’s needs and work for liberation from oppression. But none of that could happen if they allowed their community to become poisoned by bitterness and resentment.
Reckless words like “you fool” could kill it. So, you have heard that murder is wrong: well I say to you, don’t murder your community.
It is more important to reconcile with each other than to go to the temple offering gifts to God.
The other side of this coin is another core teaching of Jesus: the demand to forgive when we have been wronged. No one should call you names. But if they do, don’t let that kill your relationship. Forgive them. Then, get on with your mission to the world.
Adultery and Lust
The second example is also from the ten commandments. It is about adultery.
“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.”
Jesus used exaggeration for effect — but what is the effect of this exaggeration? Lust is all about objectification. It is all about seeing another person as a means, and not as an end. It is about instrumentalizing another human being as a vehicle for one’s own pleasure.
This teaching should have launched an ancient #metoo movement. For Jesus, humans, men, and women are all beloved children of God. It is, or it should be inconceivable to treat them as anything less than that.
Now, something else needs to be said here. You have heard me say that I don’t believe in hell. Well, doesn’t Jesus threaten people with hell here, saying,
“it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell?”
No, he didn’t. Jesus did not say “hell”, he said “Gehenna.” If you need to verify that, take out the pew bible, and look at the footnote in the NRSV for Matt. 5:29. It says that the word is not hell, but Gehenna.
But translations have their own way of being conservative, and new translators are hesitant to break with old traditions, even where they were wrong. Jesus didn’t say you were in danger of being thrown into hell, but into Gehenna.
So what is Gehenna? It was the name of the valley just over the Southwest wall of Jerusalem. Lots of horrible things had happened in that valley over the centuries. In Jesus’ day, it was a smoldering trash dump.
So Jesus is saying, don’t waste your life like garbage: treat everyone as ends, not means. Treat them, as philosopher Martin Buber taught us, as “thou” not as “it.”
Let love be genuine, let attraction be beautiful and pure; there is no room in this community for treating people as lust-objects instead of as full humans, beloved by their Creator.
Next, Jesus tackles divorce.
“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.”
Historical context is everything here. In Jesus’ day, divorce was easy for men, and only for men. All they needed to do was to write a certificate of divorce for just about any reason, and the marriage was over.
Where did that leave the women — and we may assume her children? They had two options: return to her father’s house, if she still had a father and if he had a house and if he would or could take her back in. Otherwise, all that was left to her was to take to the streets in the world’s oldest occupation. The options for her were terrible.
This is more about the huge injustice and evil done to another person than staying married. There were reasons to break a marriage; Jesus names unchastity, which most take to mean unfaithfulness.
Later, Paul felt the freedom to broaden the marriage-breaking causes to include those marriages in which one has become a Christian and the other hasn’t. He allows them, if they need to, to go their separate ways. In Paul’s Hellenistic world, women could be business people, like Lydia, for example, so the ethics of ending a marriage were different. But clearly, the goal is to stay together in a mutually affirming relationship if at all possible.
The final example is about swearing oaths. This one is the most distant from our culture. We don’t swear to the truth by heaven or earth or Jerusalem. But the point is so clear: be a community of honesty. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” Say what you mean, mean what you say, so that you will be considered reliable and trustworthy. A community of deception and subterfuge cannot be a community of healing and reconciliation. Use simple speech.
I hope you can see that this is all about relationships. When we relate to God as our loving Creator, we know that we are all valuable. We all have dignity as persons. So how could we not treat each other as equally valuable? How could we treat each other with anything less than respect and honor?
This community has the capacity to make into full persons those who the Roman empire treated as non-persons, but only on the condition that we keep living up to and into our vision of a reconciled humanity.
That was Jesus’ vision. It went way beyond keeping laws. In fact, it fulfills the intent of those laws. You will remember that Jesus said he came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. This is how the law is fulfilled: by looking beyond the words of the laws to the motivations. And the motivations are always about relationships.
So, we are committed to following Jesus. We are committed to his long-term agenda. We are committed to being a community of people who control our mouths so that our speech to each other is life-giving, not murderous.
And we are a community committed to practicing forgiveness when we are on the receiving end of harsh comments. We believe too strongly in our goal of being a healing, reconciling community to let speech subvert us.
We are are a community that treats each other with respect and dignity, as persons, not as objects or means to an end. We are a community of bonded relationships that are not easily broken. And we are a community of honesty and reliability. In these ways, we are a community of healing and restoration in a world that desperately needs both.