Matthew 5: 21-37
So, here we are at Epiphany Six. It’s been great hasn’t it? For the first two Sundays we had accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Undoubtedly we heard sermons that made us all think hard about our own baptisms and what it means to be a Christian. Then in the third Sunday after Epiphany we learned about the beginning of Jesus’ mission, how he called his first disciples; and we heard sermons about following Jesus. So far so good. Very good, in fact. Then, two weeks ago, Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount, a masterwork of teaching and consolation for the early Christians and for us: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That week we learned about the Kingdom of Heaven and how it reverses the fortunes of the world. Finally, last week we continued with the Sermon on the Mount and we learned about how we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We may have even sung “This Little Light of Mine.” I like this stuff, it makes me feel good. But it is not to last.
Today Jesus gives us some pretty tall orders that cause every one of us to look at our shoes, shuffle our feet, clear our throat, or more likely to say, “Well Jesus doesn’t mean that, he’s using exaggeration and hyperbole, he’s saying something outrageous to prove a point.” Jesus says, “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.” That’s exaggeration you see, Jesus asks a lot of us, but to be that nice to my siblings, neighbors, or fellow church-goers is unrealistic.” Right? I’m not so sure. What about this doozy that got Jimmie Carter into so much trouble, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
It’s hyperbole, it’s unrealistic. He doesn’t mean it.
What happened? We were on board with Jesus saying blessed are the poor in spirit, we were right with him at the baptism stories, and the part where he said, “Follow Me!” What happened? Now that we get to the part of the sermon that gets specific, we attribute hyperbole to Jesus. Now that Jesus says, “Now listen up my disciples, here’s what this life with me looks like, this is what I expect” we say, “He’s exaggerating.”
Well there are two points here that I will try to convince you of. The first is that I don’t think Jesus was exaggerating. I am one of those rare Bible scholars that think that the writers of the Gospels knew what they meant when they wrote it. Of course there are all kinds of rhetoric and tricks of genre, but I think Jesus means, plainly, what he says here. The second point is about who this Sermon on the Mount is for.
You see these teachings are for disciples. Jesus is not really trying to win over new converts here, he is preaching to his followers, to us in the church. And how do I know that?
Well, who was the Bible written for anyway? Who wrote the Old Testament? Was it a group of Hebrews out there in Palestine, writing to all the gentiles to have them become proselytes? No. The writers of what became the Hebrew Bible were writing their story of their life with God, for their tribe and community, for their fellow God followers.
And the New Testament, who wrote that? One of the first things that I learned upon arrival at seminary was the fact that the New Testament, all of it, the Epistles and the Gospels, were written by and for people who went to church. That may be nothing new to you fine people here at Nativity, but for me to realize that Church folk wrote the Bible was a mind-blower. The Bible is the Church’s book. You see, I always thought it was the other way around; that the Church had somehow spontaneously sprung from the writings. The truth is, and the facts are, that the New Testament was written by people who were grappling with the Jesus story, who were caring for each other, and were making and receiving the Holy Eucharist together. That’s who wrote it, and they wrote it for each other, to form their community and their story, and eventually we arrived, and it is our story too.
What’s all this got to do with being liable to the fires of hell, being thrown in prison, tearing out eyes and all that?
My point is that the Bible was written for disciples of God, if you think about it for a second; the Bible is not primarily an evangelical text. It is a book for disciples. That’s a tough one, the Bible is a book for disciples. Jesus is outlining the mode of behavior of a disciple, of the church. The world just doesn’t get this kind of behavior. And no, I actually don’t think Jesus is exaggerating, he might be trying to awaken a long slumbering moral imagination, awakening it to activity. Jesus is upping the ante on the laws that his disciples knew so well. He is making interior what might have been done only externally. Yes, don’t murder, Moses covered that. But when Jesus goes inside he knows about the internal seeds of anger and he raises the stakes to the limit.
Why, why all this hellfire and tearing out? Because it matters to God. You can bet money that whenever Jesus starts talking in graphic terms, like tearing eyes out, unquenchable fires, and the world just generally coming to an end, it is important to him. And if it important to the Son, it is important to the Father.
What Jesus is doing here in this part of his Sermon is to teach us sin. That’s a funny way to say it, “Teach us sin.” There is no doubt that Jesus is teaching us ABOUT sin, but he is also teaching us sin. Sin is not a natural category. We can’t arrive at the notion of sin by just thinking hard. It’s not evident from just looking at nature. There is a whole branch of theological enquiry that says, “When we look to nature, we can learn about the character of God. There is some information about God in this rainbow, this season, this bird.” That’s called Natural Theology. But I don’t know of a Natural Theology of Sin. Of course one only needs to read the newspaper, watch TV, or have a conversation to see that the world is filled with sin; but we are seeing that from the Church’s perspective. The world doesn’t believe in sin. It might believe in evil, and entropy, and brokenness; but not sin, because sin is an offense to God. And since the world doesn’t have sin, the world can’t forgive.
But Jesus is teaching us sin, because we have to be taught what sin is. Let’s look again at what interests Jesus. Yes murder, but really anger and resentment. Yes, adultery, but really Jesus is talking about respect. That’s what Jesus is preaching: respect, patience. In other words, how to be a community that thinks like God. And what is a disciple but someone who tries to think and relate to the world like God does? And what is the church but a group that thinks alongside God?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus starts by saying, “OK, I’ve described the Kingdom of Heaven, the reversals, and I’ve begun to sketch out what it means to be a disciple: you know, salt, light, righteousness. And now for the fine print.” What it means to follow Jesus is to actually respect people, to have patience with ourselves, and our neighbors. In short: to be at peace. Imagine it. Life, as if people mattered. But let us not be naïve, peace ain’t pretty. Getting to peace can be messy and painful.
But it is here, in Christ’s church, that we can learn the lessons of this Jesus Ethic. It has been said that the Church does not have an ethic, it is an ethic. How do we learn the lessons that are required for what Jesus is demanding of us? We come together, here, we tell the stories that inspire us to live virtuously, we receive the sacraments where we learn that God is reaching across space and time to bring us again and again closer to him. So in this community of story and faith we are brought out of ourselves to see our fellow creatures as something deserving of respect.
This is what our Lord is saying today: “Act like I act, think like I think;” which is also what God himself says in our reading from Deuteronomy, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . choose life.”
Obeying God, following his commandments, for the ancient Hebrews meant to live in the light of God’s mind, to literally imitate God. Should we imitate God? You bet your life we should. But, imitation does not mean that we look at Jesus of Nazareth and point-for-point make our lives his. That life has been lived. We are not Jesus, we are not the messiah, we are not the crucified and risen one. Yet we are his people, living his story as our own, making his story our story. We are inspired, in-breathed, by Jesus to go beyond our attempts to control and exploit everything and to begin to imagine a different way of seeing the world and our relationships: to be like God.
So, let us proclaim our common faith in the One who calls to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pray that we might orient our story to his. Confess our desires to exploit and control our brothers and sisters. Receive His blessing, and finally come to his table, being utterly reconciled to him and each other.