February 16, 2020
For the past two Sundays, we’ve heard a piece of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as one of our scripture readings. And today we will hear another section.
Jesus’ sermon began with the words of the Beatitudes describing the kingdom of heaven. And we saw how in Matthew’s gospel the Beatitudes are a vision of the world if the prophets’ words were to be realized. When justice is done, the least are given the proper care. When kindness is loved more than the world’s glittering idols… when humility before God is embraced over a “me first” rule of thumb… the way is opened for the merciful and the pure in heart. Peacemakers come to the fore rather than those who would divide for their own gain.
Last week, Jesus’ sermon turned to you being salt and light… just like those listening on that mountainside. You are salt and light because that is who God created you to be. Yet, we allow sin to take away our saltiness and to hide our light… we allow other voices and ideas to sway our faith to make it more palatable to our other held beliefs. So what must we do but repent… and turn away from the ways of sin and return to God’s path.
And it is that very challenge that our reading picks up on this morning. To help you hear better the challenge of this section of Jesus’ teaching, let me remind you of this statement made by Jesus in last week’s reading… “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Keep that upfront in your mind as I invite you to continue listening for the Word of God as it speaks to you this morning from chapter five of Matthew’s gospel.
READ Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard it said… but I say to you…” On the surface, it feels like Jesus is not fulfilling the law, but rewriting the law. Making it even harder for us to be able to follow and to obey… to live out these laws in our everyday life.
I mean… starting with the law against murder… one we likely can easily follow on a day to day basis… it sounds like Jesus is expanding the law by including our being angry at someone. How are we to follow that law? If that is what it takes to be a part of the kingdom of heaven… if being angry at someone is the same as murdering someone. I mean… come on. I’ve been so angry a few times that yes… murder has crossed my mind… some of my would be victims are here sitting in this very room… and yes, I took some enjoyment at imagining your murders done by my own hand. But I never did anything about it. You are still here, aren’t you? I didn’t violate the letter of the law. Yet… with this expanded teaching… how many black marks do I now have on my record? Should that be something I should be worried about? Is that fair? I mean really… how could Jesus lay down this heavier law upon us? It’s an impossible rule, right? It’s unreasonable.
But that’s the point of his teaching… especially when it comes to the rules… how we formulate them… how we follow the rules. How we decide who is and who is not under the rule of law. Jesus is challenging his followers to go deeper than the letter of the law and to seek out the heart of the law… the heart that is illumined by the spirit of God… the heart that the prophets tell us about time and again. The people were good at surface acts… but they kept failing the heart of God’s commandments. Towards the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus repeats this point again as he calls out the scribes and the Pharisees for their ability to follow the letter of the law without letting the spirit behind the law to penetrate their own hearts. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
As he exaggerates the laws, Jesus is trying to get his followers to see that the heart of the law must be a part of who we are. In more than a few places, the Bible talks about the law being written upon our hearts. And that’s where Jesus is again leading us. The kingdom of heaven… as Jesus has been describing it in this chapter of Matthew… isn’t to be understood as just another list of outside rules for us to follow like a new set of laws to lay down atop the old Mosaic laws. The kingdom of heaven is the transformation of the heart… it’s the transformation of the inner being. Wasn’t that the intention of God in giving us the law in the first place? Jesus uses exaggeration in his teaching to make his point. No, anger is not murder. But as we use our gifts and our talents to find ways around the letter of the rule… it might as well be because we are still violating the heart of the law… the heart that should be the same as our own. We can’t love our neighbor with anger and disdain. Or as it says in the letters of John… how can we say we love God whom we have not seen when we can’t even love our neighbor whom we have seen? Love of our neighbor is the main aorta to the heart of the law, and when it gets clogged or shut off… then we have a heart attack, don’t we?
Saints, anger is going to happen… we are not going to be able to get around it… but in the transformed kingdom of heaven… reconciliation becomes the natural response to anger instead of acting upon our anger or increasing and codifying our anger… instead of seeking ways to do harm to another… to increase our advantage over another. I joke with you about getting angry with people in this room… and I do get angry… how can we be in authentic community with one another without getting angry. But there is the anger that pushes us to be better at building up this body of Christ… and there is that anger that devolves into the murderous anger of “either you do it my way or I’m going to burn the whole thing down to ground”.
What is in your heart is important. Because… as Jesus teaches elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel… “(W)hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a person.” What really matters? That’s what that quote is about.
You can see that with his teaching on divorce. We can sometimes follow the rules we have, but in doing so do great harm to one another… we can follow the rule but in doing so be unkind… or unjust. I was only doing what the rule allowed me to do… isn’t much of a defense in our faith. I mean… in the kingdom of heaven… which is better… obeying a rule even if it harms another or showing mercy and perhaps challenging or questioning a rule because that is the best way forward for our neighbor?
In teaching about divorce, Jesus is no longer exaggerating for effect… he doesn’t need to… but shows how rules may violate the heart of the law. In his time and culture, only men could initiate divorce and the rule allowing for divorce actually is found in the Law of Moses. As are other rules that also apply… like coveting another’s wife. But, that probably didn’t mean that many men weren’t giving certificates of divorce to their wives for what could be seen as trivial reasons. While we are not given much other cultural information from Jesus on the mountainside… it’s not hard to imagine that perhaps divorce was as commonplace then as it is now. It’s not hard to imagine that Jesus would have witnessed for himself what divorce was creating in his time and culture… especially as women at that time did not have much opportunity for a life outside of their attachment to men… whether it was their father, husband or brothers. The opportunities for women were not there. How many gospel stories are there where Jesus encounters women who have gotten caught in circumstances not of their own making… but because they are powerless and desperate to survive? Women could not be independent and single. They could not make their own way in the world because the culture did not allow for such a thing. It’s not hard to imagine what such rule abiding and lawful divorces were creating for women back then… what choices they were creating for the women who were being given certificates of divorce… what rules those women were having to break in order to survive… how these cast off women were being treated by society… by their families. Again… when we meet some of these women in the gospels… Jesus always treats them with mercy, doesn’t he? Through the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven… they become blessed. Jesus doesn’t condemn them for an unmerciful divorce rule that was obeyed… an unmerciful divorce rule they were powerless to challenge.
It is possible to be lawful and for there to be no room for reconciliation… no forgiveness… no mercy… no kindness… no justice… no comfort. It’s not that rules aren’t important… it’s not that the law isn’t necessary… but the kingdom of heaven… is it made by the rules… or does it come through the character that is written upon our hearts? As disciples, what gives us more integrity in our faith, our ability to maintain the rule of our faith or our ability to be faithfully committed to one another… to love one another as Christ loves us? To overcome anger in order to be reconciled? To not be controlled by our passions… but to be mindful of the consequences our passionate actions might have on others… the damage we can cause to others. With the last verses in our reading this morning about oaths… Jesus is calling us to be truth-tellers… not just to one another, but to ourselves as well.
Saints, we have a weird relationship with the rules. And Jesus doesn’t really make it any easier for us by giving us a blanket statement… or a new rule about the rules. If you’re looking for the easy answer… or the answer that doesn’t expect anything of you… then you’ve come to the wrong place. You’re following the wrong Lord. Instead, Jesus leads us to consider the heart… not just the heart of the rule… but the heart of God as we come to these laws. So he teaches us things like, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” All these teachings help us find the context needed to navigate through the rules that fill our lives… because they expand on that central law that we love the Lord our God with all our being… and that we love our neighbor as ourself. Where Jesus is concerned nothing should violate that heart of the law. And so with that let’s say… Amen.