Primary Text: Matthew 5:17-48
Opening Text: Matthew 5:17-20
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 5:17-20 (NRSV)
Introduction: Fulfilling the Law
Last week we spoke about the Beatitudes which are both a description of what the Kingdom of God looks like, and to borrow NT Wright’s phrase a summons to live in a way that will make sense in God’s new world. Matthew, which is the Gospel which pays the most attention to the Old Testament, has five large blocks teaching by Jesus. This is significant, because the Old Testament begins with a set of five books that Christians today call the Pentauch, and in Jesus day, as well as modern Jewish communities are called the Torah or the law. Matthew portrays Jesus as delivering Torah, or law, a new way of living and ordering our lives as Christians. Grace doesn’t take away the need for morality, but frees us to live good lives out of love. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and victorious resurrection do not negate our call to live according to His commands It is a high calling, but contextualize that call. It’s challenging, and it’s supposed to be. As we read this next section, think about what Jesus is saying in these verses
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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. Concerning Oaths 33 “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.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. - Matthew 5:21-48 (NRSV)
Taking this seriously
What would it look like if we took this seriously? What would it look like if we were willing to question our intuitions and our cultures, when Christ’s words conflict with them, and embrace the radical way of living that Jesus describes?
Before we dive into any specifics, I want to address the section of this passage that is kind of the elephant in the room, because it has been both, on one hand, underplayed and brushed aside and, on the other hand, overplayed and exaggerated: Jesus teaching on divorce. There was debate in Jesus day regarding exactly when divorce is acceptable. Some first century Rabbi’s actually had very radical views, that divorce was acceptable for basically any reason, even something as silly as burning dinner. Jesus very clearly rejects that line of thinking; marriage is a commitment that needs to be honored, but Jesus also does not say that divorce is never acceptable. Jesus does carve out an exception, a singular one but a broad one. Jesus says that divorce is only acceptable in cases of sexual immorality – not limited to adultery, but sexual immorality broadly (Jesus uses the term pornea, which refers to sexual immorality in the broadest sense, and in the prior verses defined lust as adultery). So, to those of you who are considering marriage, think about the enormity the commitment you are going to make. To those of you who are struggling in your marriage, think about the enormity of the commitment you made. To those of you who have been divorced, I do not know what your prior marriage was like and what lead you to make your decision, and it is always unwise to have opinions about things that one does not understand, so even as your pastor, it is not my place to judge you. To everyone who has never been divorced, that it mind, keep in mind that you don’t know the whole story, lest – in an attempt to zealously defend one part of the Sermon on the Mount, you break a command in another section of that same sermon.
All of the commands in this section of the Sermon on the Mount are difficult, and which ones are most difficult largely be different for every individual, but the two which are probably the most broadly difficult, and easiest to dismiss are the ones at the beginning and end of the section we read a little bit ago. Those are two passages that many faithful, devout Christians – myself included – have really struggled with, at times, tried to explain away. “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” – Matthew 5:22 It is so tempting to say “Well, Jesus didn’t really mean that; he meant “If you insult your brother or sister or mock them you are in danger of judgment, if they’re not actually an idiot or don’t deserve to be mocked” That’s not what Jesus says, and it makes sense, because every person is made in the image of God. This means that human beings have sacred worth; they are holy, they are sacred. In his landmark work The Weight of Glory C.S. Lewis puts it like this.
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat – the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden. – C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis The Weight of Glory HarperOne. copyright 1989. Published 2001. pg. 46
To mock or degrade a human being is to profane the holy. It also makes sense, because even the smallest anger seed, if it is watered and given the powerful fertilizer of mockery, can grow into something big and terrible.
And that is probably part of the logic behind the big one, the really difficult one. There is perhaps no command in scripture that is as tempting to explain away as this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” – Matthew 5:38-39 There are a lot of was folks have tried to explain this away. One that I have heard is that Jesus is actually saying that you should be defiant, that the image is something like “Here slap me on this other check why don’t ya?” That interpretation seperates the the verse from the surrounding verses with the skill of a butcher cutting steak. Nothing in the surrounding verses is at all defiant or “Come at me bro.” Verse 41 in particular is impossible to interpret in this way. In that verse Jesus invokes the image of a Roman soldier stopping someone on the road and forcing that person to carry their gear a mile, and Jesus says that one ought to choose to carry their gear a second mile. His meaning is clear: repay evil with good and be kind to those who are not kind to you.
A great illustration of this principle in practice is in the musical Les Miserable. early in the show the main character, Jean Valjean is released from prison after a horribly unjust prison sentence. He meets a bishop who offers him food and a place to sleep at the church. In the middle of the night, Valjean wakes up steals a bunch of silver from the church and absconds into the night. He caught by the police and lies to them saying that the bishop gave him the silver out of Christian charity. The police drag him back to the church to verify the story. The bishop sees Valjean’s desperation and says that Valjean is telling the truth. But he goes even further. He says:
But my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also. Would you leave the best behind? So monsieurs you may release him, for this man has spoken true. I commend you for your duty. May God’s blessing go with you.– Valjean Arrested/Valjean Forgiven from Les Miserable. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original Broadway Cast recording copyright 1987. The David Geffen Company
What would it look like to take Jesus at his word and be ready to follow him where he leads? What would it look like if we refused to water the seeds of anger? What would it look like if we were not to see mockery as a sign of conviction, but as the degradation of someone made in the image of God? What would it look like if we were not concerned with getting even and were less concerned with our pride than with the needs of those around us? How would it change our lives, our church, our community, if we did our best to live up this high calling? One thing’s for certain, our church would not be another neon sign, calling for people’s time and attention, but would be a city on a hill, shining the light of Christ into our community.