Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
As we move into our third week of considering Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we get into the “You have heard it said, but I say to you” part of it as Jesus addresses specific points of the law and the commandments. If anyone was hoping for him to relax the standards and make fulfilling the law easier, forget it. He does just the opposite, raising the bar in such a way that there’s no place to hide, for anyone. Not only that but he also makes disturbing comments about being liable to the hell of fire, being thrown into prison until you pay the last penny, connecting divorce with adultery and plucking out eyes and cutting off hands if they cause you to sin. This isn’t Jesus, meek and mild. This is Jesus on some other mission using a different approach.
The way Matthew presents this sermon, it’s one long address that takes up all of chapters 5, 6 and 7 which would imply that the same audience settled in and listened to the whole thing. That’s probably not the way it happened though. It’s more likely that what we call the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of things that Jesus said to different audiences in different places over a period of time, much of it probably said on more than one occasion.
My guess would be that this particular section was probably addressed not to a general audience or to Jesus’ disciples and others who were already following him. This sounds like something addressed to a group of religious insiders, scribes and Pharisees, people who thought they were doing pretty well on keeping the law, not to mention that they were people viewed by others as doing pretty well on keeping the law. They were the righteous after all. According to Jesus’ interpretation of the law though, maybe they weren’t so righteous after all. Even they can’t hide from the difficulty of his standard.
You have to think that that’s Jesus’ point, that even those who are perceived as righteous and who in many ways may be righteous, are still flawed. He’s not interested in a legalistic discussion of the law or a comparison game where one group winds up being perceived as more righteous than another. So, making use of overstatement to make his point, he closes any loopholes anyone might use to justify their righteousness and offers an interpretation of the law that makes it impossible to fulfill.
Jesus does set an impossibly high standard here regarding the law, but while there is a caution here against holier than thou self-righteousness, I don’t think shaming is Jesus’ primary intent. As a motivational technique, using shame and guilt only gets you so far anyway.
From a Lutheran perspective we might want to jump in and make this text an example of using the law to make known God’s grace. Recognizing our inability to meet Jesus’ standard makes us realize that we can’t do it, that we can’t earn God’s favor but are dependent on grace to heal our broken relationship with God. That does represent good, sound Lutheran theology but that theology wouldn’t evolve for another 1500 years.
What Jesus proclaimed was the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven which he consistently set up as an alternative to the accepted ways of the world, a kingdom where normal societal expectations concerning who was blessed and who wasn’t were frequently turned upside down. Life in his kingdom was and is about being in loving relationships with God and with one’s fellow human beings regardless of their worldly status. In his kingdom observing the law is a way to enhance these relationships not a way to get around them.
In all of these examples of “You have heard it said…but I say to you” Jesus is talking about broken relationships. In these verses he is not outwardly concerned with a relationship with God; these are human relationships he’s talking about although it wouldn’t be a reach to say that such relationships affect one’s relationship with God. Jesus’ main concern here though is with the community, the people who inhabit his kingdom.
In Jesus’ community, murder isn’t just physically killing someone making it possible for most of us to check that off and say, “At least I’ve kept that one.” Instead he talks about anger and insults also being murderous acts because they hurt others and can kill relationships. Note too that he’s not making a blanket statement saying that one should never get angry. There are things worth getting angry about. His concern again is on relationships and the kind of anger that threatens them, so his emphasis is on reconciliation in order to restore things and he doesn’t say to wait for the one you’re angry at to come to you; he says go, go to them, take the initiative. Settle things.
Moving on, in Jesus’ community, adultery isn’t just a physical act. Similar to what he does with “Thou shalt not kill” Jesus makes adultery about anything that makes a woman an object rather than a person. Jesus lived in a male dominated society where women were not equal so that’s why he casts women as the victims in what he says but in our time the caution on objectifying the other could obviously be applied across genders. However it’s done, regardless of the gender of the victim, it diminishes an individual and damages a relationship.
Jesus’ words about divorce are easier to understand in the context of violated relationships and objectifying the other. In the world he lived in, a woman, even in marriage, was little more than a piece of property, an object easily disposed of by a displeased husband who could simply write a certificate of divorce and be rid of her. That however was not the kind of relationship Jesus envisioned in his kingdom. We do have to be careful about imposing 21st century values on Jesus concerning equality and gender roles and sexuality in general. On the other hand, he makes pretty clear what he sees as a proper, righteous relationship. He makes pretty clear how people are to treat one another.
As was the case with what he said about anger, it’s important to note that he again is not making a blanket statement saying that divorce should never happen. While not desirable, in some cases it can be the best outcome and in many cases a second marriage can be as good an example of resurrection and new life as one will ever get. It’s not a simple black and white issue.
Statements about plucking out eyes and cutting off limbs are obviously not intended to be taken literally. Even biblical literalists apparently find a way around such statements or else there would be a lot more people out there missing body parts. Whenever I hear this text now, I’ll always think of Father Jim, my friend from down the hill at St. Joes. A few years ago, it must be six years ago, it would have been the week after we had this gospel lesson, he came to text study wearing his eye patch that he hadn’t had for awhile. When asked about it, in that unassuming way he had, he said, “Well, I decided to take last week’s gospel lesson literally.” So I think about him today and he’s a pretty good person to think about.
For Jesus though, in making these statements, it again comes back to the community and the relationships within the community. Using graphic terms he makes clear the importance of eliminating or avoiding those things that might cause us to damage a relationship. Doing so is however, an ongoing struggle…
…and apparently it always has been. In a different way, St. Paul writes about the same thing. For him, it’s less about individuals and more about groups as he highlights divisions in the community at Corinth, divisions that lead to quarreling and jealousy, behaving, as he calls it, according to human inclinations. The result again is broken relationships, people working against each other rather than working together.
Paul was writing about church communities and such divisions do continue to occur within churches. Even more though, we see it and have seen it for a long time in the dysfunction of our government, again, people working against each other rather than working together. We have a lot of people in government who claim to be Christians but they don’t seem to pay much attention to the words of Jesus or Paul or any of the other biblical writers in how they relate to each other.
Jesus proclaimed a different way to be in the world. He offered a different vision, one centered on relationships both divine and human. That vision is or ought to be our starting point in how we relate to others. We do trust in what has been done for us, the gift of grace we’ve been given through the Incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus, the gift that makes a relationship with God possible. In thanks for and in response to that gift, we pay attention and we act, restoring and repairing relationships when Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”
Rev. Warren Geier