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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 02/16/2020

Today we get into the “You have heard it said, but I say to you” section of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus raises issues regarding various aspects of the Old Testament law, in this case the prohibitions on murder, adultery, divorce and making oaths.  His attitude toward the law was one of the big questions about Jesus as the early church developed, the question being, was his teaching a replacement for the law of the Old Testament?  Matthew does draw parallels between Moses, who goes up on Mt. Sinai to receive the law, and Jesus who goes up on a mountain to deliver this sermon so you can understand the reason for the question but to say he was replacing the law goes too far.

In last week’s gospel Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law; however, in this part of the sermon he does begin to offer a new interpretation of it and, if anyone was hoping for Jesus to lower the bar in his reinterpretation, well forget about it.  What he does instead is to raise the bar to a level that pretty much makes the law impossible to keep as just being angry with someone violates Thou shalt not kill, just looking at woman with lust violates Thou shalt not commit adultery.  Along with that, anyone who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery; anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery and making any kind of oath violates Thou shalt not bear false witness. 

If you’re not convicted by any of that, the verses that follow would get you, verses that would be the gospel next week if it was the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany instead of Transfiguration Sunday.  Those verses include the call not to resist an evil doer but instead if they hit you once, turn the other cheek and let them hit you again and along with that to give to anyone who begs, to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Included with that are images of prison and hell and dismembered bodies for anyone who fails to do all this.  The gospel of the Lord; praise to you O Christ. 

Keep in mind too that Jesus was not speaking here as one rabbi, one teacher among many.  Jewish rabbis have been looking for new interpretations forever, that’s nothing new; but when Jesus says, “You have heard it said” and follows it with, “but I say to you,” “but I” changes the conversation.  “You have heard it said” acknowledges the fact that God has already spoken; “but I” can then only mean, “I am speaking with same authority; I am speaking in the role of and in the place of God.”  Many would have heard that as blasphemy. 

The question then, as is so often the case, is what was Jesus up to?  What was his intent in raising the bar so high?  We can never know for sure what Jesus’ intent was but it’s hard not to conclude that he was being intentionally provocative here, rattling cages in an effort to get people to think about their own relationship with the law.  Since the law has to do with one’s relationship with God and one’s relationship with other people, Jesus was inviting people to think about those things as well.  What also seems clear is that Jesus was rattling cages because he saw that the law was being used in ways that caused relationships to be damaged when he was always about healing relationships. 

I don’t always do it but sometimes I try to find out what Martin Luther had to say about a given text; sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it isn’t but as a Lutheran pastor I figure I should look once in a while.  In this case he does provide a helpful insight not just into these verses but into the whole Sermon on the Mount.  In writing about it, the key verse for Luther was Matthew 7:12 which comes toward the end of the sermon and is what we know as the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them for this is the law and the prophets.”   

Luther’s emphasis on grace and his suspicion of anything that smacked of works righteousness and earning your way can cause anything he has to say about the importance of good works to get overlooked.  Matthew 7:12 though, the Golden Rule is all about good works and with that verse as the lens, what Jesus is getting at in his “but I say to you” reinterpretation does start to come into clearer focus.

For even clearer focus let me add a couple more familiar verses from later in Matthew, that is chapter 22, verses 37-39.  This is when Jesus is asked, “Which commandment is the greatest?” and he responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

So, with that we have this dual lens of “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” along with “Love God and love your neighbor,” a dual lens through which we can look at Jesus’ provocative statements because it appears to be the lens through which he looked at things.  Looking through those lenses enables us to see that Jesus was less concerned with the letter of the law, more concerned about the impact on the neighborhood and as I’ve said before, for Jesus the neighborhood was pretty big.  It included some who others would have excluded. 

So…killing someone is obviously wrong but Jesus saw that anger does damage too.  He saw that even if anger doesn’t lead to murder, which it usually doesn’t, it still doesn’t reflect love of the neighbor.  Remember too that Jesus isn’t talking here about righteous anger of any kind.  There is such a thing and if this was a Bible study or confirmation class, we could talk about that but in this case it’s about being angry with another individual.

What Jesus had to say about adultery and divorce challenged the place of women in a culture where they were essentially seen as a piece of property that could be used and/or discarded at the whim of a man.  In defining adultery as he did he certainly would have gotten the attention of his audience, especially the men, but his intent was not so much to rewrite the law but to challenge those who would support such treatment of women to explain how it fit with do unto others as you would have them do you, how it fit with love of God and love of neighbor.

The section on oaths is harder to unpack without getting into a long explanation of the legal system of the day but suffice it to say that it has to do with the need to be truthful for the sake of just treatment for all.  With all of this then, Jesus was rattling the cages of people who didn’t want their cages rattled because they thought they could self-righteously say they never violated these commandments.  But what about us?  How do we hear and how do we respond to how Jesus reinterprets the law?  Do we find our cages rattled?  If so, what do we do about it?   

We can start with the classic Lutheran response.  I’ve said it before, you’ve heard it before, but for Luther the law’s primary function is to reveal that we are sinful and unclean and cannot free ourselves, to reveal the futility of trying to be good enough as I talked about last week.  It doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying, but as these verses clearly show, you do so, you keep trying, knowing that Jesus has raised the bar so high that you can’t reach it.  For Luther, the result of that realization should not be despair but it should drive you into the arms of an unconditionally gracious and forgiving God, thus creating a relationship that enables you to keep trying for the sake of the neighbor.

That Lutheran understanding is a good one and is perhaps the only one we really need, but another thing to learn from this text is the need for biblical interpretation which is also very Lutheran.  Speaking with the authority of God, Jesus reinterpreted the law in his time and place using the lens of do unto others along with love God and love your neighbor, all of which is a lens of grace.  None of us can speak with the authority of God, but we can use the same lens that Jesus used and if we find any part of scripture being interpreted and used in ways that are harmful to others, in ways that destroy relationships, in ways that build walls in the neighborhood, like Jesus, we can challenge those interpretations confident that we have the gospel and the lens of Jesus to support us.

Kathy gave me this cross a couple of years ago, maybe you have noticed it and/or wondered about it, or maybe not.  Anyway, it’s called a comma cross and actually comes out of the United Church of Christ and their slogan, “God is still speaking; don’t put a period where God puts a comma.”  That means we don’t ignore what the early church fathers had to say about scripture, we don’t ignore what Martin Luther and other reformers had to say.  What we would say though is that no one has the last word.  The Bible does have to be interpreted over and over again always through the gospel lens of grace and the ethical lens of do unto others as you would have them do to you, the lens of loving God and loving the neighbor. 

That’s what Jesus did and that’s what he gives us permission to do, for the sake of the neighbor.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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