Since the start of the year we have been in the season of Epiphany, a season of discovery about our relationship with God and with Jesus. In many ways, it has lead us down the path of discipleship. The last two weeks we have been sitting with the first disciples at Jesus’s feet during the Sermon on the Mount, hearing our call to ministry in the beatitudes and the affirmation of our ministry when Jesus calls us salt and light, but today, today might just go a little further than we want to go as Jesus throws old laws and convictions out the window and invites us to change our minds and our hearts as he once again directs us into a new way of living. Now this particular passage has been used in some troubling ways in the past, it has been used to hurt people, especially women, it sounds to our modern ears like Jesus is condemning, but he’s not. Keep an open heart as we hear today
Matthew 5: 21-37
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,[a] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[b] a brother or sister,[c] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell[d] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[e] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[f] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[g] 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.[h] 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.[i]
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.
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.
May God bless to our understanding the words that we hear today. Will you pray with me please? May the Words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
So what’s going on here today? Well, Jesus is getting down to the real nitty gritty now, he has basically just let the disciples in on a little secret…there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to change. And he starts by refocusing some long held beliefs on how some things like anger and adultery and divorce and swearing have been looked at.
The laws that had long ruled the Hebrew people are found in Leviticus, and as the Monday night Bible Study has been learning, there is some very specific protocol surrounding those laws. What Jesus is starting to tell us here is that the laws as we heard them or as we think we know them in Leviticus are incomplete, the old laws don’t go far enough, and because they don’t go far enough they don’t bring people, they don’t bring us, into a transformational relationship with God. At the time the Leviticus laws were written, the relationship that people had with God was different. It was a relationship that was forming and developing but now, Jesus is saying, it’s time to move on.
Throughout our scripture today we heard Jesus say, “You have heard it said.” Every time he stays that he is acknowledging former knowledge, he is acknowledging that he knows that this is how things have always been done, he is saying “I know what the laws are.” But then he goes on and says “But I tell you this.” And anytime Jesus talks that way you know that something important is happening. When Jesus says “BUT I tell you THIS” sit up straight and listen because what comes next is going to be life changing.
In each of these You have heard, BUT statements Jesus is challenging us to look beyond what we think we know and find God in going further than the law has formerly encouraged you to go. One of Jesus’s message in his ministry was to get people to understand that God is more than a law, God is love, a relationship with God is about love and if God is covering you with all this love what is your problem that you’re not meeting God in the same way? If God is loving the stuffing out of you and forgiving you and you’re not doing the same with and for your neighbor, well then, you have some splaining to do.
Have you noticed that you, that we, have a carefully monitored comfort zone that we like to stay in? It is so much easier living in absolutes, THIS is where you are supposed to be but not HERE. You can like this kind of person but not that kind, this color and race of people but not THAT color and race of people, people from THIS country but not THAT country, people who share my politics and bad habits but not those who are politically different and have other bad habits, people of my denomination, but not the people of that denomination. Let’s be honest, isn’t that who we are, how we act? And we all feel perfectly justified in our prejudices. Ann Lamont, the wonderful quirky Christian novelist stings us with her insight. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” And this is exactly what Jesus was trying to pull us out of. Letting God be as big as God needs to be and not as small as we make God.
From time to time you might hear Michael and I say to each other,” I love you enough to poke you with a stick.” Which may not sound like a very loving thing to say, but it is our reminder to each other that we love the other person enough to not let them settle into unhealthy behaviors, to not settle for the easy out, and in an odd sort of way to ask for forgiveness for the times that we nag and pick at each other. I think Jesus is poking us with a stick here. He is reminding us that he loves us enough to not let us settle into the conformity of a world that allows biblical law to be more important than love. Jesus is after a whole new you, a new you with a new heart and so he raises the bar to the highest level,level that may appear to be beyond our abilities. I look at that bar sometimes and think “whoa, I could never jump that high. Just what is he asking for?” Not only no killing, but a heart free from the acids of chronic anger and the cold calculation of bitterness. Not only no adultery, but no lust that sees people as objects of pleasure. Not only no false swearing with Gods name, but no swearing at all because your words are to be simple and true. Not only no revenge, but responses that are creative non-violent ways of turning the other cheek, to go the second mile.
I can’t do these things…at least I can’t do them on my own, and neither can you and that’s just the point. But here is the good news, in the company of Jesus and through the work of the Spirit we can be changed so that we can begin to desire impossible things, and then, by the miracle of God’s supporting grace, find ourselves getting it right and surprising even ourselves!
I found a great poem this week by Edwin Markam, “He drew a circle that shut me out-Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win; We drew a circle that took him in.” That is what Jesus did then and what he asks us to do now, blow up that little circle that we have drawn around our lives and draw a circle that is as big as God’s heart. Because love is demanding, we work to make it smaller and more manageable. Family over non-family, us over them, people I know over people I don’t know, gays over straights, Christians over Muslims, the attractive over the less attractive, skinny over chubby, and on and on. But Jesus says no! He’s into very large circles, as big as the world, as big as all the types of folks that we try to avoid. He is into the very large circle of God’s Love not God’s law
Contrary to common thought, the words love and hate in Jesus’ world do not have the same positive or negative emotions that they do in our world. They were ways to speak about who gets preference, who gets regard, who gets help, who gets first place and who gets second, who gets included and who is left out. If someone is loved they are helped, if someone is hated they get ignored. The use of the two extremes was common in that day, it made for clear distinctions.
Jesus is making it clear that he is doing away with those distinctions, with that form of deciding who gets our help, who gets our prayers and who does not. God does not behave like that, and neither should we.
The new Sheriff has notified us today. We are going to go out from this place and we are going to show the world how God acts, and we are going to do that by acting that way ourselves. The bar is set high, but we are going to overcome! HA