What is Jesus really asking of us in the Sermon on the Mount? Here is a sermon for Epiphany 6A that wrestles with the question.
A Deeper Righteousness
A Sermon on Matthew 5:17-37 (With allusions to Exodus 20:1-17)
Jesus was a lawbreaker. That truly is how some people saw him. In the eyes of the experts on God’s law, namely the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus played fast and loose with the rules. Didn’t he know that the way you please God, the way you love God is to obey God’s law? But here Jesus was, flaunting the holiness codes, touching the unclean, not keeping himself separate from the impure, not keeping separate from women, even talking with them in public, in broad daylight. Worst of all, Jesus broke the Sabbath law and allowed his disciples to do likewise. The law says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. On that day you shall do no work. Period.” Keeping the Sabbath law in particular was the litmus test of faithfulness. Yet Jesus repeatedly healed people on the Sabbath, and that was clearly work. As far as the legal experts were concerned, Jesus was disrespecting the law, disrespecting them, and disrespecting God.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples debated the role of the law. What was binding on Christians, and what wasn’t? Some maintained that all the law should be kept, a few even maintaining that Gentile Christians must follow all the Jewish laws. Others insisted that the era of the law was over; Christ did away with the law. “We’re not saved by keeping the law,” they declared. “We’re saved by the body and blood of the Lord. Therefore,” they reasoned, “the law is obsolete.” Some even counseled not worrying about law at all. After all, forgiveness and salvation are free.
Who was right about the law? According to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, none of the above. “Do not think that I’ve come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets,” he declared. “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly, I tell you, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter of the law will be done away with until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What is Jesus saying here? Is he telling us we’ve got to out-Pharisee the Pharisees? It sure looks like it, because in the next breath Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said ‘Do not commit murder. Whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I’m telling you, don’t even get angry at a brother or sister. Don’t dare address anybody with contempt, calling him or her a fool or worse. If you do, you’re liable to judgment.” Stifle all anger, Jesus? Is that what you mean? I don’t see how that’s possible. And say, Jesus, you yourself got angry. I’m remembering how you pushed over the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple.
“What’s more,” Jesus goes on, “you’ve heard the commandment ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I’m telling you, don’t even look at a woman wanting to have her sexually. You’ve already committed adultery in your heart. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out! If your hand causes you to sin, amputate it! Better that than burn in hell.” You mean sexual desire is evil, Jesus? But God created humanity this way!
And Jesus goes on like this, “Don’t divorce your wife except in one case: infidelity. Don’t take any oaths at all. Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.” And here’s a preview of the passage we’ll look at next week: When somebody hits you, says Jesus, don’t hit back. Offer the other cheek. Love and pray for and do good to your enemies. It’s easy to love your family and friends. The real test is to love your enemies.” Jesus, do you mean never defend ourselves?
How are we going to keep any such demands as this? How can we possibly do the right thing? The scribes and Pharisees were very serious about always doing the right thing. They tried to nail down the right thing to do in every situation. How do you obey the Ten Commandments all the time? Through the centuries, scribes developed rules to cover the wide variety of situations that might come up. Here’s an example: keeping the Sabbath holy by not working was critical to honoring God. But what do you mean by work?
So the scribes tried to define work. They developed lists of what was work and what wasn’t. They decided that carrying a burden was work, but then they had to define what a burden was. So the scribal law says, and I quote, a burden is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound,” and on it went. The list was long (Barclay, Matthew, vol. 1, p. 128). Writing was work, unless it is done in something that doesn’t leave a permanent mark, like writing in sand. Healing was definitely work. Healing was allowed when there was danger to life, but steps could be taken only to keep the patient from getting worse. No steps might be taken to help him get better. Thus you could put a bandage on a wound, but you couldn’t put healing ointment on it until after the Sabbath (Barclay, p. 129).
Now those particular examples sound silly to us. Really nitpicky. But Jesus did say our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Is Jesus telling us to get even more vigilant than that, trying even harder to police every thought and every feeling?
If Jesus means that we’ve got to out-Pharisee the Pharisees, that’s terrible news, a joyless, stifling burden. If that’s the case, here Jesus is in the Sermon on the Mount infinitely expanding the list of all the things to feel guilty about, and many of us are already overwhelmed with guilt.
Heaping guilt on people’s heads is never Christ’s purpose. His call in the Sermon on the Mount is not to keep even more rules. Jesus is not adding to the list of things you’ve got to do or else. His call is to go back to the heart of the law, to go deep into the heart of the law.
What is the heart of the law? It’s a living, loving relationship with God, and a living, loving relationship with all other humans. Every person on this planet is a neighbor to be concerned about.
A right relationship with God and with neighbor has always been at the heart of the law. We can see it in what some people call the two tables of the law in the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments, the first table, call for a right relationship with God: God is the focus of life. Worship only him. The rest of the commandments, the second table, call for a right relationship with other people. Honoring father and mother, the aged, and not killing, being faithful to your spouse, your nearest neighbor, and respecting property are all about caring for neighbors.
What Jesus is doing in this tough section of the Sermon on the Mount is reminding his students that there is always a neighbor, there is always a “you,” a “Y-O-U,” a person at the other end of our thoughts, and at the other end of our eyes, and at the other end of everything our hand does.
The way we look at others truly matters, for behavior starts in the heart, in the way we regard the other person. It’s not enough to refrain from murder. Regarding others with contempt, scorning them, nursing anger against them, speaking of them using insulting terminology is deadly serious in Jesus’ view. He judges it harshly. That is a “you,” a human being, a person, a neighbor you are speaking about.
What’s more, it’s not enough not to technically commit adultery. That woman whose body you want to possess, that is a “you,” a human being, a person, a neighbor. So is your wife that you want to put out with the trash. Men could literally do that in Jesus’ day. If you think divorce is easy now, then it was a piece of cake, for men, anyway. For just about any reason men could draw up a statement of divorce, sign it in the presence of witnesses, and that was it. The ex-wife is out on the street. Women, being considered property, had no possibility of divorce. Too bad if your husband beats you. You’re stuck. “No!” declared Jesus, “Women and wives are not objects! Don’t even look at them with an eye to using their bodies!”
And when it comes to swearing oaths, that shouldn’t even be necessary. Trust and trustworthiness should be the norm in your relationship with God and with one another. Say yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no. Be a person of your word to God and neighbor. Don’t use God’s name this way.
Jesus saw that many of the people of God had gotten so caught up in keeping the laws, it had become a matter of checking off endless lists of dos and don’ts. They lost track of the gracious God who gave the law as a gift to guide. They got so caught up in keeping their own records clean, that they lost track of their neighbors, the people they were called to love and serve.
God is not Santa Claus, keeping lists of people and checking off whether we’re naughty or nice. What God wants to know is how our eye regards our neighbor, and how our hand acts towards that neighbor.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” Jesus declared. “Throw it away. If your right hand causes you to sin, amputate it.” If we did this physically, we’d all be walking around totally blind and handless. What Jesus wants us to realize is that we must take care how we regard people. How we think towards them truly matters. We must take care of how we act. No question, we’re all in need of surgery: My eye is problematic and needs correction. My hand has done harm and needs correction. My heart has harbored ill towards others and needs transforming. But God will do the necessary surgery if we let him.
So what do we do with these hard words from Jesus? Give up, not even reach for the ideal, because our eyes and hands and hearts need his correction again and again?
No! Don’t give up! Reach for the deeper righteousness. Reach for the God who himself gets angry but knows how to use that anger to bring forth health and life and peace.
Reach for the deeper righteousness, to the God who gave us our bodies’ desire for our joy and companionship and for children. Reach to the One who embodies what steadfast love and faithfulness mean.
Reach for the deeper righteousness, to the God who creates each and every human being, male and female, to whom no one is an “it,” always a beloved “you.”
Go deep into the law and let it guide us to God and to our neighbor. Go deep, until we grasp the love that is behind and in the law. Reach for the Christ who fulfills the law. Reach for the deeper righteousness.