15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
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.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your
gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has
something against you, 24leave your gift there before the
altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then
come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly 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.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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.’ 32But 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.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Today's passage is the third piece of the Sermon on the Mount that we're looking at in this series after Epiphany and before the beginning of Lent. Over the last couple of weeks we've looked at the opening and the introduction of Jesus' most famous sermon. If you weren't able to be here I'd encourage you to check out the sermons on the website to see the flow of how we got where we are with regard to the Sermon on the Mount. Two weeks ago we looked at the beatitudes as a list of blessing statements that were intended to communicated to people who may not have felt like they were terribly important in the eyes of the world that even they were stakeholders in the kingdom of God. And then last week we noticed that Jesus didn't ask people to be salt and light and he didn't command people to be salt and light but he told them that they are the salt of the earth and light to the world. What they would do as Christ's followers and likewise what we do as Christ's followers is what the world is going to see and what the world is going to know of God's power and God's will and God's work. Our lives are testimony.
But before today's passage, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hadn't told the people to do anything yet. He said that he came to fulfill, not to abolish the law… of course the law he was talking about was the religious law laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, which was the only Bible Jesus knew… and he said that whoever keeps the commandments would be called great in the kingdom of heaven but he hadn't told them what it meant to keep the commandments and he hadn't really addressed their behavior at all: but that was all about to change… because today's passage is the first segment of the ethical teaching of Christ.
There are four specific and relatively concrete behaviors that Jesus addresses here: murder, adultery, divorce and swearing. I looked it up… and sure enough each of these behaviors is prohibited at least once by various passages in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament… so perhaps we should expect Jesus to address them… after all he did say that he came to fulfill the law. But in each of the cases, Jesus takes it further. He doesn't seem to be content with the religious law as it's written. He pushes each of the prohibitions further than what was originally commanded; turning them into what many people have seen through the ages as a new set of laws. But I wonder if that's what he meant by fulfilling the law… I wonder if that was his intent.
The first two of the behaviors are addressed by the Ten Commandments… which explicitly say don't murder and don't commit adultery and Jesus starts off saying as much… you have heard it said… but then he keeps going… he equates anger with murder and he says adultery is the same as looking at someone with lust. And I'm left thinking, what in the world are we supposed to do with that? In my understanding it's natural to get angry and it seems like the entire advertising industry in our country is built on the human predisposition to lust after things and after people alike.
And, when it comes to the third and fourth behaviors, they're actually allowed by the Hebrew law… I haven't done the extensive research to know the specifics about divorce in the ancient world, but Deuteronomy 24 makes it sound like divorce was actually pretty easy… if a man finds something objectionable about his wife he writes a certificate of divorce and sends her on her way. Historically I can't imagine divorce was quite as pervasive as it is in our day and age, and it certainly doesn't sound fair to women in particular, but the law in Deuteronomy is quite different than what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. And I was only able to find one obscure passage that prohibits swearing oaths… there are a few that say don't swear falsely but the vast majority of both the Old and New Testaments don't seem to have an issue with swearing at all. So again Jesus goes further than the law ever did when he prohibits swearing altogether.
As Jesus raises the stakes in the sermon he makes one rule after another harder and harder to follow. And I can see why so many pastors who preach about the Sermon on the Mount say that Jesus was lifting up an impossible ideal. They say that Jesus wanted us to recognize that we can't do it on our own… the only way we'll ever be good enough for God is by the grace of God alone. And of course I agree that we are entirely in need of God's grace. But I don't think that was the point Jesus was making in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law, I don't think that he meant that he came simply to live it out. I don't think that he meant he came to do everything right and I certainly don't think he meant that his goal was to make the law so onerous that it would be impossible for any of us to even begin to follow it. In fact I think he fulfilled the law by redirecting how people understand it… instead of only trying to avoid sin, which was the main understanding of what the law was designed for, Jesus set about reframing the law in order to show people how to embrace life.
Even our first reading characterized the law in that way… it
says I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and
adversity. In that passage the link is clear if you obey the
commandments of God, it leads to a long and blessed life in the
Promised Land. It's so relatively easy for us to turn that into what
we've seen advertised as the
good life. You have heard it said
that the good life is filled with toys and stuff and cars and clothes,
and the pool and the houses and the exotic travel… In fact
there are some who have taken that idea and turned it into a whole
kind of prosperity theology… where if you give money to God,
God will give it back to you double… certainly you've heard of
that, or something like it from the stereotypical televangelists and
the so-called Christian self-help books… And when you couple
that with the images of the
good life that are
everywhere… it's also pretty easy to end up feeling
What have I done wrong… how come God hasn't done that
for me? But once again, when we look to the scriptures Jesus
paints a totally different picture; one that's closer to real life.
In what he says it's clear that hurts do happen… anger, adultery, divorce, the need for swearing… they all arise out of relationships; relationships that are broken to one extent or another. In my own experience a large part of being human is being in relationships and the longer I live, the more I'm convinced that every single one of those relationships gets broken to some extent at some point in time. Most of them, thank goodness, most of the time, are reconcilable… but a few of them aren't. But throughout this whole segment of the Sermon that Jesus was preaching, it seems like he's driving toward right relationships as the means or maybe even the ends of embracing life by following the law.
You see, it's relatively easy to blame or to hold onto what other people are doing wrong, but embracing life is about recognizing what you're doing, because after all that's all that you really have control over… each of these four sayings about behavior could warrant its own sermon but for today, it's going to have to suffice to say that your actions can't be determined by other people doing the right thing or not… they can't be determined by what you suspect the other person's response will be… and they can't be determined by following any code legalistically. Jesus lifts up reconciliation and forgiveness rather than holding on to old hurts and resentments and anger. He lifts up recognizing the inherent value that each person has as someone created in the image of God rather than looking to another person as an object to be used on a whim. He lifts up concern for those whose lives are affected by the decisions you make, especially if they're affected negatively. And he lifts up the need to be honest in all speech so there would be no reason to try to augment the truth claim of some of what you say. All that we have in this life is who we are and the relationship we have with God and the relationships we have with other people. And in this passage, where Jesus begins to speak of behavior and ethics and of what it actually means to follow the commandments, so much of what he's begun to talk about hinges on striving toward good and right and healthy relationships.
The kingdom of heaven is among us and each one of us is a stakeholder in it. What the world sees of what God's up to is dependent upon how we, as followers of God, live and how we live makes all the difference for our experience of the kingdom of heaven right now. In this passage and in many others, Jesus lays out a vision of what it means to live into the kingdom and what it means to choose life. And even though we may not often think about it in these terms, every single day, we choose life as we know it. Just like the people who went up to the mountain to hear Jesus teach that day, he can and he does offer a different frame for our understanding. There are many different visions out there clamoring for our attention but we get to choose the vision that we follow. And for this day and every day, I pray that the one we choose is the vision of the kingdom. Amen.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on February 13, 2011.
© 2011 Daniel Holland