A sermon based on Psalm 119:1-8 and Matthew 5:21-37 preached February 12th, 2017
For most of this week, I’ve wondered what do with this part of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve wondered many things, really: Jesus preaches the soaring words of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which speak of ideal Christian character, and then after that He surprises and astounds and challenges us by saying that we should take our faith in Him and use it to become influencers, salt and light in and for the world.
What a wondrous and spacious image for us to grow into! Then all the sudden, the tone of His sermon shifts to His thoughts about some very specific things. He starts into some very touchy subjects: murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths. Jesus, why the tediousness of these loaded subjects all the sudden?!
The words of the Beattitudes—they are soaring! Awe-inspiring! The metaphor of salt and light—brilliant and breath-taking. Jesus, so far your sermon is taking us to new heights! Keep going in that direction! Give us another image to astound us! One that will unleash our Divine imaginations. Overwhelm us with another sky-high oratory that will unleash the wonders of Heaven upon us! But Jesus doesn’t do that.
This part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount sends us right back down to earth—into the slog of complicated, everyday lives, into the thick and dense matter of our broken relationships. These are words about how we treat and have been treated by others. They remind us of how we’ve fallen and failed, how we’ve hurt and been hurt, how we’ve disappointed and been disappointed by others. And, honestly, most of us would just rather forget all of that.
Why’d you have to go there, Jesus?!
This is why: how we treat or regard others—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies—matters to God. It matters deeply. We cannot live into Jesus’ words about Christian Character in the Beattitudes, nor can we become salt and light in and for the world, if we refuse to live in whole, honest, right, and true relationship with others.
How we treat and regard our fellow human beings tells the truth about us. It speaks louder than any words we use. This is where the rubber meets the road. Where the wonders of heaven meet the very specific aspects of this life on earth. And God cares about it all! Throughout the Gospel, Jesus teaches us that being in right relationship with God is predicated upon being in right relationship with others. We cannot have one without the other. 1 John 4:20 reads,
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
Those two loves, love of God and love of our fellow human beings are tied up in one another. If one falls short, the other will fall short, too. Love of neighbor is love of God; and love of God is love of neighbor. And a need to mend one is also a need to mend the other.
So, can we begin with confession? Can we begin by admitting to ourselves and one another that we’ve all failed in these ways? That not a single person among us can stand tall in God’s presence and claim that our love for God and our love for our fellow human beings is full, complete, or whole.
We have deprived other people of their full humanity, either by our action or inaction, and we’ve done so on both a personal level as well as on a global level. Human beings do these sorts of things to other human beings. We live in a world filled with alienation and distrust, and that allows us very easily to treat large groups of people in ways we ourselves would not want to be treated. And a denial of any person’s humanity, or a denial of God’s grace at work in them, is ultimately a denial of God’s grace in our own lives.
But let’s not use these words to shame ourselves. I don’t think Jesus preached this part of His Sermon on the Mount to beat us over the head with our own shortcomings. I think these words are here to lure us and lead us, to help us imagine, and practice, and then establish a more loving way to live.
So, let’s consider each of these teachings, unpack them one by one. And if we do that well, we’ll be able to see how in Jesus’ treatment and redefinition of each, He’s really just speaking one overarching truth into our lives.
What Jesus does with the 6th Commandment, Thou Shall Not Murder, is surprising. It’s not enough, Jesus says, simply to avoid committing homicide. Most of us have that down. It’s really not a lot to ask of us. But Jesus steps things up a few notches. Evidently, that commandment means more to God than we ever realized before. According to Jesus, whenever we act, say, or think in a way that diminishes, disregards, or overlooks the humanity of a person or an entire group of people, or in any way clouds our ability to see or regard them as the full and beloved children of God they are, we’re committing murder.
Ouch, Jesus! That’s harsh! Treating another human being as anything less than a beloved child of God is tantamount to murder.
Jesus says that when we’re out of relationship with our brothers and sisters, we’re out of relationship with God, and the burden of bringing ourselves back into right relationship with God and our fellow human beings falls upon us. Depriving another their full humanity or denying them the thought that God’s grace is working in them is a denial of God’s power as well as a denial of God’s grace in our own lives. If we show up to worship or prayer holding any part of ourselves back so that we can hold onto our anger or bitterness, God does not want our worship, because it’s not whole.
Let’s move on to what Jesus has to say about adultery.
We know the legal definition of adultery. It’s the same now as it was in Jesus’ day. But, again, Jesus expands the definition. It’s not enough to say we’ve stayed out of bed with another person’s spouse.
God sees it in a much broader way than we do, because God knows what happens inside our hearts. Our eyes lead us in directions that can get our hearts lost. And if we keep at it, we’ll not only find our hearts lost, but ourselves lost inside of wrong relationship. And before we know it, we’ll find ourselves outside of relationship with our families. Jesus’ words are simple: Don’t go there!
Divorce. Men in Jesus’ day could write their own divorce papers, hand them to their wives and send them out of the house for any reason they wanted. There are records of husbands who divorced their wives because they burnt a loaf of bread. We must realize that the culture of that time had reduced women to the status of property. Women were regarded as objects for a man’s satisfaction.
We must also realize that in our culture, there are way too many men who still treat women as objects of their own gratification. Then as now, Jesus is confronting that injustice. Jesus recognizes a woman’s humanity because He knows the God who formed them into being and calls them His own. For Jesus, the inherent value of all human beings prohibits our discarding or devaluing of them. Rather, we are to treasure and nurture one another as sisters and brothers, as equals—each us of worthy of honor and protection. In effect, Jesus is saying,
Men, step up. Treat the women in your life with integrity, and by doing so, you will stay in right relationship with God.
And what’s this thing about oaths?
We live in a time when we can hardly trust the words coming out of peoples’ mouths. Truth has become something relative. It doesn’t matter how many bible’s a person swears upon, we still can’t trust anyone to give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here, Jesus asks us to work for strong, authentic, and trustworthy relationships with each other. Then we wouldn’t have to swear on a stack of bibles. We would speak true and genuine words to each other because that’s what real and right relationship means. No hint of distrust or suspicion in the way. No reason to say “So help me, God.” Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.
Jesus’ re-worked definitions of, and teachings about, these things: murder, adultery, divorce, and the swearing of oaths—they all point us in the same direction: together they paint a picture of what human relationship looks like when it’s built upon and pervaded with divine integrity. Jesus is asking us live every aspect of our lives being utterly trustworthy, transparently honest, and dependably truthful.
When we do this, we live into our vocation as salt of the earth and light for the world, reflecting Jesus in everything we say and do. This is the vision that God has for the living out of each and every one of our relationships. Let us live into this vision until the day when we who call ourselves Christian stand out from all the rest because of how we love, when we regain our 1st Century reputation as the people who value and protect human dignity, who uphold, fight for, and celebrate the God-given integrity of every human life.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!