9:30AM Sunday School
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San Williams

February 16, 2014
Matthew 5:21-37

Introduction before reading scripture

This morning’s reading continues what we know as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  The sermon begins with a list of blessings called the beatitudes.  Then Jesus names his disciples as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In today’s reading, Jesus offers commentary on three of the Ten Commandments–the commandment regarding murder, the commandment regarding adultery and the commandment regarding false witness.  Jesus’ commentary on the law is sometimes called the antithesis, because of the repeated phrase:  “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…”

Read Matthew 5:21-27

I’m sure we’d all agree that Jesus is being radical in the verses we just read from the Sermon on the Mount, but then, when was Jesus not radical?  “Love your enemies and do go to those who persecute you…you must forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven…sell your possessions and give to the poor…take up your cross and follow me.”  So yes, Jesus was radical, and today’s scripture further underlines that.  But do we understand in what way he was being radical?  These words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are definitely challenging, but toward what end?

Well, one line of interpretation has it that Jesus is being radical in his interpretation of the law.  In this view, the end result of Jesus’ teaching is a stricter and more thoroughgoing morality.  He takes the old law about murder, adultery, and bearing false witness and radicalizes them, so that not only is the act of murder at issue but anger and hatred are also. The meaning of adultery is expanded to include lustful thoughts. Likewise, the commandment against bearing false witness is ramped up to require truthful speech with every word that comes out of our mouth. In sum, this line of thinking suggests that Jesus is urging us to take the law far more seriously than we might have imagined.

Now we’d likely agree that the ethical demands of faith must be taken seriously, but isn’t the Christian faith about more than morality? One of the problems of interpreting this section of the Sermon on the Mount through the lens of the law is that doing so leads us to think of the Christian life in legal terms. As a consequence, we judge ourselves and others according to a moral checklist:  I didn’t murder anyone today; check!  No lying for a whole week; check!  Oops, there came a lustful thought; black mark!  Surely Jesus wants more from his disciples, and more for his disciples, than just a stricter adherence to the law.  As one commentator quipped, “Did Jesus really have to die so that we could have the Ten Commandments on steroids?”

But there’s another line of interpretation on these verses that goes in the opposite direction.  It suggests that Jesus is taking the law to such radical extremes precisely to show us that we are utterly helpless to obey the law.  No less a theologian than Martin Luther championed just such a view. Luther was so worried that Christians would turn these sayings of Jesus into a more radical form of “works righteousness” that he penned this warning:  “The infernal Satan has not found a single text in the scriptures that he has more shamefully distorted and into which he has imported more errors and false teaching than this very one.”  Thus Luther, and others who share his view, believe that the law’s chief value is not to guide the Christian life, but instead to convince us of our need for grace.  Jesus, these theologians contend, raised the ethical bar impossibly high in order to convince us that it’s way beyond our reach.

Now this interpretation has the advantage of reminding us that we are dependent on God’s grace and forgiveness. Yet the weakness of this interpretation is that it empties Jesus’ message of moral content.  Worse, this interpretation makes it sound as though Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. At the very least, we’ve got to question whether Jesus was being radical only to show us how imperfect we are and how much we are in need of God’s grace.

Okay, now the question:  If Jesus wasn’t merely giving us a ramped-up, radicalized version of the law; and, conversely, if his intention wasn’t to trip us up so that we fall on our faces before the mercy seat of God—what was he doing in these radical pronouncements?

Try this.  In these antitheses, Jesus is giving us a glimpse into the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is breaking in with Jesus, but is yet to be fully realized.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pictures for us a world in which love of neighbor has been radicalized so that even the internal landscape of our lives is transformed to serve the health and well-being of the neighbor. No question that Jesus is giving a radical teaching–not to force us to take the law more seriously or less seriously–but instead to push us to imagine what it would actually be like to live in a world where we honor, respect, and care for each other as persons who are truly blessed and beloved of God.

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Well, in these antitheses Jesus tells us what he means by righteousness.  It is an unadulterated love of neighbor, a love that springs from the heart, and expresses itself in outward behavior. Friends, we are called to be a community that hungers and thirsts for this kind of righteousness.  To be so hungry that when we become angry or resentful toward another, we make it our business to seek reconciliation.  So hungry for righteousness that when violent, or lustful, or disrespectful thoughts enter our minds, we dismiss them as unworthy of the kingdom of God. So thirsty for God’s love to heal our relationships that we train our speech to be straightforward, loving, and truthful.

True statement:  None of us has attained the radical righteousness Jesus sets before us. But all of us can hunger for it and shape our lives accordingly.  And all of us are invited to come to Christ’s table and receive again the gift of Christ’s forgiveness and his righteousness.

Come, then, with the promise of Jesus singing in your heart:  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…for they shall be filled.”   Thanks be to God!