The Genius of the Sermon on the Mount

Lessons for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

You probably didn’t come today hoping for a homily on murder and anger, much less one on adultery and divorce! And I can assure you that I didn’t spend the last week filled with a great desire to offer one. Alas, our church has committed itself to the Revised Common Lectionary and with it, in the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A, we get the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, verses 21 through 37. Here, after the Beatitudes and the comments on salt and light, Jesus addresses just these issues.

But at its heart Jesus teaching today isn’t concerned – or, at least, isn’t primarily concerned with murder and anger, divorce and adultery. No, at the heart of Jesus’ teaching today is a deep concern for how these things have a tendency to abuse and defile the precious relationships in our lives and the harm we cause when we compromise precious trust.

We all know that anger is a powerful force. Look in your neighborhoods or on the news and we can find stories and incidents of anger lashing out – in road rage, in fights erupting over closeout sales, and in in deadly shootings. The Arab spring of not too many years ago was a vision of angry citizens rising up and some have said that the American election of 2016 was the “election of anger.” Its playing out all around us.

Not all anger is bad. Jesus was angry at the Pharisees ad scribes, the religious leaders of his day when they enslaved the people under an unbearable burden of rules and requirements. There was a moment in the Temple when Jesus fashioned a whip from ropes and drove the merchants and money-changers out from that part of the Temple reserved for non-Jewish worshipers. This is what we might call “righteous anger.” It manifests in our lives as well when anger wells up in response to unjust systems that tout racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia.

This is not the kind of anger that Jesus is referring to in the gospel passage from today. Rather, Jesus is talking about the kind of anger that is ego-driven, filled with jealousy and resentment, borne of fear and greed. It is the kind of anger that suppresses the truth and oppresses others. It often causes pain and suffering. It pumps up the self and belittles the other all against those whose only offense is that they displease us.

Jesus speaks also about adultery and divorce. While we have myriad examples of this plays out in contemporary American life, I would invite us to expand our notion of what Jesus is talking about, beyond just the destruction marriage covenants. What moral compromise might we make that could cause serious damage? How do we adulterate relationships and trusts in our life? The word adultery comes from the Latin adulter, meaning literally “towards the other.” Do we do things in our lives that corrupt our relationships, drawing us away from one and towards the other in unhealthy ways. The old French avouterie, through which the English word comes, bears the further implication of polluting that which is clean. How tempted we are everyday to abuse a variety of trusts we have? All of this undermines our relationship with others and ultimately our relationship with God.

Relationships! Those are the key, I think, to uncovering what Jesus’ lesson is really all about.

This lesson from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a most difficult text for us to grapple with. It’s not particularly perplexing or enigmatic but it is hard. Jesus just sticks our faces right into the Ten Commandments, that ancient collection that most of us would prefer to ignore or, at best, think of as The Ten Suggestions. And then Jesus just intensifies the weight of the requirements, insisting that we cannot sidestep them. Indeed, if we look to the verses immediately before these sayings on anger and divorce, Jesus makes it clear:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. [Matthew 5: 17-18]

Jesus is quite clear: He came to fulfill or complete what had already been started not to abandon it or wipe it away. And so begins a powerful commentary on what it means to live as a citizen of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus had already spoken about the importance of making peace and of seeking after righteousness.

  • He spoke about the blessedness of being meek and pure and merciful.
  • He charged us with being salt and light.
  • He now addresses the danger of unbridled anger that lead us in hurtful and harmful directions.
  • And he identifies the perils of degrading the honor that should be associated with the connection of two people, especially in the unique connection that we call marriage.
  • Traditionally, this powerful speech has been interpreted in two quite different ways:

One interpretation has Jesus urging his disciples to take the law far more seriously than even the Israelites of old had imagined. In this view, Jesus is establishing a new law that exceeds and extends the Ten Commandments. This approach insists that faith in Jesus is a kind of spiritual steroid that allows us to do what pious Jews in Jesus’ day could not.

The second interpretation claims that Jesus is taking the law to an impossible extreme, demonstrating that we could not possibly fulfill its demands. We cannot, therefore, point to our accomplishments but rather must see that we are wholly dependent on grace. This interpretation is somewhat discouraging and leads to the conclusion that it really does not matter what we do.

I am not enamored with either of those interpretations. The first completely misses the mark, I think, of the movement that Jesus began. Jesus greatest concern was never about obeying every law, rule, and commandment but about building the kingdom of God. The second approach, while closer to my understanding, has the tendency to abdicate us of our responsibility. We are invited to help in the process of building the kingdom – an mission that requires us to act. And, moreover, they are the Ten Commandments not the Ten Suggestions.

So, what do we do with Matthew 5? As I said, I am not convinced that Jesus greatest concern was that we pour ourselves into obeying every law, rule, and commandment. Instead I think Our Lord’s greatest concern was that we strive to build the kingdom of God in our midst. And the first thing to remember is that when we are talking about the kingdom of God we are talking about relationships.

I would invite us, then, to think about the law of God not in terms of doing a certain number of impossible things before breakfast, but in terms of building right or righteous relationships – with God, with those around us, and with all of creation. It is not about your need to check all the boxes and follow all the right prescriptions; but, rather, it is about loving the Lord your God an loving your neighbor as yourself.

By the way, when we properly read the Ten Commandments and all those hundreds of laws in Leviticus and Numbers, we might discover that their purpose is not to put restrictions on our lives but to expand them and enrich them. The first Three Commandments address our relationship with God and last seven speak to our relationships with others. The whole law is a way to challenge us to honor those with whom we are in relationship.

If we forget all of this – if we forgot about the relationship aspect of it all, there is the very real danger that we will strive to enter a spiritual competition, vying to win endless categories of our own righteous achievements. But as soon as this happens, we fall into the trap of all too easily judging others, who may not be able to achieve what we can. Jesus addresses this danger when he says: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

So let us be of good cheer. The genius of the Sermon on the Mount is not that it places before us a checklist of Christian valor or even a model of the perfect Christian life. No, the genius of the Sermon on the Mount is that it brings us face to face with Jesus, in whom we can discover how we should live for others in this world. Amen.

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