A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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Yr A ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Matthew 5:21-32
I know what you’re thinking: “Is he actually going to preach on murder, anger, indebtedness, adultery, lust, sin, and divorce today?” Yes he is! Except, no he isn’t! Because this text isn’t actually about those things. Well, it is, but it really isn’t! How do you like this so far?
Unfortunately, texts like these have been used to argue for all sorts of very unhelpful things, in my opinion. I suspect more than a few of you have been pinched by texts like these. So I’d like to begin by apologizing for those in my profession who have profoundly missed the point. Preachers have stood in pulpits time after time and railed on and on about how Jesus is telling us what appropriate behaviour is for a follower of his Way.
Except that’s precisely NOT what Jesus is doing. But preaching on behaviour, and measuring behaviour, and judging behaviour seems so “religious” and it’s so easy to do. Well, I don’t think Jesus cared two figs for what seemed religious and he definitely was not about taking the easy road. In fact, this whole section of the Sermon on the Mount is about taking the hard road, the high road, the road less travelled by.
It’s a text about raising the bar for his followers. If, as you read it, you’re thinking that he raised it too far, that it would be impossible to ever live up to it and he’s dooming us all to failure, I’m going to suggest you’re missing his real point. And the main reason for that is that we think he’s talking to us, which he is, except he isn’t!
What Jesus is all about here is culture change. His newly called disciples have lived immersed in a transactional culture of “requirement and reward” or “infraction and fine” where keeping the letter of the law was rewarded and breaking the letter of the law required payments, or sacrifices, or penance of some kind.
In contrast to that Jesus paints a picture of a kingdom of heaven with values that challenge us to go above and beyond the requirements of the letter of the law and live according to a higher standard. To make his point he uses a classic form of discourse called hyperbole. It means he exaggerates for effect. He goes to extremes to underline his message.
This is the part that he’s not talking to us about because we have not lived in that transactional culture. Sure, we may tend to follow the world’s values of rewarding good rule-followers and punishing those who disobey, and that’s ok as far as it goes, but we’ve never been required to submit to religious purity codes and make sacrifices of birds or animals to clean our slate.
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So the main thing Jesus is doing by using this hyperbolic language is to shock his disciples out of their conventional mindset and get them to begin to reimagine the values they should live by. That’s not our mindset so the tone of the passage confuses us.
This is crucially important for our understanding of this teaching of Jesus. Without knowing that we will misinterpret what he’s saying about anger and lust and divorce and think he’s setting impossible standards that we inevitably break and then we feel terrible and beat ourselves up about it. That is entirely not the point.
The point is about a new mindset for living kingdom values. And here he brilliantly uses the “You have heard it said…but I say” device.
You have heard it said that you should not murder.
Ok, no problem. I haven’t murdered anyone this whole week so I’m good!
The law says you must keep the law – don’t murder. Well, that’s pretty easy. I don’t have to work very hard or change any of my values really to not murder people (even though from time to time…).
By not murdering I’m good with God, says the law. But Jesus wants us to live kingdom values, so he says “You’ve heard it said don’t murder, but I say don’t even get angry!” And he means it, except he doesn’t.
He means it as a goal, a standard worth aiming at, a value worthy of the kingdom – but even he was unable to live that perfectly as you’ll recall from that little incident when he kicked over a bunch of tables and whipped the money-changers and chased them away from the temple. That’s anger!
So, is Jesus a hypocrite? Of course not!
But he does want us to understand that aiming not to murder is not nearly good enough – instead we should aim to not be angry.
That we’re human ensures that we’re going to fail from time to time – but isn’t that light years better than aiming low and thinking as long as you’re not murdering everything else is ok? If we aim for the high standard and strive with all our being not to be easily angered then more and more often we will not succumb to being angry.
Now, apply that same interpretive lens to his other admonitions in this passage.
You have heard it said to not commit adultery. Again, pretty easy to live up to that one. But I say even a lustful eye is adultery – gulp!
A lustful eye is not the same as a casual appreciation for beauty or a fleeting daydream about someone. The meaning of the word lust as Jesus uses it is about showing focussed passion toward an inappropriate recipient.
But even so, if your wandering eye or wayward hand are causing you to repeatedly miss the mark of kingdom values then pluck it out or cut it off because it’s better to be blinded or maimed than be in torment.
If we were to take this literally there would be a lot of one-handed blind people in this room! Myself included!
But this is not at all what Jesus means.
He wants us to aim higher. To work hard at living kingdom values even if it hurts and causes us discomfort – because if it causes you no discomfort whatsoever to follow Jesus then you’re probably doing it wrong – or you’re an absolute saint. (But I’m pretty sure even they had to work pretty hard!)
Christianity is not about believing the right things, or behaving the right way – it’s about fundamentally reshaping the way you see and live in the world.
You have heard it said that divorce is a matter of writing a certificate, but I say no divorce except for infidelity! Do you see it yet? This is not about saying no divorce it’s about saying no “easy” divorce. A man in their time could just get a witness to vouch for him, go down to the town administrator, and write up a certificate of divorce. Done.
Jesus says it should be a lot harder than that. We make vows, and we should be encouraged to aim high and keep them. But again, we’re human. It doesn’t always work out for significant and important reasons, and that’s ok.
I think his message is that one should neither enter marriage lightly nor exit marriage lightly.
He wants us to honour our relationships more than just casually tossing people away. Aim higher!
Hopefully you see the big picture here. This whole passage is about shifting the disciples’ understanding. “You have heard it said that merely keeping the letter of the law is enough. But I say aim higher and higher – go above and beyond the law – for those are kingdom values.”
Will you always reach that high standard?
No. You’ll fall short many times. That’s what sin is.
I think we tend to associate sin with doing bad things (which on one level is true) but sin actually refers to your aim! Literally!
Did you know that one of the core meanings of the word sin (hamartia in Greek) is to miss the mark? When you sin you have missed the mark. What’s the mark? It’s that raised bar that Jesus sets. The classic explanation for this concept involves bows and arrows. Unfortunately, not very many of us can relate very well to that. We’re not exactly a bow and arrow culture. So let’s update the image.
Imagine you’re throwing a ball at someone. If you can throw hard and fast enough and if the target is not too far away you can do it in a pretty straight line – like a pitcher to a catcher in baseball.
But if your target is set further away and you throw straight your ball will fall short by a great margin.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday. When a quarterback throws a pass the trajectory of the ball is high not straight. It’s a parabola. In order to hit the target – to hit the mark – to reach your teammate with the ball – you need to aim higher.
Sin is missing the mark. The literal implication of the word is that the person did not aim high enough, and so they don’t live high enough. So Jesus paints a picture of living the values of the kingdom of heaven by urging us to aim for the stratosphere and we will far surpass the requirements of the law.
Think of all the times in your life when you did the minimum, you did what was required or expected and that’s all. You were probably rewarded for it too.
Now think of all the times you went above and beyond and lived with great integrity –which probably nobody saw, and if they did they may have even mocked you for it, called you a goody two shoes, said you were naïve and weak.
Look, living up to this higher standard, this kingdom way, isn’t easy – and it doesn’t mean you’re a joyless wet blanket, and it doesn’t mean you’re a sucker or a chump, and it doesn’t mean you let people take advantage of you – it simply means that whenever given the choice in matters of ethics or integrity when they go low you go high!
Jesus says to aim higher. Go above and beyond because those values are kingdom values.
One big mistake that too many churches have made is that they confused behaviour with orientation. They read passages like these and think they’re about modifying or restricting our behaviour. But these teachings are not about our physical doing but about our spiritual being. It’s about our spiritual orientation. It’s like the difference between don’t kill and don’t be angry. One is a physical behaviour and the other is a soul orientation. Aim higher than just controlling your actions. A heart filled with God’s loving presence doesn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about what its hands or eyes are up to.
Now let me point out a big challenge for us. It’s not just we who’ve been confused by the tone of this kind of scripture passage.
Society in general has come to think that what I’ve called a misreading or a misinterpretation is what Christianity is all about – that we’re super concerned with morality and policing people’s actions. So when they see Christians stumble – as we all inevitably do – they call us hypocrites. If all we offer is morality policing then we deserve to be mocked for it when we fail.
But I say…we offer so much more than that. Jesus offers a higher standard to aim at. And instead of worrying about the do’s and don’ts of morality we aim for the kingdom and find our behaviours pretty much take care of themselves.
And if we don’t strive to follow a higher standard – if a Christian person behaves pretty much the same as everyone else – then why would anyone bother following Jesus? If they can’t tell we’re Jesus people by just watching us we’re probably not aiming high enough.
But if we aim higher – if we strive for spiritual awesomeness – then we will live different. We’ll shine. We’ll go above and beyond. We’ll be the ones who admit when we’ve got caught speeding. Who give back the extra change we got at the store. Who take responsibility for a mistake when it could have gone unnoticed. Who go the whole distance when others take shortcuts. Who stay behind and clean up when others head for the door.
But more than just those good behaviours we will be the ones who endeavour to live without anger, who honour our debts, who strive to be honourable in our relationships – because just controlling our actions doesn’t go nearly far enough.
We will be the ones who aim for the kingdom of heaven – not as a reward for a life of good behaviour, but as a way of being right here and right now that we inhabit through our inner spiritual orientation that celebrates surrender to God and shining for the sake of others.
So there. I just preached on murder, anger, indebtedness, adultery, lust, sin, and divorce.
Except I didn’t.
Here’s how I’d sum up Jesus’ teaching today:
You have heard it said that religion is about being good.
But I say transcend! Don’t just be good – be God’s!