Text: Matthew 5:21-37
When I was in college, I made a discovery about the Bible that I thought was going to be revolutionary. I thought this thing that I had stumbled upon was going to change the way people read their Bibles and thought about Jesus and generally just blow people’s minds. I was ready to accept my honorary PhD in Biblical Studies for my contribution to the field and sit among teachers like the young Jesus fielding questions.
Ok, so maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole, but I did come across something that, at the time, made me think differently about the way I read the Bible.
Before I can fill you in on this life-changing discovery, we need to back up a little bit.
Last week we started this new series that will run through February up to the beginning of Lent: We are Sermon on the Mount People. The Sermon on the Mount, three solid chapters of Matthew’s gospel containing the longest continuous teaching by Jesus in the New Testament. As Joel said last week, these three chapters make up a sort of Christianity- or Discipleship-101 course that covers a lot of ground for those who want to understand what this whole “following Jesus” thing is all about.
And we are Sermon on the Mount people. Or at least we aspire to be.
And still, before we can get to my amazing discovery, we need to back up to just a few verses before the passage that was read this morning. Even though Joel covered them last week, those few preceding verses form an important bridge into the section for today.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
And this is where my great discovery comes in. You see, I happened to be reading the letter to the Ephesians, as any good college student does, when I stumbled upon Ephesians 2:15 where the author writes, (and I quote:) “He [Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.”
So which is it, Bible? Did Jesus abolish the law or not? You can’t abolish your law and eat it too. I’m sure that if any of you out there are wearing pearls you are clutching them in shock right now. I too was once tested by this grave inconsistency, but fear not for God has made a way.
So first of all, I don’t think many of you are actually that shocked by inconsistencies in scripture. We know the Bible is full of texts written by different authors at different times for different purposes and different audiences. Secondly, there actually is a pretty decent explanation for this “shocking” inconsistency.
It turns out this ‘great discovery’ I made all those years ago when I was so young and so beautifully naive is more of a translation inconsistency than anything else because there are actually two different words that both get translated as “abolish” in some versions of scripture. So, to ease your mind: Jesus did not come to kataluo the law but he did, at least according to one New Testament author, come to katargeo the law.
And we could get into a long word study on the nuances of these two words, but that would likely be missing the point. Suffice to say, Jesus did not come to destroy, obliterate, or abolish the law in the sense that it is thrown out the window, but according to some he did come to render idle, deprive of force, or abolish the law in the sense that it is set aside.
Actually, maybe that just muddies the waters even more.
But it is so important to spend some time talking about and contemplating these few verses before we get to the section for today because we must use them to orient ourselves to the context of Jesus’ relationship to his Jewish identity, his relation to the law and the prophets, his relation to the tradition out of which he was formed and into which he lived and taught. Without this, it is too easy to slip into an understanding that when Jesus says “You have heard it said...but I say to you” that he is going rogue, that he is doing a completely new thing that is over and against what came before it.
We have to read this next section with these words of Jesus firmly in our minds: I came not to abolish but to fulfill. Even if we are still figuring out the subtle shades of meaning around what it means to abolish or even to fulfill, we must hold these sections together or risk falling into a kind of Christian triumphalism that has become all too common.
Instead, I propose that what Jesus is inviting his listeners into in this section (and perhaps in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole) is a kind of embodied, incarnate, living tradition that is not about simply doing the right things. I am borrowing the idea of a “living tradition” from the theologian Douglas Ottati who wrote, “To stand in a living tradition is to participate in a community that is consciously informed by its common memory, actively engaged in the realities of the present, vitally concerned about its future direction, and genuinely responsive to personally creative acts of appropriation.” Christianity, being Sermon on the Mount people, is a living tradition that offers us dynamic and incarnated resources for drawing us deeper into the life God continues to create with and through us. In fact, any religious tradition, when it is at its best, is this kind of living tradition that honors the wisdom of the past while creatively appropriating it for the present in order to propel us toward a vision for the future.
Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill, to put flesh on, and to make alive.
As the fulfillment of the law, we need to realize that Jesus is not simply offering us new laws when he says “You have heard it said...but I say to you.” These are not the 10 Commandments 2.0 (“Now even harder to follow!”).
These sayings are often referred to as the “antitheses,” as if the words of the tradition quoted by Jesus are the thesis and Jesus is positing a whole new anti-thesis. But that is perhaps an unhelpful way of thinking about what Jesus is doing here. In fact, of the six so-called “antitheses,” only one of them comes close to being an actual reversal (and Joel will get to that one next week). All of them read today are better understood not as a reversals of traditional teaching but as expansions, developments, or perhaps unfoldings of the tradition Jesus came to fulfill.
These sayings are tradition come alive in a dynamic way. They are tradition that refuses to be boiled down to a checklist, that refuses to buy into the notion that the religious elite have the market cornered on righteousness.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
But let us be clear, that this temptation to treat religious tradition as a checklist for righteousness is not about pitting Christianity against Judaism. Jesus was speaking into and out of his Jewish identity. The Pharisees and Scribes represent a specific, caricatured articulation of that tradition, but in no way do they represent it as a whole.
In the same way, if you are like me, you so desperately just want to be told what to do. We want the easy answers. We want a to-do (or a not-to-do) list that will ensure we are doing the right things, that we are in God’s favor. Enough of this salt and light stuff, Jesus! Get to the part where you tell us exactly what you would do, otherwise these WWJD bracelets aren’t going to be very helpful. Give us the 5 point sermon with the fill-in-the-blank handout that outlines exactly what we should be doing.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
Ok...so don’t be angry. Got it. I guess we can add that one to the list. The crowd scribbles it into their sermon outline, though they’re not quite sure how that will work… But Jesus goes on:
And anyone who insults a brother or sister is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Seems a little harsh, but I guess we’ll add those to the list too. No insults and no “you fool.”
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Somebody in the back raises their hand: "Ok, Jesus, but you see that’s kind of a long trip to make already, and if we have to go all the way back...Maybe we could just..."
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
At this point someone in the crowd leans over to her neighbor and whispers, “Hey did you catch what we’re supposed to put in that third blank on the handout? And how did we get here from ‘Don’t murder’?”
For those of us who so desperately want a checklist kind of religion, maybe we end up treating “Do not murder” like when we add “make a to-do list” to the end of our to-do list just so we can mark something off right away. Maybe we don’t take seriously the fact that a lot of harm can be done without ever needing to end a life. Maybe we don’t take seriously enough the way our words can “slay” another. Maybe we don’t take seriously enough the fact that the word “sarcasm” comes from root words that literally mean to tear open flesh.
When Jesus talks about being in danger of the fire of hell, he uses the word Gehenna. This was an area just outside the southwest gate of Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom. This place that so often gets translated as “hell” was historically associated with the site of child sacrifice, and there are some writings that say in Jesus’ day it had become a landfill for the city’s garbage, which as Jesus alludes, might have meant smoldering fires.
Maybe we don’t take seriously enough the way our relationships can feel like a smoldering dumpster fire, can feel like hell even though we have never physically harmed the other person.
We must take Jesus’ words seriously, but we also must resist turning them into another line on our check-lists that makes us think that as long as we never insult anyone or say “you fool” that we will be good to go. If we fall into this trap, we either end up feeling self-righteous or guilty.
And because I know we have some smart kids out there who will probably be quick to point out that Jesus sure seemed to get angry sometimes, and some even smarter kids who might point out the place later in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus calls the Pharisees "blind fools," I think we can all agree that life is a little messier than our check-lists can contain.
If any of you came this morning hoping to hear a 5 point sermon on how to not be angry, or not lust, or how to treat your spouse, or swear oaths, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I really wish I could give you that, because the world sure could use less anger right now. But even if I came up with the best 5 points for any one of these topics, they’d still fall short. They’d still be incomplete. They’d still be prone to loopholes and fine print. We’d still have to work together at figuring things out.
Everything Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount is about relationships, and relationships are always messy. How we love God and love one another cannot come prepackaged in a neat little list. Instead, they came down as a person who asks us to follow him, to roll up our sleeves and get a little dirty as we figure out together what it means to love God and love one another.
While I can’t offer you the perfect 5 tips for not being angry, what I do hope to offer you this morning, is an invitation to this living tradition; an invitation to be a part of this community that draws on the wisdom of the past in creative and dynamic ways to address the problems of today and pull us limping and blessed toward a more loving and just future. We might not always have the answers, and some of our answers might change, expand, and unfold along the way, but the Good News is that God will be with us through it all.
And so my wish for us, my friends, is:
- That this living tradition we call Christianity would never stop expanding and unfolding before us as we dive deeper into it
- That we would support one another as we continue, moment by moment, to figure out what it means to place just and loving relationships above all else
- And finally, that we would never stop doing all we can to live up to our calling to be Sermon on the Mount people.