Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder
February 16, 2014 – Epiphany VI
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
From the Fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice, and cleaving to Him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
I think it is safe to assume that none of you came to church today hoping for a good sermon on anger, adultery and divorce; especially since Friday was Valentine’s Day. But our church is committed to a common lectionary and so the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany we get Matthew 5 with its hard words from Jesus on these very topics.
Jesus took six important Old Testament laws and interpreted them for His people in the light of the new life He came to give. He made a fundamental change without altering God’s standards; He dealt with the attitudes and intents of the heart and not simply with the external action. The Pharisees said that righteousness consisted of performing certain actions, but Jesus said it centered on the attitudes of the heart.
Likewise, with sin: The Pharisees had a list of external actions that were sinful, but Jesus explained that sin came from the attitudes of the heart. Anger is murder in the heart; lust is adultery in the heart. The person who says that he “lives by the Sermon on the Mount” may not realize that the Sermon on the Mount is more difficult to keep than the original Ten Commandments!
Anger is a powerful force. Some have said that we are living in the age of anger. We see the power of anger all around us. We see road rage; people swearing; people with no patience.
Now not all anger is bad. Our Lord was often angry at the religious leaders of His time for the way they enslaved people under the burden of rules and requirements. We remember that moment when Jesus was outraged to find merchants selling animals and exchanging money in that part of the Temple that was reserved for non-Jewish people to worship. Jesus fashioned a whip from ropes and drove the money-changers out, a classic example of what we would call righteous indignation.
But that is not the anger our Lord is addressing in today’s Gospel. He is talking about the kind of anger that is ego-driven, the kind of anger that is filled with jealousy and resentment, the kind of anger that wills and often causes pain and suffering for those whose only offense is that they displease us.
Jesus speaks about adultery and divorce this morning. I doubt any of you need those terms defined. There is a lot of it going around America today. In fact, many couples are foregoing the legal contract of marriage because of the possible financial cost if the marriage doesn’t last. I am sure all of us know someone whose marriage ended in divorce, perhaps even you. I myself am a product of a second marriage.
But I would encourage us to think of the many ways, beyond the destruction of a marriage covenant, that moral compromise can cause serious damage. The word adultery means literally to make something impure…to pollute what should be clean. How tempted we are everyday to abuse a variety of trusts we have. All of this Jesus wants us to know, undermines our relationship with others and ultimately our relationship with God.
Relationships…I am convinced that this is what our Gospel lesson is really addressing. We create a precious trust when we enter into a meaningful relationship with another…within our family and circle of friends, at our workplace, and certainly within our congregation.
In many ways this lesson from Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most difficult texts for us to understand. Matthew sticks our nose directly into the Ten Commandments, that ancient collection that most of us would prefer to ignore or, at best, think of as The Ten Suggestions. But our Lord ratchets up the weight of these requirements by insisting that we cannot sidestep them and the ideals they contain. He makes this clear in verses that immediately precede our text (Matthew 5:17-18):
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished.
So begins Jesus’ powerful commentary on what it means to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom. Our Lord speaks about the importance of making peace with those around us and not allowing conflict to define us or to get out of hand. He addresses the danger of unbridled personal hungers that can easily lead us in a direction that is personally harmful and generally destructive to the welfare of those around us. Finally, Jesus identifies the peril of degrading the honor that should be associated with that unique connection of two people that we call marriage.
A sign of the times in which we live is the reality that most people want to be their own priest or minister. We do not want any religious middle man looking over our shoulder. We want to form our own relationship with God, unfiltered by any churchly intermediary. In short, we want to be our own pope or bishop: the final authority on what is right and wrong for us. Most of us are convinced that all we need to do is live by the simple creed: Love Jesus and do whatever you want.
But how can we rationalize such a relaxed approach to ethical decision-making with these hard and clear words from Jesus captured in Matthew’s Gospel? Traditionally, this powerful text has been interpreted in two quite different ways:
One interpretation would claim that Jesus is urging us to take the law far more seriously than we’d ever imagined. In reality, this view would claim that Jesus is establishing a new law that both exceeds and extends the Ten Commandments. This approach takes the ethical demands of Christianity most seriously, and would argue that faith in Jesus is a kind of spiritual steroid that allows us to do what pious Jews in Jesus’ day could not. I don’t favor this interpretation.
The second approach goes in a different direction. This view would claim that Jesus is taking the law to an impossible extreme to show us that we cannot fulfill its demands. Thus, we cannot point to our accomplishments but rather must see that we are wholly dependent on the grace of God. This interpretation can easily encourage us to believe that if we cannot fulfill the law, so why bother trying; it really does not matter what we do. While I think this interpretation is a little closer to the mark, I still find it wanting as well.
So, if neither of these interpretations is totally satisfactory, what do we do with Matthew 5? 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 put God first in our lives. Our Lord spoke more about the Kingdom of God than He did about the laws of God. And the first thing to remember is that when we are taking about God, we are taking about relationships.
I would challenge you to think about the law of God not in terms of doing a certain number of impossible things before breakfast, but in terms of being in the right relationship…with God and with those around us. It is not about your need to do the right thing, color within the lines, keep your nose clean; no, it is about loving your neighbor as yourself, controlling your anger, modifying your drives for personal fulfillment, all to the end that you might be an instrument for deepening and strengthening the community in which you live.
When we properly read the Ten Commandments, I think we will see that their purpose is not to limit our lives but to expand and enrich them. The first Three Commandments address our relationship with God, an essential step toward living the good life. The second section, Commandments Four through Ten, speak to our relationships to other people. Understood this way, the whole law is actually a way to challenge us to honor those that we are in a relationship.
The danger, I believe, is for us to forget about the importance of relationships, striving instead to be spiritual decathlon athletes, competing in endless categories with a determination to excel in our righteous achievements.
But as soon as we do that we fall prey to the second danger. When we live to fulfill the law, we can all too easily wind up being judgmental of others, who may not be able to achieve what we can. Jesus addresses this danger when He says: Judge not, least you be judged.
So let us be of good cheer. The genius of the Sermon on the Mount is not that it places before us the model of the perfect Christian life we ought to live or even the challenge of an unattainable goal. No, the genius of the Sermon on the Mount is that it brings us face to face with Jesus Christ; and realization of how much we need God’s forgiveness and grace. For when we know Jesus, we discover how we should live for God and for others in this world. Show love from your heart!
Let us pray:
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you; Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!