We began our worship series on the Sermon on the Mount hearing the beatitudes—that preamble to a new world, a new way of being in this world, God’s way of being in this world. We began hearing Jesus saying to us: “Here’s what you think is real, here’s the way you think the world works, but I say to you there is an inverted inverting reality more true than all you name true.” That’s the beatitudes. Then Jesus used those metaphors (you are salt, you are light) to say we were created to be transforming, illuminating agents of God in this world, and that whatever has happened—however we’ve done with that, that’s still who we are. “You may not feel like you’re changing the world—may not feel like you can, but I say to you that’s who you are.” It’s an incredibly affirming beginning—inspirational, even.
And now? Now Jesus goes on to identify six particular contexts—six different life experiences sure to have been represented in Jesus’ crowd, sure to have been represented in Matthew’s church, and sure to be represented here today. And I guess we expect him to continue in the same, already twice defined, established way—expecting him to identify situations we know aren’t as they should be and then offer us some alternative. “This is life as you know it—as you expect it to be, but I say to you ….”
Something like: you ever been so mad at someone—so overcome with rage at someone, you actually found yourself imagining things you might do to this person—things to hurt them—humiliate them. You picture yourself confronting them—confounding them. Well, who hasn’t, right? Everyone’s going to identify with that. Okay … okay, and that’s fine. Everyone gets mad. Nothing wrong with that. Normal. But now, have you been that mad and stayed that mad? Have you held onto that kind of anger? Have you nursed such rage? It’s a present participle here (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Christbook: Matthew 1-12: Revised & Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1990) 208). If you are being mad …. that will mess you up.
And if you dismiss someone and write them off … if you make a mockery of their intelligence or their morals, their judgment … if you insult them—disparage them … there’s hellfire a-waitin’. Lynne? You get that? She’s always asking where the hellfire and brimstone are! You call someone a fool … or an ass, a boob, a cretin, a clod, a chump, a dunce, a dolt, a dork, a dope, a doofus, a dullard, dimwit, dingbat, dumbo, dummy, ditz, a lamebrain, peabrain, birdbrain, jughead, a jerk, an ignoramus, an imbecile, an idiot, a simpleton, moron, nitwit, halfwit, an airhead, blockhead, chowderhead, dumbhead, fathead, a nerd, a nincompoop, a numbskull, a flake, a twit, a twerp, a schmuck, a schlemiel, a turkey, a goofball, a klutz, a putz—it really doesn’t matter what you say—when you’re not treating someone with respect—when you’re not honoring someone’s dignity … you smell something burning?
Contrary to what so many have said these past weeks, Jesus says the way you talk about other people matters—matters profoundly. According to the Bible, you know, words create realities. The words you choose—the words you use, they are part of a reality taking shape. So do not—do not use words that diminish someone—that objectify someone.
And before you come to worship, as part of your preparation for worship, it is your responsibility to consider not just the people you’re mad at, but also anyone who might be mad at you! Catch that switch? Whether you’re mad at someone—even if someone’s mad at you, you, as someone listening to Jesus, are the one responsible for making things right. You’re the one responsible for working for reconciliation. Because if you don’t (sniff, sniff) … there’s that smell again!
Such an inversion of experience is what we might expect, but we note—we must note, Jesus does not, in fact, identify particular experience and then suggest an alternative (but I say to you)—an alternative we should choose under the brimstone threat. This is not just your basic healthy psychology: it’s not good to hold onto your anger—to let your emotions control you. It’s not just that unlike the indulgence of our culture which says if you feel it, honor that feeling—go with it—just do it, and get paid for it if you can—“contrary to the pleasure principle,” (Bruner, 223) you need to discipline what you feel—what you want. It’s not that (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
No, Jesus identifies Scripture that addresses particular experience and uses that as the basis for his, “But I say to you.” The starting place (look at the text) is Hebrew scripture—the Torah—Hebrew law—what you were taught in Sunday School—what you’ve read in the Bible. The word of God says this, but I say to you something else. Think real quick about the authority Jesus so audaciously claims here. The prophets all said, “Thus says the Lord.” Jesus says, “But I say to you!”
So while Jesus started this teaching (or Matthew had Jesus start this teaching—this sermon) offering an alternative to the world as it is (the beatitudes, the metaphors), this, in contrast, is an alternative to the word of God … right? What’s up with that? He’s already said he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. So though what we have here is an explicit replacing contrast (you have heard this, but I say that), we have to hear it not in an abolishing way, but in a fulfilling way. Whatever that means! Even so, part of our questioning has to be, if Jesus questions, undermines, rejects, replaces (fulfills?) the word of God, what are we left with? What authority are we left with? I say to you. I say to you. The authority of Christ.
So, it’s not just, you ever found yourself at the mall or at school, at work, on the street and someone walks by—someone attractive to you. And you think, “My!” You know that? You know that. Of course you know that. Come on, if we can’t be honest here, really! Then you think, “Susie”—or I do. You need to think someone else. Unless you’re William Turlington … or Toby Pierson, maybe (William’s wife is Susie, Toby’s Sue). Again. Nothing wrong—absolutely nothing wrong with admiring. Harder when you’re young and single … not so young and single. A preacher visiting Baylor one late spring asked how I, as college minister, handled all the beautiful young coeds in their summer outfits. I said I sang the doxology a lot! Nothing wrong with having your eyes caught—your head turned. But if that glance turns into a stare, and if in that stare, admiration turns into imagining what you might do to that person … no longer a person, really … an object. That will mess you up.
Not easy, what we’re talking about here—not easy to go against what are very basic, powerful urges. But the more you indulge them, the stronger they get. And the stronger they get, the more you look at people and don’t see people—don’t see sisters and brothers—but only that which might gratify you. And the reality you gain—the objective reality you create—is not worth what you lose. (sniff, sniff) Maybe hell is you in a world you’ve totally objectified—a world without relationship—a world that consists entirely of masturbation. Again, this isn’t about admiring someone attractive to you. It’s not the admiring glance of even sexual appreciation. This is about the dismissal of someone’s personhood in turning them into something to gratify you.
There’s some kind of dynamic affirmation going on here having to do with life experience common to people through all time (the people at Sinai, the people on the Mount on which Jesus taught, the people of Matthew’s congregation, you here today), having to do with human experience, having to do as well with the word of God of old, and that word in relation to the teaching of the scribes—how the word of God of old was taught, and now also in relation to Jesus teaching. And maybe, we’re supposed to ask ourselves, we have heard it said, but what did we hear? Did we hear the word of God? Or just the teaching of the institution? Did it seem dry? Irrelevant? Out of touch? Maybe we’re supposed to wonder if the Old Testament originally did what Jesus does more of, and whether we hear the New Testament as the hearers of Jesus heard the Old Testament! Because the living word is always to be relevant—is always seeking blessing—a wholeness within whatever’s broken.
So now when we hear you have heard it said anyone who divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce, it’s not just a repetition of the formula: Jesus saying, “you have heard it said,” and quoting from the Hebrew scriptures and then saying, “but I say to you,” and going on to say something else. It’s also us needing to consider one other thing: the progressive dimension to the old word. In a patriarchal society in which men could divorce women for any or no particular reason, to require the men to give women a certificate was to clear them of the suspicion of adultery—was to give them the opportunity to remarry. It was a progressive word back in Deuteronomy. But Jesus says to divorce a woman (again, something men did) was to cause her to commit adultery, and, unexpectedly, it’s the man who’s responsible for the brokenness, and hell becomes a possible judgement on those who never thought it was.
We started with blessing and inspiration. Now we get a healthy dose of fear. Jesus is covering all the motivational bases, isn’t he?! So interesting how we manage to turn hell into something with which to threaten others, when Jesus extends the threat of hell to us as those listening to Jesus!
And there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re amidst such high expectations within an awareness of the realities of life. Nobody said this would be easy! While there was no Old Testament law against divorce, God does clearly state in Malachi, “I hate divorce (Malachi 2:16)!” Well, who doesn’t? And while this strong, absolute language can be such a hard word—a hurting word—particularly for those already hurting, it also names the hurt, doesn’t it? That this isn’t what was expected—isn’t what was wanted. It is a death. It is a brokenness. And we’re back to initiatives of reconciliation. Back to the idea of fixing what’s broken. Back to the idea of forgiveness and mercy. It is God’s will that the broken be made whole. And it is not here our place to wander off into brokenness that can’t be made whole.
Right now, we’re at you’ve made promises, you need to keep them. Speaking of which, you have heard it said, you shall not swear falsely. And this is not (as much as parents might want it to be!) about vulgar language—profanity—at least not directly. It’s about the fact that you were allowed to swear if you meant it. You have heard it said, don’t swear falsely. So people were swearing on a stack of Bibles—on all that’s holy—on a loved one’s grave—people were swearing to God … as if that makes anyone more believable? But I say to you, don’t swear at all. This is about living into a transparent honesty. If you say something, people should believe you because they trust you, because you’re trustworthy. Not sometime. Not when you use a particular formula. All the time. So to put your hand on a Bible and say I swear to tell the truth so help me God, makes a mockery of this command. We are put into direct opposition to any context that condones or requires an oath. No added words make of a dishonest person an honest one.
You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Again, progressive in its day. Limiting retaliation. Making it proportionate. And then we have those three marvelous examples of if someone strikes your right cheek, turn and offer the other, if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well and if someone forces you to go a mile, go two. And I am absolutely convinced by Walter Wink’s work (that we’ve considered before) that these are so very carefully thought out, creative, transformative, salty, illuminating responses to particular situations (Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” Review and Expositor 89 (1992): 197-214). You remember thinking about them before? We’ll revisit just one. Roman soldiers could require Jews to carry their packs one mile. But only one mile. So if someone reaches the one mile marker and keeps going, they put the soldier in the position of having to ask for their pack back! Turning things around. How ironic that these verses are accused of encouraging passivism—doing nothing in the face of oppression. Just suffering. Passivism—from the late middle English “suffered.” As opposed to pacifism—from the French “to pacify.” Jesus is absolutely calling for resistance, but only of a particular kind—a surprising resistance of creative transformation.
We spend more money on war than most other countries combined (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures based on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) because, bottom line—or if not bottom line, close to bottom line, we believe might makes right—which is going to cause a massive moral problem if anyone ever becomes mightier than we. And so we keep on spending obscenely. And, to be fair, I’m not sure we can expect of governments what Jesus expects of his followers. But the assumptions and choices of country create a reality in which we as citizens live and in which we take part, and if it’s a reality that stands in contrast to who we are called to be, that’s problematic—and needs to be named as such.
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Don’t ignore anyone. Don’t not listen to them. Don’t pretend they’re not there. Don’t objectify them. Honor them as created in the image of God. Acknowledge everyone as your brother or your sister.
You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Now, the Old Testament never actually says that, but it does assume that. And how easy is that? And what does that do to your enemy? It objectifies them, doesn’t it? So we can do what we want to them. Terrorists—if they threaten our lives, we can take theirs (a life for a life). Never mind resist evil with something other than more evil. Never mind don’t nurse a grudge. Never mind blessed are the merciful—blessed are the peacemakers. Love your neighbor, hate your enemy. Easy.
But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. You do that? And I don’t think it means that some of us should be praying for Nancy Pelosi and others of us for John Boehner, though I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad idea. No. How many of us have included Osama bin Laden in our prayers? Or Jared Loughner (as someone who doesn’t represent a direct threat to us, my guess is more of us may have actually prayed for him than for bin Laden). How do you think those in Jesus’ day would have heard Jesus here? They would have been thinking about the Romans, wouldn’t they? As would have Matthew’s congregation. Those who threatened their lives—threatened their safety. The early church lived with the threat of execution. Pray for them? How dare we compromise the radical command? How dare we not pray for a greater reconciliation than most of us even imagine—for all the broken to be made whole and complete?
For we are to be “complete” or “whole” as God is (that’s a better translation than “be perfect”) and we are to work toward such completeness and wholeness as what’s ultimately real. We aim for the wholeness and completeness of “I am that I am.” It’s always intrigued me that the name that identifies God also identifies us! God is (always) who God is. We, on the other hand, are all too often who we’re with. I am who I’m with. I am what I feel. I am how I feel. I am what I want. Be who you are: salt, light, honest, committed, complete and committed to working toward completeness. It’s hard. “Barley Blair … in John LeCarre’s The Russia House, is on to something when he says, ‘Today one must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.’” (quoted in Bruner, 206) It’s hard. These are high expectations. And if we fail? When we fail? Well, then we’re back to the beginning, aren’t we? Reminded that we’re blessed. Reminded that we’re still salt—still light.
It’s the authority of Jesus that allows for this formula, this pattern we’ve traced today: you have heard it said, but I say to you. But with Jesus having said it, do we now treat his own words as authoritative? As the commandments to now be set in stone? Or do we suggest, audaciously, that Jesus set the precedent for applying the intent of God’s word then, now and forevermore to life situations, such that our responsibility is to figure out what God’s living presence means for us today. And it does mean the same things. The old configuration is never abolished. We’re not to murder, not to commit adultery. And we’re to honor Jesus’ new teachings as well. We’re not to dismiss anyone’s personhood—not to objectify. But perhaps we’re also not supposed to stop with these six examples. There are, after all, only six(!) to complete this, we need to keep going—into our own experience.
The heart of the law—the heart of the word of God—is the desire for wholeness—for completeness. The intent, if you will, of God’ s word, is the redemption of creation. And our text is one of conversation between what’s all too real for us in our day-to-day experience, the word of God as it has been written down and proclaimed and taught through history, and the crystal clear affirmation, that it is a living word that speaks to you today. You may have heard this and thought it irrelevant, you may have heard this and thought it unrealistic and inapplicable, you may have heard this and thought it dull and boring, you may have heard this and thought why should I listen to this, none of this really matters, but I say to you, the word of God is at the heart of who you are—the reality in which and into which you live. You need to know this. You need to know this. I say to you.