Matthew 5: 21-48
Our Scripture passage today
is basically a list—
a list of “you-have-heard-it-saids”
So if you’re keeping track, through our worship series,
Matthew has Jesus move into the Sermon on the Mount,
through initial blessings (the beatitudes),
through metaphors that are affirmations
(all y’all are salt of the earth and light of the world),
a warning that’s also affirmation (don’t forget who you are),
and now this list.
And in fact, I expanded what the lectionary offers
as the Scripture for today to keep the list together—
to include the whole list.
The lectionary divides the list in two.
And there are certainly times
it might be helpful or beneficial
to take the time to carefully consider
each item on the “you-have-heards” list—
to locate them all in the Torah,
to ask what they meant in that context.
But not today.
Today, we note the cohesiveness of the entire section—
how tightly everything is woven together,
each item introduced with its own “you-have-heard-it-said,”
followed by its own “but-I-say-to-you.”
And each “you-have-heard-it-said”
was a nice way of reminding people of the Torah—
of saying, “you know the law—the word of God, right?
You’ve heard the teachings of the religious leaders—
the priests and levites and rabbis,
the wise and the elders, right?
You know your heritage.
You know from whence you come.
You know who you are.”
You’ve heard it said.
This is ground of being type stuff, right?
More than—so much more than a list of rules.
This is about the identity of the people of God.
This is you know who you are—and this I know
because the Bible tells me so.
You’ve heard it said.
But in each case,
the authority of “you have heard it said”—
the authority of tradition—
the authority of Scripture—
of the word of God—
indeed the very authority of God
in shaping identity—who we are—who we are called to be
is counter balanced (what?!)
counterbalanced (it is, isn’t it?) by “but I say to you.”
What a claim to authority that constitutes!
In effect challenging the authority and authenticity of scripture—
the reality and reliability—
the reason for and the resonance of the sacred texts.
You’ve heard it said, you know, by God—
you’ve been taught—you’ve been raised to believe,
this is what God wants—
this is what God commands—
this is what God expects,
but listen to what I have to say!
Now don’t forget, in our focus on our text today,
that it was just last week,
and in the scripture directly preceding our list,
that we heard Jesus say, “Do not think
that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets
[that is, what you have heard said];
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
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 [that is, what you have heard said]
until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
You see he isn’t challenging the authority of Scripture at all,
but a particular interpretation of Scripture—
too limited in its literalness not to be challenged.
You have heard it said,
and you’ve heard me say
I come not to abolish it (what you’ve heard said),
but to fulfill it.
But I nonetheless say to you,
have you ever stopped to think about what you’ve heard said—
to wonder why it was said—
why it’s important to follow these laws?
Because if you have—
if you’ve stopped to think about what you’ve heard said,
then you might have thought about how,
within the will of God,
it’s not just about not killing someone,
but also about not allowing your anger to objectify someone—
to dismiss them.
You know how angry you get at someone—
someone on the road—
someone you don’t know—
some talking head speaking nonsense—
some politician—some preacher ….
And they don’t matter, do they? to you—at all.
They just become a convenient expression and affirmation
of your thoughts that are different from theirs—
your priorities and commitments, different from theirs.
And so it’s not just what Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Fred Phelps
think about—well, pretty much anything,
it’s also what I think about Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter and Fred Phelps.
And it’s not just that I’m right about what fools they are … (!) …,
but, you see, also what it does to me to utterly dismiss them as fools.
And if you’ve stopped to think about what you’ve heard said,
you know that adultery’s not just about the act of having sex
with someone outside your marriage or theirs.
It’s not just about betraying a spouse and a family,
your own vows of commitment.
Nor is it just about objectifying someone—
about thinking a relationship can be less than all of you or all of them.
It’s not just that there is no simple intimacy—no easy intimacy.
It’s not just about reading or watching pornography
(you know, one of the things I hated about the TV show Friends
was how casually it treated pornography—
as if it was just one more leisure activity—
just one more choice to make in the privacy of time,
as if it doesn’t demean both those viewed and those viewing—
as if it doesn’t act on the disengaged to the detriment of real relationships),
but it’s not just about reading or watching pornography,
nor is it just about participating (as we all do) in a pornographic culture
that knows sex sells, and is all about the selling.
It’s also about the utterly natural reaction to the attractive other,
that, too much indulged, threatens healthy relationship.
And then also about, as with anger,
what objectifying someone else does to you.
And then, having done to you,
to those with whom you’re in relationship.
So it’s not about the ridicule heaped on anyone
who admits to lusting,
but about the radical call to subject even very natural desire
to the discipline of priorities and commitments.
You’ve heard, most of you, probably,
what was originally a marketing slogan:
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?”
Again, it’s that sense—
that wish, maybe,
that we are somehow divisible into our experiences—
that they all don’t go into making us who and as we are.
Or we think we’re divisible into who knows what about us.
And what you don’t know won’t hurt you, right?
But it still hurts me.
As we’re trying to tear apart what is not divisible.
And tearing our soul in the process.
We think it’s about what others know of what we do and say and think,
but it’s always the whole of who we are
that goes into shaping who we are.
So Jesus is saying here,
“It’s all on the table—all of who you are—all the time—
all of what you do.”
And it’s not about coming down on people in judgment.
Remember y’all are all salt, light, blessed.
This is about the care of the soul of the beloved.
Anyone struck by something—something grammatical?
Well, it is hard to notice in English translation!
But you remember how we’ve noted
all these second person plural pronouns?
Blessed are y’all.
Y’all are salt of the earth and light of the world.
And now we’re into what sounds so very personal and private.
And we have, in fact, now, all of a sudden,
hit second person singular pronouns!
And yet within a continued emphasis on relationship—
focusing on the individual, yes,
but in the realization—the affirmation
that who you are, all the time, affects others.
if you’ve stopped to think about what you’ve heard,
then you’ve thought about how even if striving to be fair within a divorce,
what it has to do to you to give up on a dream—
on hopes and plans and vows—
what it does to your children—and your extended families—
when those with whom you have made home
now live separately or split time between homes—
what it does to turn love into an argument about who gets what—
what it does to turn trust into suspicion—
about how it’s virtually impossible to emerge from a divorce
without scars on your soul.
If you’ve stopped to think about what you’ve heard,
then you know the power of language—
the creative power of what you say.
And how often do we cheapen what we say
by simply saying what others want to hear?
How often do we allow the particular circumstances
of a given context to dictate the flow of conversation
rather than our beliefs and convictions?
And we’re not really trusting others with ourselves, are we?
Not respecting them enough to reveal ourselves, truly.
And what could be so very good—
what could be blessed as a beginning full of good potential … isn’t.
And even if you haven’t stopped to think about what you’ve heard,
you know indulging in retaliation feels so good.
And that it can feel fair makes it even better, right?
“I didn’t start it!”
And then, all of sudden, even escalation can feel right—
not to mention good!
And it’s politics and it’s foreign policy
and it’s relational reality.
And then it’s “I’m waiting for you to take initiative,
so I can feel justified in responding—absolved from responsibility.
And we’ve had those conversations.
We’ve had them here in worship.
We’ve had them in Sunday School and on Wednesday nights—
about how admirable Jesus’ teachings are—
how important—how transformationally powerful,
and how we should strive to live them out—except—
except, perhaps in those extraordinary circumstances
when the reality of —of what?—the reality of reality
is just too real—too imposing—too other than our faith.
We can’t confront evil with love, we say, for example.
So with what do we confront evil?
And how is the reality of reality ever going to not be different from our faith
if there are not those who enter the reality of reality,
in the fullness of its evil,
committed to another way—
committed to not being shaped by the circumstance—
to responding to the circumstance in kind,
but instead with potentially transformative grace?
And you probably know that an enemy—
a convenient other—objectified—
makes for such a good scapegoat.
To divert attention. To manipulate emotions.
To make a profit.
Because who cares about us—about what we do—about how we are,
if we can make it all about them
and not give a damn about them?
And how does that not go into the creation of a damned reality—
the truth of hell?
Most Bibles do us a great disservice.
Look at this section of the Sermon on the Mount in your Bible,
and you have subtexts, right?:
“love for enemies.”
And it’s not that such headlines are just misleading …
well, maybe just misleading—
because it’s not that they’re completely wrong,
but they do give the idea that Jesus is concerned about these issues,
and, again, it’s not that they’re unimportant issues—
that Jesus doesn’t care about them at all,
but it’s that he’s so clearly more focused on people
who face these issues
than he is on the issues in and of themselves.
We get that backwards so often, don’t we?
In our politics, our churches and our personal lives.
So is a picture emerging?
Anything that destroys relationships instead of building them up—
anything that allows—condones—
the objectification of another—
the rejection—dismissal of another ….
sobering to consider our culture in that light, isn’t it?
Sobering to consider ourselves in that light.
So, to be specific, I don’t think Jesus has any expectation
that people wouldn’t get mad at each other.
His concern is that we always be aware of that—
not letting it simmer below the surface
not allowing our anger to dismiss another human being.
Think of who you despise most.
I confessed to three of my challenges!
Think of who you despise most,
but don’t allow yourself to dismiss them
Jesus was under no illusion
that people wouldn’t harbor lust in their hearts.
Again, it’s not so much about lusting
as it is about how you deal with lust—
whether you allow it to overwhelm you—
whether you allow others to consistently be objectified—
even in your fantasies—
allowing them to be reduced to one dimension—
allowing the fullness of who they are to diminished to just all about you.
Jesus was not naive enough to think that marriages wouldn’t end,
but hopeful enough to think that with greater intention,
they might not be ended lightly,
and that in the process, no one would be dismissed—
and that scars on souls would matter more to people.
How well Jesus knew that people’s words
would always run away with them.
“Though all become deserters because of you,
I will never desert you” (Matthew 26:33).
“Even though I must die with you,
I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:35).
And the impulse to retaliate?
In the Garden of Gethsemane, he will admonish one of his own
for striking with the sword in the garden (Matthew 26:51-54).
How much had that disciple indulged the fantasy
of saving Jesus with violence?—
which is kind of like the lusting, don’t you know?
It’s in Luke’s gospel that Jesus says,
“Forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34),
but that’s a perspective claimed here.
And how even when Jesus knew so well that a scapegoat
is such a convenient thing to have.
It’s John’s gospel that has the high priest explicitly say,
“You do not understand that it is better for you
to have one man die for the people
than to have the whole nation destroyed”
(John 11:5; 18:14),
but that’s a perspective rejected here.
So I mentioned at the outset,
that our text is tied together
through the repetition of the phrases, “you-have-heard-it-said”
and their subsequent, “but-I-say-to-yous.”
I may not have mentioned
that it actually happens six times!
It’s incomplete, in other words,
This is not a complete—
not an exhaustive list of what to do and what not to do.
It’s a blueprint for how to think holistically—
how to process life in a healthy way.
You see, our text concludes with that pesky
annoying exhortation: Be perfect, even as God is—”
which may actually have less to do with never making mistakes
and more to do with always continuing
the process that is incomplete here.
You will always have heard it said,
but don’t ever leave it at that.
Think about what you’ve heard.
Wonder about it.
Worry at it.
And always apply your best thinking and praying
to the whole of life—
to what is not listed
and to what is always more than can be just listed.
And maybe those “but-I-say-to-yous”—
are less Jesus’ audacious claims to authority,
as Jesus perhaps asking us to claim our own authority?!
Asking us—commissioning us—expecting us
to take what have we have heard,
and taken for granted,
that indicates a far deeper truth.
Don’t stop at the literal!
My friends, you have the authority
to question scripture—
not in disdain or rejection,
but ever seeking the presence of who God is—
always more than can be contained
even in sacred text.
You’ve heard what’s been taught.
You know your tradition.
Now consider it carefully
in light of the light—
in light of who you know Jesus to be
and God to want.
Jesus is so much less concerned with a list of rules
than he is with people who take seriously
the consequences of their attitudes and actions—
so much less concerned with rules that are broken
than with people who are,
and so, with actions and attitudes that break people—
so much less concerned with a strict obedience to the law
as an informed investment in the intent of the law—
the hope of the law, the life of grace,
the breath of love, the will of God—
which is so not about abolishing what we have heard said,
but fulfilling it, in making it more applicable, not more pliable.
So what’s this all about?
Not a list of rules
to apply to others,
but a list transparent to who God is—
to who we are called to be—
loving self and others,
right? That’s what it’s truly about.
Who God is—who we are called to be—
not allowing anyone (self or others)
to be treated or considered
as less than the fullness we and they are.
Live life in all ways to honor and facilitate such fullness.
You have heard guidelines, but I say to you,
that’s all they are—
And it’s up to you to follow the implications into your every moment—
your every thought and attitude and action—
your every relationship—
and make love real.
Do you want to change the world?
Can you first more intentionally,
in honesty and vulnerability,
And yes, life is so much more complicated—