"In his heart"-A Sermon for Epiphany 6, Matthew 5:21-37
So…I promise to make my introduction less repetitive today…but I do want to mention that I am in the midst of a four-week exploration of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I want to continue to highlight the importance of this sermon or extending teaching of Jesus found toward the beginning of Matthew’s gospel…for it contains both the heart of Jesus’ moral and ethical teaching…and describes the life that Jesus actually lived, as I have been describing it, a wholehearted, love suffused, other oriented, death-defying, and sin-defeating life. Further, as contemporary followers of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount also offers to each of us the description of a love life we are called to inhabit and incarnate in the very lives we live. Thus, we do well to spend much time with it and in it…allowing it to shape our own patterns of living, the ways we love one another and the choices we make on a daily basis. Though each sermon of mine is intended to stand on its own…if you would like to go back and read the sermons from the past two weeks, they are on the blog, as is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in its entirety for your own study and consideration.
So in today’s passage, which is just 17 short verses, Jesus only addresses the topics of murder, slander, reconciliation, adultery, lust, divorce, and swearing…piece of cake…just a few small concerns that might impact life in our world. I kid of course…these are huge topics of grand concern in our culture and in our own lives. At first blush, I may want to believe these are just concerns for “other” people…surely they do not impact me…personally. But, if I am honest and will just step back far enough to look at my own extended family’s history…and that of my closest friends, all of these have touched me in some way…even if I am separated by small degrees of chance and circumstance. Murder and violence is a constant reality and threat in our communities most especially to those who are underserved and marginalized, broken relationships abound, adultery, lust and divorce have all caused deep wounds in the lives of many of those I love, and swearing, which is about something other than the occasional expletive, underscores our often own lack of authenticity and can cause deep damage to trust…which is the fundamental building block of human relationships and their flourishing. So…we do well to think about all that Jesus sets before us today…how we both participate in each, even if often silently or at a distance, and how each impacts the lives we and others live. For if we hope, just hope, to participate in the forging of the kingdom of Heaven on earth…the sort of world Jesus imaginatively describes in this Sermon on the Mount…we must take a hard look at the ways we relate to others…and, more specifically, the ways violence and lust and infidelity and inauthenticity…seek to take hold of us and become intertwined in our own choices and habits…for they do seek to raise their unruly heads in the midst of the lives we lead…and they are death-dealing and deeply hurtful to ourselves and others…they are antithetical to the lives for which we are made as creatures crafted in the very image of God…of love itself.
Now, I have to admit here that in the 15 minutes or so that I try to keep my sermons to that I will not have enough time to give each topic its proper consideration…but perhaps I can just get us started. So let me begin with how Jesus introduces each topic. He uses what scholars call an antitheses. These antitheses are two propositions held up in contrast to one another. Specifically, Jesus begins each of his antitheses by saying something like, “You have heard that it was said...dot, dot, dot…But I say to you…dot, dot, dot.” For example, his first antitheses concerning murder reads, ““You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Now the first proposition…the you have heard that it was said part…is a reference to the Torah and the Prophets whose writings make up much of the Hebrew Scriptures…what we call the Old Testament. Now reaching back to last week’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to note that Jesus is not simply reversing or discarding the prophetic teaching and laws found in the Old Testament. In fact, he says that not a single letter…not even part of a single letter of the law and prophets…like the dot above the line in a lower case I, will ever be discarded, nor should they ever be discarded, for as long as humans live and breathe on this planet. Please understand that the prophetic teachings of the Old Testament and the many laws found in Torah are a lasting gift of love from God, not only for the Jewish people…but for all people…in every place and every generation. As Christians, we consider the whole of the bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to be authoritative, revelatory and God-breathed. In other words, instructive for understanding our relationship with God and with one another and instructive for prayerfully discerning the life that God is calling each of us to lead. The prophetic teachings and the divinely given laws found in Torah, which make up the first five books of the bible, are, again, a lasting gift of love…they provide order for a shared life in human community that seeks to affirm everyone, keep everyone safe, to rightly order our relationships one to another such that we all may flourish…all love one another well.
Now I will admit that I am more of a rule follower than a rebel, but I think we can all agree that order pushes back against chaos, that limits are good such that they require the gift of sharing and protect the lively hood of those on the margins, that boundaries are good for they require us to respect the autonomy and blessedness of the other. As a simple example, life would be much less wonderful if all traffic laws, stop lights, stop signs, and speed limits went away overnight…chaos would indeed ensue, headaches abound, and probably some lives would be literally lost. There are no traffic laws in Torah…but I hope you get my point. Said as simply as I can, in a world full of broken people who are so often self-oriented, we call that sin in the church, we benefit, profoundly benefit, from an ordered life…which again is profoundly manifest in the prophetic teachings and laws of Torah found in the Old Testament. And Jesus knows this better than anyone. Thus, he underscores that he did not come to abolish the law…but instead…he says that he came to fulfill it. And by fulfill it…he did not mean to end it or reverse it or somehow make it no longer necessary…but instead through the very life he lived and in the very ideas he taught…Jesus intended to show us the fullness of God’s intent in the very laws provided. So Jesus is saying in effect…you have heard that it was said do not commit murder…indeed…murder is a grave sin…the ultimate act of dehumanization…it tramples underfoot that which God made and called good…the destruction of the very image of God…but if we really want to fulfill God’s intention in his prohibition of murder…we must go way beyond the act itself…or perhaps said better…we must go way deeper than the act itself and consider the heart level motivations that live underneath all acts of violence…we must consider what drives anger and hate in the human heart, and, further, we must make reconciliation a priority between those who are in deep disagreement, for, if we don’t: disagreement leads to resentment and anger…and anger leads to slander and insults…and slander and insults lead to distance and separation…and separation over time becomes enmity…and enmity becomes hate…and hate dehumanizes the other into something that doesn’t deserve our love, defense, care and protection…it makes the other more animal than human…and that sadly leads, or often leads, to violence, often, even more sadly, justified violence, even murder. So…do not murder…indeed…but Jesus came to fulfill the law…and as his followers we are to do the same…and the fulfillment of the law begins way, way, way before the act itself. For murder begins, at least it often begins, at the very point when humans, full of anger…full of resentment, separate themselves one from another, white from black, straight from gay, Christian from Muslim, west from east, nation from nation. If we are really to fulfill the Godly admonition against murder…we have to begin at a heart level…we must personally, openly and directly seek reconciliation, before our anger and woundedness and disagreements and separation…before our hearts…turn toward violence.
And I believe we can apply this same way of thinking to each of the biblical teachings and laws that Jesus addresses…that he seeks to fulfill…to show us what fulfillment really looks like. For underneath our infidelities, our broken promises and shattered covenants, our moments of inauthenticity and manipulation…lies heart level work where the fulfillment of each law actually finds its genesis…right here…in our hearts. For as Jesus says, it is much, much better to cut out, tear out, surgically remove, or at the very least address the heart level issues that motivate the need for any law, religious or otherwise, rather than experiencing the hell that surely follows after the wounds are inflicted…the violence is done, the infidelity happens, the promise is broken. For fulfilling the law, really fulfilling it, is always a matter of the heart.
And I believe with all my heart, as people created in God’s own image, the very image of love, that we have within ourselves, spurred on by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and supported by one another, we have all the power and resources we need to have healthy hearts, that indeed, we have the capacity to fulfill, not just follow, but to fulfill at a heart level the difficult teaching Jesus sets before us today. And I find confirmation of this deeply held belief of mine in the very last topic Jesus considers, which of all things, again, is an admonition against swearing. In effect, Jesus says you don’t need to, nor should you, swear by anything when you make a promise or a covenant…because your integrity…your truth…your authenticity…your beauty…your heart is enough…it is enough…God made you and called you good…you are enough…to live the very life you are called to live…a life that fulfills all the promises you make and all the hopes and aspirations we have for ourselves as followers of Jesus. Saying yes to the life you are called to live and saying yes to respecting the dignity of the other…saying no to self-harm and saying no to the abuse of others…is the very place fulfillment begins. We have everything we need in this very room…we have God’s faithful presence, each other, and most especially our own loving hearts, our own authenticity and integrity…to live…to fulfill…the very life Jesus sets before us. Amen.