Prayer of the Day
Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12) – The fast God chooses is not just ritual humility, but undo injustice and oppression, to share your bread with the hungry, to invite the poor into your home, to clothe the naked and not hide from your neighbor.
Psalm 112:1-9, (10) – It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice… They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16) – When Paul came to the Corinthians, it was not with lofty words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power.
Matthew 5:13-20 – Continuation of the Sermon on the Mount: You are the salt and light of the earth. Let your light shine. I have not come to abolish, but fulfill the law. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Salt, Light, and The Impossibly High Demands of Discipleship
Thank you for reading these weeklies. It was so nice to hear, this week at the Theological Conference, how many of you find these helpful for sparking homiletical thoughts. Preparing these blog posts and podcasts is helpful to me too. They keep me grounded in the Word, and they have provided a foundation for dialog. I gave some consideration to switching to the Narrative Lectionary, but finally decided to stay firmly grounded in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by most of our congregations, and also by most of Christendom in one form or another.
These next few weeks we are in the Sermon on the Mount:
January 29 Matthew 5:1-12 Beatitudes
February 5 Matthew 5:13-21 Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 12 Matthew 5:21-37 #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 19 Matthew 5:38-48 #5-6 of 6 Antitheses
The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great sermons or discourses in Matthew’s Gospel, and it does not disappoint. I like to joke with congregations that if this was Jesus’ first sermon, It was a dynamite first sermon. If they’re still reading your first sermon in church 2000 years from now, you’ve done pretty good.
We began last week with the Beatitudes, which some say is the Preamble to the Sermon on the Mount. Others say it forms the moral foundation for everything that follows, all of Jesus’ teaching:
You who are poor in spirit, morning, humble and starving for justice: God bless you.
You who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted: God bless you.
Now Jesus turns up the heat and turns it on us: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Don’t lose your spice. Don’t hide your light. Shine bright. I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Let your light shine. Let your righteousness exceed that of the legalistic scribes and Pharisees.
Mighty to Save comes to mind as a contemporary option. This Little Light of Mine.
Warning: Following Jesus won’t be easy.
Matthew’s Jesus has just delivered his breathtaking Beatitudes. Blessed are the hurting people God loves and the caring people God sends. And, oh yeah, expect resistance. Blessed are you when you are persecuted.
Blessed are those who persist when others resist. That’ll preach.
I sometimes think of those times that I didn’t speak up, because I was afraid that somebody would not like me. Have the courage of your convictions to speak the truth in love. Then expect pushback.
We are living in a time when people of faith need to speak up more than ever. When you do, people will get mad at you. Expect this. They will say you’re being political. I am mindful of this quote by Dorothy Day:
When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.
When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.
I also remember the history of Lutheran quietism. History judges the response of the Lutheran Churches in Germany as woefully inadequate. This photo tells the story.
Also, Lutherans prior to the Civil War voted to not talk about slavery and abolition, because it might be too church dividing. I believe it is vital to show up to the conversations that matter, regardless of the cost. Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are you for speaking up on behalf of those who are suffering.
Blessed are you when you suffer a few blows for standing up for the vulnerable, being a voice for the voiceless and touching the untouchable. Bless you.
Pastor Tracey Breashears Schultz (Zion Houston) submitted this poem by apartheid activist Alan Paton, saying, “It reminds me of what we mean to say when we preach The Beatitudes.”
o Lord, open my eyes
that I may see the needs of others,
open my ears
that I may hear their cries,
open my heart so
that they need not be without succor.
let me not be afraid to defend the weak
because of the anger of the strong,
nor afraid to defend the poor
because of the anger of the rich.
show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
and use me to bring them to these places.
open my eyes and ears
that I may, this coming day,
be able to do some work of peace for you.
Now that Jesus has lined himself up clearly with the message of the prophets, it’s time for a few illustrations in his sermon. You are the earth’s salt. You are the earth’s light. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. John’s Gospel proclaims that Jesus is the light that enlightens the world. As in the Psalms, the word is a lamp unto our feet and a light for our path. In Luke, Simeon sings that he can now die because he has seen in Jesus the salvation of God, a light to reveal God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Matthew’s Jesus, however, reminds us that we are called to be the light of the world as well.
One doesn’t light a lamp and put it under a bushel. Instead it goes on a lampstand to provide light for the whole house, at least if you live in a society with one-room houses. God is light. Jesus is light. And now, so are you. It gets personal. You are God’s light, shining in the darkness. Light is powerful. It only takes one small candle to dispel the darkness.
Next, Jesus will engage the law. Matthew is divided into five sections like the five books of the Pentateuch. Jesus is being presented as the new Moses.
Now that the Messianic age is here, is the Mosaic covenant and the Mosaic law irrelevant? Are the prophets passé? This is by no means an obvious question for the early church. The Bible was not yet assembled. Christians had decided to do away with circumcision, which the Law said was an “everlasting covenant.” They decided the dietary laws were not relevant to their global movement. As the first drafts of the Bible came together in the ensuing years the question remained: Should the Pentateuch even be included? Marcion (144 A.D.) said no. His bible had no Old Testament, only Luke, plus Paul’s letters. Irenaeus (170 A.D.) said yes, assembling a Bible of 23 books (like ours only without Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John). As we all know, Marcion’s tribe eventually lost and a final canon was settled upon in the fourth century. (In fact the first time we have a Bible list just like ours is Athanasius’ list in 367 A.D.)
But the matter was probably really settled by Matthew’s community (90 A.D?) in this passage. Should the Torah be abolished? By no means! We may not choose the path of Jewish orthodoxy, but these books trace our faith journey, our heritage. And the heart of the law is in tact, despite a reframing of it in Christian thought. Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. As such, Jesus will have to teach extensively on the use of the Law. So the next week and the week after we will get six antitheses: You have heard it said, but I say to you…
Not the tiniest stroke of the pen or diacritical mark need be removed from the Torah. And indeed this is what happened. Modern Biblical scholars have wondered if centuries of manual copying had decayed textual accuracy. Then the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947. They contained manuscripts (copied between 152 B.C. and 68 A.D.) of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. The verdict? Isaiah’s text from Qumran was almost identical to today’s text: to 95%. The differences were mostly letters and word spellings that didn’t change the meaning. Word-for-word. Gives me chills. 2,000 years. Seems… miraculous.
But I digress. Matthew’s Jesus wants the whole Law intact. But don’t preach this text without a quick glance ahead at Matthew 23. Please read Jesus’ scathing critique of legalism in Matthew 23, or hurried sermon preparation could lead to a premature and facile understanding of what Jesus is saying here in Matthew 5. Jesus doesn’t want to do away with the Law, but neither will he be much in favor of a dogged adherence to the Law. He himself will break the Law. Jesus wants us to understand that the Law is about justice and mercy, not tithing herbs or self-righteous one-upmanship. If following the law results in a loss of compassion, then Jesus’ followers have misunderstood or misused the law. Laws were made for us. The Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath. Let’s not make Jesus into a post-Enlightenment fundamentalist, clinging to Victorian ethics in a desperate attempt to hold off the creeping forces of modernity. It’s Jesus in a leisure suit, and it just won’t do. Soon enough he will start revising, or at least reinterpreting the Torah: “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you…”
The aforementioned would not have been the most shocking part of this passage. What is about to come is much more challenging: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)
Okay, this is a hard saying. As Fred Craddock points out, “Those who hear Jesus’ teachings are struck, some quite deeply, by the level of ethical conduct expected of his followers.”
The Pharisees don’t even comb their hair on the Sabbath, because it might be work. In fact, they cover their mirrors because they might see their disheveled hair and be tempted to comb it, which might be work. Really, how do you trump that? This seems to be an unreasonably high level commitment to righteousness.
But it is not the kind of righteousness that Jesus has in mind. Or the prophets for that matter. Micah: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good, what the Lord requires: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. Isaiah: Is this the fast that I choose? Sackcloth and ashes? Are you kidding me? Here’s my fast: Do justice. Feed the hungry. Care for the orphan and widow and alien. Invite the homeless poor to your house. Amos: Take away from me the stink of your incense and the sound of your dreadful praise songs, just let justice roll down like mighty water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Jesus is not so worried about combs and herbs. He’s interested in the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy. Stay tuned.
Next two weeks: The Six Antitheses (You have heard it said, but I say to you…)
How to preach this? More than ever, I hear faithful people struggling with “The Bible says…” What is our relationship to the law? One person quotes, “Obey the governing authorities…” But that was written by Paul, who was in jail, for what? Disobeying the governing authorities. What about immoral or unjust laws? What about Nazi Germany? Concentration camp guards who were just “obeying the governing authorities?” Martin Luther King reminds us that everything Hitler did was legal. He made it so.
What is our relationship to the law, both the laws of the Bible and the laws of the land? Where is our allegiance? What is at the heart of the law? This may be an opportunity to remind people that Jesus addressed this question, in Matthew 22 (verses 34-40):
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“On these two rest all the law and the prophets.”
One might find Luther’s sermon How Christians Should Regard Moses, instructive.
Yes, the Old Testament may say not to eat pork and shellfish, but that’s not really the heart of the law. The heart of the law is love of God and neighbor. Christianity is not following a biblical checklist of dos and don’ts. We don’t worship the law or the Bible. The Bible is a witness to the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
Our preaching might focus on re-instilling in our people’s hearts a sense of the centrality of love of God and neighbor. If the Samaritan follows the letter of the law, but leaves the man in the ditch, something’s wrong. Christianity is being in relationship with a loving God and with our neighbor. On this rest all the Law and the Prophets.