Prayer of the Day
O God, strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Sirach 15:15-20 – If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.

Psalm 119:1-8 – Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 – I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

Matthew 5:21-37 – Continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. 1st 4 of The Six Antitheses: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” 1. Anger 2. Adultery 3. Divorce 4. Oaths. You have heard it said “You shall not kill,” but I say to you even if you call someone a fool, you’re liable to hellfire. Be reconciled first, then offer your gift at the altar. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery,” but I say to you, even if you look at someone with lust, you have committed adultery in your heart.

Antitheses (Part 1)

In Deuteronomy the giving of the Law is followed by this ominous warning: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse… Choose life, so that you might live!” As we delve into Jesus reframing of the Torah, it is important for us to remember that the Law was given for our own benefit, that we might have fullness of life. The editor of Deuteronomy, speaking for Moses, speaking for God, wants us to choose life and live. As the Psalmist says, “Happy are those who walk in the way of the Lord.” Paul may be quick to point out that the Law isn’t able to create a righteous life, but he is also fully cognizant that the law was our guardian until Christ came (Romans 3:24).

The 1 Corinthians passage is a good reminder to those who plant congregations, and those who come in after church planters: Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Neither the planter nor the waterer amount to much. It is God who gives the growth. Every farmer knows that God grows the corn. We just plant and water. The planting and watering is necessary. There is a role for us, but we should not overestimate our importance. We should, rather, give thanks to God and recognize God’s work when it grows.

Our gospel text is week three of our four-week walk through Matthew 5, the first part of 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

To remind us of our context: The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great sermons or discourses in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus begins this discourse 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, mourning, humble and starving for justice: God bless you.
You who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted: God bless you.

Blessed are you, those forgotten by the rich and powerful. Blessed are you who have been driven from your homes by poverty and violence. Blessed are you whom no one wants.

This week I penned some beatitudes for those folks:

Blessed are the refugees
Blessed are all 65 million people
Those who are victims of war and poverty
Those who have been evicted
Those who cannot return home
Those who seek a safe place for their children
Those who are feared and despised
Those hated by both sides of the conflict
Those for whom nobody seems to care
You are children of God
And the people of God care about you.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Don’t lose your spice. Don’t hide your light. 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.

Matthew’s Jesus is the new Moses, the new lawgiver. This week and next week we get to hear Jesus’ reinterpretation of the law. Let us call them “antitheses.” “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” This week we get the first four antitheses (anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths). Next week we get the last two (retaliation and enemies).

You have heard it said                                                                 I say to you

  1. You shall not murder, liable to judgement. If you are angry, if you insult, if you call someone a fool…
  2. You shall not commit adultery. If you look at someone with lust, you’ve committed adultery.
  3. You can divorce wife with a certificate of divorce. If you divorce a woman, or remarry you commit adultery.
  4. You shall not swear falsely. Do not swear at all. Let your Yes be Yes, & No be No.
  1. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek.
  2. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Love your enemies and pray for them.

This week we take on the first four of these.

I suppose the challenge of preaching Jesus’ ethical teaching is not preaching a sermon of law, with no gospel. People tend to revert to the law at every opportunity, so it will be the task of the preacher to sandwich these ethical teachings in the context of grace.

God loves you with an everlasting love. All of life is grace. All of life is gift. You did not earn this life or even ask for it. It’s grace from soup to nuts. God clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air and will also take care of you. God is not an angry judge, but a loving parent. Even the hairs on your head are numbered. You are forgiven even before you ask. In Christ the dead are raised and invited to live a resurrection life. What does the resurrection life look like? How might we live into our baptism, into the new creation? These words spell it out.

Jesus’ ethical exhortations are not entrance requirements for heaven, but rather, the joyful response of those who have received grace and forgiveness.

Notice that after every antithesis, Jesus gives an example. This is good preaching. Make it plain how this is lived out.

1. Anger. The 5th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you if you are angry, you’re liable to judgment, insulting you’re liable to the council or name-calling, you’re liable to hellfire.

Wow. So, does Jesus lower the bar or raise the bar? Does Jesus relax the law, or does he raise the bar? Jesus is basically saying that being angry with someone is killing them slowly.

Matthew’s message to the early church is being a follower of Christ does not let one off the hook for moral uprightness. It simply reinterprets what moral uprightness means. You thought washing your hands in the waters of purification was really important, but I say to you, how you treat your neighbor is critical. You thought tithing was a sign of moral superiority, but I say to you get your forgiveness act together first; then go about tithing.

And to give us an example, he says, tend to relationships ahead of worship. Before you go to the altar to make your tithe and show everyone how truly religious you are, first tend to the most basic relationships around you. Because if you don’t love your neighbor all that religious folderol won’t matter hill of beans.

Matthew’s community may be asking an important question: 

As long as I do not murder, is it okay if I still hate?

Let’s hope the answer to this question is obvious. We know the errors of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Luther draws upon the Sermon on the Mount when he interprets the law, for example, in his explanation of the fifth commandment:

The Fifth Commandment
You shall not murder. 

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

Luther makes it clear that a Christian understanding of the fifth commandment involves more than simply refraining from murdering your neighbor. It means not harming your neighbor in any way. It means helping and supporting your neighbor.

Liable to hellfire: I’ve discovered that when people hear “hellfire,” they take it quite literally. Jesus may have meant it literally, but I suspect not. Here’s why. The phrase reads: τὴν γέενναν τοu πυρός, means “the Genhenna of fire.” “Gehenna of fire” refers to the valley of Hinnom, which was the dump south of Jerusalem where garbage was burned. We don’t want to negate the image of judgment here. Jesus certainly is alluding to an eschatological judgment of some kind. Nevertheless, years of Greek mythology and even Dante have accustomed our people to hear this passage as an eternal torture passage. They immediately think Jesus means a place where people burn eternally. We read Dante (1265-1321 A.D.) into Jesus (0-33 A.D.). Jesus certainly means to say that there is a Judgment Day coming, in which things are going to be sorted out, good and bad. Bad stuff will be burned like chaff. But be careful not to drag along either Dante, Greek mythology, or thousands of years of assumptions. Let Jesus speak, unencumbered by years of interpretation and misinterpretation. This is challenging. How might we free Jesus from all of our preconceived notions?

We have to hear this as a literary hyperbole. Here’s why: In just a few verses (29), Jesus will instruct his listeners to tear out their eyes if they are a cause of sin. I presume he didn’t mean this literally. There’s no evidence that Jesus’ disciples mutilated themselves. Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. These shocking images work. They ring in people’s ears two thousand years later. He is using a powerful homiletic tool to make his point.

St. Augustine sees the absurdity in saying anyone who says, “You fool,” is going to hell. Check out his sermon on this text. St. Augustine assumes that Jesus is speaking metaphorically throughout this passage. For example, Augustine says, “And so we may interpret the altar spiritually, as being faith itself in the inner temple of God, whose emblem is the visible altar.” It’s important, when we are interpreting this text, to hear from those who are much closer to them historically.

If you come to make your offering to the altar, and your brother or sister still has something against you, go first and be reconciled. Make peace with your accuser before you go to court, Jesus says. Or you’ll get thrown in jail.

So what’s the point? Relationships are important. More important than vengeance. More important even than generosity and other religious obligations. Forgiveness and reconciliation are critical. We can do violence with our words. When we do, mending those relationships is more important than going to church or making our offerings. Asking their forgiveness is as important as seeking God’s forgiveness.

2. Adultery. The 6th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you, if you look at a woman with lust, you’ve already committed adultery with her in your heart.

Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.
-Frederick Buechner (American Author, b.1926)

He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it, hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.
-C.S. Lewis (British Scholar and Novelist. 1898-1963)

Society drives people crazy with lust and calls it advertising.
-John Lahr

Jesus is very interested in the heart. Jesus just said at the beginning of this sermon, in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Blessed are those who are pure inside, not just outside. Jesus warns us about outward shows of piety and self-righteousness. To act righteous outwardly when one is quite comfortable harboring unrighteousness inwardly is hypocrisy. It is interesting that these are the very words that unchurched people use to describe the church.

A search for “heart” in Matthew yields 17 results in an English Bible. Blessed are the pure in heart (5:8). Where your treasure is there your heart will be also (6:21). The mouth speaks what the heart is full of (12:34). People can honor God with their mouths while their hearts are far away (15:8). It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but what comes out of it, which comes from the heart (15:18). Moses allowed divorce because people’s hearts were hard (19:8). Their hearts can become calloused (13:15). Jesus’ heart is humble (11:29). And, of course, we are to love God with our whole heart (22:37), a phrase that appears all over the Hebrew Bible. Obviously, this writing is not about the organ that pumps blood. It’s about your soul, the center of your being. Jesus is concerned not as much with the outward show, but what’s going on inside you.

I suppose even if we are entirely chaste, technically, our lusting will work its way out in other ways, resulting in unintended consequences. Anger? Resentment? Unhealthy relationships? Fear of intimacy? Selfishness? I’ve always felt that lust and covetousness came from the same source. It’s the desire for more, more, more. No matter how much I have. It is, at the heart of things, self-centeredness. God will have to deal with this in us, if we are to become spiritually alive.

3. Divorce. The 6th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “Whoever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce,” but I say to you whoever divorces a woman (except for unchastity) or whoever remarries, commits adultery.

This one always raises eyebrows. Out of everything, this is what people hear. The preacher cannot skirt this issue. No matter what we want to preach on, every divorced adult in the congregation (50%) will hear this and only this. If you don’t address it, they will make assumptions. They will equate 21st century Western marriage with 1st century Middle Eastern marriage. They confuse our modern understanding of equal rights in marriage with marriage in antiquity, which sometimes involved a parental arrangement and always was completely controlled by men.

Consider this. A man could “put away” a woman by simply writing down a note. “I divorce her.” The Bible was used to justify this practice. The woman had very few options. There was a huge power differential. Jesus is upholding the sanctity of marriage. The goal is faithfulness and fairness.

The Hebrew Bible’s laws about divorce are draconian and patriarchal. They are about men’s rights to divorce women, not women’s rights to divorce men. By and large, they assume women as a possession of men, traded for shekels like cattle. Women have few rights in this system. Consider just a couple of passages.

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
-Deuteronomy 22:28-29

So, if a man rapes a woman, his punishment is paying the father 50 shekels and marrying the woman. She is forced to marry her rapist. She cannot seek a certificate of divorce and neither can he. One can only wonder about the marital dynamics in such an arrangement.

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.
-Deuteronomy 24:1-4

A second man divorces his wife because he “dislikes her.” Let that sink in. This reflects the capriciousness of divorce here. “She does not please him” is ample grounds for a man to divorce his wife. She, of course, cannot divorce him for any reason whatsoever.

It seems to me that Jesus, by criticizing divorce, is making it more egalitarian. He is defending the powerless person: the woman. The woman couldn’t divorce anyway. Jesus is leveling the playing field. And he creates a loophole: “except on the grounds of unchastity.” And it’s quite a loophole. What qualifies? Cheating? Physical abuse? Emotional abuse? There’s wiggle room here, just not, “the man said so.”

I once recommended an abused wife get a counselor, a lawyer, and a divorce. She was shocked: “Shouldn’t you be standing up for marriage?” I knew he was hitting her and the kids too. She wasn’t going to leave. I worried something really bad would happen. He was furious with me when he found out. I had the privilege of being present when the police arrested him. Shining moment. Jesus is not a fan of divorce or broken relationships of any kind. It’s tragic really. But even he leaves a loophole. There is grace here.

4. Oaths. The 8th Commandment.

You have heard it said, “Do not swear falsely,” but I say to you, don’t swear at all. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

Also note Luther’s explanation of the eighth commandment:

The Eighth Commandment
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

So, the question burning in Matthew’s community might be: “If I make a promise and don’t swear to God, is it okay to break it?” You know, like, I had my fingers crossed behind my back. Jesus encourages us to be people of integrity. Your word is your integrity. Let your word be gold. Don’t lie, whether under oath or not. Do not bear false witness in court. Do not bear false witness in everyday conversation. Yes means yes, and no means no. Don’t use God to play word games or cheat your neighbor. My parents never allowed us to say, “Swear to God.”

We know Matthew to be methodical in the construction of his gospel. It has very clear form. As we learned a few weeks ago, even the beatitudes have a very symmetrical structure. So, why these six antitheses? Twenty-two, 28, 34 seem to intensify the Mosaic Law. Thirty-nine, 44, and perhaps 32 seem to overturn Moses. These six points seem to convey the behavior that Jesus expects from his disciples vis-à-vis the religious teachers of the day. Clearly, adhering to the letter of the law will not give life.

Can the preacher think of examples where one kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law? Where keeping the law resulted in an unjust situation? There are plenty. What will hit home with your people? Likewise, can you think of times that people had to break the law in order to honor the spirit of the law? Or break one law for the sake of a higher law?

Those who are peacemakers, full of mercy and hungry for justice, will see beyond the letter of the law, operating instead from a purity of heart, seeking the law’s deep inner yearning for justice and peace. God doesn’t want robots, who do the least required to fulfill the law. God wants changed hearts. Jesus’ followers will exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, not by dogged adherence to the law, but by loving the neighbor from the heart. Righteousness is not obedience to legislation, but perfect conformity to the will of God. (Green, McKnight, and Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.) That may be a bit of a Pauline spin on things, but it rings true if we keep in mind Matthew 23.

The end product is this: so that we might be children of our heavenly God who is righteous and merciful. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”