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Bishop Michael Rinehart

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Lectionary Year A

Temptation

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, March 1, 2020 – Lent 1A

Lent 1A – March 1, 2020

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “On the day that you eat of it, you shall die.”

Psalm 32 – Happy are those whose transgression is covered, whose sin is forgiven.

Romans 5:12-19 – Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.

Matthew 4:1-11 – Jesus’ 40-day fast and the Temptation in the Wilderness

Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.– Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lead us not into temptation…– Jesus

God cannot fill what is already full. – Mother Teresa

By means of a diversion, we can avoid our own company twenty-four hours a day. — Pascal


Looking ahead: Lent A at-a-glance

The Gospel readings for Lent in Cycle A of the lectionary are the traditional texts that catechumenates studied in preparation for baptism. What if every new member class studied and reflected on these texts?

  • Lent 1 (March 1, 2020): Matthew 4 (The Temptation in the Wilderness)
  • Lent 2 (March 8, 2020): John 3 (Nicodemus) or Matthew 17
  • Lent 3 (March 15, 2020): John 4 (Woman at the Well)
  • Lent 4: (March 22, 2020) John 9 (Healing of the Man Born Blind)
  • Lent 5: (March 29, 2020) John 11 (The Raising of Lazarus)

Wilderness

The first Sunday in Lent is always devoted to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness of the beginning of his ministry. Matthew’s account is the most organized, perhaps. Temptation is the theme that ties together all of the texts.

We begin with the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. This text reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw that said, “Eve was framed.” A sentiment that appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in 1971.

That might make a great sermon starter. A sermon on this text will likely pick the funny bone and possibly irk those who wrestle with patriarchy. Temptation leads to the blame game: God question Adam, who blames Eve. “The woman that Thou gavest me, she gave me the Apple!” And when Eve is questioned, she blames the serpent. Who is to blame when we succumb to temptation? How quick we are to point the finger.

The Adam and Eve story is deeply complex, and widely misunderstood. Adam and Eve are punished for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though they don’t yet know the difference between good and evil. The serpent tells them when they eat of the tree they will know the difference, like God. It turns out to be true. God says that day you eat of it you will die. The serpent says otherwise. Again, the serpent is right. God is portrayed as jealous. Adam and Eve break out of the innocence of childhood into the dawning adult reality of good and evil, and knowledge… Knowing is a word that is loaded in Genesis. “And Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain…” Preach this text only with a lot of prep work.

The second reading from Romans picks up on the temptation in the Garden of Eden. In his letter to the Romans, Paul marvels in chapter 7 at his propensity to do the very thing which he hates the most. Sin then, is doing what he hates. Paul claims that all people sin. And this goes back to the very first time sin entered into the world, with the first sinner, Adam. As in Adam all become sinners. In Christ all are made righteous, apart from works of the law. A sermon on Christ’s revelation of the righteousness of God in Romans would no doubt be a heady sermon.

In the gospel text for this Sunday we see the humanity of Jesus. Even the Son of God is subject to temptation. We also see him resist temptation, quoting Scripture. Satan quotes scripture as well of course, so we are not offered any magic pill here. Jesus faces temptation to abandon his God-given earthly mission. The bait is enticing. What is your earthly mission? What temptation stands to derail you from the greater good for which God has called you in your baptism?

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. — Matthew 4:1-2

In the gospels, Jesus constantly takes time to get away. This is a good model for anyone in ministry.  In his book The Power of Pause, Terry Hershey tells a story about the son of a rabbi who goes out into the woods every day after school. The worried rabbi asks his son about it. “No need to worry, dad. I go to the woods to talk with God.” Relieved, the rabbi replies, “As a rabbi’s son you should know that God is the same everywhere.” “Yes,” the son replies, “God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”

Figure 1: Satan tempting Christ to change stones into bread Artist: REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn Date: C. 1632-33

We need the wilderness, the place of quiet. Without it we are lost. Yes, we need the place of productivity, but the place of reflection makes the place of productivity possible. Without the place of reflection, we are doomed to become ceaseless automatons lost in a flurry of unfocused activity.

After his baptism, Jesus began his ministry with 40 days of prayer and fasting. There is no other way to start a new ministry. How else does one know where to begin? What must be done? We must first discern the voice of God, which means turning off the noise of the world, the noise in our heads. It means learning to listen, as Ann Weems puts it, for the rustle of angels’ wings. Still, the wings we hear may sometimes be those of temptation.

Lenten repose is a challenge for church leaders. Lent is busier than ever. There is less time for reflection, not more. We add on a midweek service with all the planning, recruiting and sermon prep. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday require a lot of work. Some have baptismal preparation, catechumenate, new member sessions and First Communion classes.

Figure 2: The Temptation of Christ (detail) by Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310

Somehow in the midst of this we must still find time. Where will the extra sermons come from if not from listening to God? How can we model a balanced, spiritually-centered life if we become children of hell driven by overzealous schedules? This takes tremendous discipline. We must intentionally thin out our schedules of many things in order to make time for additional worship, preparation, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and acts of mercy.

Having kids has helped somewhat. Spring Break inevitably falls in the middle of Lent. The kids are off from school. We have to take advantage of this. So, in the midst of the busiest season of the year, I learned to drop everything and just walk away. We go to the beach or visit family. A trip to the zoo. A day in the woods. We just… have to. Or we will lose our center.

In the wilderness we will most certainly, nearly always, encounter God. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened. God is faithful. God shows up. But to be honest we have to admit: We will most certainly, nearly always, also encounter temptation. “So I find it to be a general rule,” Paul says, paraphrased, “that when I’m wanting to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Figure 3: The 12th Century New Roman Mosaics of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God in Monreale in Sicily » The Temptation of Christ. Duomo di Monreale

At every turn it seems we are tempted to set aside God’s agenda for our own. Many minds greater than mine have parsed the Temptation texts over two millennia. Jesus seems to be tempted three times, by three things that are not at all in themselves bad. He’s not tempted to steal, commit adultery, murder. He’s tempted with three more basic things: wealth, safety and power.

  1. WEALTH

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” Nothing wrong with bread right? Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is  necessary for life. Luther says bread is, “Everything that nourishes our body and meets its needs, such as: Food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, yard, fields, cattle, money, possessions, a devout spouse, devout children, devout employees, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors and other things like these.”

Figure 4: “the kingdoms of this world…” James B. Janknegt, 1990

So what’s wrong with Jesus wanting these things? Absolutely nothing, unless their support supplants his primary mission. The temptation is to make our life about the constant pursuit of more. If you follow Jesus, there will come a time when you are tempted to forget your God-given mission to follow the god of the belly. Jesus teaches, “Don’t worry about your life: what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear. Trust God, who clothes the fields and feeds the birds. Seek first God’s kingdom, and let everything else work itself out.”

  1. SAFETY

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, after all, doesn’t the Bible say, God’s angels will take care of you?” Safety is not a bad thing. But if staying safe becomes the highest good, we will never risk anything. There would be no cross. We may think ships are safest in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for. Life is dangerous. None of us are going to get out of it alive. Don’t trade in your mission to cling to safety.

Any time we see someone in trouble along the road this challenge comes into play. Do I stop to help? What if it’s a trick? The Good Samaritan in Jesus’ well-known story takes risk to help the stranger in the ditch. We are struggling with this as a country these days. Welcoming refugees is really not all that risky. They are the most vetted people in the country. Fear, however, has people wondering if we should slam the door on the needy of the world. It’s an understandable fear, but one I feel we cannot allow to immobilize us from being a city on a hill.

  1. POWER

“All the kingdoms of this world I will give to you if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus has been called to a ministry among the people that will eventually require him to lay down his life. The devil tempts Jesus to trade his calling, his destiny, his integrity for POWER.

Like bread and safety, good things, there’s nothing wrong with power. Think of what you could do with political power. You could feed people, make a difference. But if the pursuit of power becomes a greater goal in the ministry to which we are called, we have missed our calling. Jesus accomplishes his mission without holding political office. If we chase power, political or ecclesiastical, we will miss what God can do with our powerlessness. God says, “My power is made perfect in your weakness.” It was not in Jesus’ political or military power that made a difference. It was his love and serving and dying for us. Let us be a servant church.

The wilderness is necessary. It is a place of reflection and healing. But it is also a place of temptation and testing. Expect to have your calling and mission questioned. “Why give your life to this silly religious business? The church is just a petulant club of judgmental moralists. Leave this behind. Go make some bread. Live the high life. Eat and drink for tomorrow we die. Forget your cross. Are you some kind of masochist? Why sacrifice for others? Why be a servant? Why servitude at all? Go for the gusto. Don’t worry about the poor. Didn’t Jesus say the poor will always be with you? You can’t save the world. Live your life.”

Perhaps one of the reasons we fear the wilderness experience is because we know that we will encounter voices of doubt, fear, and temptation, as well as the voices of faith, hope and love. So Lent and the desert are not without risks. The wilderness is wild. But the alternative is closing our hearts to the spiritual, being left to go on our own strength.

So, welcome to Lent. Pray: Dear God, empty me, in whatever ways you can. Change my routine. Help me listen. Help me to fast, pray, give, trust. Help me know that fasting doesnt make me a better person, right before God, of special merit, but rather it simply clears away the clutter so that we can see and hear God more clearly.

[Here’s an additional story about a different kind of temptation: https://bishopmike.com/2014/02/18/sam-houston-and-temptation]

Leap into Lent!

Listen to the Podcast for Wednesday, February 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday ABC

Ash Wednesday – February 26, 2020

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17Blow the trumpet. Sound a fast. Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Tear your hearts, not your garments.
OR
Isaiah 58:1-12
Fasting as you do will not make your voice heard on high. This is the fast I choose: loose the bonds of injustice, set the oppressed free, share your bread with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into your house.

Psalm 51:1-17Indeed I am guilty, a sinner from my mother’s womb. Wash me thoroughly and I shall be clean.

2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10Be reconciled to God. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation! We have endured many afflictions. Dying yet alive. Punished yet not killed. Sorrowful yet rejoicing. Poor yet rich!

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21Don’t practice your piety before others ostentatiously, so that you can be seen. Direct your fasting to God. Your reward is in heaven.


Looking ahead: Lent A at-a-glance

This is a leap year. Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in San Antonio is taking advantage of this extra day on Saturday for a Leap into Lent family day. There’s something to be said for inviting our folks to leap into Lent. Here’s a look ahead:

Historically, in some places, enrollment for baptism at Easter Vigil began on the first Sunday of Lent. Today this is called the catechumenate. If you do this, consider enrolling all who are joining the church, even if they’re not being baptized, but undergoing affirmation of baptism. These candidates should be prayed for weekly during Lent in the prayers of the church.

The Gospel readings for Lent in Cycle A of the lectionary are the traditional texts that catechumenates studied in preparation for baptism:

  • Lent 1 (March 1, 2020): Matthew 4 (The Temptation in the Wilderness)
  • Lent 2 (March 8, 2020): John 3 (Nicodemus) or Matthew 17
  • Lent 3 (March 15, 2020): John 4 (Woman at the Well)
  • Lent 4: (March 22, 2020) John 9 (Healing of the Man Born Blind)
  • Lent 5: (March 29, 2020) John 11 (The Raising of Lazarus)

Lent 2A, in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The text ends with the familiar John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” This is the perfect text for the preparation of baptismal candidates, because it proclaims salvation in Christ, with the sacramental sign of baptism.

Lent 3A, in John 4, Jesus will tell the woman at the well, “The water I give will become a spring welling up to eternal life.” The woman responds, “Sir, give me this water always.”

The following week, Lent 4A, in John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind by telling him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. Again we have a baptismal theme. It is in the waters of baptism that we see the world clearly, for Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”

Finally, on Lent 5A, our Lent texts climax with the raising of Lazarus. The waters of baptism lead us through death and the grave into the resurrection of the dead.

Palm Sunday is April 5 and Easter is April 12, 2020.


Wednesdays in Lent: One possibility. The Prodigal God

Many of you have already done a congregational book study on The Prodigal God. If you have not, consider it. The story of the Prodigal Son comes up this year. It only appears in a Lukan year, and it only appears Lent 4C. Most readers and preachers assume this well-known story is about forgiveness. Timothy Keller, in his book The Prodigal God: recovering the heart of the Christian Faith, says the story is ultimately about the self-righteous moral disease of the older brother. At the very least, this easy read will enhance your preaching, reminding you of the cultural context most of us know, but sometimes forget. However, the publisher (Dutton) also offers a study guide, and a DVD, so this book could make an excellent small group study in Lent (or early Fall) when the story surfaces in the lectionary.

Wednesdays in Lent: Another possibility, is

I wrote Learning to Pray Again: Hope and Joy through an Ancient Practice a few years ago for a congregational Lenten study on prayer. The book, available on Amazon in paperback or digitally, includes suggestions for group study. A few years ago, I also posted some thoughts for sermon starters. Scroll down to the bottom of each post:

Additionally, Pastor Tammy Sharp (Christus Victor in League City, Texas) wrote a prayer journal to accompany it and Pastor Ben Groth (Bethlehem Lutheran Church in New Orleans) wrote a group session on prayer for youth groups. Both of those can be found here, for free.


Ash Wednesday ABC

The texts for Ash Wednesday are the same all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary.

Pray

On Ash Wednesday we read, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” and then we do just that, by smearing crosses on our heads for all to see.

Jesus does not say, “Don’t practice piety.” (In fact, just a few verses ago in the Sermon on the Mount he said to “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Jesus does not dissuade the practices of faith and piety. He says not to do them in order to impress other people. Piety for the sole purpose of convincing others of how religious you are is pure self-righteousness.

Prayer was important to Jesus. After an exhausting day of ministry, we are told:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:35-37)

Ministry is so exhausting, we need prayer to renew our strength. Isaiah 40 says those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. Prayer is waiting on the Lord. As the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46)

Jesus says, “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” What does it mean to be a house of prayer for all people? Are we a house of prayer? Are all people welcome? Who is not here?

It was the job of every rabbi to teach people to pray. It is, in fact, the responsibility of every spiritual leader to teach her followers to pray. How are we doing that? How and when does teaching about prayer take place in the life of your community? Lent? New member classes? Small groups? Adult education? Confirmation? Who is teaching lectio divina? Who is teaching journaling? Prayer walking? The labyrinth? Meditation? Contemplation? How are adults invited to enjoy the fruits of prayer?

For that matter, who is teaching fasting and giving? Generosity? Hospitality? People are hungry for an introduction to the spiritual life. It is our privilege to introduce them to these spiritual disciplines, and Lent is tailor-made for this endeavor.

If we teach our people to pray, to reflect, to listen, they will benefit, our congregations will benefit and the world will benefit. Surprising things will happen.

The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
– Mother Teresa

Ash Wednesday is a great time to set the stage. Prayer is not just another task. It is the very conduit for our relationship with God. It is an invitation to come away, to get off the treadmill, and spend restful time listening. I believe our lives are chaos without this. One writer said our lives without daily prayer are like a book written without using the space bar:

Canyouimagineabookwrittenwihtoutspacesbetweenthewords?

This is how we live our lives in the modern world, without sufficient space, waiting, pause, prayer. Lent gives us an opportunity to realign this.

Marcus Borg spoke at our Theological Conference a few years ago. One thing that stuck with me is what our people hear when we talk about repentance during Lent and Epiphany. “Repenting is not feeling bad about your sins.” Students of Koine Greek know this. Metanoia means changing our mind, our direction. Paul says in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In Philippians 2 he says, “Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus…” Repentance is about transforming our minds, our worldviews, our priorities. It is putting on gospel glasses and seeing the world through new eyes. In Lent we are offered a gift. New sight. We are invited to meta our noia.

Here is our gospel text from Matthew 6, an instruction from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as we embark upon our Lenten disciplines:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you… 

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I notice that Jesus does not tell them to do these things. He assumes they already are. It is not, “If you fast…” It is, “When you fast.” Prayer, fasting and giving were normal aspects of Jewish life and piety. Indeed, while giving was not as common in Roman society, prayer and fasting were common practices in antiquity.

Fast

Let us confess: We live in a society that cannot imagine doing without anything. We think depriving ourselves of anything is unhealthy.

Let us confess: We have too much, too much of everything. We are an obese society gorged on wealth and the need for more. We live in a society that doesn’t believe in the concept of “too much.” We deny that there is a relationship between our insatiable need for more (greed? gluttony?) and others’ lack of enough.

Let us confess that we think a full life means MORE. Deep down, we believe the way to have a fuller life is by cramming it with more and more stuff. Less is bad. More must be better. How much is enough? Just a little bit more… So we cram more and more and more into ourselves, and into our lives.

Let us confess: We know that we cannot worship both God and money, but we’re willing to give it a try. We know we should place our ultimate trust in God, but at the end of the day, we trust our wealth to deliver us.

Let us confess: We are full. Full of noise. Full of food. Full of wine. Full of greed. Full of ourselves.

I can’t remember who wrote this, but I’m thinking it might have been George Carlin:

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less. We buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment. More experts, yet more problems. More medicine, but less wellness.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things. We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait.

These are the times of fast food and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom.  

We spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.

Giving

We think life is found in MORE. We think we will be happier with MORE, but sadly, the opposite is often true. There is an antidote to this disease. It is called generosity. It is called giving ourselves away. Jesus said, those who try to keep their life will lose it, but those who lose it for my sake and for the sake for the gospel will find it.

Here is the truth. This is a mystical truth, it doesn’t sound right at first, but it holds the essence of the universe. Here is is. Are you ready? The fullness of life is found in emptying ourselves. The more you give away, the more you will discover. The universe rushes in to fill a vacuum.

Theology even has a term for this: kenosis. Kenosis is an intentional emptying of ourselves, to make room for God. Mother Teresa said, “God cannot fill what is already full.”

If we want to be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and so on, cramming more in won’t get us there. Do something completely counterintuitive. Empty yourself.

The apostle Paul said this in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,

And so, at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and he fasted. He emptied himself. You don’t begin your ministry full of yourself, even if you are the Son of God. You empty yourself and begin your ministry filled with the Holy Spirit. If you are going to do great things, if you are going to do difficult things, you will have to draw on a power source higher than yourself. You do not have the strength on your own to do all that God has called you to do.

Prayer, fasting and giving are taken for granted in the Bible. They are spiritual disciplines that empty us and fill us, cleanse us and bring us closer to God, or rather, makes us more aware of the God who has been there all along. We’ve just been too full, too busy, too loud to notice.

A list of those in Scripture who fasted is like a Biblical Who’s Who:

  • Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.
  • David fasted
  • Elijah fasted
  • Esther fasted
  • Daniel fasted.
  • Paul fasted.
  • Jesus fasted.

They fasted and prayed for repentance and forgiveness. They fasted for victory in battle. They fasted for discernment. They prayed for deliverance. They fasted for strength.

We have lost the spiritual discipline of fasting that Jesus took for granted. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “When you fast…” Not if.

Young unchurched spiritual seekers are hungry for gritty spiritual disciplines that actually mean something.

So this is why I fast during Lent. This is why many people fast during Lent. Fasting is a spiritual discipline in which voluntarily give something up for a time, to heighten our spiritual awareness, our spiritual attentiveness.

A complete fast is going without food or water for a period of time. A partial fast is giving some foods up for a period of time, in this case, 40 days.

  • Fast to not be a slave to the god of the belly.
  • Fast to be in solidarity with the masses of the world who go to bed hungry every day.
  • Fast as a means of spiritual training. If we cannot master ourselves in the little things, how will we ever master ourselves in greater things? If I cannot sustain little sacrifices, what will happen if I get called upon to make a greater sacrifice? Whoever is faithful in little things, will be faithful in greater things.
  • Fast because it is good for your body. Fast because it is good for your soul.
  • Fast because Jesus fasted.
  • Fast because God cannot fill what is already full.
  • Fast because it is through dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.

Fast because we need to be reminded every day, that it is not by our strength or prowess that the kingdom of God breaks in. We are but vessels into which God pours God’s grace and love. Fast to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for you, because God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

May this Lenten season may be for you a season of emptying, that you might make space in your life for God to act. May it be a season of prayer… fasting… and giving.

The Heart of the Law: The Six Antitheses (Part 2)

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, February 23, 2020 – Epiphany 7A

Epiphany 7A – February 23, 2020

Prayer of the Day – Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 – When you harvest, don’t strip the fields bare, leave some for the poor and the alien. Do not defraud. Do not delay giving workers their wages. Do not lie. Do not abuse the deaf and blind. Do not take vengeance or hold grudges.

Psalm 119:33-40 Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 – Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.

Matthew 5:38-48 – Continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. 5th and 6th 4 of The Six Antitheses: You have heard it said… But I say to you… 5. Retaliation and 6. Enemies. You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to all who beg from you. You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…”


Antitheses (Part 2)

February 23, 2020 is the last Sunday in Epiphany. February 26 is Ash Wednesday this year. Most Lutheran congregations observe Transfiguration Sunday A on this day. I’m going to focus on finishing up the Antitheses from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. If you would like thoughts about the texts for Transfiguration A, CLICK HERE.

I want to give a shout out to Pastor Steve Rieke, a friend who was also a teaching assistant when I was studying at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. He helped put together much of the material for this post. Steve formerly served as pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in College Station, Texas.

The first lesson, from Leviticus 19, reminds us of what righteousness and justice look like in Hebrew law. Don’t glean your fields a second time. Leave some behind for the poor and for the alien. This is the ancient safety net, a circle of protection for the poorest of the poor, for the homeless, for immigrants and refugees. Those passing through the land, those who are widows, orphans or just plain poor, always have the freedom to walk into a field and get something to eat. It will be slim pickin’s, but they won’t starve.

This Leviticus text is likely included today because of the last part. Do not take vengeance or hold a grudge. Jesus will, in these last two antitheses, embody the heart and soul of this passage. He is not countering the law. He is countering the prevailing interpretation of the law by the religious leaders of his day.

Our gospel text is week four of our four-week February walk through Matthew 5, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount:

February 2, 2020         Matthew 5:1-12          Beatitudes
February 9, 2020         Matthew 5:13-21        Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 16, 2020       Matthew 5:21-37        #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 23, 2020       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, morning, 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.

After the beatitudes, Jesus tells his listeners they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Let your light shine. So, with the Beatitudes, salt and light in mind, the antitheses follow. Last week we covered the first four. This week we cover the final two, #5 and #6.

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              If you divorce a woman, or remarry you  divorce.                                                                     commit adultery.
  4. You shall not swear falsely.                                 Do not swear at all. Let your Yes be Yes, &                                                                                         No be No.
  5. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.         Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other                                                                                             cheek.
  6. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.         Love your enemies and pray for them.

Antithesis #5: Retaliation

The lex talionis was the law of retaliation. The punishment should fit the crime. While an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth sounds brutal, it was originally meant to be merciful. You don’t kill someone for stealing a sheep.

Jesus says, “You have heard it said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy…” The “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” passage from Matthew 5:38 is sourced from the Torah:

Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return. Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. – Leviticus 24:19-20

So you shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you.  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. – Deuteronomy 19:20-21

This second passage is from the Jewish Bible reading for this Sunday. In a third passage, from Exodus, the same rule, 21:24: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” is nestled between two very specific applications of this lex talionis, and presumably associated to them. Exodus 21:23-24 says,

When people fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth…

How do you follow an eye for an eye in a miscarriage? Already there is a provision for financial compensation.

Following this, the next verse, Exodus 21:26 gives another example:

When a slave owner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye.

As mentioned above, the lex talionis, or “law of retribution” was established to provide fairness. It set limits on retaliation, thereby restricting unbridled “getting even.” However, note that in Exodus 21:26 ‘evenness’ could be achieved through monetary compensation in place of an identical ‘matching item for item,’ exchange. Lex talionis, however, was reserved for adjudicating civil matters, not private, personal problems between you and your neighbor. The Torah leaves no room for vengeance on a personal level. Paul confirms this in Romans 12:19:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

The question Matthew may be addressing for the church to which he is writing may be: How are the people of God, the people of Christ, the Church, to live?

Dr. Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.  Previously, he was a parish minister and taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  In 1989-1990 he was a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. Wink struggles to apply the ethical framework from the Sermon on the Mount. Here are some of his books.

Wink says violence is the religion of our society. He proposes a careful look at the Sermon on the Mount, as a way out of retaliation and the cycle of violence. A shorter summary of his views can be found here: http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm

Wink sees it this way: When it comes to retribution or retaliation, the church is to handle, or live, situations of being wronged in a way that reveals God’s kingdom at work at the very moment. The text then, “Do not resist an evildoer” means acting in the moment of “evil” in a way that reveals the kingdom’s presence then and there – in the very presence of ‘evil.’ When it comes to ‘aggressors,’ the ‘kingdom’s way’ is to live and act in such a manner that ‘allows’ the aggressors to behold both themselves for who they are, and see God/Christ in the one who is being wronged. The kingdom of God is a “teaching way,” a “lamp unto the world’s feet, and ours (Psalm 119:105).

This is a profound teaching, expounded upon in Martin Luther King’s The Strength to Love. In times of crisis and violence, human nature pushes us to fight or flight. Jesus encourages us to do neither. He shows us a third way.

Wink puts it this way:

Neither of the invidious alternatives of flight or fight is what Jesus is proposing. Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options. The Scholars Version translates ‘antistenai’ brilliantly: “Don’t react violently against someone who is evil.”

Wink is saying this: Don’t become like your aggressor; you are a son/daughter of God.

Wink illuminates the meaning of Jesus’ statement. The striking on the cheek is not a fistfight. It is an insult. Jesus is saying: When challenged to fight, don’t take the bait. Wink continues:

Jesus clarifies: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks.

As the Dead Sea Scrolls specify, even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days’ penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.

What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and if one did, the fine was exorbitant (4 zuzzim was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuzzim (זוזים) for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatever). A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. 

What’s depicted here is a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask who Jesus’ audience is. In every case, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor. Rather, Jesus is speaking to their victims, people who have been subjected to these very indignities. They have been forced to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and by the guardians of imperial occupation.

Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because the action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.”

Don’t run. Don’t cower. But also, don’t fight a useless fight, especially one you can’t win. Stand defiantly before your oppressor. Your blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.

The ‘antithesis’ here of ‘giving the other cheek’ reveals to the abusers the truth of who they are  while also revealing the kingdom’s way of living already in that moment. Give people the opportunity to see who they are, let shame reside where it appropriately should and do not demean your status by succumbing.

We can practice this on a weekly basis, even if no one is trying to kill us or attack us physically. Recall the first antithesis, last week: you have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder…’ But if you are angry or insult another, you are liable… Attacks come in many forms. How do you respond when someone is angry, or attacks you verbally, in a way that reveals the greater values of the kingdom? We could spend a lifetime learning this.

As usual, Jesus gives further examples.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

This is incredibly amusing in a two-garment society. Turn the law against your creditor by obeying it. Follow the letter of the law, but throw in your underwear as well. Expose your creditor’s greed by revealing his own ruthlessness.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

It is said that a Roman soldier could conscript any civilian for assistance. You would be required to accompany the soldier for 1 mile. Jesus seems to be saying, go beyond the law. Instead of being bitter about the overbearing Roman domination, instead go 2 miles. Show your enemy your love. This must inevitably change your enemy. He will relate to you in one way during the first mile, but in the second mile he will be looking at you with great curiosity. He will begin to wonder what kind of person you are as you do more than what is expected. This is what the kingdom looks like.

Give to everyone who begs from you,
and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

People have a difficult time with this one. Must I really give to everyone who begs? What if they are charlatans? Jesus encourages us to live a life of generosity. If someone is begging on the street, it will not hurt me to hand that person an apple. I don’t have to give my life savings. It is better to risk giving to someone who doesn’t need than to risk not giving to someone who does need. This is what the kingdom looks like.

A member of my previous parish witnessed to me with this passage. We were trying to determine if a cause was worthy of a donation. He told me privately he always gave when asked. “I’m not smart enough to figure out who is worthy and who is not. And I’ve been given so much. I always give. Maybe not the whole farm. Maybe just a few dollars, but I always give.” I will always remember this witness from a kind indigenous Texan with a clear and simple faith.


Antithesis #6: Love for Enemies

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect

Love your enemies. Matthew 5:43 comes from Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Buddhism, the Dhammapada of the Sutta Pitaka (5th century BC?):

Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.

Jesus:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:44)

Buddhism, the Dhammapada of the Sutta Pitaka (5th century BC?):

True love is unconditional and impartial – thus the metaphor of the sun that shines down on all life. It is tested and proven by encounters with those who are difficult to love. Where true love prevails, there no enemies are found.

 Jesus:

for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous . . . if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Matthew 5:45b-46a

I’m not saying Jesus is quoting Buddhist thinking. Perhaps Jesus is simply tapping in a deep spiritual truth about power in this life

Hate cannot drive out hate. It doesn’t work that way. War will not solve our global problems. Dropping bombs on people may stop an aggressor for a moment, but it creates so much pain, suffering, anger and hatred, it launches new conflicts. The outcomes of our support of guerilla warfare (we called “Freedom Fighters”) in Afghanistan created Osama bin Laden. Our wars in the Gulf created Al Quaida and ISIS. The future belongs to people who recognize Jesus teaching: Only through compassion does one win over an enemy.

I am reminded of the words of Desmond Tutu in his African Prayer Book:

Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.

You can sing these words in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #721.

I am also mindful of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.

Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Verse 46 says, “For if you love those who love you . . .” The Greek word, ‘aspazomai, (ah-spah-dzo-mai) truly means “welcome” as in to “welcome another into your home and treat not as a guest, but as one of your own kin.”

Hmmm, whom to love? Jesus is a good rhetorician! In this last antithesis, Jesus argues the case a fortiori, meaning “with greater reason.”

Beginning with what’s easy (love your neighbor), Jesus reasons to the much more difficult, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’

Why? Well, “if you love those who love you, what regard do you have?” And, again, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” In other words, what difference is the world to see in you if all you do is to do what everybody else does? How is that being the light of the world or the salt of the earth? However, if you love your enemies, praying for them even when they mistreat you, what then will the world see in you?

And consider this: If you “love your enemies and pray for them when they persecute you,” imagine what deep love you will love those who care for you!

Could Jesus have in mind the Samaritans of his day?

Hear the words of Martin Luther King in a November 17, 1957 sermon on Matthew 5:38-45, “Loving Your Enemies,” preached in Montgomery, Alabama, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.

King sees retaliation as continuing the cycle of violence. Someone has to be a big enough person to stop or you always have the Hatfields and the McCoys. Here is King’s simple example:

I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didnt dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: “I know what Im going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, Im going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him right quick and said: “Oh no, dont do that. Thered be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.”

This can be a difficult sermon to preach, and it will ring hollow if we are not willing to live it in our everyday interaction with members of the parish and nonmembers in the community.

If you need another example, consider this story about a woman who forgave the man who killed her only son: http://t.today.com/news/how-do-you-forgive-killer-mother-moves-past-tragedy-4B11203330

Try praying for your enemies in church and see what happens. Pray for ISIS. Pray for the Taliban. People will bristle, but it may be a good teaching tool. Pray for their conversion from what have been horrific acts of evil.

Consider prayer vigils in your town, in places where violence has taken place. Where you put your feet matters. Jesus lived this in his life and death on the cross. He invites us to follow him.

Keep in mind Jesus’ own witness to his entreaty to pray for ones enemies. On the cross, as he was dying, he prayed for his torturers. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” For whom do you need to pray?

The Heart of the Law: The Six Antitheses (Part 1)

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, February 16, 2020 – Epiphany 6A

Epiphany 6A – February 16, 2020

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.
OR
Sirach 15:15-20 – If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.16 He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.17 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 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 February walk through Matthew 5, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount:

February 2, 2020         Matthew 5:1-12          Beatitudes
February 9, 2020         Matthew 5:13-21        Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 16, 2020       Matthew 5:21-37        #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 23, 2020       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, morning, 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.

Consider these beatitudes:

Blessed are the refugees
Blessed are all 72 million people who cannot go home:
   Those who are victims of war and poverty
   Those who have been evicted
   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).

Here are all six antitheses we will be studying the next two weeks:

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              If you divorce a woman, or remarry you  divorce.                                                                     commit adultery.
  4. You shall not swear falsely.                                 Do not swear at all. Let your Yes be Yes, &                                                                                         No be No.
  5. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.         Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other                                                                                             cheek.
  6. 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 help people see how Jesus is inviting us to live by faith.

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. Jesus makes it plain how this might be lived out in the everyday lives of his listeners:


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 intensify? Jesus is basically saying that being angry with someone is killing them slowly.

Matthew’s message to the early church is that 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 one hill of beans.

Matthew’s community may be asking an important question:

As long as I don’t 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 today’s passage from Sermon on the Mount when he interprets the law, for example, in his explanation of the fifth commandment, from the Small Catechism:

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 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’s 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 Augustines Sermon 5 on this text. St. Augustine assumes that Jesus is speaking metaphorically throughout this passage.

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. 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.

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. Our actions grow out of our heart. If ones heart is not in the right place, curbing one’s actions is only a temporary and superficial measure. 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 hypocrisy is the very word that unchurched people use to describe the church. They see us holding up a standard we ourselves don’t keep.

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 was almost always 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. Jesus is addressing the deeper question: is it righteous behavior for a man to kick his wife out of the house, exerting power over her, and leaving her in an untenable, powerless situation?

It seems to me that Jesus, by criticizing divorce, is making marriage more egalitarian. He is defending the powerless person in the relationship: the woman. Jesus is leveling the playing field. And yet he still 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. 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 suggests we should not speak untruths whether we are swearing to God or not. In fact, it would be better to not swear to God at all. Speak with integrity. Jesus encourages us to be people of integrity. Your word is your bond. 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. I recalled my beloved parents, may they rest In peace, would not allow us to say, “I 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? Verses 22, 28, and 34 seem to intensify the Mosaic Law. Verses 39, 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. Jesus is not wrestling with Moses as much as he is wrestling with the Pharisees and the Sadducees interpretation of the law. Keep in mind 90% of the population does not read. But they know the law has been taught to them by the religious leaders of their day.

Can the preacher think of examples where someone kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law? How about times where someone had to break the letter of the law in order to keep 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?

I hear people cite Romans 13 all the time, “be subject to the governing authorities.” What do we think of the apostle Paul wrote many of his letters from prison, because he broke the law? Should Corrie Ten Boom have not broken the law by sheltering Jews? Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer not have tried to kill Hitler? Did Rosa Parks do something wrong by not giving up her seat for a white person? How about those who defiantly sat at whites-only lunch counters and drink from whites-only drinking fountains?

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. Love demands more of us than just not killing our neighbor. Righteousness is not obedience to legislation, but conforming to the will of God. 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 Father who is righteous and merciful. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

Salt, Light and The Impossibly High Demands of Discipleship

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, February 9, 2020 – Epiphany 5A

Epiphany 5A – February 9, 2020

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

These next few weeks we are in the Sermon on the Mount:

February 2, 2020         Matthew 5:1-12          Beatitudes
February 9, 2020         Matthew 5:13-21        Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 16, 2020       Matthew 5:21-37        #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 23, 2020       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 exceeds 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 (Bishop’s Associate for Leadership) 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, 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.” (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=712)

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, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On 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.

Jesus’ First Sermon

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, February 2, 2020 – Epiphany 4A

Epiphany 4A – February 2, 2020

This post on focuses on a study of the Beatitudes. A bird’s eye view of the Beatitudes in English, Spanish and Koine Greek can be found on this 11×17 placemat.

Micah 6:1-8– He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalm 15 – Blamelessness defined as doing no slander or evil, not lending money at interest, not taking bribes: O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 – Repeats verse 18 from last week and continues: …Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God… God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which will continue for the next five weeks.

Note: February 2 (the 40th day of the Christmas/Epiphany season) is also Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ (and for some the Purification of Mary per Leviticus 12, 33 days after a boy’s circumcision). Candlemas commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It is based upon the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22–40. According to the Wikipedia article, On Candlemas, many Christians (especially Anglicans, Methodists,  Lutherans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics) bring their candles to their local church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year.


The Beatitudes: Jesus’ First Sermon

Many of the ideas here come from Dr. Mark Allen Powell in God With Us, Kingsbury in Matthew as Story, and Marty Stortz and Ralph Klein in lectures given to the Lutheran bishops from Canada and the U.S. a few years ago. I also rely upon Stanley Hauerwas’ Matthew, from the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and David Garland’s Reading Matthew: a Literary and Theological Commentary.

In the placemat mentioned above, I compare the Beatitudes in three languages: English, Spanish and Koine Greek. Feel free to use this for your own study, or to share with a study group. Even though most people can’t read the Greek alphabet, it reminds them that these words were originally written in another language. If not during worship, this tool might be a handy piece for Bible study.

There are many hymns to consider on this Sunday. Two of my favorites are by a Roman Catholic musician named David Haas. The first is based on the text of the Beatitudes: Blessed Are They, ELW 728. The second is based on the first reading. Micah 6:8: We Are Called, ELW 720.

The text is Matthew 5, The Beatitudes, or what Robert Schuller once called “The Be-Happy Attitudes.” Now before you make fun of that, I would point out that while this smacks of self-help gospel, as if Jesus and the Beatitudes were really all about making ME happy, rather than calling me to die to myself and live sacrificially, I have to admit his title has stuck with me for 20 years. There is something to be said for speaking and crafting sermons in memorable ways – ways that stick with people, by using hooks, alliteration, simile and mind-capturing images.

“Happy” does not, of course, capture the sense of makarios. After years of mulling this over and reading so many of interpretations, for me it comes down to this: Jesus is saying to those who are hurting and those who side with them, God loves you too. Although it seems sometimes like God sides with the rich and powerful, Jesus has good news: God cares for those who feel like they have lost in the game of life. So, good news, you who are hungry. God is with you. When you are grieving, God is near.

Jesus is the new Moses in Matthew’s gospel, so as Moses went up the mountain for the Ten Commandments, Jesus goes up the mountain to refocus the Commandments. Hauerwas warns us not to imagine we are hearing a new law for Christians. Does Jesus really suggest we can completely avoid lust? He also wants us to avoid reading a personal ethic here without a political one. No such dichotomy exists anywhere in Matthew’s gospel. The Sermon is directed to a community. Hauerwas says the Reformation ethic reads the Sermon as ideals that drive us to God’s grace. While this gets us closer, Protestants too easily fall into simplistically thinking of Judaism and Catholicism as purely legalistic faiths. Instead Hauerwas invites us to consider the Sermon christologically. Eschatological and existential. Matthew makes no distinction. We cannot depend on our works for salvation, but neither can we cast aside the radical demands of the law. To do so is to cast aside Christ. Powell will help us parse this in a moment.

Likewise, David Garland in Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary emphasizes how Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses. The new redeemer (Jesus) must be like the old redeemer (Moses). Just as Moses’ story involved a dream, so did Jesus’ story. Both involved the slaughter of children (Exodus 1:15-22; 2:1-10). As the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea, and eventually crossed the Jordan, so Jesus passes through the waters the baptism, and crosses the Jordan. As Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, so did Jesus. Jesus rides in on a donkey like Moses and prophecies about the messiah (Exodus 4:20, Zechariah 9:9), and so on.

This is the first of five sermons in Matthew. So I let’s call it Jesus’ First Sermon. The Sermon on the Mount is likely an amalgamation of Jesus’ various sayings, but Matthew puts them together, so I like Jesus’ First Sermon. I don’t know if you remember your first sermon or not. Mine wasn’t this good.

In the lectionary we are about to spend February in first part of the Sermon on the Mount, so we’ll also look ahead a little bit, to the rest of Jesus’ First Sermon.

The Matthean Beatitudes appear twice in this year’s lectionary: this Sunday and then again this Fall, on All Saints’ Sunday A, November 1, 2020. These Beatitudes are the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and some believe the moral foundation for all of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel.

Would you like them really to sink in? Consider having the congregation read them a couple different times, a couple different ways. Invite those on the left side to read the boldface print and those on the right side to read the regular print. If you don’t want to use the placemat, consider printing them in the bulletin with paragraphs and boldface in the places I’ve laid out.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Question: Are the beatitudes…

  1. Eschatological rewards for the virtuous? Peacemakers, merciful, pure? In other words, do this and you will be rewarded in heaven. Be a peacemaker, work for righteousness and you’ll be rewarded.
  2. Eschatological reversal for those who are suffering? Poor, mourning, meek, hungry? In other words, if you’re poor now, you’ll be rich in heaven. If you’re mourning now, you’ll be dancing in heaven. If you’re hungry now, you’ll be full in heaven.

What do you think?

Garland likes to read the blessings of the Beatitudes as “congratulations.” Congratulations, you who fear, trust and take refuge in God, you have divine approval. Powell struggles with this a bit.

It’s a bit of a trick question. Mark Alan Powell (God With Us) points out that if we look carefully, neither interpretation really fits all of these. Being poor, hungry or mourning is unfortunate, but these don’t sound like virtues to which we are to aspire. Being a peacemaker is a virtue, but it is not an unfortunate circumstance of suffering that needs to be reversed in the eschaton.

Let’s dig. A closer look reveals the first eight beatitudes (vv. 3-10) are written in the third person (“Blest are they…”), while vv. 11-12, the ninth beatitude is written in the second person (“Blest are you…”).

Notice also, both the first and the eighth beatitude end with “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” underlined for you above, creating a rhetorical inclusio. Verses 11-12 are also different in meter, style and imperative mood.

Look at the placemat. Verses 3-10 can be divided into two sections that have exactly 36 words each in the Greek:

  • The four beatitudes in verses 3-6 (in the yellow) have exactly 36 words, and
  • the second four beatitudes in verses 7-10 have exactly 36 words, and
  • the last beatitude, verses 11-12 have 35 words.

So, let’s call

  • vv. 3-6 in yellow: Stanza 1
  • vv. 7-10 in turquoise: Stanza 2
  • vv. 11-12 in pink: the Conclusion or the Refrain

Matthew has carefully crafted this, quite differently than how Luke’s version is crafted. Immediately you’ll notice both stanza one and stanza two end with the word δικαιοσύνην (dikaiosyne). I have put in a white box for you on the placemat. This word means justice, or righteousness. Notice the NRSV translates it righteousness here, but the Spanish translates it “justicia.”

The symmetry, poetry and parallelism are artistic and clearly intentional. Obviously Robert Schuller was not the only one who could craft memorable sermons. Could this have been an early hymn? Don’t miss the chance to sing this sermon.

Also note the alliteration of 3-6, each verse starting with a “p” word, which I have circled for you on the placemat.

πτωχοὶ             Ptochoi (poor)
πενθοuντες    Penthountes (mourners)
πραεiς              Praes (meek)
πεινωντες       Peinontes (hungry)

Blessed are the pathetic, poor, parched people, to use an alliteration.

Read stanza one, in yellow. If you use this in worship, invite the men to read the bold and the women to read the regular print.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
              for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn,
              for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek,
              for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
              for they will be filled.

Stanza one are those who are suffering.

  1. Blessed are the poor. Ptochoi are the dispossessed, abandoned people of Israel and the world (Isaiah 11:4; 29:19; 32:7; 61:1; Amos 2:7; 8:4; Zephaniah 2:3). Poor in spirit signifies that they are despondent. They are not just poor; they have lost hope. Powell: One might translate this, “Blessed are the hopeless poor.”
  2. The “mourners” in verse four are the miserable and unhappy people because of the losses they have experienced. They have no cause for joy.
  3. The “meek” could be humble, non-violent, gentle or kind. Some versions translate this “homeless.” Praeis is the word the Greek Septuatint uses to translate the Hebrew word anawim, who are the homeless poor (Psalm 36:11). They are the humiliated and powerless of this world. They have been denied basic human needs.
  4. Those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosyne (righteousness or justice), are those who seek vindication. They have been denied justice.

So, if we put together this dizzying array of adjectives, in the first four verses Jesus says, “Blessed are the dispossessed, abandoned, poor, homeless – those who have lost so much, mourning, who have no reason for joy – the meek, gentle, humble, kind, non-violent, humiliated, powerless, who have been denied basic human needs, and human rights, who long for God’s righteousness, justice and vindication. Heaven and earth belong to them. They will be satisfied and comforted in the eschaton. God loves them. Can you feel Jesus’ focus?

It would be a shame to not sing this passage, on Sunday, one of the most poetic, yearning and soulful in Scripture.

There is not virtue, Powell says, in being hungry or denied justice. These are not “entrance requirements” for getting into heaven. Jesus is not idealizing poverty. Indeed, he later encourages his disciples to fight it. Also, Jesus is not necessarily describing those who are listening to his sermon on the mount. This portion is in the third person.

In Matthew the Kingdom of Heaven (not the Kingdom of God) comes to us, not vice-versa. This is the Good News both Jesus and John preach: The Kingdom of Heaven has come near you. When God reigns, the poor get a better deal.

In verses 7-10 this shifts. If the first four beatitudes are those who are suffering, the second four are those who help them.

Let’s read this section together. This time the congregation could read the bold face, and you could read the regular print. Starting with verse 7. Ready?

‘Blessed are the merciful,
             for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart,
             for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers,
             for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
             for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  1. Beatitude #5: Blessed are the merciful. Jesus says mercy is one of the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). Mercy is more important than sacrifice (9:13, 12:7). Jesus carries this forward in 7:1, “Do not judge, lest you be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get. Why do you worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye? First focus on the log in your own…”

Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders is that they are too quick to judge and too slow to mercy (18:23-34). God does not like religion that is so moralistic, it keeps people from eating with outcasts.

Note that all these meanings of mercy represent actions that are not carried out in the religious community, but rather out in the world. The reward? They will receive mercy. All boats rise with the tide

  1. Blessed are the pure in heart. The heart is the source of outward speech (12:34, 15:18) and behavior (15:18) and introspection (9:4, 24:48). People lust and love in their hearts. Remember Jesus says if you look at someone with lust you commit adultery in your heart. Your heart is your innermost being. In Matthew, to forgive from the heart is to forgive truly. To understand from the heart is to understand fully.

Katharos doesn’t just mean pure. It can also mean clean. A clean dish is one that is not contaminated. People can worship with their lips, while their hearts are far from God (v. 15). Perhaps a pure or clean heart is one that is turned to God, and God’s wishes. Perhaps it means words and thoughts are congruent. That’s the definition of integrity. The pure in heart will “see God.” Since even Moses didn’t get to see God, this reward is probably eschatological.

  1. Peacemakers: Are the blessed peacemakers to make peace within the Christian community, or out in the world? Some have ventured the former. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says to leave your gift at the altar and make peace with your brother or sister. Is this just within the community of faith? The injunction to love your enemies seems to suggest a larger context. Love those out there.

Eirenopoioi (peacemakers) is not used anywhere else in the New Testament, but in other literature it refers to rulers who establish security and socioeconomic well-being for the people. Eirene is the word the Septuagint uses for shalom (the Hebrew word for peace). Blessed are the shalom-makers. The Semitic community of Matthew would certainly lean towards shalom’s broader sense: wholeness and well-being. Peacemakers are those who work for the well-being and wholeness of all people (Kingbury, Matthew as Story). They shall be called Children of God. You are a child of God when you act like God (5:48).

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosyne (righteousness or justice) were blessed earlier. Dikaiosyne is also used in 6:33, when Jesus teaches people to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s dikaiosyne, rather than worrying about food, clothing and the like. The sense is to seek what is right in God’s eyes. This, of course, runs the risk of being interpreted individualistically in Puritan America. What does God want? For us to not drink, dance or play cards? Or is God more concerned with justice for the orphan, widow and alien, the hungry, the homeless? The call seems to be: seek the well-being of others, and let God take care of you. Test this: serve others and give generously, and see what happens. Blessed are those who hunger for the well-being of others, justice for all.

Can you feel the rhythm of the Beatitudes coming to a climax? In this passage, blessing comes to those who are persecuted for dikaiosyne. Participation in peace-making and justice-making brings with it persecution. In fact, if you aren’t being persecuted for righteousness sake, you might need to ask why? Those who suffer persecution are commended, as opposed to those who fall away (13:20-21). This beatitude ends the second verse of four, completing the thought.

The first and last beatitudes end with the same words (apodosis): “The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” Them.

So, the first four blessings go to those who suffer. The second four blessings go to those who help the suffering, and are even willing to take a few blows to do so. They are blessed for voluntary identification with the suffering of this world. Perhaps this is the most Christian action one can undertake: Voluntary identification with the suffering. The underdog. Even at personal risk.

And then the ninth beatitude socks us in the eyes. It shifts from the third person to the second person. “Blessed are YOU.” Oh, I thought we were talking about someone else. A good sermon brings it home to roost. It gets personal now. Now we’re meddlin’.

Read verses 11-12 together, in unison. Reading interactively with the congregation engages them in the text and keeps them focused.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This is pure theology of the cross. Heidelburg Disputation. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. This world is suffering. Open your eyes. Look around. A lot of people are suffering. God cares about suffering. And if we’re the people of God, the body of Christ, guess what?

It should come as no surprise that the first lesson is Micah 6:8. “He has shown you O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Justice and mercy factor considerably in the Sermon on the Mount.

And it should come as no surprise that we have a theology of the cross in the second reading again this Sunday. Jews seek signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… foolishness to the world, but to those of us who are called, the power and wisdom of God… For God chose what is foolish… weak… low and despised in the world to shame the wise and reduce to nothing the powers that be…

Well, Jesus, it’s a pretty good sermon so far. Could use a few more illustrations. Needs more grace, less law, but not bad for a first sermon, fresh out of the waters of his baptism. We’ll give it a B+.

After the beatitudes I would have just sat down, but Jesus goes on. You are salt. You are light. This is what baptism delivers. Jesus names the new creation. He describes it using vivid images. Finally, illustrations.

And then Jesus goes into the law. You have heard it said… But I say to you… Sometimes he intensifies the law. Other times he negates it. You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Jesus invites us to do impossible things!

Then Jesus gives us food for the journey. He goes on to talk about what we will need to do these impossible things:

  • He talks about the practice of prayer. When you pray… Ask for what you need…
  • Then he talks about the practice of generosity. When you give alms… Don’t store up treasures.
  • The practice of self-denial. When you fast…
  • The practice of forgiveness.

These are the very kinds of practices that those who seek a deeper spiritual life are searching for.

Then Jesus spends considerable time talking about anxiety. Isn’t that interesting? Don’t worry about your life. Don’t worry about having enough. Stuff… On fact, share with lavish, prodigal generosity. (This is what Christianity IS.) Consider the lilies of the field… the birds of the air.

How do we preach this stuff? I think we cast an enticing vision of the new world, and offer an imaginative glimpse of how people might live into it here, and now.

Ralph Klein pointed out it takes 18 minutes to read the entire Sermon on the Mount aloud (Matthew, chapters 5-7). That would be a short sermon for a bishop. I got to thinking, why not have the congregation read the Sermon on the Mount together for the sermon one week in February? Take the day that you would have spent preparing a sermon, go to a quiet, soulful place and spend the day reading and praying.

For your reading, consider Luther’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, based on a sermon series he preached. The translator’s introduction reads as follows: “During Bugenhagen’s absence Luther preached a long while for him, regularly, on the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew, beginning Nov. 9, 1530. These sermons were then published, first in 1532, at Wittenberg, under Joseph Klug, in quarto; in 1533 at Marburg, in octavo; and in 1539, again in Wittenberg, in quarto, under Johann Weiss. In 1533 they were also translated into Latin by Vincent Ohsopoeus.” So, sermon series are no new idea. Luther himself did them regularly. Consider announcing this Sunday a five-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, the Be-happy Attitudes if you like, or Jesus’ First Sermon, or whatever will capture the hearts and minds of the people in your community.

Questions for discussion

  1. Share
    • What is the best sermon you ever heard? What made it stick? What was the message?
    • Tell a story about a time in your life when you stood up for someone who was persecuted, or you were persecuted for doing the right thing.
    • Can you, off the top of your head name any parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?
    • Would it surprise you to know that the Lord’s prayer is in the Sermon on the Mount? Passage about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air? Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness? Love your enemies? Do not judge?
  1. Study
    • Print out the Beatitudes placemat from the link above. Let the group study it for a few minutes. What do you notice about this passage?
    • Read Matthew 5:1-12 responsively. What jumps out at you?
    • How many Beatitudes are there?
    • In what ways of the first four Beatitudes different than the second four Beatitudes?
    • Consider each of these first four Beatitudes separately. What does it mean to be poor in spirit, meek, morning, hungry for justice?
    • Consider each of the second four beatitudes separately. What does it mean to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted for doing what is right?
    • Why do you think the voice changes in the ninth beatitude from “Blessed are they,” to “Blessed are you.”
  1. Apply
    • How could you show mercy to someone this week?
    • What would you need to do this week to cup ultimate within yourself purity of heart?
    • In what situations is God calling you to be a peacemaker?
    • Are there situations in which you need to speak up or act up, even if it means someone doesn’t like you, or you could get persecuted?
    • Take a moment as a group and pray for people who are poor, low in spirit, morning, persecuted, hungry or in need of any kind.

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