a Sermon for Epiphany 6A
Text: Matthew 5:21-37
A most unreasonable request
We’re following Jesus up the side of a mountain and we’re hearing His most famous sermon. A sermon that begins with blessings: (blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek…). A sermon that highlights all the wondrous things that GOD is doing in the world and in people around us. We are invited to be the flavor, the light, the way that the world comes to know those wondrous things.
We talked about this last week, about being those followers, that flavor, carrying that light, and revealing that way.
Now Jesus continues in an even more challenging teaching. On murder, adultery, and oath-swearing. Speaking to his followers, He says that they have been taught that anyone who murders is liable for judgment, but Jesus says that their anger at someone else makes them liable for judgment!
He says that they have been taught not to commit adultery, but Jesus says that their lust counts as adultery.
He says that they have been taught not to lie when taking an oath, but Jesus says to take no oaths at all!
This all must have seemed pretty impossible to those followers standing on the side of the mountain. Committing to Jesus. We can do humble. But we can’t get mad? If our desires get the best of us, we’re supposed to hurt ourselves?
Safest for whom?
Our response isn’t likely to be any better is it? We’re committed enough to Jesus to follow Him up the mountainside this morning—facing the cold, ignoring the siren’s call to stay in bed or get another cup of coffee, gathering for worship together—but none of us really thinks that anger is the same as murder and lust is as bad as adultery.
I worry that what happens in our brains immediately after hearing this gospel will mean that we keep missing Jesus’s point.
Recently I read about a study done about the behavior of doctors. I found this crazy and think you will too. A group of doctors were presented with the case of a woman who had exhausted nearly all of her non-surgical options. They were told there was only one drug left to try. Nearly 50% of doctors had the patient try it—exhausting all of the non-surgical options. Half tried the drug and half elected to move to surgery.
When a similar group of doctors were presented with the same case but were given 2 last drug options, rather than one, only about 25% tried either drug. Three-quarters of these doctors went straight to surgery. Having a second option meant that half as many tried it!
Doctors are smart people. Trained well. We trust them with our lives. But presented with a slightly more confusing case, they made a strange decision.
We don’t process facts and information as logically or thoughtfully as we think we do. We allow cognitive dissonance and overwhelming thoughts to cloud our judgment. So when we hear Jesus teach on sin, we, like those doctors, get stuck and choose the safest choice. The safest choice for them or us (rather than safest for the patient—it is surgery after all). Our safest choice is to actually ignore Jesus. Anger isn’t murder and I can’t control my anger, we say. I’m not a monk! And we miss the point.
The content of our character
Right before this, Jesus announced that he hasn’t come to abolish The Law, but fulfill it.
And we read Jesus’s words, not as a Hebrew, but as a Greek. Our way of thought is much more heavily influenced by Greek Philosophy than Hebrew Theology. We hear Jesus’s words about external actions and internal thoughts through dualism—as if we have an outside self and an inside self—a body and a soul—a heart and a mind. But Jesus didn’t think that way. He thought in wholeness. No external and internal, but whole.
The trouble with how The Law was being used was to focus only on actions, ignoring what causes disunity in us, in our relationships, and in our communities. Sin was being seen not from GOD’s view, but from the view of the righteous or the oppressor: in the action and not its cause.
GOD isn’t counting up the ways a person is good or bad. We don’t get three strikes before we’re out. It isn’t an opportunity for punishment. It is about reconciliation. It is about coming together.
This is why Jesus speaks to anger and lust and lying. He isn’t speaking to fleeting thoughts or feelings. It is not about irritation or attraction or imagination. It is about what happens to our relationships with others and our relationship with GOD. It is not getting upset that someone cut us off in traffic, but how we retaliate or what we do to the next driver that comes along. Do we cut them off?
As Christians, our first priority is reconciliation. It is healing the whole world. We can’t do that through clenched teeth and cold shoulders. We do it through love.
Breaking the chain
I’m reminded of an episode of How I Met Your Mother in which the more malevolent, hedonistic character of Barney invites his friends to participate in what he calls “the chain of screaming.” Marshall, one of the characters, is afraid he’ll get yelled at by his boss and Barney tells him that he needs to find someone under him and scream at them. You get screamed at by your boss, so scream at someone you have power over. It is an absurd and cruel idea from a TV show. But we actually do this. We hurt each other because we feel hurt.
Jesus tells us to stop hurting each other. Break the chain. Just because we keep the inner rage inside, doesn’t mean we aren’t sinning—or keeping it all in, either. It comes out in other ways.
The Law that Jesus came to fulfill isn’t about punishing our sin, but awakening our love. About being salt and light and thriving, not over others in the world of chaos, but as one people in the Kingdom of GOD.
It’s about love. It’s about reconciling. And it’s about seeing our friends and neighbors as the incarnate Christ, not tools for our use. That our concern isn’t our spiritual health, but each others’! Are we loving or are we using one another?
Soon we will climb down from this mountainside and return to our cars and our personal routines and we will get hurt. Someone will hurt us or offend us. Someone will do something that violates our understanding of The Law. And when that happens, may we remember that Jesus violated The Law to help us reconcile with GOD and one another. May we see the Christ in them, whether or not they see it in themselves. And may we love them for them as GOD loves us: undeserving, generous, and with abundant joy.