February 9, 2014
“You’ve Heard It Said . . . But I Say”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
You may remember back in the early 2000s a federal lawsuit against the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, who had had a 5,280 pound block of granite carved with the ten commandments and placed in the rotunda of the state judicial building. He was eventually ordered to remove it, but what isn’t always remembered is that “the rock,” as it came to be called, went on tour.
Moving over two tons of Vermont granite was no easy feat. It was loaded onto a flatbed trailer and had to be lifted with a fifty foot, five ton crane. One blogger wrote that it was a perfect image to portray the commandments as “burdens, weights and heavy obligations.”
And perhaps that is how we see them. And then Jesus seems to make it worse when he starts preaching on the law – he says that the law is not just about not murdering someone (an outward act), but it is about not hating someone in your heart (an inward act).
There is no where we can hide from the weight of this law.
Before we could check off our “thou shalt not murder” box and feel pretty good about ourselves (even if we did just stab someone in the back), but letting go of anger and not even insulting another human being, can anyone be that good (especially while driving)?
Author Phillip Yancey shares in his book “The Jesus I Never Knew” about a friend who assigned the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, asking the students to write a short essay. She expected them to have some familiarity with the text since Texas is squarely in the Bible Belt. The professor remembered her own introduction to the Sermon on the Mount in Sunday school where a poster in soft colors depicted Jesus surrounded by children on a grassy knoll. It never occurred to her to react with anger or disgust but here is how her students reacted: “The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not”; “I did not like the essay ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.”; “The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement I have ever heard.” To new ears, this is hard stuff – it feels impossible, burdensome, restrictive, and no fun at all.
In order to grasp what Jesus is preaching about in the Sermon on the Mount, we have to go back to his original text, the Law of Moses and specially the Ten Commandments.
And here is the interesting thing – the Hebrew Scriptures describe the commandments of God as life-giving. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses is speaking to his people and he says, “For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.”
He goes on to explain that God is life, so hold fast to him, love him, listen to him – this is how you gain life and freedom. Life and freedom in the law? What an odd idea.
We are still off balance from last week’s passage. We thought that because of Jesus we were free from the law! But Jesus tells us otherwise: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” He tells us that if we set aside even one of least of these commandments, we are considered least in the kingdom of heaven.
And then Jesus starts with murder, the sixth commandment: you have heard it said you shall not murder, but I say to you don’t be angry with a brother or sister, don’t insult them.
That sounds much harder.
Especially when it comes to anger.
Because anger feels good, doesn’t it?
It feels good and self-righteous to be angry because I am right and you are wrong, and I am thinking through all the nasty things that I am going to send your way via email. Email, or text message, is the best way really because then I can imagine how you feel when you read it, rather than see the look on your face, rather than tell you in person and risk hearing your side of the story and discovering that I had it all wrong, because THAT is not a good feeling.
Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel of both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.”
Could it be that Jesus tells us these things, not to make us feel bad about ourselves, and not make us feel like we will never be good enough, but to give us life? So that we are not eating ourselves alive?
So how do we read and understand this “sermon of offense” as Phillip Yancey calls it?
There are two common ways that the Sermon on the Mount has been read and understood.
The first is that Jesus is being radical by urging us to take the law far more seriously than we imagined possible. The law he is establishing far exceeds the Law of Moses. Interpreters have pointed to that phrase Jesus uses, “You have heard it said . . . but I say” to demonstrate how Jesus is creating, in essence, new rules, with the disastrous consequence of making the Christian life all about morality, all about doing the right thing. As the Texas A&M students explained, it makes point all about being perfect, and there is no way to have fun in life without wondering if you are sinning all along the way. We are in a prison of rules we cannot hope to obey. Or as one commentator put it, Jesus gives us the Ten Commandments on steroids.
The second way of reading the sermon on the mount swings us in the opposite direction – Jesus is going to extremes to show us how impossible it is to follow the law, in order to prove to us how hopeless our situation is and to drive us to Christ for mercy. So the value of the law is not to guide our lives but to convince us of our dependence on God for forgiveness when we fail to live up to its high standards. The result being that we shouldn’t really try at all – let’s skip this part and get to the grace.
There is a third way, thank God, and it is that Jesus is really talking about God, especially the kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring through his life, death and resurrection.
And when we are talking about God we are also talking about relationships, which helps us when we think about God’s law, God’s commands. Because our tendency is to think about the law as legal, as about doing the right thing, coloring inside the lines, checking off the boxes of good behavior.
But the law is really concerned about relationships. The Ten Commandments are all about relationships, our relationship with God and our relationship with other people – this is what Jesus was talking about when he said the most important commandments were to love God and to love neighbor.
Understood this way, God’s law is instructing us to honor those with whom we are in relationship – to take this so seriously that we stop our tongues from yelling horrible things at another human being, to take this so seriously that we stop our minds from viewing someone else as just a sexual object, to take this so seriously that we love people even though they may hate us back.
Martin Luther, for example, said that not bearing false witness, isn’t simply about avoiding lying, it’s also about putting the best construction on what a neighbor says and in this way tending the communal relationships that simultaneously constitute and bind our Christian life.
In other words, the law shows us a world in which we live as if each person matters, and each person deserves honor, and deserves to be treated as God’s beloved.
Jesus’ take on God’s commandments in the Sermon on the Mount is not to set them aside, but to make them central to living with God and each other. This is not about shackling us to impossible standards – this is about giving us freedom to live, truly live, as God intended us to. The great early church theologian Augustine of Hippo said “Love, and do what you will” which sums up this whole business: do what love commands in every circumstance, and then live in freedom.
Back to focus of the text this morning, anger — Jesus tells us to do something interesting in this sermon. He says basically that if you come into worship and remember that you have something unresolved with someone else, you should leave and make a reconciliation and then come back.
That wrong, that grievance, stands in the way of worship, it is a blind spot when we stand looking at our savior.
Our worship is filled with profound actions that we sometimes barely notice, and one ancient one that we still do in worship is the passing of the peace.
From the beginning Christians have exercised this practice. Jesus himself greeted his disciples with “Peace be with you.” The apostle Paul opened each of his letters with the words “Grace and peace be with you.” The gesture is simple but full of meaning.
When we extend our hand to another, we identify with Jesus, who extended his life to the point of death to make peace with humanity.
What’s more, in the midst of divisions we live out our unity through handshakes and hugs and eye-contact. When we regularly pass the peace, we practice God’s call to make every effort to maintain the bond of peace with each other. Even when we cannot leave in the middle of worship to go fix things, we can offer to peace and respect to those who surround us, training our hearts and our tongues to do the same outside these walls.
The peace of Christ be with you as seek to follow God’s commands.