You Have Heard It Said…, Matthew 5:21-37
Plymouth First United Methodist, February 16, 2020
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
Perhaps you have heard it said (or have thought yourself), “Being a Christian just makes sense. Your life will go better if you sign on with Jesus.” But I say to you that if you listen to Jesus, if you take his teachings seriously, then you will find your life becoming a bit more complex and complicated.
Take today’s gospel for instance…
You have heard it said, Jesus says to the people gathered ‘round listening to him teach. You have heard it said: it’s important to try to be compassionate and caring toward those who are in need, but sometimes you have to be realistic…cautious…on your toes…you know, someone might take advantage of your generosity.” (Ok, so he didn’t say that. But, you have heard it said! You’ve thought it yourself! You understand, don’t you Jesus? We want to follow your teachings, but a person needs to be realistic, right?) But I say to you that Jesus, judging from his comments in this sermon, appears to have little interest in being realistic. The love and compassion he talks about…well, they’re over the top. His concern doesn’t seem to be about a person taking advantage of another’s generosity.
You have heard it said, “Violence is wrong unless it is used in self-defense.” (Well…I’m not sure Jesus said that exactly, either. Okay, so didn’t.) But I say to you that Jesus appears to advocate some higher value even than self-defense, judged by his comments in this sermon.
You have heard it said, “Religion is fine, as long as you don’t take it to the extreme, as long as you are not a fanatic.” (You know, “those” people are a little scary.) But I say to you that the way of life Jesus advocates in this sermon is what we would probably call “extreme.”
How many ordinary everyday folk like you and me look at the demands of Jesus and say, “piece of cake, I can do these things. Not a problem?” Or do his teachings challenge us? Is it just easier to pick and choose what seems most reasonable and doable? “Surely, he didn’t really mean that. Did he?”
You have heard it said that people respond best to positive messages and sermons that are affirming and supportive of them. But I say to you that in this sermon Jesus appears to speak against some of our most widely affirmed practices. His intent seems to be to make us feel uncomfortable…perhaps even a little angry!
You have heard it said that the main thing you ought ask in coming to church is, “What are my deepest needs that need met?” But I say to you in this sermon that Jesus doesn’t appear to care about our needs. As a matter of fact, if we take seriously what Jesus demands in this part of his sermon, there’s a good chance that we’ll leave here today with more needs than when we arrived!
You have heard it said, “the purpose of a sermon is to help make religion rational to thinking people, to present Jesus in such a way that people will see that he is the answer to their questions and the solution to their problems.” But I say to you that this Sunday Jesus seems to want to create even more questions and instigate even more problems.
Perhaps we like Jesus better if we don’t have to deal with some of the things he teaches, if we could just avoid the more difficult texts, if we could pretty much stay the way we are, and just feel a little bit better. About ourselves. About our world. You know, everything is going to fall into place because God is in charge and in control. I believe that. You maybe do, too.
There’s not really a lot that I can do anyway, is there?
We don’t really have a problem with Jesus until we come to church and hear Jesus preach, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”
Here I am, all rested from vacation, and this morning you’re thinking, let’s rename our pastor “Debbie Downer.” But we have some serious things to talk about…to think about this morning…and to go home and think about some more when we’re all done here. Because if we want to be followers of Jesus, we need to listen to his teachings, to do our best to live according to his teachings. And that means listening to all of his teachings. Not ignoring the tough ones and moving on. I most certainly believe that LOVE is at the heart of the gospel—at the heart of who Jesus is and what he teaches—but embracing that love and living it out everyday means we need to keep our eyes open and to really SEE what we’re doing. Because the way we live, the decisions we make, the way we respond to different situations aren’t always as loving and kind and helpful as we might like to think. Because we see the world through these eyes, through these perceptions—the ones we’ve created from our own experiences. It can be hard to step out of our own skins and see others, see the world through the eyes of Jesus.
But as Christians, it is of course, through his eyes that we want to see. We want to learn from him, to respond to life in the way he calls us to respond.
Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy thinks that it’s important to ask, “Who is your teacher?” He goes on to write, “Who teaches you? Whose disciple are you? Honestly. One thing is sure: You are somebody’s disciple. There are not exceptions to this rule, for human beings are just the kind of creatures that have to learn and keep learning from others how to live. Aristotle remarked that we owe more to our teachers than to our parents, for though our parents gave us life, our teachers taught us the good life.”
So, this morning, it’s important for us to ask ourselves: Who is my teacher? Who do I listen to? Who do I follow? Who is my mentor? Who do I want to be like?
We have many options to choose from: Wall Street, Facebook, political leaders, authors, fictional characters, actors, consumer reports alcohol, power, success, Jesus…
Who is your teacher?
In Jesus’ day, the scribes, the Pharisees, knew the law backward and forward. They were the self-appointed legal conscience of Israel, and they were bound and determined to make sure everyone obeyed the law to the letter. The scribes acted as lawyers for the law of Moses, and the Pharisees believed that God’s kingdom would come only when the people of Israel all obeyed that law perfectly.
The law, of course, were the commandments of Moses, written down by God on tablets of stone and given to Moses on Mount Sinai. They were rules to live by. They were rules that made everything right. They were rules that were necessary to follow for order…for God’s will to be done.
For Jesus, the rules were still important, but the principles behind the rules were even more important. The point wasn’t just about what was written down in stone, following exactly what was said—it was about God’s intention for God’s people to live in community, to have compassion for one another, to care about one another. It was about having the character and law of God written on the hearts of God’s people. That’s why, in verse 20, before our reading for this morning, Jesus says, “I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It isn’t about following the letter of the law and being “perfect”. It’s understanding that the law points to something bigger—it points to living as a community in God’s new world. A community that began in the coming of Jesus, and that continues to be born through us in our world today.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes the old law and wants us to hear the fullness of its meaning. “You have heard it said to those who lived long ago, ‘Don’t commit murder.’ We’ve read that commandment and have just moved on to the next one. Okay, that’s not a problem. Check that one off as accomplished.
But Jesus says, wait a minute, there’s more to it than that.
He continues, saying: “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgement. Oops, here we go. Yep, been there, done that. Jesus doesn’t stop there, he goes even deeper: there are consequences for name-calling, he says, which we already know isn’t good—our moms taught us that a long time ago—AND he even goes on to say that if we bring a gift to the altar and then remember our brother or sister has something against us, we should leave the offering and go make amends before returning and giving our gift.
We can see how important reconciliation is to God, can’t we? Even our worship is affected until our relationships are made right.
I’ve missed something before, maybe you have, too. Jesus points out here, “if your brother or sister has something against you…” This is one of those times when we’re admitting that we have done something that has offended or hurt somebody else. He doesn’t say if YOU have something against someone else. It’s being honest enough to realize our own failures and going to the person we’ve hurt or offended and telling them we’re sorry. Then, we come back and give our gift.
Reconciliation is important, Jesus wants us to hear. So much so, that he ends this section talking about reconciling with our opponents on the way to court, to keep from being thrown into prison. Again, it looks like the perspective he’s coming from is that WE have done the offending. I wouldn’t try to interpret these few sentences as Jesus offering legal advice, but telling us very clearly that reconciliation should always be our first priority and greatest effort.
So, I haven’t murdered anyone, but I have been guilty of anger, and reconciliation is always my task and my goal.
The second command Jesus speaks to in this section of his sermon is adultery. Jesus takes us back to the command of Moses, Don’t commit adultery, which is very clear, and perhaps another one that you’ve read and just moved on: not an issue. But again, Jesus takes us further, into the realm of possibility for any person: He says, Every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. And I don’t think we women are released from this expectation.
I think that the key word here is “lust” which dehumanizes people into objects that we use for our own pleasure. We might be able to avoid the physical act of adultery and obey the law, but we forget that the emotional or psychological attachment of lust is just as destructive. Jesus calls us to not merely avoid breaking the law but to avoid breaking the fidelity of marriage that supports community, trust and love—the kind of fidelity that Christ himself has with his bride, the church. God’s new world is characterized by faithfulness, and when we embrace fidelity in our hearts and in our relationships, we will learn how to embrace it forever.
It’s been 30 years now, but I still have some pretty clear images of some folks I came to know as a psychiatric mental health nurse. On separate occasions, I spent time with a couple of young strippers who ended up having issues with addictions. Their stories and their appearance were nothing like the romanticized (?) images in the movies or magazines you might have seen along the way. Their stories were sad and their sexual histories began long before you or I would ever hope for our own daughters…and love was never a part of the equation. It was about exploitation and survival. Human trafficking isn’t something we heard about then, but it’s apparently much more prevalent than we realize in our world today. It’s about lust, it’s exploitation, it’s dehumanizing, and it breaks God’s heart.
The third statement Jesus makes is related to divorce. “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
In that day, the law said that a man could simply give his wife a certificate of divorce (for whatever reason) and that was that. Here, Jesus is saying that divorce shouldn’t be an easy thing for a man to acquire, because marriage is one of the foundations of family and community life.
In the time of Jesus, marriage was essential to the well-being of women because they had very few economic or legal rights apart from men. And, in both ancient times and today, divorce can have a negative impact on the welfare of children. Single-parent households have less money and less time for children, which can negatively impact them for the rest of their lives. To be sure, many single parents are heroic, but it’s a struggle. So, we might say that Jesus is hard on divorce because he cares so deeply for vulnerable women and children.
Does this mean that divorce among Christians should never be permitted? Of course not. There are times when divorce is the best way out of a bad relationship. But working for the health of marriage and our relationships is one of our tasks as followers of Jesus.
Finally, Jesus speaks concerning oaths. Under Jewish law, and in our courts today, swearing something under oath by sealing it with something like the phrase “so help me God” is common. If you swear an oath in court, then what you say has to be true or you are violating the law. So, the implication could be that if one isn’t under oath, then perhaps what’s being said isn’t the truth. Jesus takes the law to its root: we shouldn’t just be truthful under oath, we should always be truthful. Our word should be trusted and true. Telling the truth is the basis of community. Lies and falsehoods tear a community apart.
Many of the people who heard Jesus preach that day thought they were righteous and good—until they heard Jesus speak about righteousness and goodness. But in his words, they (and we) come to realize that Jesus expects his followers to be “more” than meeting the requirements of the law. We’re to be a part of bringing God’s kingdom on earth by working for reconciliation, by being faithful to our partners, by strengthening our marriages, and by speaking the truth.
In some of those areas, our report cards might have an A++ with a star stamped at the top, while other areas might note “needs improvement.” But we’ve come to know that the God we know loves us, offers us grace, and stands beside us as we learn lessons and seek to be our best selves as we follow him. Our community surrounds us and strengthens us and is at its best when we honor one another, when we care about one another, and when we’re honest and loving with one another.
So, I wonder today, who is your teacher? Who do you listen to? Who do you follow? Who is your mentor? Who do you want to be like?
Who is your teacher?