Above and Beyond – Sermon for Epiphany 6A on Matthew 5:21-37

February 16 2020

Last week, we heard Jesus preaching about being Salt and Light, as part of his Sermon on the Mount. Those Beatitudes we heard two weeks ago sounded sweet, and being the salt and light that shows Jesus to the world around us sounds encouraging, doesn’t it? And if you missed last week’s message, here’s the short version:

When Jesus says, ‘you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world,’ he is calling us to live well-seasoned lives, lives that uncover God’s light for others to see. That light shines, not because we make it shine, but because of what God is doing in and among us.

When we cooperate with God in the process of becoming more and more like Christ, everything we say and do seasons the world around us with God’s love, and shows God to others who can’t see him yet. Our lives reflect God’s grace in such a way that it shines on others who haven’t experienced that grace yet, so they can come to know Jesus, too.

You have a purpose. You have a place in God’s kingdom.
Your place and your purpose is simple:
Be salt.
Be light.
So that others will see Jesus in you.

That’s all well and good, but while we are being salty and shiny, Jesus is asking more of us. Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. As Jesus digs deeper into what it means to live into the spirit of the Law, he makes it clear that being his follower requires more from us than obeying a few rules. This is where things get up close and personal. And Jesus is going to use some rough language to get his point across. 

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:21-37)

If the Beatitudes sounded radical when Jesus first spoke them, imagine how much more radical these ideas must have sounded to the people gathered on that hillside. Jesus didn’t mince any words. He used language that would have been considered coarse, at best, in first century Galilee.

Raca, Gehenna, porneia – these were words you didn’t use in polite company. Our modern translations tone down the impact – insult, hell, and unchastity don’t sound quite as embarrassing as their literal counterparts would.

“Name-calling was highly insulting in Jewish culture because a person’s identity was stripped away and an offensive identity substituted. The significance attached to one’s real name is removed from the person.”[1] Raca was just such an insult – it meant you had no brain, your head was empty. In other words, you weren’t fully human.

And Gehenna, which gets translated here as “hell”, was a real place, a valley just outside of Jerusalem where everything unclean got dumped. It had been “the valley where Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed their sons to Molech, which caused Josiah to defile the place (2 Kings 23:10). Later the valley was used to burn refuse from Jerusalem, so the constant burning made the valley an appropriate reference to fires of punishment.” [2]

Then there’s porneia, which the NRSV translates as ‘unchastity.’ But this word refers to all kinds of sexual immorality. It’s where we get the root of our word ‘pornography.’ These were words that might have had mothers covering the ears of their children as they listened to Jesus speak.

But Jesus had good reason to use language that would shake up his listeners. Jesus was trying to reframe the way his followers saw the world. He was urging his disciples to see the world through God’s eyes, to recognize that God’s Kingdom was at hand, and he didn’t want a single person to miss it. The standard he was setting for true Kingdom behavior went above and beyond what the Law said.

If part of your body causes you to sin, cut it off! It’s better to go through life as a cripple than to risk the fires of hell.
Moses told you that you shouldn’t commit adultery, but I tell you that looking at someone with lust in your heart is just as bad, and when a man divorces a woman, he is, in effect, turning her into an adulteress.
Moses told you not to kill each other. But I tell you that holding a grudge against someone is just as evil as murder. When you hurl insults at each other, it’s just as bad as a dagger to the heart.

One by one, Jesus holds up a commandment and intensifies its meaning and purpose. Jesus offers a new way to interpret the Law that transcends the way his listeners had understood it. When Jesus says, “You have heard it said, … but I say to you,…” he isn’t replacing the Ten Commandments with some new set of rules. He is urging us to go deeper into God’s intention for us.

The words of the Law are not a checklist of minimum requirements for acceptable behavior, but that’s the way people had understood them. ‘Do this, and you’ll be okay.’ Jesus says, “I expect more from my followers.” Like the commercials for that wireless network, Jesus reminds us, “Just okay is never okay.” Christ calls us to go above and beyond the letter of the Law.

Jesus calls us to get at the root of our sinfulness and purge it out before a grudge turns into hatred and murder, before lust turns into adultery and divorce, before an idle word becomes a false promise. Jesus asks us to open our lives to him, to allow the Holy Spirit to search out our weaknesses before they become hardened habits of sin that separate us from God.

And there is something we need to notice in this part of the Sermon on the Mount: of all the 10 Commandments Jesus could have addressed, he doesn’t talk about the ones that govern our relationship with the Father. He doesn’t talk about keeping the Sabbath holy or having no other gods before the Lord God. The commandments – or sayings – Jesus lifts up all have something to do with the way we live in relationship to each other.

Delmer Chilton points out that, “Jesus is digging beneath the surface of outward observance to get at both the difficulty and the serious importance of being genuine and transparent in God’s new community of the church. … All throughout this text, Jesus’ words are about dropping pretense and dealing with the real problems of being in relationship and community with others by being honest, straight-forward and humble with each other.”

Dr. Chilton adds that the call of today’s text is an urgent one: “Do it now. Live by kingdom values now. Straighten out your life now. Make peace with others now. The kingdom of God is here, now. The spirit of God is giving you strength for whatever changes you need to make, now. The love of Christ is forgiving you and inviting you to forgive others, now.“[3]

In each case, Jesus explains that the Law doesn’t go far enough in prohibiting these behaviors. Instead, he offers an above-and-beyond approach to living in community with others. This is the way of Love, the way of Christ. The Apostle Paul explains it this way in his letter to the church at Rome:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:9-10

When Jesus says he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, this is what he is talking about. He is urging us to go above and beyond a set of rules, letting our actions and our words be governed instead by love for each other.

And sometimes that isn’t easy. Sometimes we don’t feel the love. Sometimes we’d rather shout insults at each other and wag our fingers in each other’s faces. Sometimes we’d rather live in our stubborn brokenness than do the hard work of healing and restoration.

  • But Jesus calls us to go above and beyond what we’d rather do, and follow him into the kind of love that puts a brother or sister’s welfare ahead of our own.
  • Jesus calls us to go above and beyond maintaining a polite distance from those we don’t like, as we follow him into serving one another in love.
  • Jesus calls us to go above and beyond insisting that we are right, so that we can mend relationships we’ve broken and offer healing to those we’ve hurt.

We might think of murder as worse than adultery, and adultery as worse than lying under oath. But to Jesus, sin is sin. Anything that separates us from the love of God condemns us. And anything that keeps us from supporting each other in love separates us from God.

We live in a time of deep divisions, and anger rises at the drop of a hat. Insults fly on social media, and it’s easy to take offense, even when none was intended. If you don’t like what someone says on your platform, you can simply block them.

As a result, we have become more and more isolated from one another, more and more content to only hear the voices that we find agreeable, more and more willing to ridicule the voices that do not agree with us.

But Jesus calls us to be reconciled to one another, to support one another, to lift one another up, to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Christ calls us to go above and beyond our own desires and preferences, and live into the law of love.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

This is how we are salt and light in a world of darkness. This is how we show Jesus to people who don’t know him. This is how we share Jesus with the world around us. And this is how, in Jesus’ name, we do the work of mending what is broken and healing what is hurt so that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, our love for each other will draw people into God’s love for them.
Let it be so.

[1] The Matthew Commentary Collection: An All-In-One Commentary Collection for Studying the Book of Matthew by Michael J. Wilkins, Grant R. Osborne, et al. http://a.co/bLdnq6k
[2] Ibid., http://a.co/hWhWdzz
[3] http://lectionarylab.com/2014/02/10/year-a-the-sixth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-february-16-2014/

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