Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 14, 2011

2011.02.13 “Going Beyond” Matthew 5: 17 – 48

Central United Methodist Church

Pastor David L. Haley

“Going Beyond”

Matthew 5: 17 – 48

February 13, 2011

          “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, You shouldn’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.”   – Matthew 5: 21 – 26, Common English Version

       Recently my family watched the classic film, To Kill a Mockingbird, after the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee.  It is a great book and a great movie and there are many great scenes, but there is one in particular I have in mind today, the scene where Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch’s accuser (and the likely perpetrator of the crime), spits in Atticus’ face. 

        Atticus moves toward him, the muscles in his face clench, but he controls himself, wipes off the spit, and walks around Ewell, as both physical movement and moral gesture.

        In such a situation, what would you do, what should we do? Most of us know what we would do: we would strike back. We would teach Bob Ewell a lesson, about how not to call people names or spit in people’s faces. But in so do, we would likely only perpetuate the cycle of violence, and invite unknown consequences.

        How many of us would have the moral strength to do what Atticus Finch did: not lower himself to the level of Ewell, but to do the right thing, which will have longer and stronger lasting moral consequences, especially when witnessed by others?

        It is just this challenge in attitude, action, and relationship that Jesus asks of us today, in the most challenging section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  It is the famous six antitheses: “You have heard it said, but I say unto you,” in six representative issues: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies.  

        The phrases of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are so familiar and beautiful we sometimes forget how demanding they are.  “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.”  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  How lovely, how close to home, how impossible!

        Greg Carey is a pastor who tells the story of listening to a voicemail from his ten year old daughter:  “Dad, I’m the reader at church Sunday, and have that passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.” You know that passage, right? Do the other Gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other Gospels?  Could you let me know, because . . . no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 381)

        For the most part, that’s how Christians have interpreted Jesus’ words: surely Jesus is wrong.  Over time, Christians have said:

– Jesus was setting forth values to which his disciples should aspire. They are impossible, but that’s the point.  By striving toward them, we live better than we would otherwise.

– Jesus’ words throughout the Sermon on the Mount reveal the impossibility of human righteousness, preparing us for grace.

– Jesus was speaking to his disciples then and there.  In our modern world, with its complex relationships, global economics, and violent military threats, surely his advice does not apply.

– Jesus offers pragmatic advice to oppressed people. When you cannot force people to treat you justly, you expose their injustice. When striking back will only get you hurt, confront your aggressor without retaliation. When your debts are out of control, show how your poverty leaves you without protection. When your occupier demands your labor, put him in an impossible situation by going beyond expectations.

        These are but some of the interpretations of Jesus’ words, which allow us to say, with relief, “Thank God for such interpretations. I was afraid we might actually have to practice it.”

        After all, Jesus offers alternatives difficult to imagine.  Who can be perfect?  It is much easier to be mean, hold grudges, and ignore those in need. If I give to everybody who begs, I will have nothing for myself.  If I turn the other cheek, I will get slapped again.  If I get sued, I am hiring the best lawyer I can afford to fight back.  If I love my enemies, I will be persecuted or even killed.  If I am too nice, I will be seen as weak, a pushover, a doormat. 

        But as I suggested before, in my previous two sermons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is envisioning what life might be like as lived in God’s kingdom. He does so in the Beatitudes by naming those whom God most favors – those most “blessed”: the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn. He did so last week by asking his followers to function in the world, as in God’s kingdom, as salt and light. He does so this week by envisioning what it might mean to live in God’s kingdom in attitude and action. What might the possibilities be, says Jesus, if the world had even a few people who “go beyond” what is required, who think of others before themselves, where every decision and action is carried out for the common good, and each person is treated as sister or brother.

        Jesus starts out by reminding his hearers that (1) he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.  But he also reminded them that (2) even perfect observance of the Law is not enough: “Unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is saying, in effect, it is never enough to say what we say on a good day: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” Jesus not only wants more from us, he wants more for us. (David Lose, Radical, Working Preacher, 2/6/2011)

        Remember please, in reality, the Pharisees were not bad guys, they were the “good guys” of the day, the standard Jesus works from. Remember, Matthew’s Gospel was written around A.D. 80, after the destruction of Jerusalem, when antagonism and polemic between Christians and Jews was harsh.  What Jesus asks of his followers is a goodness that goes beyond mere observance of any law, in both attitude and action.

        Remember how in school, someone would always raise their hand and ask the teacher, “Is this going to be on test?” As if to say, “I really don’t want to learn this, I just want to memorize what I need to know for the test.”  Well, Jesus is saying, you’re not only responsible for what’s in the law, but to go beyond that.  And not just to know it, but to practice it. In fact, says Jesus, this is the test, not just orthodoxy, but orthopraxy.

        Through the use of antitheses and exaggeration (please DON’T pluck your eye out and cut your hand off), Jesus gives six illustrations. In each case he notes the legal standard, but extends and transcends its meaning. 

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, You shouldn’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. (Matthew 5: 21 – 22) 

“You have heard that it was said, You shouldn’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. (27 – 28)

“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (31 – 32)  

 

“. . . It was said to those who lived long ago: You shouldn’t swear a false oath, but you should follow through on what you have sworn to the Lord. But I say to you that you must not swear at all. (33 – 34)

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. (38 – 42)

 “You have heard that it was said, You should love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you . . . (43 – 44)

        The reason Jesus gives us that we should live this radical way? Because this is the way God is. “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 God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

        As beautiful and as challenging as it is, the Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of the heart of God: God who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak go another mile, lend, love the enemy — because that is how God loves. If we want to follow this God, fleshed out in Jesus, we are adopted into a life in which – before we know what we are doing – we find ourselves loving this way.  (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Jason Byassee, p. 382)

        After all, we need not only hear the words, we can look at his life.  Did Jesus live this way? Yes, he did. Said the ancient Christian teacher, Hilary of Poitier: “The Lord who accompanies us on our journey offers his own cheek to slaps and his shoulders to whips, to the increase of his glory.”  No wonder at the end of the sermon, it says: When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching because he was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts.” (Matthew 7: 28 – 29)  We are still amazed.

        Mohandas Gandhi thought so highly of the Sermon on the Mount that it influenced his nonviolent strategy against the British in India. Martin Luther King not only thought highly of Gandhi, but even more so of Jesus’ strategy of non-violence. Through its moral force, King ended segregation and won civil rights for African-Americans in our country. Last week in Egypt, we saw it practiced yet again: a Pharaoh brought down not by violence, but by the power of moral force. If only we had entertained that possibility before we invaded Iraq, at such terrible costs to both countries. Really, is our problem that these values have been tried and found wanting, or is it that they are so rarely tried?

        Can we do it? Can we turn the other cheek, not respond in kind, forgo revenge, give more than required, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, love the enemy, pray for persecutors, and greet the stranger. Could we even do what Atticus Finch did?  

        Speaking for myself, likely for all of us: by ourselves, no. Not out of our own personality or character, not under our control nor under the control of the anger and violence of another. It will only be, as the prophet Zechariah said long ago: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

        Our prayer then is: Lord, for the sake of our world and for our children and for the sake of each other: make us the children you seek us to be. 

Amen.

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Responses

  1. Sorry to have missed this, but am learning that the written version is also quite valuable for review and study.


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