Grace Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2017, Epiphany 6A
Now You’ve Quit Preaching…
One of the great, or at least tricky, difficulties of preaching, especially preaching from an extended portion of scripture over a series of multiple weeks, is that even very long passages of scripture can be extremely self-referential, recalling or elaborating upon words spoken several verses or even chapters before (as later scholars so marked the Bible, of course; neither Matthew nor any other biblical author marked verses or chapters in their writings). The Apostle Paul is pretty notorious for this sort of thing in his letters; the prophets of the Old Testament frequently double back to repeat or reinforce ideas many times in their writings; and yes, the gospel writers, whether recording the words or deeds of Jesus, could string out quite a bit of instruction from one simple statement.
Our modern Bibles don’t always help us see this. Those helpful section headings found in modern editions of the Bible sometimes have the effect of encouraging us to read whatever is under that heading as a discrete chunk of text that can be read all by itself, without reference to other parts of the biblical text. Sometimes that’s not a major problem, but sometimes, as with the texts given for today’s lectionary gospel reading, that can have seriously harmful results.
Beginning with verse 21 of Matthew 5 we arrive at what in scholarly terms is a series of six antitheses, all organized according to the formula “you have heard it said … but I say to you” or some variation of that formula. Four of those antitheses are included in today’s reading (we’ll get to the other two next week), and these four often are lamented as creating unattainable standards for Jesus’s disciples, or for us modern-day followers of Christ.
These theses or statements Jesus cites were indeed familiar to his listeners; two of them come straight from the Ten Commandments, and the others are also found in the Torah, particularly Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The first antithesis, drawing on one of those Ten Commandments, begins with the widely accepted commandment “you shall not murder” and a corollary statement from Deuteronomy that committing murder makes one susceptible to judgment. Easy enough for Jesus’s listeners to accept; however, to go from there to Jesus’s statement that even being angry at a brother or sister left one susceptible to judgment, and calling someone a fool put you in danger of Hell, was a jolt to the assembled crowds, and to Jesus’s still-fairly-new disciples as well.
The next two antitheses struck particularly hard at the men in Jesus’s audience. The long tradition by which deuteronomic regulations about divorce and adultery had been interpreted tended to slant the balance of power in society decidedly towards men, with women having virtually the status of property instead of person. Such guidelines granted all the power in marital relationships towards men – women could not, for example, give that certificate of divorce mentioned in v. 31; only men could. The reasons such a certificate could be given, while nominally limited to infidelity, could in practice be extended to just about any way a man might take offense at a woman. Once a man had decided that the offense was too much for his ego to bear, he might say, oh, I don’t know… “she was warned; she was given a reason; nevertheless, she persisted”? And he could dismiss her, just like that.
Jesus spikes that kind of reasoning, hard. To men who had been accustomed to having things there way, Jesus pronounces that the burden of fidelity and decency really was on them after all. You’re looking at her with nothing but lust? The sin is yours. You want to divorce her, when she’s been faithful to you, and condemn her to a life with no place to live, no food to eat, no way to make a living? You better believe the sin is yours. She is a person, a fully human being fully loved of God, every bit as much as you. And a man who insisted on indulging in the privilege of treating women as poverty had no part in the kingdom of God. (And yes, this is just as true now as it was then, though it is sad that this apparently still needs to be pointed out.)
The final antithesis here, on the swearing of oaths, seems even more remote from us. Swearing oaths, or making vows, only happens if we’re testifying in court or possibly serving on a jury, or some such similar official situation. But even here there is something about genuine faithfulness to be learned; the need to add anything to your “yes” or “no” is, Jesus says, “from the evil one.”
Taken on their own, these sound anything from harsh to impossible. It’s not hard to imagine not committing murder, but not being angry at someone? And pulling back from making your offering at the Temple in order to go make things right with someone? Inconceivable.
(And I’m quite certain the Stewardship Committee doesn’t really want me to make a big deal of that particular recommendation with the offering yet to be taken in this service.)
If these look harsh or impossible, well, yes, they should. They are harsh or impossible…unless you get outside of this smaller unit and look back to Matthew 5:17.
Remember that one?
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”
What Jesus is showing us in today’s reading is what it looks like when the law and the prophets are fulfilled.
What Jesus is showing us in today’s reading is what Jesus does in us.
When we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, we no longer need to wallow or indulge in our anger or toss insults at one another. We certainly don’t need to be overcome with lust or treat one another as disposable property. The fulfilling of the law accomplished in Jesus changes the way we relate to one another. When we relate to one another in Christ, our human ways of using and abusing are left aside.
What we have yet to learn, it seems, is that fulfilling the law and the prophets is a very different thing from obeying the law and the prophets. As these examples show, it was quite possible to obey the law – to keep every jot and tittle of the law, as the King James Version of 5:18 reads – and yet not fulfill the law, and in fact be very far from fulfilling the law. Obeying the law can frankly leave us cold and indifferent towards our brothers and sisters, or – even worse – judgmental jerks whose lives are outright antithetical to the fulfilling of the law. If our relationship to the law and the prophets leaves us cold or hateful or judgmental of our neighbor, we are working against the fulfillment of the law that is what Jesus has declared is his mission in and among and with us.
So yes, these antitheses are impossible for us. But they are not up to us. What is up to us is Jesus in us. Our job is simply to be the vessel in which Jesus’s fulfillment happens. It’s not about a demand to do the impossible on our own; it’s about being the ones in whom Jesus carries out his mission not to abolish, but to fulfill.
For Jesus, the one who does not abolish but fulfills, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#415 Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
#64 I Long For Your Commandments
#444 Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive
#313 Lord, Make Us More Holy