Category Archives: Sermon on the Mount

Christ the Foundation

Easter Sermon, 2017, Matthew 7:24-27

When our youngest child was younger, we used to say to him—cute wore off two and a half kids ago.  It usually happened when he had done something just to see if he could get away with it.  And he would smile at us with that look that said, “Yes, but I’m cute and so I get away with it.”  And we’d say, “Cute wore off two and a half kids ago.”    Knowing that siblings often seek ammunition to use against their brothers and sisters, I’m guessing he blamed the older ones for overplaying the cute card and ruining it for him.  We started using that phrase before he could really do math.  If he had done the subtraction he would have realized that two and a half kids ago wasn’t after the first two kids, but at the beginning of our raising our first child. We realized that if we allowed Children’s cuteness to guide us, we would squander our role as parents. Lori and I never verbalized it to each other.  We didn’t read it in a book.  We didn’t hear it in a seminar.  And I’m sure there were some negative consequences with our choice.  But somehow intuitively we decided, cute wasn’t going to be the criteria we used to assess our children’s behaviors.  There is a lot of cuteness with Easter.  Cute Easter dresses and cut little boy outfits.  Cute Easter bunnies and cute Easter chickens.  Cute little flowers and cute Easter bows.  And cute little Easter eggs.  Even a grumpy man like me, I have a cute new tie for today.  But more and more I sense that people looking for something else.

Jesus anticipated a time when he would say—cuteness wore out two and a half Disciples ago.  The parable Jesus told of the wise and foolish builders concludes the great Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7.  It comes close to the beginning of the Gospel in the narrative sequence.  It is the first of five major sections of teachings in the structure of the Gospel of Matthew.  Most biblical scholars agree that the sermon was not something Jesus delivered from beginning to end at one time.  Rather, it was a composition of Matthew—the Gospel writer—who pulled together these teachings and organized them into a comprehensive whole.  Jesus was at the beginning edge of his popularity in terms of the story Matthew was telling. And if Jesus wanted to make his movement work, he could have benefitted from better marketing.  Because early on—Jesus seemed to suggest that cuteness wasn’t really his thing.

Which, by the way, is a lousy thing to do if you’re out to start a religion.  In 2005, Bob Henderson crafted a satirical response to a Kansas Board of Education decision to allow the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in Public school biology classes.  Henderson proposed a new religion the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It became an internet sensation.  There are books like the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and adherents who call themselves Pastafarians.  There are pictures and t-shirts and lots of cute paraphernalia.  It’s taken off.  If you’re going to start a religion—start cute. Here’s the thing– Jesus really never intended to start a religion.  I know that’s the most ironic thing to say on THE MOST RELIGIOUS SUNDAY of the YEAR for Christ’s followers.  But if you look at what Jesus came to do according to his own words, he came to usher in the Kingdom of God.

Matthew included Jesus’s teaching—many will come in that day and say, “Lord, Lord,” but Jesus will say—it’s not  the ones who parrot the right words but the one who does the will of God.  And others will say—but look at all the cute things we did—signs, wonders, casting out demons, Jesus will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” Jesus anticipated a time when the throng of followers would—one by one—need to make a choice to either take him seriously or go and find a new fad to follow.  Jesus ruled out being cute as the basis for evaluating his Disciples’ lives.

He declared the rule and reign of God over and above the rule and reign of any other.  He declared that God’s way of governing the world was to use power for             building people up rather than keeping people down.  And the moral legislation to which Jesus subscribed points to something bigger than religion.  There’s a part of all religions that’s just about the cuteness—about the differentiation of one’s self from the culture in which one lives. Religions teach people to Dress a certain way, modify eating habits, set the calendar for Holy Days and provide guidance for liturgies and rituals.  Jesus practiced a religion—it’s called Judaism.  He observed the days, maintained kosher—to a point, he certain embraced the narrative of God at work in Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Hannah and Samuel, David and Isaiah.  And he accepted that the religion would be a part of his followers’ lives but he wanted depth of sincere belief.  He wanted something other than cuteness.

It seems that Many Christians have decided the cuteness has worn off.  Religious observance is down.  Religious devotion is down.  A few weeks ago, Family Christian Stores—the largest retailer of Christian Merchandise—announced that it would be closing all of its 240 locations.  After 85 years in business, Christian merchandise has been set aside.  This means a job loss for 3000 employees.  Last year, Lifeway Christian stores—which is the rebranded Baptist Bookstores from decades past—announced that it would close the three locations it operated on Baptist Seminary Campuses.  Imagine that, the Baptist Bookstore can’t keep its doors open on Baptist Seminary campuses.  And I’m not knocking on Baptist.  Disciples never tried opening bookstores.  The struggles of Christian merchandising doesn’t signal the end of Christianity.   People can still shop for Christian books online. And that’s what’s caused the closing of a number of retail bookselling stores.  But, along with selling Christian devotional and educational literature these places sold the cute things that go with religion—like Testamints—the breathe mints meant to evoke the Old and New Testament.

Cute Christianity was all the rage in the 1980s.  Often called attractional evangelism, seeker sensitive churches like Willow Creek in Chicago and Saddleback in California emerged as a cultural force.  These churches grew exponential by eschewing things like church buildings, traditional programming, too many religious symbols drained of meaning, archaic language, inaccessible music, etc. etc.  It’s hard to believe that the church growth movement has been with us so long that over a decade ago one of the founders of the Church growth movement—Bill Hybels was getting ready to retire.  He decided that in order to assess the fruits of his labors, Willow Creek would commission a study of how they had actually done in creating true followers of Jesus Christ.  He commissioned a study.  His study included comparison respondents from other churches around the Chicago area where Hybels and Willow Creek are located.  They hired a professional research company to conduct the survey.  They set up the matrices of what to look at—faithful prayer life, Christian service, financial support of congregation.  When the results came in, Hybels was shocked to discover that far from being the revolutionary movement that produced real Christians by the droves, pound for pound, the medium sized Lutheran Church down the road was measuring up to his own measures better than he was.  To his credit Hybels did not sweep these findings under the rug.  Quite the contrary he was incredibly open and public about sharing these results in 2005.

The loss of Chrstianity’s cuteness frightens a number of us.  It’s certainly scary to people like me who make our living on people buying into and contributing to the ministries of the established church.  But, I’m not sure that Jesus cared so much.   Jesus’s concluding parable does not say the Wise Man built his house with cute trim and pretty furnishings and nice curb appeal.  But the foolish man built his house with drab paint and discount furnishings and unattractive curb appeal.  The wise and foolish builders differ in the material they use for their foundation.

I’ve been there when people poured foundation.  I was a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and got a call—we need help.  I put on the knee high boots, they gave me a long pole spreader and the big truck came and started pouring concrete into the form and my roles was to take the spreader and help spread the concrete around.  Simple right?  I was in my twenties.  I thought it would be a piece of cake.  They started pouring and I started spreading.  Within about 45 minutes my back was hurting, my hands had blisters, and my legs ached.  It’s not what Jesus meant.  What he did mean is that foundation work is hard.  It is messy.  And it can be painful.  It’s not cute.  In a little bit we will sing the chorus from a hymn I love, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand.”  But it’s important to say that a generic and ascent to believing things about Jesus are true is not the same thing as putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, “Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.  It involves working—doing the work of daily training your mind and heart to follow in the way of Christ through prayer and study.  Doing the work of faithfully serving in meaningful ways.  Progressively allowing Christ to influence every part of your life.  It’s not easy work.  The authority for Jesus to say that putting into action the things that he commands comes from the resurrection.  The surest evidence of Christ’s resurrection is the continued presence of people who faithfully live according to the teaching of Christ.

Once there was a home builder who made the best homes.  She paid careful attention to every detail.  She measured twice, She cut once.  She used the strongest, most durable materials. She studied the plans.  The nails and screws were put in at the appropriate angles.  She had a daughter.  The daughter was her apprentice.  Her daughter knew the demands her mother placed on building to exact specifications and following plans to the letter.  Using the best materials.  The Mother called Her daughter to her one day and explained—I have to leave for a few months, but there is a very nice house I need you to build.  I want you to build it like you have been taught.  Use the highest-grade material.  Cut to exact specifications.  She left the daughter a large sum of money to complete the project and then she left.  With the Mother away, the daughter started taking shortcuts.  She used materials that would look adequate but cost far less.  The home owners, he said, will not know the difference until we are out of sight and out of mind.  She took the money he saved and spent it on herself.  She also cut corners with precision.  She didn’t measure twice and cut once.  If She guessed wrong and came up short, she’d find a way to make things fit.  Sure, she thought, as things settle, or when the storms hit, the home owners would run into problems, but by then they’d be out of sight and out of mind.  This went on until the house was complete.  By all external appearances, the house measured up to the mother’s exacting standards.  But the daughter had learned to mimic good workmanship so that he could pocket the extra money and use the time he saved on herself.  When Her mother came back.  The daughter handed her the keys.  Her mother replied, “Daughter, keep the keys yourself.  This home you have been building is my wedding present to you.  It is yours.”

Whose house are you building?  The wise man built his  house upon the rock and the foolish man built his house.  Jesus was clear—the wise man was building his house.  Whose house are you building.  Living by the teachings of Christ reorients our lives to the Christian hope.  If you are willing to do the hard work to build your life’s house

Pictures Worth A Thousand Words

Matthew 6:22-23

The Byzantine Empire’s rulers (330-1453) were Christian. Icons became prominent during the early centuries of the Empire and then became points of contention toward the middle.

The image of Christ in the form of Icons appeared often.  During the reign of Justinian II, in the early part of the 8th Century, the image of Christ began to appear on the reverse side of coins.  Leo the III, who began to reign over the Byzantine Empire in 717 believed the Icons had become idols.  The Byzantine Empire had experienced a couple of humiliating military defeats.  It had suffered and devastating earthquake.  Leo may have thought these were God’s punishments for creating graven images of Christ in violation of the second command.  He and his son Constantine IV set out on a plan of dismantling religious icon.

The movement was known as Iconoclasm—an Icon being a piece of religious art used for spiritual practice and clasm being a suffix to describe crushing.  An iconoclast was a destroyer of icons.  The Iconoclasm controversy contributed significantly to the Great Schism of the eleventh century, the evolving relationship between Church and State in both East and West. Who knew that pictures could generate so many words?

More Controversy over Images

The Iconoclastic controversy was not the last time Christianity would argue over the use of images.  In the 16th and 17th Centuries, England had a vacillating relationship to religious art.  On the one hand, the Church of England prohibited the venation of religious art.  Their prohibition against religion art was undoubtedly a swipe at Catholicism.  This often happens a movement divides itself from the existing institution.  It will chose certain salient ways to differentiate itself from the institution.  You see this in the long side-locks of Hassidic Jews, shaved bald spots on the top of Franciscan Monks, and non-instrumental worship music among the Churches of Christ.  It’s a way for the movement to claim to be purer than the institution it left.  For the Church of England it was the use of art.  Images portrayed in stained glass were discarded in favor of the pure light of reason. At the same time, England wanted to establish itself as a cultural center in Europe and one way to do that was to collect fine art. Truth be told, we still don’t know what to do with images.

Reading the Text

When Jesus spoke about the eye as the lamp of the Body he was NOT talking about religious Art.  In its context this passage has to do with devotion.  The Sermon on the Mount is the sermon recorded in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7.  Parts of it are familiar to us—the Beatitudes at the beginning, the Lord’s Prayer in the Middle, the instructions to be salt and light, turn the other cheek.  We often do not realize the coherence between the whole of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon is built around a series of contrasts.  The Disciples are supposed to choose one and not the other.  Be light on a lampstand not a lamp under a basket.  Be savory salt not salt that loses its saltiness. Be secret givers not pompous givers.  Subdued spiritualists not showy spiritualists.  Pursue treasures in heaven not treasures on earth.  Serve one master not two masters.  These contrasts culminate with the closing parable used by Jesus.  Those who build their lives around Christ’s teachings are wise builders building on a firm foundation that can withstand the storm.  Those who ignore Christ’s teachings are like the builders building on sandy soil that is destroyed by the storm.

The proverbial statement about light in the body participates in this series of admonitions.   It’s a metaphor meant to emphasize to the Disciples their single-minded devotion to God.  Today we might use a similar visual metaphor and call it focus.  The Disciple is called by Christ to focus on devotion to God and not be distracted by other claims to attention.  It’s a metaphor.  But what if we didn’t consider it simply metaphorically?  What if we considered Jesus’s words literally.

Light

As Protestant Christians, we inherited a bias against using pictures for religious devotion.  Today, you will hear Protestants describe pictorial stained glass described as religious education for the illiterate.  We diminish the importance of symbols because we know how to read.  When many Protestants speak about other Christian families you’ll hear us sometimes say that “Use of icons and statues in prayer dismissed as idolatry.” More than that we have a strong bent toward text.  Spirituality almost always revolves around the reading of scripture and the verbalizing of prayers. I, personally, am so thoroughly verbal that I’ve been known to walk through art museums reading the placards first before deciding if I want to spend much time actually looking at the art work.

I’m not alone making this observation.  Gordon MacKenzie is known for a book about reclaiming creativity in corporate America known as Orbiting the Giant Hairball.  Gordon MacKenzie, an artist who worked for Hallmark cards.  He would go into grade schools and he would talk to each class individually.  “Who in here is an artist.”  In Kindergarten he noticed that all the kids raised their hands enthusiastically. In first grade, the same result.  In second grade most kids raised their hands.  In second and third grades, he noticed more and more attrition.  Finally, be the time he got around to the sixth graders and asked the same question, he noted that only a few kids sheepishly raised their hands.  Culture of literacy had gradually diminished the importance of art.

The reason this matters to us religiously is that Jesus told us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind.  And for Protestants, there’s parts of our minds that we simply don’t use.  There’s hope for us to develop.  Modern neuroscience has revealed the ever adapting nature of the human brain.  Researchers in London studied the region of the brain devoted to memorizing spatial relationships.  They looked at London Taxi Drivers.  They found that those regions of the brain were significantly larger in the Taxi Drivers compared to the normal population.  The longer they had been driving, the larger that region became.    Edward Taub studied the region of the brain that controls the left-hand motions in violinists and non-instrumentalists.  He found that the region of the brain that controlled the left hand (the hand a violinists uses to make the notes of a violin while the right hand controls the bow) is significantly larger in instrumentalists than non-instrumentalists.   Taub has also found that through repeated motions with the stroke patients can enable the brain to create new neural pathways and synaptic connections that reconnect previously paralyzed parts of the body. (Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, pp. 32-33)   This research points to hopefully to our abilities to expand our approach to spirituality even later in life.

William Tenny-Brittain’s Prayer for People Who Can’t Sit Still, explains the importance of finding other ways of praying and relating to God.  “Art is especially necessary activity for those of us who can’t sit still.  We need a kinesthetic outlet for the creativity that is pent up within us.  Most of us have had our creative natures caged, packaged, and confined from very early on.”  (Kindle Location 1153).

 Allow Christ to entry into your life through the use of your eyes.  For if Christ is the light of your life, how great is the light in you!

Forgive Us Our Cacophony

Hornbook-Raban.pngMany Christians know the model prayer as the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).  Some of us know the words to the Lord’s Prayer by heart.  Sometimes a group of Christians will be asked to pray the Lord’s Prayer together.  Things run smoothly enough until we reach the part about “debts.”  Or “trespasses?” Or  “sins?”  If the group of Christians hasn’t called it ahead of time, we will likely to get a cacophony at this point with everyone saying what they’re familiar with.

First, to clear up some of the language issues.  The New Testament was originally written in Greek.  Debts is the English translation of the Greek word used in Matthew 6:12opheilemata.  It means what’s due.  It suggests something financial.  Jesus provides a further development of forgiving as we have been forgiven in 6:14.  There he uses the word paraptoma which means trespass, transgression, or false step.  Sin is the word used in the parallel passage to the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:4hamartia.

Each of the English words we use there has some connection to language we find in the Greek versions of the prayer and its surrounding interpretation. I find it appropriate that when we get to the word “sin,” we do in fact use many different words for it.  It’s appropriate that we speak about sins with everyone likely to do their own thing.

Debts

As for me, I prefer the word “debt.”  Debt speaks of something loaned to me that I should pay back.  I have been given a life and I have misused it–one way to define sin.  I have done my own thing.  God has forgiven me.  I cannot repay God for that grace.  However, I owe God so much more than simple forgiveness of sins.  I owe God my life, all my material possessions, the relationships that are most meaningful to me, opportunities, the capacity of faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of the church, and eternal life.  These all come from God.  They are loaned to me.  When I pray, “Forgive us our debts,” I am praying that God would not demand back from us all that we owe to God.  I am praying for relief.  I am praying for the chance to direct that which God has entrusted to me toward the purposes that God has for me.

Prayer of the Heart

The teachings contained in the sermon on the mount feel like they are straightforward commands that are meant to be obeyed. Take for example Take Jesus’s teaching on Praying found in Matthew 6:5-8. Jesus gives simple dos and do nots. Do not pray to be seen. Do pray in secret. Do not heap up empty phrases. Do pray according to Jesus’s model. As straightforward as these commands seem, I’d like to suggest that Jesus wasn’t trying to lay down a set of commands that could be rigidly observed. He was reaching for something else.  

Luke 18:9-14 contains a story that both pertains to this teaching and leads me to believe that Jesus was seeking something other than adherence to a new set of commands. Jesus told a story about the two men who went into the Synagogue to pray. One man stood in the center of the Synagogue praying, “Lord I thank you that you have not made me like one of these tax collectors.” Tax collectors being considered bad people in those days. The other man in the story was, in fact, a tax collector. He stood off to the side, in the shadows as it were and prayed. “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus said—it’s the second prayer that justified the pray-er not the first. Both men were externally observing the requirements to be in prayer. They differed in their attitudes.  One had a relationship with God in which righteousness was dependent on the actions of the pray-er.  The other had a relationship with God in which righteousness was dependent on the forgiveness of God. 

I believe that Jesus sought to introduce a new way of relating to God. He wanted to work from the inside out to change the nature of a person’s motives and actions so that they would want what God wants, they would acknowledge their daily dependence on God, and they would make God’s kingdom their highest priority. This meant coming into a dynamic relationship with God.  

In this dynamic relationship with God, things cannot be boiled down easily into do’s and don’ts. Rather, it is at its core a change of heart.  

Generosity in the Front; Arrogance in the Back

Here’s the scene I saw in a convenience store near my house:  Man behind the counter was waiting on customers, but was distracted by technology that wasn’t working.  Woman trying to purchase groceries with what appeared to be some form of assistance–for some reason it wasn’t working.  Another man standing off to the side watching the interactions seeming to get angrier by the minute.  I was a few people back in line and I was making some horrible judgments about the man who seemed to be getting frustrated.  I misinterpreted his anger as the racist anger of someone either objecting to the woman on assistance or the immigrant store clerk.  I did nothing to help.  I stood there with a dumb look on my face worried that the man’s racism would erupt.

Then the man pulled some money out of his back pocket.  He paid for the woman’s groceries and told her not to worry about it.  Then he told the man behind the counter to complete our transactions and then to close the store.  He was apparently the owner or manager.  The look of anger was neither at the employee–whom he spoke to with respect–nor with the woman–whose groceries he paid for out of his own pocket.  His frustration was with the technology that wasn’t working for anyone.

I thought about this experience recently when I read Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 6:2-4.  Jesus warned against offering alms with fanfare and attention drawn to the giver.   Perhaps he saw the diapers and milk she was purchasing and was genuinely moved.  Perhaps it was just the easiest way to keep the register balanced and accelerate the transactions.  I do not know.  This man was not offering his act of generosity to be seen by me or anyone else.   However, oddly this man’s act was a light shining on me.  I don’t mean that in some sort of happy light sort of way.  His light shone directly on my judgmental attitude and lack of initiative to help.

When Jesus told his Disciples to avoid giving in order to be seen.  I do not believe he meant that all gifts should be anonymous.  Rather, he was saying, all gifts should be done only to please “your father.”  This is a phrase Jesus will use with each of the three acts of piety he identifies in Matthew 6 (6:4; 6:6 and 6:18).   The focus of the Disciples should be on their God as the perform their acts of piety.

This explains his repeated use of the term hypocrite (6:2, 6:5, 6:16).  Originally the term meant actor–someone who appeared on stage in a manner contrary to their real identity.  He was suggesting that these are people who have an outward action that moves one way, but an internal spirit that moves a different way.  They direct their alms to others, their prayers to God, and their devotion to obedience, but their motivations remain self-serving.  This divided self is the epitome of seeking to serve to masters.  In this case it is God and self.  Later it will be God and money.  Either way, it is duplicity and it drains the act of almsgiving of its inherent rewards.  Generosity–as Jesus envisions it–blesses the receiver and the giver whenever the giver’s heart is in line with their actions.

Jesus and Piety

Jesus began the fourth major section of the Sermon on the Mount by discussing religious practices or piety. NOTE:   the first three sections 1. being the beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12; 2. the Salt and Light Admonition 5:13-16 and 3. the teachings concerning fulfilling the law and the prophets 5:17-48.

By religious practices or piety, I mean ritual practices a person or community of faith enacts that are identified with a particular religion or religious tradition.  In terms of individual practices, we have the things I normally place under the heading of “Discipleship.”  These would include: daily prayer, devotional reading of scripture, Bible study, tithing, service, fasting and similar practices of personal piety.

In terms of community practices, we have weekly worship, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, infant dedication, ordination, anointing with oil, footwashing, weddings, funerals, and solemn assembly.  Somewhere between the personal acts of piety and the corporate acts of worship, there are somewhat ritualized forms of interpersonal and small group religious practices like spiritual friendship, pastoral conversation, confession and reconciliation, and hospitality.

Christians must regularly confront the question of how important any one of these or all of these might be.  There are places where Jesus seemed to really push against them.  Within the Decalogue (Exodus 20), for example, there are six commands that relate ethical behavior and ethical treatment: keeping Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), parental obedience (Exodus 20:12), prohibitions against murder (Exodus 20:13), adultery (Exodus 20:14), theft (Exodus 20:15), false witness (Exodus 20:16) and coveting (Exodus 20:17).  Through the ethical teachings contained in Matthew, Jesus reaffirmed the importance of each of these except keeping Sabbath.

Parental Obedience—Matthew 15:1-9
Murder—Matthew 5:21-26
Adultery—Matthew 5:27-30
Theft—Matthew 15:10-20
False Witness—Matthew 5:33-37
Coveting—Matthew 5:27-30

Matthew 12:1-8 suggests that Jesus did not teach his Disciples to observe Sabbath—the most salient religious practice of his religious tradition.  Jesus and his Disciples were plucking grain and eating on the Sabbath.  They were criticized by Pharisees.  Jesus’s rebuke of the criticism evokes the story of David and his men eating consecrated bread at a time of heightened need.  In a radical claim of authority, Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).  Given the apparent hostility toward religious practices that Jesus seemed to have displayed Christians can be pulled toward two responses.

  1. To say that Jesus did not think that religious practices mattered.  The only thing that matters is ethics—being just in dealings, serving others, etc.
  2. To say that religious practices should be abandoned in favor of a more internalized spirituality.

Beware anytime a minister sets up two ends of a continuum.  They usually want to hang some clothes somewhere between the two poles.  Such is the case here.  I would contend that Jesus did not abandon religious practices of his tradition, he gave them a specific place in the valuation of priorities and he identified their purpose.

First, Jesus identified their place within a valuation of priorities.  Sorry, I don’t have better language for this.  In the dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus quoted a combination of Hosea 6:6 and Micah 6:6.  His refutation of his critiques revolved around the greater importance of mercy and compassion over ritual adherence.  Saying that service and justice is more important than ritual is not the same as saying that ritual is unimportant.

Second, in the verses that follow our focus verse today, Jesus identifies three practices—alms giving, prayer, and fasting.  For each of these, he says that people of faith ought not do these to be seen.  Rather, he does say they should be done.  And they should be done for the purpose of devoting the interior space of a person’s life to the Lord’s reign.

Love Your Enemy

The first major section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) contains a series of teachings that are sometimes called antitheses.  Each one introduces a traditional teaching and then Jesus extends this teaching showing the progression of the Disciples’ development.  These teachings conclude with Matthew 5:48 where Jesus teaches, “Be perfect [better translated complete] as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The final antithesis is the culmination.  It shows how the arch follows.  Jesus said, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  The completion of the Disciple comes when they are able to love as God loves. That means loving ones enemies for God so loves sinners. 

Christian history is filled with important stories where individuals and communities of faith have taken this call seriously.

On October 2, 2006, The West Nickel Mines Amish community came into the public spotlight as Charles Carl Roberts entered into a school house, shot and killed five young girls ranging in age from age 6 to age 13.  The community very quickly moved to offer forgiveness to Charles Roberts—who took his own life in the process.  They ministered to his family offering reconciliation to Roberts’s widow and children.  This wasn’t the first time this had happened.  Eight days earlier a twelve year old Amish boy named Emanuel King left his home at 5:30 in the morning to go and help people with their milk cows.  He was struck by an on-coming pickup truck that did not stop to render aid.  When the likely suspect, a woman, was discovered, Emanuel’s mother said, “She should come here.  We would like to see her.  We hold nothing against her.  We would like to tell her she should not feel bad about this.”  And one of Emmanuel’s aunts said of the perpetrator, “Tell her our thoughts are a lot with her, and our prayers”  (from Amish Grace)

The Amish are an old Anabaptist religious group who continue to live lives that shun much of modern technology.  They drive horse drawn carriages, they have no or limited electricity usage, but more than the external signs of simplicity, they adhere to the ethical teachings of Jesus with literal devotion.  Jesus said, forgive those who wrong you.  Love your enemies.  That is what the Amish do. Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, authors of Amish Grace have written.  “When forgiveness happens, a victim forgoes the right to revenge and commits to overcoming bitter feelings toward the wrongdoer” Amish Grace relates that the Amish worried that people would see their forgiveness as glibly denying the reality.  They wanted people outside the Amish community to understand what was at work in them.  The parents of one of the girls killed that day wrote a letter to a Lancaster newspaper saying, “It is only through our faith in Jesus Christ that forgiveness is possible.”

This past October was the ten year anniversary of the shooting.  Terri Roberts, the mother of the shooter has said this in an interview, “They [meaning the Amish] were willing to forgive, even on the first day.  If they could forgive my son, how could I not forgive him?  The Lord’s prayer calls us to forgive, so I must forgive.  Because Jesus died for us, we do not need to carry this burden.  Our lives do not need to be captured by the sin of the world.  I’m just an ordinary person, a mother.  We had a son who committed a horrendous crime, and God has used that in amazing ways.”  Yet as Kraybill et al have said these actions were “all were religious habits so deeply rooted in amish life that they seemed instinctive.”

Pathway to Unlimited Love

clarence jordan
Clarence Jordan
Matthew 5 contains a series of six teachings that follows a formula.  “You have heard it said,” introduces an Old Testament teaching which is followed by Jesus’s extension of the preceding teaching with formula, “but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21, 5:27, 5:31, 5:33, 5:38, 5:43).  These are often called “antitheses,” but each of them suggests a pathway. Each path evokes a memory of a condition before the law was given.  It names a points to which the people of God had come through the law.  Then with Jesus’s teaching it points to where the people of God are headed.

The antithesis concerning an eye for an eye is a good example.

Matthew 5:38-42– 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print.)

The law an ‘eye for an eye.”  Is known as the Lex Talionis.  It says that a punishment should match the crime.  It does not prescribe the minimum punishment due but rather the maximum punishment allowed.  Prior to the giving of Lex Talionis people could expect unlimited retaliation—it wasn’t an eye for an eye it was both eyes for an eye, it could be a life for a tooth.  It could justify fifty cents worth of punishment for a nickel offense.

Unlimited Retaliation to Limited Retaliation

The idea of unlimited retaliation reminds me of that scene from 1987 classic The Untouchables that tells the story of Elliot Ness—the FBI agent who finally brought down Al Capone.  Sean Connery plays the old Philadelphia police commissioner Jim Malone.  There’s that scene when Ness is praying at a Catholic Church and Malone sits down next to him and explains how you take down Capone.  “He pulls a knife,” Malone says, “you pull out a gun.  He puts one of your guys in the hospital.  You put one of his guys in the morgue.”  Unlimited retaliation.

The laws that Jesus identified were huge steps forward from the extremism that preceded them.  And so in these six teachings Jesus reminds them—this is where we were and with the invocation of the law, Jesus reminds them this is where we arrived–the law moved them from unlimited retaliation to limited retaliation.

Limited Retaliation to Limited Love

Jesus extends this limited retaliation by suggesting limited love.  If someone compels you to walk one my walk the extra mile.  A Roman soldier could compel a person in a subdued country like Judah to walk one mile and to carry his equipment as he journeyed to a location.  Jesus was suggesting that the Disciple would walk one mile beyond what they could be compelled to walk.  An extra mile is still a limitation.  It doubles the limit prescribed by Roman law.  Still it is a limit.  Jesus points them to move from limited retaliation to limited Love.

Limited Love to Unlimited Love

In the next antithesis the final move is described–the move to unlimited love.  Unlimited retaliation gives way to limited retaliation, which gives way to limited love; which gives ways to unlimited love, “But I say, ‘Love your enemies.’”  Clarence Jordan is the Southern Baptist preacher farmer who gave us this language of progression—unlimited retaliation, limited retaliation, limited love to unlimited love in his book, The Sermon on the Mount. Jordan wrote, “To talk about unlimited retaliation is babyish; to speak of limited retaliation is childish; to advocate limited love is adolescent; to practice unlimited love is evidence of maturity.  To be perfect, then, really means to quit acting like a child and grow up.” (The Sermon on the Mount, p. 70).

Yes. No. Enough

“I swear to God.”  We sometimes hear people say that when they want people to take them seriously as they express something outlandish.  Yet, for the people of Judah, it was not a thing to be taken lightly.  Moses had given instruction concerning vows in Deuteronomy 23:21-23, “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur guilt.  But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt. Whatever your lips utter you must diligently perform, just as you have freely vowed to the LORD your God with your own mouth.”  Moses makes a distinction between the vows given to the Lord and those which do not include the vow.  There’s guilt associated with violating one, but not the other.  That said, Moses goes on to say that our words should be as good as our bond.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus similarly focuses on the integrity of our words.  In the fourth You have heard it said/I say to you antitheses, Jesus countered the necessity with vows by saying “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no,’ ‘No.’  Like the other antitheses, this command also seems to go back to the Decalogue (Exodus 20).  Here, Jesus interprets the ninth command concerning false witness (Exodus 20:16).  Apparently a gradation of vows had developed that stopped short of swearing by God and therefore keeping people from incurring too much guilt if they failed to fulfill the vow.  Jesus rejects the attempts to hedge one’s bets by swearing by heaven, earth, nor person.   Jesus tells Disciples that they should live with such integrity that their normal everyday speech can be relied upon just as assuredly as a vow they have made to God.

Prayer:  Lord God, I say yes to You today—Yes, to your grace.  Yes, to your forgiveness.  Yes, to your blessing.  Yes, to your authority.  Yes, to your will.  Give me the strength to let my “yes” be “yes!”  Lord, help me discern that deserves my “No.”  I say “no” to guilt.  I say “no” to shame.  I say “no” to the temptation to diminish others.  I say “no” to the cultural acceptance of slight dishonesty.  Help me, Lord to let my “no” be “no.”

 

Looking, Lust and Christ

No passage in all of scripture has been more troublesome to me than Jesus’s teachings concerning lust: Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 5:27-28).  I was far more religious as an adolescent boy than I am now.  So, as my natural development from boy to man caused my mind and body to move in one direction while my religious sensibilities moved in the exact opposite direction.  It was an incredible tug-of-war.  Add to that the fact that I grew with a public health nurse mother for whom sexual purity was very serious business and you’ll begin to understand why I was so bothered by this command.  Today as a forty-six year old, happily married adult male, I still worry about what Jesus’s teaching here means for me.  I’ve written about this before. 

Clarifying Some Content

There are a number of notations that should be made about this text.  First, this text is the second in a series of what most biblical scholars call “antitheses.”  The formula is “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you.”  The first concerns anger (5:21-22), the third concerns divorce (5:31-32), fourth—swearing (5:33-34), fifth—retaliation (5:38-39), sixth love of enemies (5:43-44).  These antitheses are introduced in 5:20 with the admonition that righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and concludes with 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (NOTE:  that should really be translated “complete” instead of “perfect,” but more on that later).  The antitheses statements demonstrate what it looks like as the reign of God moves into various parts of a person’s life.

Second, the phrase that is usually translated “looks at a woman with lust” implies intentionality.  Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “You can’t keep the birds from flying overhead, but you can keep them from making a nest out of your hair.”  An adult mentor at church shared this quote with me.  I’ve gone looking for the original context and have yet to find it.  I have, however, found the qualification helpful on so many levels.  There’s a point where we can be too obsessed with guilt over the thoughts that fly in and out of our minds.  The text really does denote a level of intention to act on one’s feelings.

Third, this teaching combines the seventh commandment—do not commit adultery—with the tenth commandment—do not covet.  Several people have noted that while it seems like an impossible ethical teaching to post-Freudian people, first century Jews would have not have found this teaching terribly radical.

The Ethical Reading

We are still left with what to do with it.  I dichotomy of the “The ethical reading” and the “eschatological reading” can help.  The ethical reading of the text would emphasize that this teaching—while stated with a hyperbole—still makes a lot of sense.  Thoughts lead to actions.  I often ask my pre-marital couples this question, “Can you be ‘unfaithful’ to one another without having sex with another person?”  Almost every couple answers that question, “Yes.”  Very quickly.  I also ask the follow up question, “OK, what does that look like?  Where are the lines for you?”  Sharing intimately with a person of the opposite sex?  Spending alone time with someone?  Spending alone time without talking about it with your spouse?  Porn? On-line chatting?  Impulsive shopping?  You’ve probably heard about the number of times in recent years “Facebook” has shown up in divorce proceedings.  Jesus draws the ethical line pretty far back—at the point that you start thinking about ways to deepen a relationship with someone who is not your spouse in ways that might lead to inappropriate intimacy, you’ve gone too far.  That’s a wordier explanation that Jesus would use.  He would simply say—you think it, you’re guilty of it.

The Eschatological Reading

I tend to find the eschatological reading at work in all the antitheses.  In fact, I find the word “antithesis” misleading.  I’m not sure what logical structure best labels this, but I think what Jesus is saying is this—“This is where we start [you have heard it said] and this is where we are headed [but I say to you].”  Jesus is describing what our hearts, minds and behaviors would be if we were “complete as your heavenly father is complete.”  This does not happen through a forceful act of the will.  I believe that the Sermon on the Mount as a whole describes God’s re-creation of our lives and our world through Jesus Christ at work in us.