Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Uh Oh: Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37
A friend of mine who is a pastor tells the following story about an experience she had in college. It seems there was someone in her dorm who was prone to taking other people’s food from the refrigerator. She writes,
“I would go out on a date on Friday night and have a fabulous meal. I would carefully eat only half of my entree, so that I could enjoy the rest of it the next day for lunch. But when I would open up the door to the fridge anticipating the content of that doggy bag, the leftovers would be gone, along with anything else that might have been edible in the icebox. Then much drama would ensue.
“Until one particular morning.
“I woke up,” she writes, “went into the kitchen to fetch some milk for my coffee, and I gasped. Someone had taped a sign to the refrigerator. In bold red letters, it said: “If your hand causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF.” Then, carefully taped to the sign was a fierce serrated-edge knife.”
Did I mention my friend went to a Bible college? 
And there we have it: real-life application of a literal reading of some verses from this morning’s gospel passage. Three weeks ago I eagerly, almost ecstatically made a commitment to myself and to you that we would spend the next six weeks, right up until Lent, immersing ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount. We would swim in it! We would let it seep into our souls! How on earth, in all my excitement, did I manage to completely forget about this passage? This passage, which, when I turned to it on Monday morning, made me say, “Uh oh.” As Monday turned to Tuesday, and Tuesday turned to Wednesday, and Wednesday turned to Thursday, I kept going back to the passage to make sure it really said all these incredibly difficult, depressing, and downright nasty things. Maybe, I thought, it would be ok to skip Matthew—just this week. Maybe, I thought, I could preach on the Deuteronomy passage, and call it a palate cleanser. Like sherbet!
But I made a commitment. We made a commitment! We are going to stay with Jesus, up on this mountain, and hear everything he has to say to us. Not only that, we are going to trust Jesus. We are going to trust that he has Good News for us, today as well as every other day.
So let’s listen in. Jesus is talking, remember, to his friends and followers—the disciples are a little core group he has around him, but the crowds are following too. So, although his words are directed at those close to him, many more than that are listening.
“You have heard it said.” We can divide this passage into three parts. Each of these parts begins with those words: You have heard it said. It might be good, at the outset, to pay attention to who, exactly, was doing the speaking in that case—we have heard it said where? By whom? Well, those who normally went about reminding people of all the rules and regulations they had to follow were the religious leaders of the community, in Jesus’ case, the scribes and the Pharisees. Pharisees, in particular, were very concerned with correct observance of the law. Pharisees tended to be the face of religious law-enforcement in the community. That phrase, “You have heard it said,” implies strongly, “by the scribes and Pharisees.”
I want to remind us here that Matthew is our most Jewish gospel; it is the gospel most likely written by a Jew and for a Jewish community. So, to think that what happens in this passage is somehow Jesus attacking Judaism—well, that’s absolutely not the case. This isn’t a rejection by Jesus of his heritage. Quite the opposite. This is a full-throated engagement of Jesus with his heritage. This is a family conversation—and you know how lively family conversations can be! This is Jesus, adding his wisdom to the wisdom of the ages.
And Jesus appears to out-legalize the legalists. First, the law against murder. Jesus says, You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, if you insult a brother or sister, even if you say ‘You fool,’ to a brother or sister, you will be judged! [Matthew 5:21-22]. Jesus shocks his audience with this. His words absolutely fly in the face of what they’ve been taught. There is no prohibition in the Hebrew Scriptures against anger. In fact, many characters in the bible become angry, often righteously so. God is angry once or twice, as I recall. So what is Jesus doing, exactly? Why is he making such shocking statements?
Second, the law against adultery and divorce. “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]. Everyone above a certain age remembers when President Jimmy Carter famously said, in an interview, that he had committed adultery in his heart. He took a lot of ribbing for that—the late night talk shows had a field day. But he was trying to speak very earnestly about what his faith had taught him, how it influenced his understanding of his own actions and reactions.
The third portion treats the taking of oaths, which is nowhere regarded as a sin in scripture. In fact, oaths are required in certain circumstances—entering into covenants, for example. This takes us closer to the truth of what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is pushing us, pushing us to the place where we all are likely to throw our hands up in despair, and say, “Who can do this? Who can uphold these standards?” And, of course, the answer is, No one. Not one of us. It’s impossible.
What we have to understand here is that, in the midst of this family conversation, Jesus is using humor—a very Middle-Eastern brand of humor—to make two very serious points.  The first point he’s making is that the law is an impossible taskmaster. None of us is capable of complete and utter fidelity to it without the grace of God. And this is the Good News—we have that grace. We have that unexpected, revolutionary love of God. We have it, no matter who we are or what we have done. We have the love of God, through no power of our own, not because of who we are but because of who God is. And we have God to help us with our heart.
Which brings me to the second point I believe Jesus is trying to make. Sin—all sin—starts as an inclination of the heart. We don’t generally get to the point of committing murder, or adultery, without first experiencing a long and meandering journey of the heart from peace to violence, or contentment to restlessness. Jesus is saying, Pay attention to your heart. Don’t let what starts as, perhaps even understandable anger, or disappointment in your spouse, take you to the place of actions that will cause harm. We have seen an astounding increase in what are being called “emotional affairs,” made far easier by the social networking opportunities we all have on Facebook, text-messaging, Twitter. I don’t think anyone can deny the power of these technologies: if they can be harnessed to overturn a government, you can bet they have the power wreak havoc in our committed relationships. And it all goes back to the heart.
I think Jesus is asking, How is your heart? That’s where it all begins. We open our hearts to a relationship with God, we allow that grace to pour in and saturate our lives, and at the same time we invite God to search us and know us and heal us.
It’s not always easy for us to know what is going on with our hearts. A friend once told me the story of the first time she fell in love. She said, for the longest time, whenever she saw that certain someone, it was as if there was static in her head—noise, like a badly tuned or out of distance radio station. And then one night as she was falling asleep, she saw the face of her beloved, and realized what her feelings were. And suddenly she felt a great silence, still and deep and beautiful.
One way we can learn what is going on in our hearts is by the practice of silent prayer or meditation. I have noticed that if I take a period of time each day to simply sit in silence in the presence of God… whatever it is I have on my heart will rise to the surface, and make itself known to me. And to God, of course. Sometimes this feels risky—we’re not sure we’re ready for that level of intimacy. But God knows us better than we know ourselves. What is revealed to us was revealed to God the moment we were a twinkle in the Divine eye.
At the end of this passage, Jesus is speaking of swearing oaths. He says,
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. ~ Matthew 5:34B-36
This is the God who loves us and asks, like a shy suitor, for our love in return, the One whose throne is heaven, and whose footstool is the earth. This is the God who, in Jesus, wants to know, “How is your heart?” and promises to help and heal us, no matter what the answer is to that probing question. This is the God whose grace is the answer to our deepest questions. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Carol Howard Merritt, “Cut it Out: What Do These Difficult Teachings Mean?” on TheHardestQuestion.org, http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/epiphany6gospel/.
 Peter Woods, “The Law of Love or the Love of Law?” at I Am Listening, http://thelisteninghermit.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/the-law-of-love-or-the-love-of-law/.