Today’s scripture is part of what has come to be known as Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” This section of the text presents some challenging ideas to a contemporary audience. It is important that we do our best to look beyond the words that challenge us and listen to the concepts that inform us. Matthew offers us a view of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. In this powerful sermon, Jesus delivers new interpretation of the law for his disciples and followers. Jesus is talking about specific issues of concern during his time. These include anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing an oath. His interpretation is also for the time in which he is living. Jesus is talking about some of the important relationships in our lives and draws from ancient scripture to advise his followers.
As we engage this text, we have a different perspective on the issues that Jesus discusses. Our cultural view of these specific issues is very different from First Century Judea. That does not, however, change the reality that Jesus cares about our relationships and he offers advice on how we should heal relationships that become broken. Our views on divorce may be very different from the ancient law and prophets; we still have a duty to treat one another with respect. The kingdom of God that Jesus wants us to see is a place where reconciliation is a top priority and we do not insult others or call them fools.
Can we listen to this text today and hear what it says about avoiding fractured relationships? Can we take to heart the advice that Jesus offers for us to heal broken relationships?
My guess is that many of you have heard this scripture before; it is part of the Sermon on the Mount. However, it may be a passage that you have not often heard preached; some preachers will avoid this text because it touches on issues that are uncomfortable to talk about. What we need to do is to try to hear what Jesus is saying in his context and then imagine what he might be saying in ours.
This section of the sermon is clearly intended to re-interpret ancient scripture for a new audience. Jesus’ statements do not contradict the original law, they transcend it and challenge the hearer to live Torah in a new way. From this perspective, we must understand the culture into which Jesus speaks and how these laws apply in their context. I believe we should also attempt to imagine how our context should receive these same challenges. Jesus speaks into our context and challenges us to live in a new way as well. I fear that some of us may hear parts of this text in particularly personal ways that may impede our ability to see through to the underlying message from Jesus. Let us look at each section of the text, one-by-one, and realize that what Jesus is really talking about here are Fractured Relationships.
Let us pray…Lord, be with us this morning as we engage your word. Help us to see past our personal feelings so that we might hear the message you have for us. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Jesus addresses four issues here: anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths. In each case, Jesus begins with, “you have heard that it was said…” and moves to, “but I say to you…” The intent seems to be to show how the deeper intent of the original command is lived out. Jesus speaks from the perspective that the Kingdom of God is “at hand” – it is being realized even now. His “re-interpretation” of the Law, then, invites us to live as kingdom people. The common theme in these four issues deals with broken relationships from the perspective of the Kingdom of God.
“Thou shalt not kill” is the first commandment Jesus tackles here; that seems like a no-brainer, right? First, we notice that he uses the term “murder,” which gives us the opportunity to debate the various ways we understand killing. From combat to self-defense, there have long been disagreements about what God’s intention was. Jesus seeks to bring some clarity; this command is not simply about the actual taking of another person’s life – it is also about human relationships. Anger can destroy a relationship just as murder takes life. Jesus points out that it really doesn’t matter who caused the problem in your relationship; the person who first notices the difficulty is responsible for taking steps toward reconciliation. Placing blame is not important; mending the relationship is the goal.
Sometimes I think that is much of what is wrong with many personal relationships and with our culture: we are just too interested in placing blame. If we treated one another better in the first place, there would be less fracturing of our relationships. When difficulties do come up we could fix things a lot faster if we stopped trying to fix blame. “He started it!” is a common juvenile and immature response when our children disagree. As adults, this should not be our first response and it should not govern the way in which we seek reconciliation. Most of the time, there is plenty of blame to go around and we just need to get over ourselves and move on.
“You shall not commit adultery” is next on Jesus’ list; it’s hard to argue with this one. Yet, as obvious as this may seem, there must be something more that Jesus wants us to understand. Think for a moment about what adultery means – it destroys God’s purpose for marriage. This relationship is intended for mutuality and adultery is a selfish act. Jesus goes so far as to include just thinking about another person. Obviously, we cannot always control the thoughts that pop into our heads. We can, however, control the subjects upon which we choose to meditate. In modern times, this leads us to include pornography in this commandment. I think the deeper meaning here is that marriage is about mutual respect. I think we can consider Jesus’ admonitions about tearing out our eyes and cutting off our hands as hyperbole. What he seems to be telling us is that we must deal with any impulse that could lead to the destruction of community if this relationship.
That leads us into the discussion on divorce; this is often where people get uncomfortable. We recognize that, for a variety of reasons, nearly half of marriages end in divorce. I do not believe that we should bring this text into our context and chastise everyone we know who has been divorced; that misses the deeper meaning of what Jesus offers us. First and foremost, God offers us grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
I think there are a couple things at work in this passage about divorce. First, the ancient divorce laws were about property, not relationships. Women had no rights and no protection if they were turned away by their husbands. Jesus seeks to change this attitude by equalizing the blame; both husband and wife share fault and consequences. It sounds like Jesus assumes that the marriage relationship can be shaped by the presence of God’s kingdom; ideally, this should be true. Our experience tells us that some marriages are resistant to the work of God and may better be served by freeing the couple to live into other relationships.
That leads me to what I hear underlying this text that is particularly relevant today. I believe that too many marriages fail because they are based on a wedding that quickly fades from view. People “fall in love” and plan a wedding, rather than planning a life. Please, do not hear me trying to second guess anyone here who has experienced divorce. I do not know your circumstances and I am not a marriage counselor. However, I do counsel couples who are preparing to get married and my goal is always to plan a marriage, not a wedding. If more care was given to cultivating a relationship and seeking God’s guidance, fewer divorces would be needed.
Finally, Jesus speaks to us about integrity: “Let your ‘yes’ mean yes and your ‘no’ mean no.” This is definitely an “ideal” that many find hard to visualize in modern times. With contracts, pre-nuptial agreements, and swearing to tell the truth in court, we have grown less and less trusting. There is plenty of evidence around us that too many people cannot be trusted. Jesus offers a vision of how integrity might look. Those who embody the Kingdom of God will speak truthfully and, if more of the world was truthful, there would be less need for swearing an oath. The purpose of these admonitions from Jesus today is to promote supportive relationships. Fractiousness in our culture is a consequence of our failure to rectify broken relationships. God seeks a realm where love prevails and we live in relationship with one another. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.