Sunday 12 February 2017
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
For a third week, now, we have been reading from the section of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the best known and best loved pieces of scripture in the entire bible. Many consider it to be the very heart of the gospel message, the canon within the canon, the text by which all other texts are judged. The text that begins, “Beloved are the poor in spirit,” is itself a text much beloved.
And yet, it is a text that can be very confusing. It confounds many of the assumptions that we have about the bible. It disrupts many of the beliefs we have about the New Testament. It confuses many of the things we think we understand about Jesus.
Though many of us have been taught that Jesus came to free us from the law, to set aside the outdated rules of the Old Testament, the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount declares quite the opposite. In Matthew 5:17, he says, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus proceeds to go through several of the Old Testament laws and comment on them. “You have heard that it was said,” he begins, and then quotes one of the old laws. And then he follows up with, “But I say to you,” and he gives a new law. If we think that Jesus preaches a new existence free from the old law, then we might expect Jesus to take the old law and soften it up a bit. We might expect Jesus to do away with some of the more archaic aspects of the law.
But to our surprise, Jesus does quite the opposite. For every law that Jesus quotes, he gives a harsher, more restrictive law in its place. The old law said don’t murder. Jesus’s new law says expressing anger is the same as murder. The old law said don’t commit adultery. Jesus’s new law says that looking with a lustful eye is the same as committing adultery. The old law allowed for divorce. Jesus’s new law does not. The old law said that anyone who swears an oath should keep it. Jesus’s new law says that no human should ever presume even to swear an oath. And while the old law only threatened death for those who do not obey, Jesus’s new law threatens the fires of hell.
If we were expecting a law-breaking, carefree Jesus, then we will be very much surprised. Instead, we get a new lawgiver. We get a new Moses. Jesus comes down from the mountain, just as Moses did, and gives a new law, just as Moses did. And the law that Jesus gives is even more difficult to accept than the law of Moses. It is even more strict and unrelenting.
This sermon disrupts the way we usually think about Jesus, but it also disrupts the way many of us think about the bible. This passage from today is the proof that, whatever people may claim about the bible, no one actually reads it literally. Many people claim that the bible is the exact and precise word of God and there is no need for any interpretation because it says just exactly what God means it to say. But this passage is the proof that no one actually believes that. Because, of course, if we did actually believe that, then there wouldn’t be a single Christian in the world walking around with two hands and two eyes. Jesus says very clearly and unambiguously, “If your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.” Surely there is not one Christian in the entire world who has never sinned with their eye—looking on something they don’t have and wanting it for themselves—the sin of covetousness and greed. And yet I have never met any Christian who has plucked out their own eye, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the fires of hell. And surely there is not one Christian in the whole world who has not sinned with their hand—raising it against another in anger, or taking what belongs to another, or failing to reach it out in service and charity to one in need. And yet I have never met a single Christian who has chopped off their own hand, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the eternal punishment. We may think we read the bible literally, but none of us actually do.
And perhaps we are not meant to. After all, none of the apostles cut off his own hand that day on the mountain. None of the disciples plucked out her own eye. So what are we supposed to get out of this very strange sermon?
I think some of it has to do with the way we judge others and the way we have a tendency to think of ourselves as somehow qualitatively better than others. After all, we are Christians, aren’t we? We are blessed by God. We do our best to follow God’s laws. Surely that counts for something. Surely that makes us better than the unwashed masses who never have a care for anything that is good or right or just or Godly.
Surely I am better than a murderer, aren’t I? And yet Jesus says that anyone who lashes out it in anger is liable to the same divine punishment as the murderer. And there is not one of us who has never burned with unrighteous anger. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than a murderer.
But surely I am better than an adulterer, aren’t I? I have kept my marriage vows. And yet Jesus says that anyone who looks on another with a lustful eye is liable to the same punishment as the adulterer. And, as Jimmy Carter so truthfully pointed out, there is not one of us who has not committed adultery in our heart many times. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than an adulterer.
He seems to be saying something similar about divorce. If I get a divorce because I have found someone I think I love more, and if I refrain from physical union until after the divorce is final, that technicality does not excuse me from adultery. That’s the overall message of this section: we can’t think that we have avoided judgment simply because we have found some loophole in the law. We can’t think that we are better than the people around us simply because we have committed less visible sins than they.
Despite any outward appearances to the contrary, we are all sinners. We all carry around our enduring guilts, our secret shames. That is something that every human being has in common. We have all fallen short of the glory of God.
What Jesus’s words do is to hold together two contrary notions at the same time. Jesus’s words challenge us to do better, to strive for lives of perfect holiness. But at exactly the same time, Jesus’s words remind us that whatever level of holiness we may live, it cannot be the ground for boasting. Jesus calls us simultaneously to perfect obedience and to perfect humility, neither letting our obedience puff us up until we lose humility nor letting our humility break us down until we see no point in striving for obedience.
Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. If I strive for holiness, there are several different traps I might fall into. I might be so proud of my holiness that I think I am better than other people. I might hold myself to such an impossibly high standard that I constantly feel incapable and unworthy. I might fixate on a few kinds of holiness so that I miss many other important things I should be doing. I might use the standard of holiness only as a means of judging and condemning other people, while never holding the same standard up to myself. I might be so concerned with doing what is right that I forget about God’s grace, grace for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much pressure on myself and my own abilities to do what is right that I forget that true holiness comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me. Those are ways that striving for Godliness can end up running off the rails.
And humility is just as tricky. If I am striving for humility, I might end up just not trying, just doing nothing because nothing matters. I might end up constantly beating myself down, trying to make myself lower and lower, so that I don’t reach humility, instead I reach humiliation, self-loathing, and crippling depression. I might end up achieving a fair level of humility, until I come across someone who is boastful, and I end up thinking, I am so much more humble than he is. I might hold myself to such a strict standard of humility that I can’t honestly assess my own strengths, and I don’t ever end up using my talents for God. I might put so much pressure on myself to be humble that I forget about God’s grace, grace both for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much responsibility on myself to be humble that I forget that true humility comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me.
It may sound like just more rules, just more regulations, just more law. Why is Jesus making it harder for us? Why is Jesus stacking up more things that we have to do in order to be worthy of God? It may seem like just more law.
But in fact, it is more grace. By making the rules more strict, Jesus is making sure that none of us have the delusion that we can actually follow them all ourselves. We are in need of God’s grace. It’s not just the Class-A sinners that need God’s grace. We all need God’s grace. And there is plenty of God’s grace to go around. That is the first step: to realize that I am not perfect, and I can never make myself perfect, no matter how hard I try. I make mistakes. I am a sinner. I am in need of God’s grace. And God has plenty of grace to go around.
But it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with me recognizing that I am a sinner and asking for God’s grace. The strictness of the rules remind us that there is still a goal. And once I have accepted God’s justifying grace, God’s forgiveness, then I can begin to be open to God’s sanctifying grace, the Spirit’s continuing work in my life to make me holy. I can begin to let the Holy Spirit work within me, once I have accepted God’s grace. And God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with my neighbors, even though they too are sinners. God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with myself, even though I am a sinner. God’s Spirit can begin to work in my life, so that my actions move closer to the mark, so that I more fully embody the life that God wants me to lead, the self that God wants me to be. But I am not making myself acceptable to God. No, God’s grace makes me acceptable, and God’s grace molds me into fuller realization of that perfect goal. I work with God, and I allow God to work in me, but I can never do it on my own in order to please God. God’s grace forgives me, and God’s grace moves me on toward greater holiness, greater humility.
It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t travel in a straight line. There are times when I can really feel in sync with God, when I can really feel that God is working in me, that God is leading me to avoid evil and do good. And there are other times when I stumble and fall into sin. There are other times when I try to take control and end up fouling everything up. There are other times when I stubbornly resist God. There are other times when I simply fumble around, trying desperately to find any sense of God at all.
It takes time. It takes active, patient endurance. It takes acceptance of myself and who I am. Not perfect, but a beloved child a God. A child in need of grace. A child of a God who has plenty of grace to share.