You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on they way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Lets assume that all of us are here this morning because we want to be good people. We see what our lives look like on a daily basis, and we recognize Sunday mornings as opportunities to better ourselves, to hear about the kind of people we are supposed to be.
Lets also assume that we are already fairly decent people. I mean look at us. We are sitting here in church on Sunday morning, thats certainly doing better than the people who are still sleeping in at home, curled up under their soft and warm blankets.
Becoming a better person is what Christianity is all about, isn’t it? One of the main functions of any religion is to be shaped and molded into something greater than we currently are. This journey of faith is aimed at reconstructing ourselves so that we might resemble Jesus in the way that we live in the world.
But, the trouble for us who know a little bit about Jesus is that we know it was the good people, the scribes and the Pharisees, the ones who obeyed all the laws, the ones who, like us, showed up for worship on time, the people who gave fervently to the temple, who remained faithful to their spouses, who loved the Lord their God with all their heart, who knew all the scriptures, who walked humbly with God, those people were the ones who eventually yelled, “Crucify him!”
What drove them to such disregard for the Messiah who walked among them? What could have made them move from strict religious adherence, to crowds thirsty for punishment?Well, one answer is the scripture that we have today.
We find Jesus here in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Let me set up the trajectory: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, escaped to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, returned to Nazareth, was baptized by his cousin John in the river Jordan, was cast into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights, began his Galilean ministry, called his first disciples, and then gave his Sermon on the Mount.
This sermon marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission to God’s people. The words of the sermon will come to dictate who Jesus will serve, how he will share God’s grace with the people, and why he was dragged to the cross.
The sermon begins like all good sermons, Jesus jumps right to the point: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and so forth.
With the people no doubt scratching their heads regarding whatever this inversion of the world’s dynamics was supposed to mean, Jesus moves forward, “You all are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
The sermon concludes with Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Mosaic ten commandments, which is where our scripture begins today:
You have heard it that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
What a sermon this is shaping out to be.
Jesus’ teaching is stricter than the law itself. He will go on to proclaim do not get angry, do not lust, do not swear, do not seek revenge, and do not hate your enemy. He takes the law and make it even harder to obey.
Under the old law only murder and other extreme offenses were guilty of death, but under Jesus’ understanding angry temper is to be similarly judged. And he doesn’t stop there! Even those who would call others, “stupid” or “fool” are worthy of judgment by the court.
For Jesus, anger is just as bad as murder. Killing is not done by knives, and guns, and fists alone, but by the angry words muttered between friends, or the casual indifference between classmates that often makes people feel less than human.
Jesus looked out at the crowd and saw people worthy of love. His sermon is not just a message for Christians to follow regarding other Christians, but its a call to recognize the inherent value in all people. In Jesus’ day there was a custom of placing a large gold coin beneath the mainmast of most sailing vessels. For those who knew, this meant that even a wreck had value. Jesus recognized that value in all people, and called those with ears to hear to a life of grace, mercy, and love toward all people everywhere.
“You have heard it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…” Thats a classic Jesus move. It is possible to be so good, and right all the time, that you are wrong. You can be so religious that you miss the point of religion. Legalistic adherence to the law can begin to overshadow the importance of love and grace in your daily living. Overvaluing the law can lead to a faith that is cold, calculated, dry, and dull instead of a faith that is warm, wide, fun, and forgiving.
Jesus continues, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar (when you decide to place your offering in the plate) if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
A professor of mine in seminary told a story about a church in Africa that took this command quite seriously. Every Sunday morning the people would make their way to the church located in the middle of the village. Some with sleep still in their eyes would drag their lethargic bodies down the dusty road, continuing the same march they made every week.
At the bottom of the steps leading into the small sanctuary, the local pastor would be smiling from ear to ear greeting everyone as they came forward, however the doors would remain locked. The crowd would grow and grow until everyone from the village was present, anxiously waiting outside the church.
“Look around you,” the preacher’s voice would echo, “who do you need to reconcile with? Who have you betrayed since last we met? Go and find your brothers and sisters, make peace with one another. Until you do, these doors will remain locked.”
For the next twenty minutes, all of the African congregants would slowly make their way throughout the crowds searching for those who they had wronged, and who had wronged them. Now this wasn’t a town where you could just stand around and pretend that everything had been perfect since last Sunday. Everyone knew everyones’ business. That meant that they truly had to make peace with the collective church. Without the reconciliation, the people had no business entering the church to worship God. Only after the pastor was satisfied that everyone had been merciful with one another, were the doors opened and worship continued.
Some might say that Jesus’ command that someone should leave their gift at the altar to reconcile with his brother or sister is a depreciation of worship; however, it is actually an exaltation of worship. Just as it happened for that African church, God sees our inmost motives, and we are called to worship God in truth. If we have baggage with others in the community, we mock God by coming before the altar instead of first reconciling ourselves with others. God is concerned with our lives and our worship; we cannot ignore one while participating in the other.
I thought about doing something radical this morning. After reading the scripture for Sunday, and remembering the story from my professor, I wondered what it would have been like to stand outside those doors preventing all of you from entering today. But, after having shoveled at the parsonage and the church the last few days in the cold, I thought better of it. Nevertheless, what would our worship in this place look like, if first we made peace with those in the pews, rather than anonymously continuing down our faith journeys all alone?
What Jesus presented to the crowd, what Jesus presents to us this morning is not so much a new law to be strictly observed, but instead a new way of living our lives. Jesus makes his point dramatically in order for a change of heart to take place.
Jesus is here with us this morning, addressing us as he did to that crowd so long ago: You already know that you are forbidden to murder anyone, but now I’m telling you that you are forbidden to become angry with anyone. Call someone a fool and you’ll be worthy of punishment. Do you truly want to be good? Don’t just keep the law like the “good” Christians, go beyond the law.
Challenge yourselves to be greater than following guidelines and lists. Strive to love those around you to such a degree that the world will be transformed into the kingdom of God.
As a professor of mine once said, we are so accustomed to coming to a church like this and, if we should struggle and stumble with a passage like this one, it usually takes no more than 15 minutes for a skillful preacher, using the skills of story-telling, diversion, and trite formulaic expressions to explain it away. To reassure all of us that a nice person like Jesus never would have had a reason to say something tough to good people like us.
I know of no way to do that with this text. No amount of pop-psychology or narratival reductionism can remove the true message of Jesus’ words. The tougher the text, the more likely it was to have come straight from the lips of Jesus. Being a Christian is no easy thing. It requires us to love greatly, and to forgive deeply.
Now more than ever we need to reclaim the high call of Jesus’ sermon. Young people today find and seek validation in their peers and parents that, when not offered, leads to self-destructive habits. Just think of the cases of bullying that have recently dominated significant media attention. Words and actions are powerful things. We often do not realize how powerful we can be with our words, and how destructive we can be if we are not careful.
Love is the key to all the commands of scripture, particularly Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
Today, Jesus’ sermon is as hard to swallow as it was 2,000 years ago. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “Do this and don’t do that,” but what Jesus says to us is to do more, go beyond the law, strive for something incredible, work for the kingdom, let God’s Word be incarnate in your lives, imagine a more graceful and purposeful life, seek out the last, least, and lost, be better than good, be holy as your heavenly father is holy.
(I am thankful for Will Willimon’s sermon “Being Good” for inspiring parts of the above message)