You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murder 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. 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 bother or 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. 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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your member than for your whole body to go into hell. It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, cause her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Again you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, 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. Let you words be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
The narthex is buzzing at First Church Galilee.
A young seminarian, the son of a construction worker is the rumor, just finished preaching a sermon and the amount of responses was staggering.
It started with oohs and ahhh. A scattering of amens. But then there was silence, and head scratching, and even a few audible “Excuse Mes?”.
Mrs. Smith, the dedicated Sunday school teacher has amassed a crowd by the coffee decanter. “The nerve!” she begins, “Can you believe what we just witnessed? Don’t you think that boy would’ve had the good sense to know that we don’t come here to be told what to do, but instead to hear about who God is?”
Parishioners shake their heads in affirmation.
Mr. Cline, the head usher, then steps in, “Well now. He is young and so full of the Spirit. Maybe he didn’t really mean it.”
“Give me a break Jim,” Mrs. Smith retorts, “You know he meant it! You don’t get up in the pulpit and say things like that if you don’t mean it!”
And right then the preacher stops shaking hands at the door and walks up to the small but rather agitated crowd. Before he has a chance to speak, Mrs. Smith lights into him, “You’ve got a lot of nerve you son of a carpenter! It’s not responsible to tell people to pluck out their eyes and cut off their arms! There were children present during your message! You know, I have half a mind to send a note to the bishop about you!”
And, oddly enough, the preacher closes his mouth into a smile and says nothing. In the oddity of his silence, the congregation awkwardly begins to disperse, and they leave amazed and astounded at his teaching.
It is a strange sermon that our Lord preaches, a sermon we call the Sermon on the Mount. I think we can agree to an extent with my fictional parishioners who witnessed his proclamation – it is a bit weird to hear such word from the Word made flesh.
It’s one thing to tell people their blessed when they’re grieving and mourning. It’s still yet another thing to talk about being salty and shining your light into the world. But it’s another thing entirely when Jesus takes the law and cranks it up to eleven.
You have heard that it was said that you shall not murder, but I say that if you are angry with a brother or sister you’ve committed just as bad of a crime.
You have heard that it was said you shall not commit adultery, but I say that if your eye lingers just a second too long on someone other than your spouse, you’ve become an adulterer.
You have heard it was said that you shall worship the Lord your God, but I say to you that if you miss even one Sunday at church you are liable to the H E double hockeys sticks of fire.
Geez Jesus. What’s the deal? What happened to loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing a nice thing for someone else every once in a while?
And that’s not even mentioning the abject craziness of being told, by the Lord, that it would be better to rip out our eyes and cut off our hands than to continue living in the sins of our imaginations!
Now, we all know that Jesus spoke in parables. It’s important, of course, to note that Jesus also spoke in hyperbole, exaggerated speech, what Stephen Webb calls, “blessed excess.”
Though, it doesn’t sound very blessed, even when Jesus does it.
Hyperbole – overstating something in order to underscore. We do it all the time do, we add for emphasis. We spice up our stories for effect, we exaggerate in order to drive something home, we give ourselves over to hyperbole.
Even in the church we do it. Have you ever heard the hymn “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”? I don’t see 1,000 people here today…
I mean, it would be irresponsible for us to take Jesus at his word, to take him literally. If we did, this congregation would turn into a bunch of one-armed cyclopses. And that’s just the verses we read today. He keeps going!
And yet… and yet…
Might it be that we don’t feel comfortable with these words from Jesus not just because of how graphic he is, but also because of how close it hits to home?
I suspect that only a very small selection of Christians enjoy this part of Jesus’ sermon. Honestly, this preacher didn’t want to have to preach a sermon on Jesus’ sermon on the mount this week. It’s a lot. But there are some out there for whom this sermon, these words of Jesus taking the people to task, it rings of truth because they know there is more at stake in the Kingdom of God than merely being accepted.
Acceptance is a passive reality that actually runs counter to God’s nature.
God doesn’t just accept us otherwise God, in Christ, would never heave preached this sermon. Acceptance isn’t enough. Neither is tolerance.
Nobody wants to be accepted or tolerated.
We want to be loved.
And Jesus does love us, even me and you, but his love is intense, frightening, and overwhelming. In fact, Jesus loves us so much, he’s willing to do something most of us avoid at all costs – he tells the truth.
But there’s a reason we avoid the truth – that we run from it whenever it rears its ugly head. No one wants to be told they are a sinner, let alone admit it themselves.
We all have our “buts,” our excuses, when it comes to Jesus’ sermon.
Just because I looked it doesn’t mean I acted on it.
C’mon, what’s a little grudge got to do with me being able to come forward to the altar?
So what if I get a little judgmental every once in awhile, it’s not like its hurting anyone!
Sure, maybe I went a little too far but I’m not as bad as some other people!
Okay, I’ll admit that I said some thing that I shouldn’t have, but words are not the same things as actions.
Yeah, it was a mistake, but I won’t do it again.
Everyone has a but, and each of those buts is just a further reminder that, at the end of the day, we’re all sinners! And, to be honest, the sermon only gets worse. Jesus will shortly command his followers to turn the other cheek, love and pray for their enemies, and more!
The whole thing builds and builds with a crescendo, like many good sermons, until Jesus hammers it all home with this: “Do Not Judge lest ye be judged. Why do you seek the speck in your neighbors’s eye and neglect to see the log in your own?”
In other words, the sermon functions to help us see that we can’t judge anyone else for what they’ve done or left undone because, according to Jesus, all of us are incompatible with Christian teaching.
Any straight reading of scripture, Jesus’ sermon included, shows us that the Law is inflexible and total. Do your best and God will do the rest is not the message of the Bible.
The Law functions to drive us out of our propensity toward sinful self-sufficiency. That’s why Jesus preaches his offensive sermon. Otherwise, we are doomed to remain exactly as we are. And the Lord doesn’t arrive to keep things the same – the Lord arrives to make all things new. Including us.
But there is no resurrection without crucifixion. Hence the expression: The Gospel can only make alive those whom the Law has killed.
Jesus’ sermon accuses us – you are dead in your sins – and it also promises us new life – for the One who preaches these words is the same one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for people like us – people who don’t deserve it according to the words of his sermon.
It’s a bit odd to claim Good News in the midst of the sermon on the mount that sounds like such terribly bad news. But there is Good News because God in Christ does for us that which we cannot do on our own.
We can’t live up to the expectations of Jesus’ sermon, but that’s kind of the point. Again, it reminds us that we are no better than anyone else. In fact, it helps us to see that we’re all in the same boat. Therefore, like Peter who jumps out of the boat, Jesus’ sermon give us the strength to call out, “Lord, save me.”
And that’s exactly what Jesus does.