“Consider the Stakes Raised”

Matthew 5:21-37

16 February 2020

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

Rush United Methodist Church

 

Matthew 5:21-37 (NRSV)

“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 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 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 members 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, causes 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 your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

1

Prayer.

 

Jesus pours on the pressure

With this third act

Of his Sermon on the Mount.

 

The Sermon on the Mount

Is bedrock material for Jesus.

He is outlining foundational values

Upon which God’s kingdom can be advanced.

 

Jesus is giving us a glimpse of what life looks like

As his faithful disciples,

Discerning and following God’s will.

The Sermon on the Mount is a description of

What it is like to live a full, meaningful, purposeful life in Christ.

 

 

The opening act of the Sermon on the Mount were the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are a great start, right out of the gate:

Jesus teaches the crowds that

God’s favor rests upon those society rejects:

The wretched, despised, and poor.

 

The Beatitudes conclude with a dose of harsh reality:

Life lived in God’s kingdom will result in people reviling and persecuting you.

If you’re not getting push-back and eye-rolls for following Jesus,

If you’re not on getting unfriended, the cold shoulder, or outright persecution because of your faith,

You’re probably not doing it right.

 

Weigh the risks and rewards,

Danger and opportunity, and

Make your decision.

As for me and my house,

We’ll follow Jesus, love God, and love our neighbors, and

Let the chips fall where they may.

 

 

Last Sunday was the Sermon on the Mount’s second act.

The substance was bold.

Be bold for Jesus and his message!

Be salty in your witness, mission, and ministry.

Shine the light of Jesus that all the world might see.

Jesus cannot be hidden

Anymore than a city on a hill can be hidden.

If you’ve got Jesus, flaunt it.

Wear it like Wendy.

Go big or go home.

 

Jesus follows up teaching about salt and light

With a transitional narrative that serves as a pivot,

An essential set-up,

For today’s third act.

Jesus sets the stage with a discussion about the Law and prophets.

The crowd would have been intensely interested in

Christ’s position on the nature of the Law of Moses,

The Ten Commandments, and all their supportive laws and ordinances from Deuteronomy.

 

What’s his policy?

 

Is Jesus the teacher and healer the One?

… the One sent by God,

… the One anointed to be a savior, liberator, redeemer of the Jewish people?

Is Jesus

God’s personal selection

To reign as the Jewish king during the Messianic Age and the world to come?

Just like primary voters from Gobbler’s Notch

People wanted to know where Jesus stood and what he believed.

 

How would Jesus rule? The Jewish crowd wanted to know.

Was God going to do a new thing?

Perhaps replace the Law of Moses with a new Law? Or

Would Jesus enforce the Law as it had been given?

 

Jesus clearly states his position:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (5:17-18)

The Law stands.

 

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)

Jesus intends to expand, intensify, and amplify the Law.

 

Jesus wants his happy meal, and he wants it super-sized.

 

Jesus has come to fulfill the Law: this means righteous adherence is our goal.

In the case of his next three topics:

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not bear false witness.

No lying, cheating, or killing.

Any questions?

Get to work.

 

That’s the happy meal, but Jesus wants it super-sized.

The third act of the Sermon on the Mount

Is Jesus expanding, interpreting, and intensifying these three basic commandments.

 

 

Thou shall not kill.

Righteous adherence seems obvious.

Either you do, or you don’t.

Few things are more binary than life or death.

If you’re not a murderer, you’ve kept the commandment, and

You win a gold star.

 

Wait a minute; Jesus has more.

The commandment isn’t just about physical life or death,

It’s about the relationship you and I have with each other.

Angry? You’re liable to God’s judgment.

Insulting? You’re going to get dragged before the church council.

Call someone a fool, and you better get used to the fires of hell.

 

In other words

Killing a brother or sister with anger, insults, or treating them like a fool,

Is just as bad as if you murdered them in cold blood.

Don’t do it.

 

That’s the super-size.

God’s grace follows, however, with the solution Jesus lays before us:

Reconcile with your brother or sister before you approach the altar and Divine Judge.

Reconciliation is as good as resurrection from the dead.

Reconciliation repairs and restores mortal wounds.

 

Using the justice system as a teaching metaphor,

Settle out of court, Jesus teaches.

Failure to reconcile before you get to the judge

Will result in being thrown in prison

Until reconciliation is made.

 

And you thought being quarantined in your stateroom for two months

for the Coronavirus was bad!

Being locked in the same cell

With the one you’ve killed with a poisonous tongue and poor treatment

Is my definition of hell.

The only key to unlock the cell door is called reconciliation.

Hell is a great incentive for getting down to business and

Living according to the will of Jesus.

 

Don’t kill.

Likewise, reconcile before you get to the altar and face our heavenly Father.

Check your anger at the door.

Learn to hold the tongue.

Don’t call or treat anyone like a fool.

Reconcile early and often.

 

 

Let’s have a candid talk about adultery.

You heard me right.

Adultery.

Don’t do it.

 

Adultery is defined as

“voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not his or her spouse.” (Google)

Like murder, adultery appears to be a binary affair;

Either one engages in adultery or one doesn’t.

Righteous adherence is the standard Moses came down the mountain with.

Stick true to the vows made at your marriage,

In front of your family, friends, and pastor.

Keep your word;

The vows made before God Almighty,

And you’re good to go.

You win a second gold star.

 

Wait a minute; Jesus demands more.

Jesus super sizes the commandment and raises the bar of expectation.

Look with lust, and the heart commits adultery.

Look with lust, and you’re as guilty as Jimmy Carter working his peanut farm.

 

As a life-long United Methodist,

I’m waiting for Jesus to deliver his characteristic follow-up dose of grace.

It just doesn’t come.

Not here, anyways.

It’s better to cut off an offending hand or pluck out an offending eye

Than to go into hell.

Yikes.

 

Jesus is talking a lot about hell, here.

Kind of makes us want to pay attention.

 

But, there’s more here than meets the eye.

Responsibility is shifted from the social norm of the woman

And placed solely on the shoulder of the perpetrator of adultery.

In a patriarchal society,

Men are now being called accountable for their actions, and

Women victims, Jesus is declaring, are no longer subjected to blame or humiliation.

Women are not objects, Jesus teaches.

Women are children of God,

made in the Creator’s image, and

are to be treated with the same respect.

 

Jesus shakes the snow globe and turns the whole male dominated world upside down.

 

Men: you don’t like it that Jesus favors women?

Get over it.

He favors the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the peacemakers, too.

 

You thought he was done?

Jesus is just getting started.

 

Like completing a check list

Jesus super sizes Deuteronomy 24,

Which explicitly lays down the law on divorce.

This is where the preacher pauses for effect and

half the congregation shifts nervously in the pews!

 

According to scripture,

A certificate of divorce was required

as a means of protecting women and children

From being discarded and destitute

For something as simple as “being objectionable.”

 

Divorce was, and remains, a reality.

Jesus was focused not so much on divorce as he was on remarriage.

 

Jesus takes divorce and elevates it to

the higher standard he just established for adultery.

Divorce pressures the x-wife to commit adultery by the assumption that she must marry again.

Marry and live in adultery or live homeless and starve with your children?

Talk about being caged in a corner.

You know what Jesus says about causing another to sin?

It would be better to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned. (18:6)

 

Divorce, Jesus teaches, equates with adultery,

With only one exception …

… if she is the one guilty of unchastity.

In other words,

Women, you’re not off the hook.

There’s no free pass for adultery, for men or women.

 

Adultery and divorce, we know,

Results in broken families and ruined communities.

Jesus would rather have us blind or an amputee

Than to have us crawl into the hell of adultery or divorce.

 

Adultery rots the heart.

It’s impossible to have the heart of Christ if it’s rotten to the core.

 

Avert the eyes.

Discipline personal behavior.

Honor your vows and treat your spouse with love and respect.

These are teachable skills.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Marriage takes work.

It is possible to improve.

Practice makes perfect.

Jesus expects his disciples to improve.

It is possible to rise to the high standard Jesus sets.

 

Life in a healthy marriage and a loving, healthy family

Is to taste the joy of living a life fully in Christ Jesus.

 

 

Lastly, for today,

Jesus speaks about swearing an oath and keeping your word.

 

Granted, the language here is difficult.

The cultural context in the time of Jesus for swearing oaths is uncertain.

No translation does the text justice.

But, let me give it a try.

 

First, don’t lie.

This is consistent with the Commandment prohibiting one from bearing false witness.

Resist the temptation to justify lying words with phrases like

“fake news”

“alternate facts”

“it’s just a little white lie”

“everyone does it”.

 

Conversely, tell the truth.

Always, without exception, tell the truth.

Speak truth when it’s easy.

Speak truth when it’s hard.

Speak truth to power, even when you’re so scared

It feels like your legs won’t hold you.

Create your life narrative as

one who was always known

to be honest and true.

 

Truth is a high standard.

Jesus raises the bar.

He super sizes the commandment about honesty

With the directive to

“carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” (5:33b)

 

In other words,

Keep your word.

Keep your promises.

Follow through is the new gold standard.

Follow through with behavior that is consistent with your words.

 

Inconsistency is hypocrisy.

Promises unkept

Undermines trust,

Corrodes integrity, and

Damages relationships.

 

Avoid the trap of dishonesty and hypocrisy

By keeping promises modest.

Make promises that have a low risk of failure and a high degree of success.

 

This places a high priority on knowing our boundaries and keeping them.

This requires a commitment to the self-examined life and

A growing, maturing relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

 

Jesus takes the Law

And sets the bar higher.

In his Sermon on the Mount,

Jesus will press the limits on issues of

Retaliation, loving enemies, giving to the poor, prayer, fasting, and wealth.

Jesus will amplify the Law when it comes to

Fidelity to God, anxiety, judging others, profanity, and living according to the Golden Rule.

 

The standards are set

such that, pretty much,

everyone is convicted by sin

and in need of redemption.

 

We are given a vision of how wonderful a life can be when its lived in Jesus Christ.

The only way to get to this abundant life is through

Personal repentance,

Accountable behavior,

Inter-personal reconciliation, and

the redemption Jesus offers by his cross.

 

Indeed, the blood of the cross washes us clean.

 

Repentance.

Reconciliation.

This is a tall order.

It’s a long, but necessary reach,

That we are taught and called to complete.

 

Amen.

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