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February 12, 2017

How Ought We To Live

(Matthew 5: 21-37)

I think it is safe to assume that none of us came to church today hoping for a good sermon on anger, adultery, and divorce! I can assure you that I did not spend the past two weeks with an ever-growing desire to address these issues. But our church is committed to a common lectionary and so the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany we get Matthew 5 with its hard words from Jesus on these very topics.

At the heart of our Lord’s teaching, today is a clear concern for the damage we can cause through our anger, our tendency to abuse and defile precious relationships and the harm we cause when we compromise precious trusts and commitments.

Anger is a powerful force. Some have said that we are living in the age of anger. From a road rage incident that recently damaged the reputation of a professional football player to the huge crowds of angry young Egyptians, whose outrage brought down their government; we see the power of anger all around us.

Now not all anger is bad. Our Lord was often angry at the religious leaders of his time for the way they enslaved people under a burden of rules and requirements. We know that moment when Jesus was outraged to find merchants selling animals and exchanging money in that part of the Temple that was reserved for non-Jewish people to worship. Jesus fashioned a whip from ropes and drove the money-changers out, a classic example of what we would call righteous indignation.

But that is not the anger Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel. He is talking about the kind of anger that is ego-driven, the kind of anger that is filled with jealousy and resentment, the kind of anger that wells and often causes pain and suffering for those whose only offense is that they displease us or are different from us.

Jesus speaks about adultery and divorce in our Gospel this morning. I doubt any of us need those terms defined! There is a lot of it going around in contemporary America. But I would encourage us to think of the many ways, beyond the destruction of a marriage covenant, that moral compromise can cause serious damage. The word adultery means literally to make something impure … to pollute what should be clean. How tempted we are every day to abuse a variety of trusts we have. All of this, Jesus wants us to know, undermines our relationship with others and ultimately our relationship with God.

Relationships … I am convinced that this is what our Gospel lesson is really addressing. We create a precious trust when we enter into a meaningful relationship with another … within our family and circle of friends, at our workplace, and certainly within our congregation.

In many ways, this lesson from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is one of the most difficult texts for us to understand. Matthew sticks our nose directly into the Ten Commandments, that ancient collection that most of us would prefer to ignore or, at best, think of as The Ten Suggestions. But Jesus ratchets up the weight of these requirements by insisting that we cannot sidestep them and the ideals they contain. He makes this clear in verses that immediately precede our text:
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished. … [Matthew 5: 17-18]

So begins Jesus’ powerful commentary on what it means to live as a citizen of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus speaks about the importance of making peace with those around us and not allowing conflict to define us or to get out of hand.
He addresses the danger of unbridled personal hungers that can easily lead us in a direction that is personally harmful and generally destructive to the welfare of those around us.
Finally, Jesus identifies the peril of degrading the honor that should be associated with that unique connection of two people that we call marriage.

A sign of the times in which we live is the reality that most people want to be their own priest. We do not want any religious middle man looking over our shoulder. We want to form our own relationship with God, unfiltered by any churchly intermediary. In short, we want to be our own pope, the final authority on what is right and wrong for us. Most of us are convinced that all we need to do is live by the simple creed: Love Jesus and do whatever you want.

But how can we square such a relaxed approach to ethical decision-making with these hard and clear words from Jesus captured in Matthew’s Gospel? Traditionally, this powerful text has been interpreted in two quite different ways:
One interpretation would claim that Jesus is urging us to take the law far more seriously than we’d ever imagined. In reality, this view would claim that Jesus is establishing a new law that both exceeds and extends the Ten Commandments. This approach takes the ethical demands of Christianity most seriously and would argue that faith in Jesus is a kind of spiritual steroid that allows us to do what pious Jews in Jesus’ day could not. I really don’t like this interpretation.
The second approach goes in a different direction. This view would claim that Jesus is taking the law to an impossible extreme to show us that we cannot fulfill its demands. Thus, we cannot point to our accomplishments but rather must see that we are wholly dependent on the grace of God. This interpretation can easily encourage us to believe that if we cannot fulfill the law, it really does not matter what we do. While I think this interpretation is a little closer to the mark, I still find it wanting as well.

So, if neither of these interpretations is totally satisfactory, what do we do with Matthew 5? I am not convinced that Jesus greatest concern was that we pour ourselves into obeying every law, rule, and commandment. Instead, I think Jesus’s greatest concern was that we strive to put God first in our lives. Hr spoke more about the Kingdom of God than he did about the laws of God. And the first thing to remember is that when we are talking about God we are talking about relationships.

I challenge us to think about the law of God, not in terms of doing a certain number of impossible things before breakfast but in terms of being in the right relationship … with God and with those around us. It is not about our need to do the right thing, color within the lines, keep our noses clean; no, it is about loving your neighbor, controlling your anger, modifying your drives for personal fulfillment, all to the end that we might be an instrument for deepening and strengthening the community in which we live.

When we properly read the Ten Commandments, I think we will see that their purpose is not to limit our lives but to expand and enrich them. The first Three Commandments address our relationship with God, an essential step toward living the good life. The second section, Commandments Four through Ten, speak to our relationships to other people. Understood this way, the whole law is actually a way to challenge us to honor those with whom we are in relationship.

The danger, I believe, is for us to forget about the importance of relationships, striving instead to be spiritual decathlon athletes, competing in endless categories with a determination to excel in our righteous achievements.

But as soon as we do that we fall prey to the second danger. When we live to fulfill the law, we can all too easily wind up being judgmental of others, who may not be able to achieve what we can. Jesus addresses this danger when he says: Judge not, least you be judged.

So let us be of good cheer. The genius of the Sermon on the Mount is not that it places before us the model of the perfect Christian life we ought to live or even the challenge of an unattainable goal. No, the genius of the Sermon on the Mount is that it brings us face to face with Jesus Christ. For when we know Jesus, we discover how we should live for others in this world. Amen.

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