January 22, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
This morning we continue our sermon series on passages from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—this handbook for living as disciples, citizens of the Kingdom of God in the real world. Our passage today is the beginning of a large portion of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus follows a pattern of quoting laws from the Old Testament, offering a new and deeper interpretation of the law, and then providing case studies to show the kind of ethical behavior he’s talking about. He begins each teaching with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said…” That is, you know what the Old Testament law requires. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder’… ‘You shall not commit adultery’ … You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” But then, in each case Jesus assumes a divine authority reserved for God alone when he adds, “But I say to you…” He adds further, more radical rules like not even being angry with one another. Like turning the other check, walking the second mile. Like loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.
Jesus better watch out, because this kind of behavior could get him in real trouble. These new laws or teachings are all about the radical, self-sacrificial way of life that we are called to lead as disciples, followers of a radical self-sacrificial Lord. But these teachings aren’t just about us, they are also reveal to us something about who Jesus is and how his life and ministry is to be understood in relation to the Old Testament stories and teachings of the people of Israel. Before he launches into these laws, Jesus begins by acknowledging his relationship with the ancient Hebrew tradition. He refers to it as the Law and the Prophets. It’s important to know that the phrase “the Law” was a reference not only to the specific rules in the Old Testament, like the Ten Commandments, but the Law (or Torah) was also the name given to the whole story in the first five books of the Bible. The Law includes the stories of creation, and humanity’s fall. It includes the accounts of the covenants that God initiates and the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Likewise, when Jesus say, “the Prophets” he’s not merely referring to a handful of ancient prophecies that point to the coming of the Messiah. No, “the Prophets” was also the name given to the historical books of the Old Testament. The sagas of the Hebrews coming into the Promised Land, the tales of King David and the wisdom of Solomon, the painful stories of being conquered and defeated by ancient empires and the joy of exiles finally returning home. All of this was together referred to as “the prophets.” So when Jesus says, “I have come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets…but to fulfill them,” he is inviting us to see that he is part of the story, the old old story that goes back to the waters of creation and exodus, exile and return. He is united with, not divided from, the covenant community’s journey of faith that has gone on for thousands of years.
And yet, clearly in the coming Jesus, something certainly is New. Very New. It’s connected to the tradition that comes before, but it is much more than that tradition. Jesus doesn’t come on the scene and say, just keep on keeping on with how you’ve been. You have the Law and the Prophets, you are doing just fine. No, Jesus says, you’ve been missing the point. You’ve twisted the gift of the Law and turned it into a prison of do’s and don’t. You’ve taken the prophet’s call for righteousness, which is all about being in loving relationship with God and one another…you’ve taken this righteousness and turned it into self-righteousness. He throws around this very harsh sounding condemnation, that is actually chock full of mocking irony when he says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now, the Pharisees were the group in Jesus’ day who built their entire lives around trying to keep every single letter of law as strictly as it could be interpreted. So, Jesus says, somewhat sarcastically, if you want to play that game of self-righteousness, then you’re going to have to be even more perfect that the people who think they’re perfect. Which of course you, can’t do. Because the truth is, being a disciple of Christ, seeking to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, isn’t finally about what YOU do.
It reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith show. Andy, the sheriff of the sleepy little town of Mayberry has to go out of town for a meeting, so he leaves his deputy, Barney Fife in charge. Barney is a wiry, anxious, and over-zealous fellow, but Andy tries not worry, because he’ll only be gone for one day. When he arrives back home, the town seem awfully peaceful and quite. Then he walks into at the courthouse and realizes why. While Andy has been gone, Barney has arrested half of the citizens of Mayberry for breaking the law. Folks are crammed into the two jail cells like sardines angrily yelling at Andy because of the injustices they have been dealt. But simple-minded Barney stares back at them and grins proudly saying, “Like I promised you, law and order has been kept in Mayberry this here day.”
Andy opens the jail cells, the people line up, and he hears each of their cases one by one. There’s an elderly gentleman who’s been arrested for disturbing the peace for yelling at his friend who beat him in a game of checkers. Andy’s own Aunt Bea has been charged with “unlawful assembly and inciting a riot” because she was standing on the sidewalk chatting with her friends and talked back when Barney told them to move along. The town mayor has even been arrested for “vagrancy and loitering” because he was walking around town.
One by one Andy listens to everyone’s stories and dismissed each of their cases. When the courthouse has emptied Barney is embarrassed and frustrated and says, “I had them, Andy. I had them all dead to rights. You can check the manual. Every one of them was as guilty as sin.”
Andy replies, “Now it’s true you had them all dead to rights by the book. But if you went strictly by the book, I don’t recon we’d have anything in this country but 180 million jail birds.” In his wisdom, Andy knew that there was more to the law that just the letter of the statute. That keeping the peace means understanding each person’s context and intent. There’s certainly a lesson in there for our broken systems today, don’t you think?
Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, Barney’s approach to the law is about self-righteousness. Andy’s approach on the other hand is about relationships. Relationships with your neighbors.
Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He quotes one of the Ten Commandments about not committing murder, but he says that righteousness, living in right relationship with God and neighbor, calls us to do more than just avoiding murder. He says don’t be angry or hateful. Don’t condemn or label. He calls for something more radical because when we feel angry or scornful, when we lash out with harsh words of contempt or outrage at other, at the root of what we are doing is an attack on the humanity, the God-given dignity, of our another person. Jesus says, the question isn’t just whether you are trying to murder a human, but are you dehumanizing with your thoughts, words, and deeds.
This injunction against hatred and anger isn’t just something for us to hear as individuals, but also together as a people, as a society, as a church, as a country. The great Presbyterian Church historian E.T. Thompson wrote little book about the Sermon on the Mount and its meaning for the church in the modern world. He wrote it in 1946. Just as World War II had come to a close. And amidst all the victory and celebration at the end of the war, he also noticed, that in the temptation to fall into hate and anger and labelling opponents was particularly strong among those on the side of victory. Commenting on this very passage of scripture he said, in 1946, “In the years that lie ahead the leaders of our nation and of the United Nations will face tremendous responsibilities. They will make decisions on which the peace and happiness of [humanity] will depend for generations to come. And these decisions must be governed by reason and sound judgement. If instead they are dictated by passion or determined by hate, our children and our children’s children will pay the penalty.” He concluded by saying, “More than is ordinarily realized, the emotional attitudes of the American people determine the action of our statesmen. Our duty, as Christians, is to make reason and the will of God prevail.” Friends, the same could certainly be said today. The dehumanizing effect of hatred and anger clouding our judgment as a people is just as strong a thread today, and the consequences are just as high.
Instead, Jesus offers up two examples of righteousness, one from the realm of religious patterns of worship and one from the legal system. In both cases, where there is division and discord, Jesus insists first on mending the relationship with a brother or sister before going through the outward acts of worship and justice. I find it fascinating that in both cases being righteous means interrupting what we are supposed to be doing so that reconciliation can be done.
How we worship and serve God, how we do business and make a living, how we practice justice and politics, how we live in the real world, Jesus insists is to be built upon the foundation of reconciliation. Restoring relationships, crossing divisions, celebrating the image of God in one another. That’s what real, biblical righteousness is all about. That’s what the whole story of the Law and the Prophets tell us, about a God who redeems us and calls us to live in relationships of reconciliation at the personal and societal level.
Jesus himself will fulfill that story. He will go down from this mountain top where he is teaching. He will heal the sick, touch the unclean, eat with outcasts, call the rich and the poor to follow him. He will welcome the sinners, associate with all the wrong people, even people like you and me. To the religious leaders of his day, Jesus will not appear as a very religious person, while he goes about the work of fulfilling God’s story of righteousness. He will sit around a table, this table, and share in a meal that is all about what God is doing to restore what is broken in the world. And then he’ll go from that table to a jail cell, to hill outside of the city, to a cross. Despite what he teaches us in this passage today, he will be murdered for sins he didn’t commit. He will be the recipient of humanities anger, and will be called much worse than just a fool. He will be offered as a sacrifice, and in doing so will redeem us all, even his own accusers. And three days, later, God will raise him from the dead as the ultimate fulfillment of righteousness, the ultimate restoring of love, the ultimate relationship of and reconciliation.
As a wise biblical scholar notes, “We live in a world filled with alienation and distrust. But this is precisely the kind of world in which [Jesus’ teaching] offers a vision of hope.”