The Gospel this morning is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, but today’s teaching by Jesus are some of the most troubling in the entire bible, for us to comprehend.
Jesus has just called this community salt of the earth and light for the world. Yet as we examine ourselves in the light of this teaching, we might well feel convicted as Jesus expands the scope and application of each of these commandments.
Lately, in our everyday lives, we have been hearing a great deal about “alternative truths” and “alternative facts”, much to my dismay and perhaps to yours. Yet in our Gospel today alternative truths and facts are exactly what Jesus is giving us. the “alternatives” that Jesus delivers are not truths and facts that disregard, contradict, or go against the commandments as much as they offer a different, deeper, more complete way of understanding the impact of each commandment for the life of the community. If the church is to truly function as salt and light for the society around it, then Jesus wants us to understand these truths.
We know from our readings of Exodus and Deuteronomy that God gave the Ten Commandments to the people for their own good, and for the good of the community.
Moses says, If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
God gives the commandments as a gift, that God’s people might live in good, healthy, mutually supportive and loving relationships with God and with one another. Fact.
From Genesis to Revelation, we witness a God who pursues, guides and provides for good, healthy, lively relationships for God’s people so that they might live in harmony with God and with and for each other and the creation God has made. Fact. It’s all about relationship!
God’s Law guides human relationships and keeps people focused on God and on such life-sustaining behavior. Fact.
So, if we accept as fact that God gave the Law for the welfare of all people, and that God’s Law is good, why does it seem that Jesus is changing the law? If God says obey this Law because it is good; then why does it seem Jesus is offering ‘alternative fact’? Is Jesus giving us alternative rules?
At the beginning of the Gospel for today, Jesus says, you shall not kill and that anyone who commits murder is liable for judgement; but I say to you that even when you are angry with a brother or sister you are still guilty, or even if you simply insult one of these, you will face judgment.
We’ve been hearing terms like alternative facts and alternative truths, and we might be tempted to see what Jesus is doing in the negative light of that experience. But what Jesus is doing here is not trying to change the Law but to give an alternative way to look at the Law that deepens and broadens our understanding of God’s intent and desire for living out our relationships.
In each of these alternative statements, Jesus goes deeper; “you’ve heard it said,” he begins, followed by a commandment, to which Jesus then responds, “But I say,” and then Jesus’s teaching point – his alternative fact.
The thing is, Jesus isn’t there to disregard or change the old teachings, rather, this Son of God will fulfill, amplify, deepen and transcend the Law. In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples on how to look more deeply and broadly at these commandments and to see how they are lived out in our lives and in our world today.
Jesus just finished telling this community of Christ followers that they are salt and light for the world, and now he teaches them what it means to live like it. Following Jesus’ alternative facts means choosing life in his name.
Jesus frames teach teaching by reminding us of the literal reading of the law but then broadens its meaning and impact: he does this each time he says, but ‘I say to you’ a statement that carries the same weight in Matthew’s Gospel as his ‘I Am’ statements do in John’s Gospel.
This is the royal, the divine statement of identity and authority of Jesus in this Gospel; this is the divine ‘I’, reminding us that all religious and ethical authority rests on Jesus the Son of God, the Messiah. In obedience to God’s voice which spoke from heaven at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, we should ‘listen to him now’.
The students in our Confirmation class are currently studying the Ten Commandments, and one of the things that we are doing is going deeper, looking at the broader scope of each of the commandments.
In Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther asks the question of each commandment, “What is this?” or, “What does this mean?” – these are like the “why” questions our kids love to ask, and the story goes that they are mirrored after his own children’s questions. In each case, Luther gives an answer, for teaching of the faith.
As we look at this commandment, Jesus invites us to go deeper and wider with our understanding of how this commandment – ‘Thou shalt not kill’ guides our relationships.
Jesus gives us an alternative way of looking at the commandment. Killing is not just murder. Killing is not just shooting someone or stabbing someone or poisoning them until they are no longer breathing. Truth be told, as far as I know we are all probably innocent when it comes to murder.
But here is Jesus’ alternative fact regarding murder. …..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. Wow. Jesus has just put a different spin on our understanding of the commandment, and has probably indicted all of us.
We might think, that hardly seems fair. How can Jesus fault us for anger? It is an essential human emotion, isn’t it? While there are people who have anger management issues and seem to get angry about everything, acting rashly and even dangerously when they do, they are more the exception than the rule.
But for the rest of us, isn’t anger a good thing? Isn’t even the most sainted, mild-mannered among us likely to get angry sometimes? Shouldn’t certain things make us angry, and doesn’t anger sometimes spur us on to godly action, like fighting for justice, and caring for our brothers and sisters? Didn’t Jesus himself reveal anger on occasion? How can anger be equated to killing?
Well, the good news, my friends, is that Jesus isn’t talking about legitimate angry response in the face of injury, injustice, sin, and the things that, indeed, should make us angry. Instead, the Greek word that appears in this passage refers to anger that is long-lived, simmering, glaring anger, the anger that is nursed, the anger that is less a reaction to a passing insult or injury than it is a choice that is made - to hold a grudge, to fan the flame of rage or antagonism, to destroy a reputation.
Further, Jesus addresses the angry retort, the name-calling, the tendency to strike out in anger with harsh words that wound and scar. I read somewhere that “Resentment and hard words kill more people than drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined.” I don’t know about the statistics on that, but I do know, as we all do, that our angry words and actions can and do kill relationships, the very thing that God has created us for.
Anger and the actions and words that we use within the sphere of anger hurts, wounds, kills, scars, and has lasting effect on the person, family, or communities whose quality of life is whittled down by the lingering effects of anger.
Jesus came to bring life and love, grace, mercy and forgiveness to the world. Jesus came to teach us to be bridge builders and disciples, carrying his radical message of inclusivity, acceptance and deeper, broader engagement with God and with each other through the Word he brings into the world. As we look at the commandments, Jesus offers us the alternative ways of life that invite us to go deeper, and broader in our relationships. Jesus encouraged us to seek to understand how these directives for life address each and every one of us.
Today, when I look at my news feed, read news reports and editorials, when I have conversations with you, when I search my own heart, I confess that it is anger that I see rising to the top of so many of our communications and interactions that surround us. Not anger within this community so much, but anger at our neighbor. Anger born of fear and anger that inspires fear. I confess that I feel anger at what is happening in our country and in our world. Again, some of this anger is healthy but truth be told, I know that much of it is not. It is the result of our collective feeling of helplessness. It is absorbed from the culture around us in which the debilitating, destructive, fuming, unproductive kind of anger is prominently being promoted, encouraged, and its flames fanned. And it isn’t good.
The color is seeping out of this beautiful world and the life that God offers us all through Jesus. Instead, faithful people on both sides of every argument inappropriately use the church and Scripture as a weapon to wound, insult, and drive a wedge between people.
The gospel good news that I wish to share with you today my friends, is that God is present and working in the midst of this chaos. Jesus came that we might have life and light in his name. We are disciples of Christ, called to bring healing and blessing to the world around us.
So let’s begin by each of us looking at this commandment and searching our hearts, our actions and our words, and remembering who we are and whose we are. There is a difficult fight ahead of us, and today more than ever before, we are sent to proclaim the love and justice that Jesus brings.
The good news is that Jesus has called us as disciples and had made us salt and light for the world, and he does not leave us alone to do this. Instead, he sends the Spirit to guide our hearts and our ways.
Jesus has called us to bring his Word of peace and grace into just such a world as this. Through baptism Jesus has anointed us to speak grace into the turmoil that surrounds us, has called us to be his church, and his blessing for the world.
Sometimes, this means that we will agree to disagree about things like politics. Sometimes this means we will get angry about social injustice and oppression. We will work together to speak out against it or to combat such things.
Always, being called to be the church of Christ and God’s heart and hands in the world, we will be guided by his love. It is love that will defeat the sin of the world when the kingdom comes to its fullness at Jesus’ return. May the alternative truth, the message of love, mercy and grace, guide us and shape us as Jesus people, for the sake of the world.