The Sermon on the Mount, that section of Matthew that stretches from chapter 5 through chapter 7 includes some of the most familiar teachings of Jesus as well as some of the most difficult and challenging. It begins with the Beatitudes-“blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” It’s also the location for the Lord’s Prayer, which we recite at every Eucharistic celebration.Although Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount, and perhaps most pointedly in the section read this morning, present challenges to our ears, there are underlying questions or issues that need our attention before trying to make sense for our lives of what Jesus is saying. These antitheses—you have heard it say of do not murder, but I say to you… show Jesus working with Torah (the Jewish law). There’s a common assumption among Christians, going back centuries, that Jesus put an end to the Jewish law—that the Jewish community of Jesus’ day struggled to live by the hundreds of narrow prescriptions in the law laid down in the Pentateuch, were oppressed by its demands, and sought freedom from it—a freedom preached by Jesus Christ, Paul, and early Christianity.
Well, it’s not quite so simple as that. In fact, that common understanding is wrong on two counts. It’s wrong concerning first-century Judaism, and it’s wrong concerning Jesus. We know from first-century sources as well as from earlier biblical texts that that the Mosaic law was perceived by Jews as a good thing. Our psalm today expresses that idea:
“Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the laws of the Lord.”
Throughout the Psalms, there’s a consistent sense of joy for the law and that continued down through Jesus’ day. There is ongoing development in the understanding of the law in Judaism and by the first century, the Pharisees were seeking to broaden the law’s influence and range. They were applying the Torah to everyone, not just to the priests. While we may think of that as increasing legalization, it was also in a very real sense, a democratization of the law. It applied to everyone.
In addition, the Pharisees’ sought to provide guidance concerning the law to every aspect of life. What is murder, for example? The Pharisees provided ways for people to understand the connection between every day activity and the central precepts of the law, in order to preserve the law’s integrity.
Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus doing very much the same thing. “You have heard it said of old, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Like the Pharisees, Jesus is offering instruction to his listeners about how to interpret Torah. He’s answering the questions, What is murder? What is adultery?
And think about the way we generally approach such questions. Both in the legal arena and in our own personal moral reflections, we’re likely to try to find ways to interpret actions so that they aren’t judged the more serious offense—thus, instead of murder, people are charged with reckless homicide or manslaughter.
Jesus is doing just the opposite: What is murder? Jesus says, it’s not just the act of killing someone, it’s being angry, or hating, or ridiculing someone. Jesus is intensifying the law, sharpening it, and internalizing it. It’s not just our outward actions that matter, it’s our inward dispositions and inclinations as well.
Last week, we heard Jesus express his complete commitment to Jewish law: “Do not think that I come to abolish the Law. Truly, I tell you, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” And a few verses later: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
We tend to think of Jesus’ teachings in terms of comfortable platitudes—be nice to everyone, can’t we just get along?” an ethic of politeness and kindness. In the Sermon on the Mount, it’s just the opposite. Jesus seems to be ratcheting up and intensifying his moral teaching in ways that most, if not all of us, find quite difficult and makes us uncomfortable.
So our likely response is going to be one of two things. Perhaps Jesus is directing his words only at a select few. Matthew makes clear that Jesus is addressing his disciples while a larger crowd listens in. Perhaps all of this is only meant for the religious elite, monks and nuns perhaps, or really serious Christians. The alternative, also often expressed throughout the history of Christianity is that Jesus didn’t intend for us to obey him. Rather, he offers these instructions to show us that ultimately the law is impossible to keep and we need to ask for the grace of God to save us.
Both of those interpretations are bunk. If the law was understood in any way in Jesus’ day, it was understood to apply to all, and while Jesus does reinterpret the law throughout the gospel of Matthew, he never claims that it isn’t valid—not one letter, not one stroke of a letter—Remember?
So where does that leave us? What do we do with his teachings here? How do we make sense of them? Well, I think there’s a clue right here in these verses. After intensifying and redefining murder to include anger and hate, Jesus turns to personal relationships and experiences we’ve all known. We’ve all had conflicts with other people—we’ve all known times when someone has harbored a grudge or anger against us. Jesus says, “Look, if you’ve brought an offering to the altar, and remember that someone is holding something against you, go quickly and reconcile with that person. Then come back and make your offering.”
There’s something quite interesting about this. One could interpret this as putting reconciliation with another human as more important than reconciling with God, for making an offering, a sacrifice, on the altar, was at least in part about reconciliation with God.
Jesus goes on. If you are being taken to court, reconcile with your accuser while you’re on your way, so that your conflict doesn’t end up in front of a judge.
In both of these instances, it’s important to point out that the one initiating the reconciliation is the one who may have been wronged. Jesus tells the accused to reconcile with his accuser; he tells us to go seek out the one who is angry with us, he doesn’t ask us to give up our animosity.
I don’t have time to make similar comments concerning Jesus’ statements about adultery and divorce although I can say that in both instances Jesus is intensifying and internalizing the law. He’s also, in the case of divorce, challenging the traditional law that permitted a man to divorce his wife for pretty much any reason and leaving her no recourse. In other words, the ancient near eastern understanding of marriage was that the wife was her husband’s property. Jesus is insisting on the full humanity of the wife, and that a husband must treat her as a human, not as property.
This brings us to a larger underlying principle that can be seen throughout these antitheses—it’s all about relationships. In fact, our relationships with others are as important, perhaps more important, than tending our relationship with God. After all, Jesus tells us to leave our offering on the altar if we remember someone who harbors ill will toward us.
We know how important relationships are to us—our spouse or partner, parents or children, or close and dearest friends. We know them as life-giving and nurturing, blessings to us and to those we love. We should give thanks to God for them; we should also give thanks verbally to those we love for their love of us.
But we also know broken relationships. We have all experienced, many of us are experiencing relationships that are painful; we know relationships we’ve had in the past that no longer exist. We carry in us hurt and scars and know that we’ve cause pain and hurt to others. Can we invite God’s redemptive love into those broken relationships? Can we seek God’s healing love in the midst of the pain we carry and the pain we’ve caused? And having done that, can we return to the altar and experience God’s redemptive love newly and more profoundly, in our selves?