Speaker: The Rev'd Jim Quigley
Tags: gospel, isaiah, jesus, matthew, sermon on the mount
We’re about to get hammered, if you didn’t know. None of us will leave church for the next three Sundays without being asked one thing: “Think Again.” At least that seems to be what the author of The Gospel According to Matthew will be asking us to do. If you thought you knew who Jesus was, Matthew asks, think again. If you have any delusions about yourselves or your own righteousness, Matthew will say, “Think again.”
Today and for the remaining two Sundays before the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany our hearts and minds will be subjected to one of the most ethically demanding texts in the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. Last Sunday we heard the beginning of that sermon – the Beatitudes. This week we hear a bridge text where Jesus, preaching to his disciples, seems to correct a potential misunderstanding about the nature of his work. “Just in case you might think so, do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”
If we take the narrative as it stands, or as Matthew presents it, Jesus’ admonition for the disciples to think again is hardly accidental. Apparently what they were thinking, or perhaps were being led to think, was that somehow Jesus had come to abolish the teachings of the Torah. But in the succeeding verses of the sermon, the passages we will hear next week and the following Sunday, Jesus will elaborate on what he means in two passages that are known as the antitheses. You know what the antitheses are even if you don’t know that’s what they are called. The antitheses are when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Or, “You have heard it said not to commit adultery but I say to you, anyone who even looks at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart.” In the antitheses Jesus will raise the bar of righteousness and the letter of the law so high that none of us will measure up. We’ll all stand convicted. That may well have been part of Jesus’ point, if not Matthew’s. The moment we start to point a finger at the righteousness or lack thereof in another Jesus will asks us, with his disciples, to think again, or to think about our own.
It is likely that the Sermon on the Mount was a collection of sayings by Jesus that were given at various times and in varying circumstances throughout his ministry. We can’t know the context in which each component was given. We also know that the author of the Gospel According to Matthew was addressing Jewish converts and was writing around the time of the final separation of the early church from the synagogue. Given that context and knowing the content of earlier writings in the letters of the Apostle Paul regarding the value of the law, it is likely that many in Matthew’s circle indeed may have debated their obligations to the keep the commandments of the Torah. In no uncertain terms Matthew makes it clear that Jesus has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it by embodying every stroke of every letter in it.
But the debate wasn’t new. As many as 40 years before Matthew wrote his gospel the Jerusalem Council was convened to settle the matter of whether or not pagan converts to Christianity needed to be subject to the Jewish Rite of Circumcision, an argument compelled by Paul and Barnabas’ who maintained freedom from the law through the grace of Christ. In the days of the reformation we remember Luther calling the Letter of James the “straw Epistle” because it espoused justification by works rather than by grace through faith. Just yesterday at our lay reader training here at the Church we realized that we were all in peril because we have been extinguishing the Gospel candle in the wrong order, and only after that we disagreed on which candle that was. It was at that point that I chimed in saying that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we will never enter the Kingdom of heaven!
As we struggle with the Sermon on the Mount over these next few weeks we will confront profound and important questions for people of faith. What is the place of the law of God in the light of a God of Grace? We will move from the indicative nature of the beatitudes – “ blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom” – to the imperative nature of the antitheses and today’s gospel… “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We will also be confronted by the most radically demanding portraits of Jesus in all of the Gospels – “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 that for your whole body to go into hell.”
As we work our way through these questions we might remember that the author of Matthew likes to flash his teeth. And also that later in the same Gospel Jesus will describe the scribes and Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs” who tithe dill and mint and cumin while forgoing the weightier matters of the law – justice and mercy and faith.
We might also remember something that is critical to understanding, as best we can, Jesus’ preaching in his time. Despite Matthew’s context, at the time Jesus preached there were no Christians. Jesus’ primary audience, the people he wanted to awaken, were the people of Israel. Despite their return from captivity the Jewish people had been in exile, one way or another, since the Babylonian captivity. In Jesus’ day the land, the city and the temple weren’t ruled by Babylonia or Assyria but now Rome, and the promises of a divine King or Messiah for Israel had never been fulfilled. Responses to this predicament led to questions about exactly what God’s relationship with Israel was, and the responses varied from those who would collaborate with the occupiers (the Sadducees) and those who would take up the sword (the Zealots and some strands of the Pharisees) against the empire. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees were divided. Some revolted while others retreated into the minutiae of the Torah – if we can’t defeat the occupiers we can at least preserve our cultural identity as the people of God by meticulously observing the law until God’s reign would come.
Jesus’ response to the predicament was to preach, and when he preached he left no stone unturned. In the Sermon on the Mount he condemns the Zealots with a command that Israel love their enemies and pray for them. He condemns the Pharisees who retreated into their temples to study the law by telling them that the intent of the law was to inspire the people of Israel to be who they were called to be – the salt of the earth and a light to the world – not to wait for but rather to proclaim and embody God’s justice. Not to work to preserve an outdated and misinformed cultural identity as they waited for God to act but to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked; to care for the widow and the orphan and the refugee… their kin. Because they were refugees too.
Jesus’ preaching is as relevant to the church today as it was to the synagogue in his. We can desperately try to preserve an outdated cultural identity in a post-Christian world while we whine about losses in attendance and the “spiritual but not religious” or we can be the salt of the earth and a light to the world. With Jesus we can agree that unless our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, the Zealots or the empire, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. That if we are the church we will be cursed and reviled but oh how blessed that day will be.
I can’t gild the lily that is The Sermon on the Mount but Jesus’ preaching reminds those of us in the church that we do tend to fall asleep; that we need to be awoken from our spiritual stupors; that our saltiness as the people of God must be restored when it loses its taste; and that when we shy away from the truth of our calling as the people of God and we are like lit lamps hiding under bushel baskets. Isaiah says it well: “Shout out, do not hold back. Lift your voice like a trumpet! Your fast is only to quarrel and to fight. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? To bow down the head like a bulrush? Is not this the fast that I choose, to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light will break like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly.”
If we have forgotten our calling as the church may the preaching of Jesus in his day compel us to think again about the role of the church in ours. May the preaching of Jesus compel St. Alban’s to be a city built on a hill that cannot not be hid. May the preaching of Jesus inspire us to dare greatly in the name of Jesus God such that our light can break forth like the dawn and our healing spring up quickly. Then we shall call, and the Lord will answer.