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Life Beyond the Letter of the Law

Today's Gospel lesson from Matthew is a continuation of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Actually, while it can be hard to tell, we have been listening to sections of that sermon for the last two weeks. We began two Sundays back with the list of blessings, often known as the Beatitudes; then continued with last week’s sayings about the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, and lamps hidden under bushel baskets; and now we pick up where we left off last Sunday and carry on into this morning. One of the difficulties posed by a three-year rotating lectionary, the list of lessons designated to be read each Sunday of the year, is that, in this case at least, we are not able to hear the full text of the sermon in its entirety, as it was originally preached and meant to be heard. Divided as it is, we get only a few verses at a time. The end result is that we do not get the full flavor of the sermon, leading to a less than complete understanding of Jesus’ words.

It would be much the same if I were to break this sermon into three pieces, stopping part way in, then picking up with the next paragraph the following week, and then the week following that. The result would be somewhat confusing. It just wouldn't seem complete, wouldn’t make much sense.

The Sermon on the Mount is unique to Matthew's telling of the Gospel story. While some of the material in the Sermon can be found in other Gospels, particularly in Luke, nowhere else is it given the emphasis that Matthew gives it. Mark and John omit the event entirely. Luke has Jesus preach the sermon in a different location – not on a mountain, but on a level place, a plain. And the Sermon is also much longer in Matthew's version - 110 verses spread over three chapters, while Luke dedicates only 32 verses to the event.

In dedicating almost four times as much text, the author we call Matthew obviously had some larger purpose in mind. But what was it?

The format of the sermon gives us some clues. The Sermon on the Mount is a carefully reasoned, carefully laid out, progressive teaching which begins with the Beatitudes, then moves through a discussion on the importance of the Jewish Law, then into a discussion of proper piety (including teaching the Lord’s Prayer). This is followed by warnings concerning trials and pitfalls in leading the Gospel life and concludes with an injunction to heed and obey these teachings. At the end of Jesus’ lengthy sermon, Matthew then gives us an insight into how Jesus’ teaching was received: the crowds, he tells us, were astonished with Jesus' teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority.

For Matthew then, the Sermon on the Mount establishes Jesus' authority as a teacher and leader. It establishes without doubt that Jesus is an extremely wise and learned rabbi someone to be listened to, one to be followed, one who speaks and acts with authority.

But why is it that this issue of authority is so important for Matthew?

The answer is quite simple. The congregation or audience for whom Matthew was writing were Jewish-Christians, or Christianized Jews, observant Jews who lived according to the strict Jewish Law and prophets, but also believed in Jesus as the Son of God, and believed in the teachings of the new Christian Gospel. Matthew was writing in the final years immediately before the newly emerging Christian community found itself thrown out of the synagogues, before these new Christians were exiled from their Jewish neighbors. At the time of Matthew’s writing, followers of Christ were still just a small subset within the Jewish nation, but this was about to end. The formal split of Jews and Christians had not yet occurred, but these Jewish-Christians were already beginning to be persecuted by other Jews: beginning to be looked on with suspicion, beginning to be charged with heresy and blasphemy, and beginning to be expelled from their local synagogues, and disowned by their Jewish families and communities. Hence, the verses at the beginning of the Sermon: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

It is possible – even probable - that some in Matthew's audience were beginning to believe that their critics may just be correct when they charged that these Jewish-Christians were no longer Jews. Beginning to believe that, as the religious authorities and their critics claimed, if you followed and believed in this new rabbi Jesus, you had then abandoned the Law, the Torah of God, thereby abandoning the very essence and fundamental thing that made a Jew a Jew.

Countering this belief, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus did not abandon or annul or put aside the Jewish Law and scriptures. Rather - in another verse unique to this Gospel - Jesus says: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill ... For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." This saying, which concluded last week's gospel reading, is the introduction to today's lesson.

In this morning’s Gospel text, Jesus now proceeds to a typically rabbinical form of teaching. He first quotes from the Law, and then comments and expands on it. He quotes three commandments: on murder, on adultery, and on bearing false witness. But in his commentary, he does not just explain the meaning of each of these laws, he expands and enlarges it. He points out that one kills not just in the act of taking a life, but whenever one is angry or levies abuse and insults – and, in either of these cases, whereby relationship is killed, one is then deserving of the punishment due for murder. Likewise, one commits adultery not just in the physical act of violating the marriage covenant or the marriage bed, but whenever one lusts after another, even if only in the imagination of the heart. And it is not good enough that one not bear false witness just when under oath, but at all times a person's word must be truthful - so that no oath or sworn testimony is ever necessary.

In short, Jesus commands his followers to go beyond merely observing the letter of the Law, even as difficult or impossible as that may be. They must strive to live beyond the letter of the Law, strive to incorporate their observance of the Law into all aspects of their daily lives, inwardly as well as outwardly.

And why?, we may ask.

Again, the text informs us: so that their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. To put it bluntly: so that these new followers of Christ will be above any possible form of criticism. They must be better Jews, more perfect in their following of the Law than even the most scrupulously observant Jews in order that there can be no grounds for the charges that the Jewish-Christians had abandoned the Law, the basic religious and moral code of Jewish society. In other words, if you’re going to be thrown out of the synagogue, be expelled because you are even better, and more pious and faithful, than those who are showing you the door.

Now, this is all very interesting. But what has this got to do with us? After all, we are not Jewish, we are not Christian Jews. We do not live in a society that is governed by the dictates of the Torah. So, is this teaching in any way applicable and relevant in our situation?

It is.

Just as those first century Jews-becoming-Christians to whom Matthew was writing had to live by a moral standard above and beyond what was legitimately expected by their contemporaries, so too, we twenty-first century Christians are called to live by a moral standard above and beyond that expected by our own modern society. It is not enough that we merely be good people - we are called to be exemplary people; we are called to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect. And this striving for perfection must affect every facet of our lives, from the way we deal with our anger and bring about reconciliation, to the way we deal with our desires, to the value we put on our speech, knowing that whatever we say, whenever and wherever we say it, our word must always be truthful and beyond questioning.

“But that's impossible,” we say. “I can't be perfect no matter how hard I try. No one can. Besides, are you telling me that I have to work my way into heaven?"

No, I am not saying that. But here we have hit on one of the paradoxes of Christianity. We cannot be perfect - we cannot because, by our very nature, we are imperfect, we are sinners. No matter how hard you or I try, none of us can achieve on our own that perfection to which we are called. And yet . . . and yet, we must continue to strive for it.

Why? We must continue to strive for it because of Jesus. Jesus has called us … Jesus has opened the way for us to share in the perfect life of the Kingdom of Heaven with him. And so we strive for that unachievable perfection knowing, as Paul tells us in today's epistle, that God gives us the ability to grow … to grow into the full, mature stature of the sons and daughters of God, to be transformed bit by bit by bit, by the grace and love of God, into the ever-more perfect life of a child of God, becoming more and more like Jesus our brother.

That is our calling: to daily grow and mature in our faith, to be transformed daily in the way that we live - inwardly and outwardly - in order to reveal to the world around us that in Jesus we have found something we cannot give or earn ourselves. For in Christ, we have found a new way of living. It is a way of living marked by a deep desire to make peace with those whom we have wronged or who have wronged us. It is a way of living marked by a deep respect for others for who they are, children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, not as objects of lust and desire. It is a way of living marked by a deep commitment to the truth that is so strong that our "Yes" always means "Yes", and our "No" always means "No".

Above all, it is a way of living made possible only through the grace of God – the God who loves us unconditionally, who has redeemed us from sin and death, who, in our baptism, makes us holy – and one day, will make us perfect, even as he is perfect.


Epiphany 6/A

16 February 2012

Deuteronomy 30:15-20;Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

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