By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:21-26
Today, we are far removed from what was a difficult issue for the early Church: the fact that Jesus, a Jewish rabbi deemed Messiah, was increasingly dismissed by Jews and increasingly embraced by Gentiles. So, what were Jesus’ disciples to make of that? Well, in the minds of those early Jewish disciples, they never left Judaism. By their interpretation, they had – in fact – embraced the only authentic Judaism. And so, they had no desire to reject their Jewish heritage. Today many of us view those numerous laws in the Old Testament as laborious and rigid; a laundry list of do’s and don’ts. But that was never God’s intent; nor was it the interpretation of first century Jewish Christians. Those laws were given to bring people into a right, or righteous, relationship with God and with one another. It you don’t ever remember anything else I ever say, remember this: Christianity is – first and foremost – about relationship.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Like the Moses of old, he ascends a mountain to proclaim instruction on how God’s people are to live in relationship with God and with one another. Now the goal of God’s commands has not changed. The goal is that of righteousness; that God’s people are called by God to pursue a right or just relationship with God and with others. Jesus’ teaching is ultimately about relationship. His teaching helps the people who follow him to understand how to live in right relationship. It does not disrespect the law that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. That’s why, immediately before this morning’s gospel verses Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to complete… For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[i] Now when we hear that it might make us nervous. After all, the Pharisees were the religious professionals and, if they’re weren’t getting it right, how could the average Joe stand a chance. But the problem with the Pharisees is that they were focused on the letter of the law and not on the intent of the law. They weren’t trying to help others understand and follow the law; rather, they were complicating things.
So, the teaching of Jesus presents a more clear and practical approach.
This morning’s gospel verses are the first in a series of six teachings. I’d invite you to open your pew bibles as we look at this together and take a quick trip back to our high school literature classes. Go ahead and turn to Matthew, chapter 5, verse 21.
Each of these teachings begin with Jesus noting what was said in the past; the thesis statement. So verse 21 begins: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…” and Jesus states the thesis, what had previously been proposed. Then, Jesus ups the ante, so to speak with an antithesis. Jesus presents an expectation that supersedes what was previously said. So verse 22 begins, “But I say to you…” and he states the antithesis. But Jesus doesn’t stop there because he’s a very good and effective teacher. Now, if you’re a good educator, what do you do after you present an idea or concept to your students?
You give an example, a practical application and that is what Jesus does in verses 23-25. But I want to focus, particularly, on what Jesus says in verses 23-24. Verses 23 & 24 provide an example in the context of worship; an example that helps us understand what was wrong with the righteousness of the Pharisees and what righteousness means to Jesus.
The Pharisees, you see, loved to look righteous. But Jesus will go on to say in chapter 6 that we shouldn’t make a show out of our prayer or fasting or alms giving. Worship (like other spiritual practices) is important because it is a way of maintaining our relationship with God. But we need to always be careful that what we say in worship doesn’t get left in worship. In other words, Church shouldn’t be like Las Vegas. You know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But what happens during worship in Church ought to be internalized in such a way that it influences how we function throughout the week. So the outward actions of worship must be in harmony with what is happening inside of us AND with how we’ll behave when we walk out the door. Righteousness is about that consistency – that integrity – of thought, word and action.
In verses 23 & 24, Jesus continues to address human relationships, particularly the experience of conflict. Conflict is inevitable, right? Jesus has just told us that, ideally, we shouldn’t get mad at people or insult them or call them names. But it happens; and when conflict damages a relationship, what should we do? Remember that righteousness is all about relationship and, if our human relationships aren’t right, then we’re not in right relationship with God. So Jesus tells us, before we enter into God’s presence, if we remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should first go and be reconciled to them.
Now obviously there’s a bit of hyperbole in that statement. In Jesus’ time if someone was offering an animal for sacrifice and remembered they had been in a tiff with a friend, it wouldn’t have been practical to leave an animal on the altar and walk however far and long it took to apologize. Likewise, I don’t want anyone to get up and walk out on my sermon at this very moment. But again, the point is this: righteousness is about sincerity and consistency in our relationships with God and others and if we enter into God’s presence to worship without consideration of our other relationships, then we run the danger of our worship being hypocritical and downright offensive to God.
Now, if you don’t already feel challenged by this message, don’t worry; it gets even tougher because notice that Jesus’ teaching doesn’t say if YOU have something against your brother or sister. Rather, it says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against YOU” which is as much to say, this is a “no fault” admonition. We don’t get off the hook if the other person is in the wrong.
But you can take a deep breath now because here’s the hope. First of all, from a very practical standpoint, we are to seek reconciliation but it isn’t guaranteed. In other words, even if the other person is at fault, we need to still make our best effort. But Jesus’ teachings, as a whole, never encourage people to remain in abusive or oppressive – one might say unrighteous – relationships. Sometimes a relationship will never return to what it once was. Sometimes a relationship shouldn’t ever return to what it once was. Furthermore, there are occasions when – even if we have done all we can do to amend the brokenness – the other person may still reject reconciliation. It is not something that can be forced on people.
But here is the best news: although it’s not always easy and may take time, because of Jesus and his work within us, we can achieve the ability to fulfill the spirit of these commands. With the help of Jesus we can make gestures of reconciliation even when we have been hurt. It’s also important for us to remember that these teachings Jesus gives are directed, specifically, at his disciples. So, for those seeking to follow Jesus, we – of all people – ought to be able to find a way to reconcile. Yet sometimes that’s hard in the church. Sometimes we live by verse 22 and ignore the words that surround it and so we feel anger, but we try to deny that we feel it. We keep stuffing it down which generally doesn’t work very well. Anger doesn’t go away just by our ignoring it and if we stuff down our anger and refuse to acknowledge it, then we will never take the step toward reconciliation. Do you see how important that is; the failure to acknowledge our anger or hurt actually prevents us from following Jesus’ command? After all, if I have convinced myself that someone didn’t upset me or hurt me, then I’ll never have cause or motivation to seek reconciliation and that is what Jesus wants for us.
The teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shouldn’t discourage us because, through our relationship with Jesus, we can live out his teachings. Jesus is the source of the grace and power that enable us to fulfill his teachings. It is through our relationship with Jesus that we can truly become righteous; being in right relationship with our heavenly Father and those around us.
Bible scholar David Rhoads writes, “The transition from hypocrisy to integrity involves an openness to the teaching of Jesus, a willingness to look at ourselves and an eagerness to be exposed [to] and empowered by Jesus’ words.”[ii]
In a village where Gandhi lived, there was a widow trying hard to raise her teenage son. The teen refused to eat healthy food, but consumed enormous quantities of sugar. The widow knew that if Gandhi spoke to her son, he would listen. She brought the young man to Gandhi and said, “Will you talk to my son and tell him to stop eating sugar?” Gandhi was silent for a moment and then said, “Would you bring the boy back in another week?” A week passed and they returned. But Gandhi replied, “I’m sorry. Would you please bring him back in another week?” A week later, desperate, she returned a third time and Gandhi spoke with the boy. When he was finished, the woman took Gandhi aside and asked him, “When we first came to you, you asked us to come back in a week. Then, when we came back, you asked us to come back in another week. Why did you do that?” Gandhi replied, “Because I had not realized how difficult it would be for me to give up sugar.”
Friends: I think this morning’s message is a timely one. Our nation is divided and angry. Even within the church, many of us are finding it hard to accept those who voted differently. But a broken nation is not a good or healthy thing and, as the Church, we have the opportunity to model something different. Now, we shouldn’t try to hide our feelings. Remember; when we suppress our feelings, it actually interferes with reconciliation. We need to talk to one another honestly and respect our differences. We need to acknowledge people’s pain and respect people’s hopes. It is hard. But if Jesus’ Church cannot model such integrity; if we cannot seek reconciliation with one another, then I don’t imagine there’s much hope left for the world. After all, we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
[i] Matthew 5:17, 20. NRSV.
[ii] The Challenge of Diversity: the Witness of Paul and the Gospels by David Rhoads. Augsburg Fortress; 1996; p. 94
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