Last Sunday’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount ended with Jesus’ assurance that he did not come to abolish the law. He assured his listeners that, to use the King James language, not “one jot or one tittle” would pass from the law, until all was fulfilled.
The understanding of Jesus as “lawgiver” is a key move in Matthew’s project of portraying Jesus as the New Moses. Just as Moses ascends Mount Sinai to encounter God and bring the law to the people, Jesus also ascends a mountain, giving a sermon interpreting that law for a new generation and a new context.
Yet, it’s easy to read this week’s passage from Matthew as doing just what Jesus says he’s not doing: “You have heard it said,” he says, over and over, “but I say to you…”
What’s that, if not messing with the law?
Jesus treats four topics: Anger, Adultery, Divorce, and Oaths. [Suddenly I am reminded of John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalyplse of Relationships, all of which have their genesis in anger. Is Jesus doing some (very large group) couples’ counseling?]
Jesus begins with the commandment, “You shall not murder.” What he does– here, and with each topic– is what in Jewish tradition is called “drawing a fence (or hedge) around the law.” The rationale is that, in order to keep from sinning, we avoid what in my Catholic childhood we called “the near occasion of sin.” I am more likely to murder someone if I allow my anger to get the best of me. So, in order to ensure that I do not murder, I observe a more strict prohibition, one against anger.
Jesus fleshes this out, encouraging his listeners to avoid insults and name-calling (which feels very on point for public life in the United States these days). He even urges them to pause before offering a sacrifice, and to go seek reconciliation with the estranged brother or sister before making that offering. He ends by ruefully recounting the likely unfortunate outcome of legal action to settle disputes.
Jesus asks, more or less, “Can this relationship be saved?” Whatever the answer, he urges us to do it.
Jesus continues in the same way in his uncomfortable teachings on adultery and divorce. His insistence that it’s the responsibility of the one prone to “lust in his heart” to readjust his looking/ thinking is refreshing in the wake of decades of US Christian purity culture, which insisted that it was women’s responsibility to avoid arousing men’s lust by dressing “modestly.” (The potentially lustful gaze of woman is not addressed at all.) Jesus’ hyperbolic “tear it out! cut it off!” surely caused some nervous laughter in the crowd.
Here, and in the teaching on divorce, Jesus is urging us to go back to the relationship: how will what we do affect the other human being? What is at the heart of the law to love our neighbor to begin with? Could it be that they are made in God’s image, and therefore worthy of our pausing before lashing out at them, or grabbing them by the p***y, or casting them off like so much excess baggage? (Note: in Jesus’ time and place, men divorced women; women didn’t really have the option, which means they were done to, sometimes with devastating outcomes for their very ability to survive.)
I find Jesus’ words on oaths fascinating. It seems he goes to the root of our need to swear and identifies it, always, as a need for self-justification, for placing our word in some holy realm only properly inhabited by God, Godself.
So, is Jesus messing with the law?
Eric Barreto at Working Preacher has some helpful insights into that very question:
I worry that those of us who preach may be tempted to see the contrast as one of replacement. We might mistakenly hear Jesus proclaiming, “You previously have heard this commandment, but now I am setting a new one before you, for the law was inadequate, insufficient, and is thus now no longer applicable; here are a new set of commandments to replace the supposedly outdated ones you previously followed.”
…Instead, the contrast here is not of replacement but intensification. Jesus here calls his listeners not to avoid these calls to righteousness but to dig that much more into them, to align our lives that much more with the abiding divine values these commandments communicate, to commit ourselves to the transformative power of God’s law and commandments.
We are being asked to align our lives with God’s commandments, and to allow ourselves to be transformed by them.
We are being asked to let our relationship with God inform our relationships with one another.
We are being asked to act, not out of self-justification or preservation, but out of love.
- Which of these issues– anger, adultery, divorce, or oaths– do you most dread preaching about? How does that impact your plans for proclamation?
- What is the Good News underlying all these difficult intensifications of the law?
- Have you read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s piece this week, “I’m Dabbling in Compassion”? How might this speak to these words of Jesus?
- Would you consider taking just one of these issues and focusing in on it? Can we do all of them justice in a single sermon? (Asking for a friend….)
As always, blessings on your preparation and proclamation of the gospel this week! And please, meet me in the comments– I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation!
Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007. She is a graduate of Boston College and the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is mother of two young adults (Ned and Joan) and happily partnered to Sherry. She loves swimming, reading, writing, and film. A native of the Jersey shore and in love with the New England coastline, she travels to the ocean every chance she gets.
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