Sermon on the Mount
 “Sermon on the Mount,” by Károly Ferenczy (1862-1917) from Art in the Christian Tradition, Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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.

Some questions:

  • 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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14 thoughts on “Revised Common Lectionary: On the Law

  1. I am beginning to think that the words about divorce are really just part of the discussion on adultery, and the bit about swearing is really just part of the discussion on ‘bearing false witness.’ Murder, adultery, and false witnessing are addressed in the 10 Commandments, and they all fall under the ‘how to get along with each other’ heading. I really appreciate your focus on our being asked to operate out of love more than self-preservation. That’s a good word in these divisive times!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pat — thanks for this. With Eric B, I’ve always seen these as Jesus delving deeper into the heart of the commandments, not replacing them or making them more strict. It also makes them more personal. I’d like to think I’d never murder anyone, so generally see that commandment as irrelevant, but anger? name calling? yeah, that points right back to me!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Choosing life in response to God’s call isn’t about us as individual human beings. It is about us as sacred community, the Body of Christ, the church.” Bingo. This is beautiful, and a wonderful companion to the gospel text, whichever one you’re preaching. Thanks so much Rachael! Blessings on your preaching the Good News this week!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m hanging out with Moses in Deuteronomy this week. I’m using a bridge as a metaphor (and an experience I had with a bridge in my ministry) for this congregation who is in the in-between time of pastors. What does it look like in the new land? Are we scared to cross the bridge? What will we leave behind on the one side of the bridge? What will be carry across with us? I’ve been pretty intentional about the church transition and transformation for the church in the 21st century. Hopefully even getting them used to the language and the idea that what we did in the last five years is already old.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Elaine, what a wonderful lens to use with this text! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Blessings on your preaching a good Word this week!


  4. Hello friends. I receive dailly emails from pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes; his blog is “Unfolding Light.” Today’s is called “Rage.” I highly recommend it, and am pasting it below.

    You have heard.. “You shall not murder’”
    But I say to you that if you are angry with a sibling,
    or insult them you will be liable to judgment.
    When you are offering your gift at the altar,
    if you remember that someone has something against you…
    first be reconciled to your sibling,
    and then come and offer your gift.
    —from Matthew 5.21-24

    If you love the people of the world
    and know them as your siblings,
    if you care, you will clearly see injustice
    and you will be furious.

    Let your rage burn.
    Do not quench its flames.
    Let yourself be angry at what should not be.
    The Teacher is not lulling us into docile politeness
    in the face of demons;
    but let your rage be against the demons,
    not against the people possessed.

    See how the Teacher turns our mind first
    from being wronged to having wronged others.
    First sweep your house of your own demons.
    Seek forgiveness
    and be reconciled to those you have wronged
    before you make demands of those who wrong others.
    Let the furnace of repentance refine your rage
    into desire for kindness for all.
    Some things need to be burned down, but not people.
    Let nothing diminish your love for wrongdoers
    even as you go at what diminishes their love.
    Oppose the oppression, not the oppressor.

    Let your rage be the fire of love,
    not the ire of not getting your way;
    the refining fire of justice,
    not the consuming fire of anger.
    Let your rage be refined with sorrow.
    Out of the death of grief let passion rise,
    burning desire for love among all.
    Let that passion fuel your work for restoration,
    the fire of love be your courage
    to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m preaching on the 1 Corinthians text this week, but your words about Matthew struck a chord for me because I was representing the presbytery in a meeting this past week with a church that’s not getting along with their pastor. The other member of our presbytery team asked them, “Can this relationship be saved?” Sadly, the answer was no, but doing the hard work of repairing relationships is part of the growth Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians. Thanks so much for your thoughts above!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melissa, blessings on you, in doing that hard and holy work. And blessings, too, on the work of proclaiming God’s good news! Thanks for coming by.

      Liked by 1 person

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