February 16, 2014 – Epiphany 6

Epiphany 6 Feb 16 (Deut 30:15-20—see below) Matthew 5:21-37

You have heard it said… but I say…

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Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.   “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And 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 than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.   “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

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Our daughter Rohi and I enjoy playing Scrabble. A game that wasn’t always on my list of things to do. Before I learned to play it again by Rohi’s rules, Scrabble could feel a bit tedious. All that sitting, figuring, trying to play tougher letters, spell bigger words, make letters fit the right squares to get the most points. Then somebody wins, game’s over…What’s the point?

Which is kind of how I’ve sometimes thought about some of the biblical   laws found in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers and Exodus… I know in my mind this is part of God’s word, but… I tend to get lost in the details, missing the forest for the trees.  But now I’m taking heart anew… Partly because…

Rohi and I’ve come up with a different way to play Scrabble… with different rules than those I grew up with. Now when we play we keep looking at each other’s letters, trying to help each other. Instead of trying to make the biggest word we can and score all the points we might,  now our goal is to use every letter in the box. To get that to happen we have to think differently as we play – considering now, if I were to play a word over here, how would that effect the other person’s ability to play their word somewhere?

Since we’ve been learning to play this new way, we’re enjoying the game a lot more.  Now all the letters are usually all played by the end of the game. We just about always win. Though just in case… We don’t keep score…

Which, not to be irreverent, may be a little like how Jesus interprets the law and prophets. Last week Jesus said not one letter, not even a dash of a letter of the law will pass away till all the law is fulfilled in kingdom-come. Now here’s Jesus, teaching us how to hear the law according to Jesus’ rules.

Jesus says You have heard it said – but I say to you four times today and two more times in next week’s readings from this same chapter – each time starting with you have heard it said – always concluding with – but I say to you.

And what does Jesus mean when he says but I say to you?

At first hearing today Jesus can sound like he’s preaching the law on steroids. Telling us –

You’ve heard it saidyou shall not murder” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you if you’re angry with a brother or sister you’re liable to judgment – if you disrespect your sister or brother in Christ you’re liable to be brought before the church council for possible excommunication. And if you say “you fool” to a sibling in the faith you’re liable to end up in a very hot place. Jesus says similarly, you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery – but I say to you anyone who has even thought about it has already done it…

This is not exactly sounding like good news for me at first hearing. I’ve been angry with sisters and brothers in Christ more times than I can count… I’ve called more than one brother a bonehead. Said worse things than you fool to too many people…. (I won’t even comment on whether I might have looked longer than I should at women wearing less than they should…) Am I now in woe-is-me-city before a God without pity? (Apologies to Gene Pitney.)  Am I on my way to hell in a handbasket?

Or is Jesus speaking hyperbolically, exaggerating a little (or a lot) to make his point?

It’s not entirely obvious. The church has debated what Jesus means in this Sermon on the Mount for centuries, and we still have differences of opinion. But we do agree – sometimes Jesus ramps the law up, making it harder than ever to do – other times, Jesus seems to diminish the law’s demands  – touching the dead, the bleeding, the leper, declaring all foods ritually clean – in apparent violation of at least the letter of the law.

Bible scholars in recent years have been noticing (more so than in the past)  that Jewish Rabbis of Jesus’ day also interpreted the written law of Moses in ways that sometimes softened, other times hardened the plain meaning of the law…

The word of God is a two-edged sword, Hebrews tell us, cutting more than one way. Depending on the context, scripture sometimes comes with a harder edge, other times softer.

So with all of these you have heard it said but I say to you sayings of Jesus… I keep thinking context, context, context… Remembering Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus as the Messiah, resembling Moses, though much greater than Moses. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the law on tablets of stone. Jesus goes up the mountain and reveals the law’s deepest meaning, as the prophet Jeremiah said, written now in human hearts. The law in Deuteronomy says obey the commandment, choose life. Jesus says (in John’s gospel) “I am the way, the truth and the life…” Jesus, God’s Son, perfection personified, teaches perfect understanding of all the law and prophets. (We should all be good with that.)

Yet even keeping in mind all the context – and much as I might prefer otherwise – Jesus clearly is not excusing us from the demands of the law. Jesus is raising the bar of the law higher. Making it much more difficult.

He’s not speaking literally of course when he talks about cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye – (all the commentaries agreee on that, thanks be). But he is talking about keeping to God’s word, heart, soul, strength and mind. And no, I surely don’t measure up. Not even close. And hearing these words of Jesus today can still make us anxious. Which is probably what Jesus has in mind.

Jesus gets us thinking police, prisons, courts of law – as he’s saying think of ourselves on the way to the courts of judgement due to thoughtless words, spoken in anger or judgement against another. Only the Jewish religious courts could convict someone of murder. Jesus turns this into a parable about our need to get right with our neighbor as the prerequisite for getting right with God. Settle out of court with your accuser, Jesus says. Make amends to anyone we’ve wronged or disrespected… before we even get to church.

Which can be hard.. sometimes very hard… But Jesus says keep trying anyway. This is the law and prophets…

One of the ways Jesus fulfills all the law is by reminding us through the law how much we depend on God, the giver of the law. The apostle Paul in his letters to the churches of Rome and Galatia, says the law is given to prove our need of a Savior. No one gets right with God through keeping the law alone. Yet the law is good and holy and righteous. And the law, the Torah, the Teaching is all part of God’s gracious plan of salvation. The commandment you shall not murder is really there mostly to teach us to love.

I remember my grandfather, Earl, a gentle soul, 90-some-years-old, telling me “I’ve had a pretty good life, Tim. At least I haven’t killed anyone.” Implying, with God’s help, he could probably keep from killing anyone in whatever years were left to him on earth… (as indeed turned out to be the case). And by God’s grace most of us will be able to do likewise, according to the plain meaning of the law.

But here’s Jesus – lumping us in with murderers if we disrespect our sister or brother in Christ – (which reminds me of First John, where we’re also told anyone who hates their siblings in Christ is a murderer). And by this standard, I think it’s safe to say – we’ve all been murderers. Most of us more than once. (Me at various times in life a virtual serial-killer…)

Pick any of the ‘thou shalt not’ commandments – and the rule’s the same – ‘Don’t even think about it. And if you have even thought about it you’ve done it.’ Now stop doing it, even if this requires drastic action. Quit.

Which is not such good news at first hearing. If the law (as we may or may not have heard it of old) is about keeping up outward appearances, looking good in public, maybe we can fake it. Most of us can probably refrain from literally killing anyone – refrain also from adultery, theft, even lying – possibly even coveting (though some of the Rabbis of old said everyone breaks that commandment – this even before saturation advertizing was invented). Maybe we might be able to keep all those commandments outwardly. Maybe with practice, we can fool most of the people most of the time. (Fool even ourselves.)

But Jesus says keeping the commandment in God’s sight depends on much more than outward appearances. Keeping God’s word depends on us keeping on with truly depending on God.

Is there a Christian believer anywhere on planet earth who has never-ever insulted, demeaned, diminished, dismissed, or disrespected another Christian in violation of what Jesus says today? (I don’t think so.)

None of us gets it right all the time. All are guilty – guilty enough – that its safe to say – all of us are in need of grace and mercy.

Which is good news.  There’s comfort in knowing that yes, Jesus sets the bar high – but he does this out of love, so all of us can know we’re not alone – none of us measures up well enough without grace and mercy. Radical law requires radical grace. Jesus has leveled the playing field. Now we’re all living in the same equal-grace-opportunity-space. Which is good news. Because we know God sent Jesus to save this world which God so loves…

But is Jesus only setting the bar high so we can know we’re sinners in need of grace?

Isn’t Jesus also teaching these counsels of perfection to let us know that, hard as it is – his but I say to you word is God’s good and perfect way? The narrow way we need to walk in –  seeking, asking, finding reconciliation with God and one another. The only way forward is to keep drawing closer to Jesus.

This is where Jesus has brought us. Teaching his own unique Jesus-spin on the old, old story of God’s law and God’s love.

And at the risk of sounding ridiculous…Isn’t Jesus’ fulfilling of the law and prophets a little like Rohi’s revised rules for Scrabble – where game’s not over till every letter’s in play. We help each other all the way. Never keeping score.

Now Jesus tells us – the way He fulfills is different from all we’ve heard said in the past.  Now the operative word from Jesus is – But I say to you

Now the way we hear the word of God as Jesus teaches – is to hear it as God’s word of love for all of us, all the time, according to the law of love He alone has fulfilled, perfectly, body and soul.

Good news for all.      Thanks be to God.      Amen.

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.