I – We’re in this portion of Matthew’s Gospel called “The sermon on the Mont” Ch 5 to 7. Big chunk of the Gospel where Jesus teaches the crowd. Before we start having a look at the teachings themselves, there are two observations I would like to do:
1 – Matthew always insists on Jesus’s role as a teacher. There are long passages in Matthew’s dedicated to Jesus’s teachings: His sermons, his parables, his dialogues with the people he met. Yet, the sermon on the Mont stands out among Jesus’s teachings b/c Jesus explicitly comments the Law (and the Prophets) = The Scriptures. It was not that extraordinary at the time – that’s what rabbis did: commenting the Scriptures, interpreting the Law, trying to understand how it applied to specific circumstances. It is still true in modern Judaism, but it is also what lawyers do in our court rooms! We agree on the Law (US Constitution, for example), but then we have to analyze how it is relevant to what happens with individuals, or in our society.
It is important for us to remember that, when some of us Christians are accused by others to “pick and choose”, to not behave “by the book”. Once I was told by a leader of another denomination: “It’s fine that you are an Episcopalian, but you have to know that in our Church, we believe what the Bible teaches”. To which I replied: “Okay, then, what does the Bible teach?” Meaning: It’s not that obvious. Let’s talk about it.
Do you know that, for example, there are three slightly different versions of the ten commandments inside the Bible? (Ex 20, 34 and Deut 5). Jesus, right before the passage we have today, reminds us that there is an Eternal Law. Yet, in the Scriptures themselves there are commentaries on the Scriptures, on the Law. It is our job to understand what the Law means for us, how it is at play in our lives, in our cultures, in our societies. Jesus commented the Law, but rabbis before him and after him did just that as well.
2 – And so commenting the Law was an important aspect of Jesus’s teaching – but, as it is with Jesus, he did things in his own way. To me, Jesus’s teaching is unique in the way that he taught surrounded by the crowd. He went to meet the crowd. At the time, rabbis were sought after, you had to “apply” to become their students, there was probably some sort of “tuition”! Not everybody was seen as worthy to study the Law. On the other way around, Jesus was the rabbi who opened the Scriptures for everybody who wanted to learn (Like theologians did during the Reformation!). We still symbolize this unique way Jesus had to teach when we process with the Gospel during the service: Jesus’s words come to us.
And so Jesus came to help us figure things out. Jesus taught with a special kind of authority: Standing on a Mont, surrounded by the crowd, he appeared as a new Moses: “You have heard that it was said” / “But I say to you”. Jesus invited people to examine what they have been taught about the Law, to understand what God called them to do in their humble and daily lives. Jesus didn’t invite people to “make things up”, to “pick and choose”, to try to find “loopholes” (as did some many lawyers!), but he invited people to look deeper, to think deeper, to live according to the Law.
II – And so now we come to the teaching itself. Well, this is really exciting today! Murder, judgments, anger, insult, hell, fire, adultery, lust, auto mutilation, divorce…It could be a new TV show, but it’s the Gospel. B/c the Gospel is about life, real life. Jesus came to the crowd, not only by being physically present with them, but also by talking to them about something real! This is what TV shows do right? They don’t talk about general principles. They capture our attention by dealing with what is on our minds. No doubt that Anger and Sex are two big issues!
So what’s the teaching of this passage? Well, as Jesus asks us to look deeper, he asks us to look not only at the (righteous) actions, but also at the (pure) intentions. Murder (or violence) and adultery can take many forms, and none of these forms are okay for Jesus. Not only your actions have to be righteous, but it is barely a minimum. Your heart has to be pure, your thoughts clean. Jesus does not look only at the letter of the Law, but as the Spirit of the Law. The trick is, as he does so, he seems to make the Law more demanding:
It’s not good enough not to murder, you should never get angry.
It’s not good enough not to commit adultery, you should not even think about sex.
And so, this is what I was thinking when I was preparing the sermon: I am not sure this is very helpful. And I started wondering: Did Jesus really made God’s commandments easier / accessible to everybody or did he make them impossible? Anger and sexual attraction are the emotions that are the most deeply rooted in our two natural instincts: Auto-conservation and reproduction. Survival. How could we just toss them out of our minds?
As I was struggling with these questions, I remembered that the Scriptures themselves are a commentary on the Scriptures. So I decided to wander a bit further in the Gospels, and I found a few things really interesting that shed light on what Jesus is actually doing.
– First about anger. Today Jesus says in v. 22: “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.” Now if you flip to Matthew 23, you find Jesus getting really mad at the Pharisees, and this is what you read in v16-17, this is what he tells them:“Woe to you, blind guides (…) You blind fools!”.
Wow. Jesus got mad at the Pharisees and he actually called them “fools”. In plain contradiction with his former sermon. So didn’t Jesus practice what he preached?
I think this is something else. Actually, Jesus often got mad at the religious leaders, and he got mad because they used their power and their influence to control and diminish people. To abuse them. When Jesus got angry, it was not on a whim but he used in anger for the sake of justice / to defend the powerless but also to stir some kind of change in those who misbehaved.
So we see that anger is an emotion you can decide what to do with: it can be oriented towards destruction / self destruction, or it can be an energy focused towards building up a true religion and a better society. There is an anger that is without hate – an anger that is righteous indignation. Often our anger comes from a sense of unfairness, in our personal relationships or as we witness what’s going on in our society – now the question is for us: How are we going to use it?
– Then a few things about lust. If you turn to John 8, we have this famous passage of the adulterous woman who “has just been caught in the act”, and you know there are all those religious men who bring the woman to Jesus to ask him if it is right to stone her, as it was required by the Law. And John mentions that, all the while they’re discussing that, Jesus is writing in the sand. There is no explanation for why he did that. But I think Jesus wrote in the sand whereas not to look directly at the woman (probably still half dressed), and he did that out of respect, when all the men were surrounding her, humiliating her with their stares, very likely thinking about all those “sinful things”.
So today, when Jesus asks men not to look at women to “commit adultery with them in their hearts”, I think this is what he means: Don’t look at women to objectify them / to humiliate them. To reduce them to their sexuality. It’s a kind of stare that has nothing to do with genuine affection and authentic physical attraction. It’s actually the perversion of this very desire that God deemed as good from the beginning. (I remind you that actually God’s first commandment in the Bible is asking Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and to multiply”).
– And so, Jesus points to the Eternal Law, the Spirit of the Law, that we have heard about in our first reading, in Deuteronomy. God is the God of life and God’s commandments are meant to be life giving. And so this how we have to interpret the Law: Not using it to scare people, to condemn them, to objectify them, but to lift them up, to affirm their identity and God’s image in them (and in ourselves as we do so).
People are the end and the very reason for the commandments.
Last observation – back to Jesus as a teacher: Like all good teachers, Jesus is an educator. Jesus wants his listeners to understand what the law is really about, being able to make wise choices and be responsible for what they do. Being a disciple is to be called to grow. Paul uses this image (2nd reading) about going from “milk” to “solid food”. There is a time when children need to be given what they need to eat, to be told what to eat, and then comes a times when they can make decisions based on what they know is good and life giving for their bodies. This is also what happens spiritually. We have to keep on studying “God’s Law” (= the Scriptures) to become spiritual adults. We are all an embodiment of God’s word in this world. Our lives, an interpretation of the Law. The Eternal Law is not something behind us, it’s something we’re aiming towards as individuals and communities when we grow in wisdom and strive to live with integrity (Our yes is a yes, a no is a no / the body may be torn apart but the soul remains whole). We won’t need to feel threatened by the judge or the fear of hell to do the right thing, but, as compelling, we’ll do the right thing b/c this what we need to do, for the love of God and the love of neighbor.