Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
I am one of those people who love order. I make my bed every morning. I love grammar and was one of those freakish kids in Middle School who actually enjoyed learning how to diagram sentences (not that I could do it now.) I gravitate toward knitting patterns that involve very symmetrical cables and ridges.
For those of us who love order, and I think there are many of us, we like having the rules that tells us what to do. We prefer to have a recipe to follow, directing us to moral behavior in life’s tricky situations, rather than having to weigh up complicated factors and reach our own determinations.
This is the dilemma that we find Jesus addressing in this morning’s gospel from the Sermon on the Mount. But before we look at the particulars, let’s remind ourselves what we know about the Sermon on the Mount in general.
It’s surely one of great passages in the New Testament. It may or may not have actually been a single sermon, and may or may not have taken place on a mountain.
Mark, the earliest of the four New Testament gospels, doesn’t include the Sermon on the Mount material, while Luke does, but Luke has Jesus preaching it on a plain, at a different point in Jesus’ ministry. Many New Testament scholars believe that in the early days of the Church there was a written collection of Jesus’ teachings in circulation (though it’s now presumably lost to us), and that Matthew and Luke excerpted passages from to include in the gospel narratives that they were constructing to share the “good news” with other believers.
The sermon begins with the Beatitudes – Jesus’ assurance of blessedness, of being God’s beloved children – and then continues with the “salt and light” passage that Heather reflected on last week, reminding us that at our core, we carry within us the saltiness and light of God’s love, to be carried into and shared with the world.
One of my seminary professors described the Sermon on the Mount as “the Constitution for the Kingdom of God”. Jesus began his ministry with the declaration that the Kingdom had come very close, and in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us exactly what God’s realm in this world will look like.
The gist of Jesus’ teaching is that living God’s will, living in right relationship with God, is about living from a heart that is attuned to God, rather than living by specific standards.
In the particular context and community to whom he is preaching, Jesus explains how to live in relation to Jewish Law that he and his disciples have been taught.
The passage actually begins in reading we heard last week:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
So it’s important to remember what the Law meant to Jesus’ disciples: Jews – then and now – understood the Law of Moses, found in the Commandments and statutes received at Sinai, and recorded in Torah, to be a precious gift from God to Israel. We heard this in today’s first reading, in Moses’ final sermon to Israel before they entered the Promised Land:
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, and walking in his ways…, then … the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
Jesus’ community understood “The Law” as the terms of Israel’s Covenant with God: through their commitment to G’s will, lived out as commitment to the terms of the Law, their own redemption and redemption of world would take place.
Jesus did not understand his own teaching to be an alternative to or replacement of Law of Moses, but rather, a fulfillment, perhaps a clarification, of what Israel had already received.
The section we read today (and it continues on beyond what we’ve heard) is known as the “Antitheses” – (which is a pretty misleading term, because Jesus was not talking about “opposites”) - Jesus repeatedly instructs his hearers that “You have heard that it was said”, explaining obligation under Law of Moses, then follows with “but I say to you”, reinterpreting that obligation.
And this is where it gets hard, especially for those of us who really like having rules to follow. Jesus teaches that Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s Realm – life lived together in right relationship with God – is less about specifics of what we do, than about maintaining an inner world of respect and mutual care in our relationships with others:
Jesus calls us to help bring the Realm of God into realization - here, and now. Jesus reminds us that our relationship with God is made right to the degree that we not only treat others with respect and compassion, but also view others as God views them.
No question about it – it’s a crazy tall order. Setting our hearts as God’s heart is set is much, much harder than following recipes and rules. For myself, feeling charitably toward the needy of the world is easy, and I’m glad to use my resources to help them where I’m able.
On the other hand, having charity toward the powerful who I see as abusing their power, recognizing THEM as God’s beloved children, is very difficult. Overcoming my prejudices about those who claim to follow Jesus but hold very different views than I do of what that means is extraordinarily hard, and I can’t claim that I’ve made much progress with it.
Part of our work in following Jesus is to think hard about our relationships. For those relationships that are healthy and balanced and sustaining, we can give God thanks.
For those relationships that are not where they ought to be – that are strained, that involve hurt, or anger, or distrust or resentments – whether on own own side, or the other’s, or both, we must consider what we can do to move them toward healing and wholeness, and lift them to God that God might help us do so.
How do we experience the closeness of God’s Realm and help bring it into being? By aligning our hearts to the heart of God.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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