As I worked with this Scripture this week, I started to get the feeling that I was back in a law-school classroom. Jesus is teaching. He’s talking about the law. He presents the law as written (“You’ve heard it said..), and then he says more about what it might mean in the current context. What he says is hard to understand... a bit overwhelming and baffling... and it all ends up being so much more than those words of the law written on the page. “Let’s talk about the law... and then some.” The Sermon on the Mount starts to sound like a law-school lecture. It starts to read like a judicial opinion. So, as you might expect.... I’m all about this.
But before we dive in. Let’s remember where we are in the text. This is the third of three weeks that we are considering the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus isn’t in a law-school classroom. He’s just been baptized – God’s own beloved. He has just begun his ministry of healing. He has just announced, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And he goes up on a mountain, with his disciples, and he begins to teach.
And as he begins to teach – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – he announces – he describes – he proclaims a brave new world breaking forth even now – God’s world, God’s reign – in the midst of the crumbling old order. It’s good news. It’s a world not of power-over and abuse, but of mutual power and mutual care – a world where those who have been held down low are lifted up – a world where help is on the way. “Blessed are the merciful and the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”
And then Jesus says, “Blessed are you – when you live out these things.” And we discover – that this brave new world is coming to life not only in Christ, but in us. Our liveshave the potentiality, the capacity to actualize this new world – to bring it to life. That is the reality of us – of our humanity. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. And so Jesus says, “Live it out. Let salt be salty. Let your light shine.” Live out this good news.
That’s a lot to take in. And I think it almost inevitably leads to the question: But how? Live all this out? How? How?
That is the question to which Jesus turns in this morning’s Scripture.
Now, just a couple things to get us grounded:
Remember what I said before we read the Scripture. We are entering into an ancient text, and searching for a word for today. This is a cross-cultural conversation. Then and now; their world and ours. Our ancestors in the faith – we enter into their ancient world and seek to understand what they were saying back then about God’s love and grace and faithfulness. And then we think about what that might suggest about God’s grace – alive and at work in our world – in and with us – now. What word might we find for living life today?
Note that this is also what Jesus is doing. He says, “You’ve heard it said...” He reaches back into the tradition, back into another time, and then he brings the Word to life for their day.
In this morning’s Scripture, Jesus does this by what looks like an “antithesis.” Here’s one thing, but here is another. “You have heard it said...., but I say to you.” Jesus puts two things in tension, side-by-side. Now at first, by antithesis, we might expect him to be stating opposites. “You’ve heard it said, but I’m telling you something entirely different.” But it doesn’t take long to figure out that’s not what he’s doing with that “but.” He says it up front – I’ve come not to tear down the law, but to fulfill it.
You’ve heard it said, but there’s more. As one writer puts it: “Jesus extends, intensifies, and [elaborates] on the commandments.” The whole of Scripture reflects what God has been doing in the world. God’s work is not yet finished. God’s intentions are at work in Christ and in us. Jesus has come to fulfill – to embody – God’s intention for good – God’s intention for the well-being of all humanity – all creation.
And one more first thing: Notice that what Jesus is talking about is ethics. Jesus is talking about how to live. Here is this brave new world. And here is how you can live it out. He’s describing what we’ve called before ways of living that lead to more life.
Now, I’ve shared before a framework for thinking about ethics that I learned from Carol Robb at the seminary. It’s a way of thinking about three types of ethics. There is rule-based ethics. There’s a rule. You follow it. The “Thou shalts” and the “Thou shalt nots.”
· Thou shalt not murder.
· Thou shalt not run a red light.
· Thou shalt care for the widow, and the orphan, and the stranger.
Then, there’s value-based ethics. What are the things you value most? Love, courage, honesty, equality for all people? Live out of those values. Do the loving thing. Do the honest thing.
And then, there is goal-based ethics. You live toward a goal. We want to live in a world where we start to heal the damage we’ve done to creation, so we start to live sustainably now – individuals and governments start to live toward that goal.
Rule-based ethics. Values-based ethics. Goal-based ethics.
I mention those because I want to use that as a framework for unpacking what Jesus is teaching in this morning’s Scripture.
With a series of examples,
Jesus points to the rule: “You have heard it said...”
He then goes to the heart of the matter – to the values underlying the rule – “But I say to you...” “You’ve heard it said. Well, yes, that, and then some.
And the gist of it all is: Live that rule out of the broader space of the values that undergird it, so that we can move toward the goal of this brave new world – a world characterized by mutual power and mutual care – by justice, by peace.
So now, let’s dive right in. The first teaching. Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, do not murder.” There’s the rule – it’s a big one – one of the commandments. “But I say to you....”“Yes, do that, and then some.” I say to you, if you are angry – or more precisely, if you continue to be angry with your brother or sister or sibling – stop – you’re responsible for that. Stop. Whatever you’re doing, stop and go and reconcile. Go and heal that relationship.
Jesus starts with what is probably the most significant break in relationship we can imagine – murder – ending the life of one made in the image of God. Absolutely don’t do that. And, go and tend to every break in relationship. Go, do the work of mending every break in relationship. You know the rule – and... What is at the heart of that is the dignity and well-being of all humanity – and the lives we are to live together. Stand in that place – in that value – and do the work to build this brave new world of mutual power, mutual caring, of love and respect.
In my mindfulness work, I’ve noticed that I do this thing I call “spinning.” When I’m in conflict with someone, my mind starts spinning out all these conversations – all up in my head. I make my case. I make sure I’m, justified. I get so worked up – I lose sleep – I’m a mess. I can think of an old example – when I started out practicing law, I had a mean boss. I’ve been blessed with good supervisors, but this one... oh man... I’d go home, and I’d give them a piece of my mind, in my mind. You know, conversations in my head that almost always ended with, ... “and you won’t have Scott Clark to kick around anymore.” I bet nobody else does that.
Jesus says stop. Stand in the solid ground of what matters most – the dignity and well-being of all humanity – stop, go have a conversation with the person with whom you are contending – go, do the work.
You’ve heard it said, “Don’t murder...
I say, don’t even nurse a grudge – what matters is mutual, loving relationship and the well-being of all people –
go build this brave new world.
Get the idea? Next one: Then Jesus says, you’ve heard it said. “Don’t commit adultery.” Yes, don’t do that. And I say to you, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already transgressed.” You know the rule. But I say to you, go even deeper: What’s really the heart of the matter here – what is at stake – is the objectification of women. As one writer explains, Jesus says, what you are doing – with that look of lust – is [ignoring] and transforming the personhood of that woman as if she were an object. You are treating her as somehow less than one who is made in the image of God. Don’t do it.
Now, Jesus is speaking specifically in the context of a patriarchal world saying don’t objectify women, yes, and I think you can pull that out even more broadly. Don’t objectify anyone of any gender. What really matters – the value underlying this – is the dignity of all beings. That’s what God has always cared about, in the rule, and then some.
You’ve heard it said, “Don’t’ commit adultery.” You know the rule.
But I say to you, don’t in any way treat anyone as less than fully human.
Live into that world of mutual power and mutual care – every person valued and loved.
And then, Jesus takes up divorce and re-marriage. And I want to spend some time here because I think these verses of Scripture, over the course of history, have been misused to harm far too many people.
Here is where we remember our task – we are entering into an ancient world. In the world of Scripture, when we look at marriage, we see a union that can reflect love and commitment. And, as we consider marriage across the whole of Scripture at marriage, we also see an ancient institution in which women were considered property owned by their husband. In the Torah, the law, there was no prohibition on divorce. Men could do pretty much what they wanted with their wife – they could divorce and discard her – like property – discard her into a world where she would have no power, and likely no means of living. So they had constructed rules about when and how that might happen.
Jesus says, You’ve heard it said, “This is when a husband can give his wife a certificate of divorce.” Jesus says, “But I say to you... women are not to be discarded. Ever.” Jesus critiques the whole system. The value – what God has always cared most about – is the dignity and well-being of all people and all creation. No one is to be discarded.
Now, for far too long, this Scripture has been misused in the church to prohibit remarriage after divorce. In my work for marriage equality, I learned that it wasn’t all that long ago (the 1950s) that divorced people (divorced straight people) couldn’t get married in some Presbyterian churches. There was a rule against it.
At one of Janie Spahr’s trials – where she was being prosecuted for marrying same-gender couples – the prosecutor in that case told the story of what had happened to her – which I share here because she shared it there. Back in the 1950s, she and her husband had wanted to get married in their Presbyterian church. The pastor said, “No,” because they both had been married before, and well, there was a rule.
Janie’s prosecutor brough that logic into Janie’s case. The prosecutor reasoned like this: Back then, there was a rule against divorced people remarrying, and my pastor said “no.” Right now, there’s a rule against same-gender couples marrying, and Janie should have said “no.” Now I want to say: I have respect and affection for Janie’s prosecutor. What happened to Janie’s prosecutor should never have happened. The church should never have said no. What happened to Janie should never have happened. The values at stake are love and commitment and wholeness. The goals of the new world coming to life in Christ are relationships of mutual power and mutual care.
In our world, we see the broad diversity of ways that people form and sustain loving family – through marriage, and after divorce, re-marriage; in marriage or in singleness (which is the path the Apostle Paul endorsed). We see loving healthy blended families; families of choice; families who seek to live together intergenerationally. To couples who want to live in love and commitment, when they come to the church and say, we want you to celebrate with us – the answer is yes – we will stand with you and support you – a world where no one is discarded, and love is honored and embraced.
You’ve heard it said, “There is a rule.” But I say to you, God has always desired the dignity and well-being of all humanity and all creation. Consider that, too. Live lives that nurture and nourish loving relationships of mutual power and mutual care, in this brave new world opening up even now.
(Oh, no – I don’t have time for “Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.” We’ll save that for another sermon.)
Jesus is opening up an ethic for living this brave new world into being. I hope this hasn’t sounded too much like a law-school lecture. An ethic, after all, is by definition something practical – something you can use. Rules. Values. Goals. Jesus is weaving together all three – for the living of our lives, and the building of a brave new world.
We inherit a tradition of law and wisdom that has been intended to reflect God’s constant intention for our good. In Jesus Christ, we come to understand that what God has always been doing is urging us toward what matters most – what God has always been about – the dignity and well-being of all humanity and all creation. We hold all this in the reality of our lives – and in Jesus Christ, we see and are invited into this brave new world – invited to heal and repair and nurture relationships of mutual power and mutual care.
Jesus said, You’ve heard it said, “Do this” or “Don’t do that.”
But I say to you, “And there’s so much more.” You’ve heard it said, “Live like this.”
But I say to you, “Live like this... and then some.”
© 2023 Scott Clark
 For general background on this text and for insights on which this sermon series has drawn, see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Amy-Jill Levine, Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2020); Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Cincinnati, OH: St Andrew Messenger Press, 1996); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); Eric Barreto, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-4; Carla Works, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-3  See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/a-brave-new-world-matthew-5-1-12-4th-sunday-of-epiphany  See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/let-salt-be-salty-matthew-5-13-20-5th-sunday-of-epiphany  Compare Eugene Boring, pp.188-89 (subheading: “Three Antitheses”), to Levine, (“Although the verse sounds like an antithesis, it is not.”)  Levine, p.26; See also Barreto, on Working Preacher (describing it as “a reinvestment in ancient tradition, made alive for today”).  See Boring, p.186  See Waetjen, pp. 93-95.  See Carla Works, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-3  Waetjen, p.96.  See Boring, pp. 191-93.
Phot credit: Wilfried Santer, used with permission via Unsplash