Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-27
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
My friend Diana is terrified of spiders. If she sees one anywhere near her, she lets out a bloodcurdling screech and comes to tell you “It was THIS BIG!” (Holds out hands as wide as possible) Really? Well, maybe not quite that big.
Today’s vocabulary word is hyperbole (high-PER-buh-lee.) For instance: “I’ve told you a hundred million times: Don’t exaggerate!” Hyperbole: to draw the picture as large and oversized as possible, so that no one can misunderstand the message.
Jesus is using some hyperbolic speech this morning, as we continue to listen to him in the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we were alerted to the fact that he is using figures of speech, with these words:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That was the last word, last week, and the verse immediately preceding our Gospel reading this week. So we have to hear today’s portion with those words still ringing in our ears.
The scribes and the Pharisees are the professional religious people. They are as exacting as they can be about following the rules and regulations, and they encourage others to do the same. To outdo them in this good-doing is out of the question. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He is, in fact, up to something entirely different—something very strange, or at least unexpected.
“You have heard it said…but I say to you…” What is it that we have heard said? Murder is bad—the worst of sins. One of the Big Ten, in fact. And yet Jesus turns the order of things upside down: Murder is still bad no question. But now anger, even unspoken, merits the same punishment as murder. Insulting someone is even more dreadful; and speaking with a mean mouth to someone puts you in hell. You have murdered the spirit of another person by speaking of them, or to them, in that way. You don’t need to wait for hell after death; you’re already there.
Adultery is bad. Not sex in general, but a specific act. Intercourse between a man, who is not married to a particular woman, but she is married to someone else. So this is about property rights, among other things. Again, one of the Big Ten, but Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. Insofar as you have looked and imagined the act, it is as if you have done it. The thought is parent to the deed, and both are outside of the Kingdom’s way of life.
Let us be clear: Jesus is not setting up a new moral theology, a new set of rules that simply make the old rules tighter and more restrictive. He is not introducing a new pious hierarchy by which we (or anyone else) can work our way into the kingdom.
We have to go back to the beginning of the sermon. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Remember in Jesus’ time, the heart was understood as the seat of the will, one’s entire intentionality. It is the Hokey-Pokey of the moral life: You put your whole self in, when you speak of the heart. We’ll use the language of the heart in just that way in a few minutes. I will bid you “Lift up your hearts!” And you will answer me “We lift them to the Lord.” We intend to place our whole selves, hearts and souls, bodies and minds, warts and imperfections and all of what makes us who we are, to the presence of God.
To be pure of heart is to will and intend a single thing, not to be distracted and overwhelmed by many divided intentions. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is not about moral rectitude, but about orientation. The repeated, deliberate reorientation of ourselves in the Godward direction.
And we need this repeated reorientation because we forget. We do get distracted, and overwhelmed, and disoriented. That’s why we say the confession every Sunday; that’s why you’ve heard me talk about repentance. Which does not mean beating ourselves up or feeling miserable for things we have done or failed to do. Repentance—metanoia—is that moment when we recognize that we have gone in the wrong direction, and we change direction. You just missed your exit—turn around!
When Jesus tells his hearers “Let your yes be ‘yes’; let your no be ‘no’” he is inviting us to an awareness of, and truthfulness about, ourselves. God is God, and we are not. The job description of “Savior of the World” is already taken—you can’t have it. And neither can I.
Jesus invites his hearers into that awareness and that truthfulness so that they—we—can be about the ministry of God in this world. So that we can be the Body of Christ in this world. Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we get a glimpse into what that looks like.
We have to live into that reality, and live with that reality, in order to discover it more completely. Remember the 3-D drawings that were popular a few years ago? You’d stare at a page of colored dots that looked like nothing at all, up close and far away and everything in between…until all of a sudden, BOOM, there it was: the prow of a ship sailing out of the page, or a football spiraling through the air, or a cat licking its paw and washing its face.
The Sermon on the Mount invites us to sit with, and discover, a reality that Jesus is forever indicating and pointing out for those around him. It is an awareness of both thought and action—for both are necessary—that takes us beyond our own pet projects and plans, into the very life of God and God’s kingdom.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us.
Thanks be to God.