This, Not That … An Upside-Down Way to Live
Feb 12, 2023
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Matthew 5:21-37
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Well, I’ve been warning you for a couple weeks that we were coming to the challenging teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5, and here we are. Now you know why I jokingly told you last Sunday that if you would stay home, I would stay home, and we all could avoid the tough stuff. But that’s not the faithful way, especially when dealing with topics that are very much a part of our lives.
DON’T raise your hands in response to these questions and statements but think honestly what the answers are for yourselves. Has anyone here ever been angry at someone else, or insulted that person, or considered another person to be a fool and said so? Has anyone here failed to seek reconciliation with someone who has a grudge against you? What about committing adultery, or objectifying another person? Then, we come to the topic that really creates discomfort, divorce, a reality in many lives and families. Finally, has anyone not done something you said you would do, or done that which you promised not to do?
By now, we’re all uncomfortable, I’m guessing because Jesus’ words apply to all of us. As Jesus is preaching this Sermon on the Mount, he is making it clear what will be “the norm” for his disciples, and it’s not what they have considered normal. In the “Chosen” episode about this sermon, the people who heard it are impressed and mystified. They know what they’ve heard is potentially life-altering, BUT, they also describe Jesus’ words as odd and confusing. That’s because, as we’ve noted during the past two weeks, Jesus’s teaching takes the conventional way of living in and viewing the world, and turns it upside down.
That’s because Jesus is telling them that they will not just fulfill God’s law – for example, thou shalt not murder – but go back to its roots, to why God gave the law in the first place. The reason for the Law of God was to promote human flourishing at every level. It is concerned not only about actions, but what is in the heart and mind that leads to those actions. How do we see others? How do we think about them? How do we treat them in our hearts? Are we doing that which builds trust and demonstrates compassion in our interactions with others?
Another way to express this is that Jesus is concerned about the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. He takes a widely held moral teaching and expands its meaning. “You have heard it said, you shall not commit adultery,” Jesus says, “but I say to you, that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Remember how that passage got Jimmy Carter into trouble back in the 70’s … because he took it seriously?) Jesus’ teaching goes to the heart of the problem, indicating that followers of Jesus will do this, not that. The goal is to live with righteousness in every relationship, thought and action.
What is being described here is a way of life, not an effort to just keep the rules. Pastor JoAnn Taylor puts it this way: “Jesus isn’t interested in giving us a new checklist of things we are not supposed to do. As we take stock of our lives at the end of each day, Jesus is not impressed to hear, ‘Well, I didn’t murder anyone today, and I didn’t commit adultery, I must be doing OK.’ Jesus says, ‘I expect more from my followers than just OK.’ Jesus tells us to dig deeper into ourselves, to get to the root of our sinfulness and address it before a grudge turns into hatred and murder … before lust turns into a pornography addiction or leads to adultery or divorce … before an idle word becomes a lie … before a little envy blossoms into full-blown jealousy … before our apathy turns us away from God’s grace and love.” (1)
OK, we understand that, but does Jesus have to use such harsh language, about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands and causing former spouses to commit adultery? It is unnerving! It also is a reminder of one contextual reality and one truth about God’s character.
The contextual reality is that in the first century, a man could divorce his wife quickly and for a very minor reason, leaving her destitute and viewed as unworthy even by her own extended family. This, then, severely limited her options for survival to begging, prostitution and entering an abusive relationship in which she was little more than a slave. So, it was concern about such situations, and compassion for the women in them, that backed Jesus’ comments about divorce.
The point is that our relationships, how we treat each other, is important to God, which is why Jesus uses all the hyperbole of cutting off body parts and burning in hell; he wants his listeners to pay attention to what he’s saying and grasp that its vitalness.
Dr. David Lose offers this explanation of the text: “It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words. It’s not enough to avoid physically committing adultery. We should also not objectify other persons by seeing them as a means to satisfy our physical desires. It’s not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. We should not treat people as disposable. It is not enough to keep ourselves from swearing falsely and lying to others. We should speak and act truthfully in all our dealings so that we do not need to make oaths at all.” (2)
I am thinking that these are concepts we can grasp. The problem is not understanding them but doing them. As commentator Scott Hoezee noted, “…Jesus really does nail every one of us (with his teaching) and there is a sense that the larger function of Jesus’ teachings on the Law is to cast us back to reliance on God’s grace.” (3)
It’s in the midst of this teaching that it’s a good to be reminded that there’s nothing we can do, or fail to do, that makes God love us more or less. We cannot earn or deserve the forgiveness that comes to us through Jesus. That’s good news, as is the reality that God wants all of us to flourish and that the Holy Spirit empowers us as we strive to live the “spirit” of the law. When we do so, even imperfectly, it makes a positive difference in our lives and in the world. Jesus says, “Do this, not that,” encouraging us to seek righteousness in our thoughts, our hearts, our actions, because he loves us and wants what is best for us. It is, indeed, an upside-down way to live. AMEN
“The Great Invitation: This, Not That”, Matthew 5:21-37, Feb. 12, 2017, Pastor JoAnn Taylor, www.pastorsings.com
“In the Meantime” by David Lose, Feb. 12, 2014 (Daily Bread), www.davidlose.net
“Sermon Commentary for Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020” by Scott Hoezee, www.cepreaching.org