Epiphany + 7A 19-2-17 A & C Mt 5 33-48
The Sermon on the Mount (the Sermon on the Mount) is enormously challenging – it does our heads in. For 2¾ years out of every three, we proclaim Jesus as the one who sets us free from the rules and regulations of religion. We learn how we can’t earn our salvation by good works; because of Jesus, we don’t have to. God loved us first and we’re saved by his grace. But then in the Epiphany season of the year of Matthew, we run slap bang into the the Sermon on the Mount and a find a whole lot of seemingly impossible, impractical demands. At one point, Jesus even tells us we have to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees. Mt 5.20 Then he goes on to explain how we are to do that.
So last week we were challenged by three confronting sayings of Jesus. 1. Don’t be angry; anger is pretty well the same as murder. 2. Don’t bear grudges, or what we offer to God can’t be acceptable. 3. If we’re already committed to a life partner, don’t even think about another one; thinking about it is just as bad as running off with them. These are extraordinarily demanding sayings. Jesus doesn’t hold back, because he knows as well as we do what it’s like if anyone in a community gives themselves over to anger, resentment or cheating. Everyone gets hurt. Jesus says that our connection with the spirit of the Law is vital. What’s in our hearts – our choices – can bring us and others closer to God, or drive that Love underground.
Jesus teaches us to be a people who show the world a better way – to become more complete – mature – perfect (τέλειός Mt 5:48). We may get angry, but let’s not act on that anger; let’s seek respectful, just reconciliation. We may resent the Sermon on the Mounteone, but let’s not act out that resentment; let’s seek reconciliation. That’s better for everyone. We may be attracted to the Sermon on the Mounteone who’s not our partner, but let’s not to act on that attraction; it hurts everyone involved, and most of all, the ones we love the most.
These are teachings for perfecting a community, and a self-willed individual can find them very confronting. Our wider culture promotes individuality, so the the Sermon on the Mount is more counter-cultural in our community now than at any time I can remember.
Jesus carried on with this confrontation today. Don’t be a person who has to swear an oath so the Sermon on the Mounteone will believe you; our yes and our no should be enough. We should be people everyone believes. Don’t retaliate against injury; turn the other cheek. Give more to people than they’ve asked for. Go the extra mile whether they deserve it or not. And love your enemies because God loves them just as much as God loves us. We are to be like God; to be kind and patient. The Church has always struggled with the way Jesus put these teachings.
There are things to say about each of them, but first let’s remember how Matthew set the the Sermon on the Mount in his Gospel. It comes after Jesus’s baptism and his temptation in the wilderness. Jesus has come out of his seclusion to learn that John the Baptist has been gaoled in Galilee. Hearing this, Jesus goes straight to Galilee. He continues to preach John’s message of repentance, and he call his first disciples.
The the Sermon on the Mount is a preparation course – a crash course – for these brand new disciples before they are sent out themselves to proclaim a new message – the Good News, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven has come near / is at hand.’ Mt 10.7 As he sends them out Jesus will command them to take no money or supplies – to trust God’s provision along the Way. Mt 10.9-10 That’s another saying the Church has struggled to receive.
And of course, the ultimate context at the heart of the Gospel is Jesus’s self-giving on the Cross. We have to bear all this in mind as we read the the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier, in the wilderness, Jesus rejected temptations to being self-sufficient (bread from stones 4.3), to keeping safe (throw yourself from the pinnacle 4.6) being rich and powerful (all these I will give you 4.9). Instead, he chose humility, integrity, a self-giving, risk-taking trust in God – ie the core messages of the the Sermon on the Mount. So Jesus prepared his disciples by teaching them these qualities which are central to any true proclamation of the Gospel.
The the Sermon on the Mount is a call to us to grow into a community of humility and integrity, self-giving and risk-taking trust in God. Only then can the world take the Gospel seriously as God’s transforming message of salvation.
So the sayings – one point each: don’t swear oaths, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love your enemies, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Swearing oaths: St Chromatius said “the Lord forbids [this] in case we only appear to tell the truth when we swear.” Tractate on Mt 24-2.2-4 ACCS 1a, 115-6 He means that all of us should be known for our simple integrity – always; oaths are irrelevant to this.
Turn the other cheek: Ex 21:23–24 (eye for eye, tooth for tooth) said an injury should only be compensated in direct proportion to the offence – c.f. ‘payback’. Jesus goes beyond this to counsel non-retaliation; to go behind the literal words of the law and humbly accept the truth that lies at its heart. God loves us both.
Give your cloak too – go the second mile: Dt 24:10-13 describes taking a person’s cloak as pledge for a loan; to return it at night so the poor borrower could sleep in it – but presumably call for it again next morning. Jesus calls for more generosity: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” And the extra mile? Where Matthew’s community lived, a Roman soldier could make you carry his pack for a mile. the Sermon on the Mounte people wanted revenge for this, but Jesus tells us we have the power to choose to do more than is required, to go the extra mile. Doing that proclaims God’s freedom.
Love your enemies: We heard Lev 19.18 today –love your neighbour as yourself. Earlier in that reading, farmers were told to leave enough food behind at harvest time for the poor and the alien to gather for their own needs. God loves the stranger too. So Jesus reminds us that everyone is neighbour; strangers and enemies too.
Finally, be perfect: Jesus reminds us that God loves without discrimination. God sends blessings on both the just and the unjust. So Jesus calls on disciples to be like that; be like God: be perfect. It seems an enormous burden. How can we be perfect? But the Greek word used here τέλειός doesn’t mean to be without fault or never to make a mistake. It means complete, whole or mature. As Susan McCaslin puts it, be open to the ﬂow of the whole – which is the ﬂow of divine love. Amen.
Arousing the Spirit – Provocative Writings by Susan McCaslin.© Copyright 2011 Susan McCaslin, CopperHouse,an imprint of Wood Lake Publishing Inc.