Raising the bar

Good morning, Friends!

This morning we’re going to take another look at the Sermon on the Mount. A lot of people tell me, “Oh, my faith is simple, just the Sermon on the Mount!” but when I ask them, they usually don’t remember too much of it.

The gospel says that Sermon on the Mount was good news for a lot of people. But it covers a whole lot of different subjects.

It’s got the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Last week we looked at the part about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Later on, Jesus talks about giving to the needy and about not showing off when we do it. There’s the lilies of the field and the house built on the rock. There’s a lot going on in the Sermon on the Mount!

And then there’s the section we’re going to look at this morning. We usually break this part down into about 5 or 6 separate sermons, because they’re all pretty important. But this time I want to look at them all together, because they all have a common theme.

Jesus says that it’s not enough to live up to the standard of the old law, the law of Moses, the law of the Old Testament. Jesus doesn’t disagree with the old law, but he wants to push it to a higher level.

We usually think of Jesus as kind of a softie where it comes to laws and commandments. After all, didn’t he say that there are just two things we have to do? Does anybody remember what the two great commandments are?

Love God, and love your neighbor. That’s right. Do those things with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you’ll be all right.

But here, Jesus is taking some of the old laws, and he raises the bar on each of them in a new and challenging way. It’s not enough to fulfill the letter of the law. Jesus wants us to live the full spirit of the law, and that takes a lot more thought and effort. Let’s hear what he says.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

-Matthew 5:17-20

OK, so what does Jesus really mean here? He gives us a bunch of examples of how we need to take an old law, an old commandment, and raise it higher or take it deeper. The overall goal is that Jesus wants us to do more than the law requires, to live in the spirit and not just the letter. Let’s look at some examples together.

Murder

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who insults a brother or sister, is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

We already know that we’re not supposed to murder. It’s against the law of God to take another human life. And that commandment is never supposed to be broken.

But Jesus pushes the old commandment deeper. He says that anger is the first step on the road to murder. Nursing your anger, nourishing your anger, feeding it with insults, leads to the same end as murder itself.

Jesus says that it’s impossible to pray if I’m harboring a grudge, or if I refuse to forgive. Jesus says that God isn’t going to listen to me, if I’m holding something against another human being, or if I’ve done wrong to them myself.

If I want to pray, if I want any of the joy that Jesus was talking about, I need to go and make peace with anyone I’ve hurt, first. And if I don’t make peace with my neighbor, I’m in danger of judgment.

Jesus is saying it’s not enough not to kill. Lots of people manage that. In order to discover the joy that comes with the Kingdom, we have to do more. Here’s another example.

Adultery

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Adultery, of course, is the subject of the seventh of the Ten Commandments, just as murder is the subject of the sixth.

And Jesus says, it isn’t enough not to sleep around with other people if you’re married. Keeping a promise is something which begins in your heart. And you can break a promise in your heart, just the same as you can break it by doing something.

Jesus goes on to say that it’s better to cut your hand off, or to pluck your eye out, than for that part to drag us down and ruin the rest. I don’t think he’s talking literally about mutilating ourselves. I don’t think Jesus is saying that sex is shameful in any way, either.

I think he’s saying is that promises are important. And people who keep promises fully, who keep them all the way, in their hearts, really know the joy that a promise kept brings. Let’s take another example.

Divorce

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Wow, that’s a hard one! This saying on divorce has stressed out a lot of people over the years. It’s caused a lot of misery. I think we need to look at this one carefully, because it’s easy to misinterpret. It makes a lot of people feel as though they’re being condemned.

So, I want to back up, and remember that Jesus didn’t come here in order to condemn people. I myself have never condemned anyone because they were divorced, or because their marriage wasn’t working out.

If you remember, from John 3:16 and 17: “For God so loved the people of this world so much that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who puts their trust in Him will have the life that never ends. God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn anyone, but to save them…”

Back in Jesus’ day, divorce was very one-sided. Men could divorce their wives, but women couldn’t divorce their husbands. Divorce didn’t even need any special legal proceeding. All it took was for the husband to give his wife a letter of dismissal, handed over in the presence of two witnesses, and the marriage was finished.

I think Jesus knew that some people are terribly unhappy in their marriages. The church should never be condemning in that case. If anything, I think that people who have gone through that shattering experience need more support, and more friendship and compassion.

But listen to what Jesus is saying here. The whole point of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is to challenge us to live more deeply.

Just the same as it’s not enough for us not to sleep around outside our marriages, in the same way it’s not enough to go through a divorce neatly and legally.

As I read this, the focus isn’t really on divorce and adultery. The focus is on faithfulness. The focus is on keeping the promises that we make, to ourselves, and to God, and to each other.

As I read this, I see Jesus acknowledging that divorce takes place. It’s something that happens. People break their promise to be faithful, and if one partner does that, the other partner is free. The marriage is ended. And Jesus certainly doesn’t condemn the other partner in the marriage for that fact.

But he’s saying, “Be faithful. Keep the promises that you make. Don’t trivialize them. They’re important. Keep your promises, if you possibly can. Keep them in your hearts . . .”
That leads pretty directly into the next section of the Sermon on the Mount.

Promises

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

This section is one which has always been especially important for Quakers. This business of keeping our promises, and telling the truth, is something which we have always understood as essential to being Jesus’ friends.

Telling the truth is the most fundamental act of Christian discipleship. It’s the rock on which everything else is built. In another place, Jesus calls the devil the father of lies (John 8:44).

This goes beyond courtroom oaths, or signing your name at the bottom of contracts. Telling the truth is part of living the truth. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “This is why I was born, and this is why I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth hears my voice. . .” (John 18:37)

I hope you all have noticed the structure of all of these sayings. In every one, Jesus starts out by saying, “You have heard that it was said. . .But I tell you. . .”

This is a pattern in Jesus’ teaching. “Here’s the old law,” Jesus says, “the law you inherited. Here’s the old way. Here’s the ordinary wisdom. But I want you to take it deeper. I’m raising the bar. I don’t just want you to hear this. I want you to live this.
Let’s listen to another.

Revenge

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

This is one of the hardest parts of the Sermon on the Mount for us. When you think about how many wars have basically been caused by people nursing their anger against other people, or how many murders are caused by the desire for revenge, then the Sermon on the Mount really strikes at roots of violence. If we really live what Jesus is talking about here, we can never go to war again.

I find it kind of curious to notice how Jesus placed certain things here together. I can see how “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. . .Don’t resist violence. . .turn the other cheek. . .if they take your shirt, give your coat. . .go the extra mile” all fit together.

What I never really noticed before was how Jesus really includes, “Give to whoever begs from you, do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. . .” in the same section.

It’s almost as though he’s placing stinginess and selfishness in the same category as all of these other reasons why people go to war.

“If you want to learn about peace,” he says, “be generous. If you want to overturn all the patterns of war and violence,” he says, “then learn to share.” Maybe it’s not such a curious connection after all.

Love

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In a way, doesn’t that just sum up everything that Jesus has been saying? He says, “Don’t just try to be good. Everybody tries to do that. I want you to try to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. . .”

The word Jesus uses here is teleios, which is translated in our Bibles as “perfect.” Actually, a better translation would be complete. It really means to be fulfilled, or finally to live the way we were created to live. We think that perfection means being nit-picky flawless. It really means something more like being unbroken or whole again.

Jesus is calling us to a better life, not a more burdened life. Jesus is calling us to a life of joy, not a life of unhappiness. Jesus is calling us to a life where we find the strength of the Spirit, in order to be fulfilled.

He’s telling us to let the Spirit come into the way we live, and to let the Spirit guide us through the challenges of life.

Our goals should always be the same goals which God has – to restore the world, to live the truth, to find the lost, to bind up the wounds of the world, to heal the broken-hearted, to bring peace, to show mercy, to care for those in need, to love as we ourselves have been loved.

If we do these things, we will do everything God asks, and more.

Let’s take all this into open worship together.

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