Sermon 12 February 2017 – Epiphany 6 Year A

Todays readings for:
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany Year A 2017

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
1Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton

It’s no wonder that the Sermon on the Mount is considered the greatest bit of teaching that Jesus does, is it? And yet, I think a lot of people who talk about the Sermon on the Mount as something wonderful haven’t recently read it. It is supremely hard teaching. This morning’s passage tackles four very difficult areas head on. The passage we had from Deuteronomy forms some of the context for this teaching of Jesus so let’s just have a look at it first.

To put this bit into context Moses has just come down the mountain to speak to the Israelites having brought with him the second lot of stone tablets, with the Ten Commandments on them. If you remember he smashed up the first set in disgust. So he brings these down and he asks them this question, repeated in later prophetic writings, “O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?” It seems to me that it is this question that Jesus is answering in the Sermon on the Mount and that we have been struggling with over these last weeks. It is the question of righteousness.

Moses has given them Ten Commandments, four about how they are to view God and six about how they are to treat other human beings. But then, he obviously fears, just as Jesus does, that the hardness of people’s hearts will lead them to fulfil the law, partially or in some inadequate way that will circumvent the laws’ true meaning.

Moses instructs his people to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and to stop being stubborn, because fulfilling the letter of the law, a physical circumcision, is not going to be enough to save them from breaking God’s essential law. Neither is strictly following the Ten Commandments because as we all know you can be a law abiding person and still not characterised by love.

And it is love that Moses is on about- love of God and it’s outflowing love of neighbour. God loves them, Moses says, God set his heart on them. And here we have the first problem, the founding problem you might say. We have a propensity for jealousy and we think that if God loves me that means he doesn’t love you, if God has chosen me, he hasn’t chosen you. We see this all the way through the foundational myths of the early part of Genesis, don’t we? Cain and Able, Esau and Jacob and down through the ages. Moses is going out of his way to explode this idea here. He says only fear God, in other words don’t worry about whether God loves you more than God loves your neighbour. God is great, mighty and awesome and not partial. God is big enough to love every one. And God’s justice is for the orphan and widow, read the people in need, with no social security, in Israelite society. God loves the strangers. God loves the strangers regardless of their view of God- God is love, and “you shall also love the stranger,” Moses says. If you do you will be rewarded- it is for your own well-being.

This is actually simple, as are the Ten Commandments that Moses has just given them but in their struggle to keep the spirit of God’s law the Israelite law makers had complexified it with a myriad of proscriptive laws which brought them no closer to being able to keep the law, have a look at Leviticus.

And it seems to me that the people of Jesus’ day were still struggling with the same things. They had a society were law and order were big issues, where some people prided themselves on the keeping that myriad of laws, and yet Jesus’ analysis seems to be that no matter what they said they had missed the point. Jesus is arguing from the known and understood. He says, ‘You have heard it said, “you shall do no murder”’. Of course they had heard that said- it was part of the Ten Commandments, wasn’t it? They all knew that, but then as now the debates go on about what actually constitutes murder- war, abortion, death penalty, euthanasia. Jesus is reinterpreting this law to include anger and bullying, he isn’t making exclusions he is making inclusions. What he is saying is that this is about how you view others and their relationship with you and with God. Jesus recommends reconciliation as the answer. Jesus knows that in our fractured and fragile state we find it very hard to live by this law of love, so he says if there is any lapse in your love, anything you need to apologise for go and do it!

The next thing he tackles is adultery. And again, the law seems pretty straight forward but Jesus again makes it a matter of our internal conscience – it is about what we think and feel as well as what we do. And just as with the first teaching about anger the consequences seem to be extreme, he talks about tearing out your sinning eye, and cutting off your hand, and he is certainly using exaggeration, but he is using it to make his point- this is serious.

When he gets on to divorce it is important to notice that it is a man divorcing his wife- the implication being that men, in that time as now, got sick of their wives and wanted another, hence the discussion of the subsequent marriage. If the wife was unchaste, there were grounds for divorce because unchastity strikes at the very heart of the marriage. I have heard this passage used for insisting that a wife should stay with an abusive husband but I think that is a gross misuse of Jesus’ words. Jesus is saying you can’t just do this without there being consequences, because you are breaking the law of love. And in this something that has touched most of us in this time of no fault divorce. It is also interesting that at the heart of what Jesus says here is a real challenge to patriarchy. Jesus is telling the men that objectifying a woman, whether as the object of lust or as the object of disgust isn’t right by God’s law. And in our day and age, with films like Fifty Shades Darker hitting our cinemas, not to mention the enormous porn industry that surrounds it, we are still struggling with this as an issue. Jesus is trying to tell his disciples and anyone else who is listening that the law of God concerns what is the essential nature of relationship, not its trappings.

And then there is this teaching on oaths. Now I have always struggled to understand what it was doing associated with the other moral questions, but suddenly in this day and age I have seen that this section on oaths is about truth telling. The ancient teaching was, “you shall not swear falsely”, Jesus says, or as it says in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour”. The commandment is more specific than Jesus’ version- it is referring to a situation of judgement in law. Again Jesus is expanding the law to get at the more essential aspect. Don’t swear by things, in an effort to convince your auditors that somehow you are telling the truth and will do what you say- just say Yes, or No. And doesn’t that resonate for us? I won’t get on to Trump and the false news saga. In the controversy over the power outages this week we have heard so many different people blamed and so many different versions of what went wrong- don’t we long for the truth, plain and simple, to be told rather than the differing political takes on the subject? Because again, truth is about respect for neighbour, whether it is a truth that intimately concerns them, or not. Truth is always ultimately better than lies, though when we make expedient decisions it may not seem like it.

So over these weeks we have been talking about what righteousness looks like. It seems to me that here in Matthew, and in Deuteronomy we have a picture of personal righteousness. We are to keep not the letter of the law, because simply keeping the letter of the law might not be enough, but the spirit of the law, and in every case the spirit of the law consists of the same premise, love and fear God who loves you and love your neighbour as yourself, as one who is also loved by God.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we cannot perfectly keep this law of the spirit. But it is the Holy Spirit indwelling us that enables us to grow in capacity for love. In this letter to the Corinthians that we have been reading over these last weeks, Paul is tackling the sin of the Corinthian church. And that sin is that some of them think that they are more important than others. They have developed factions and are competitive. This is symptomatic of the fact that they do not understand that God loves them all equally and that what they are called to is love. Paul, throughout the letter is tackling the various issues one at a time. But here, in this week’s reading, he gives us a word of hope. He is discussing the fact that it doesn’t matter who has planted the seed. The Corinthians are involved in a factionalisation depending on who is was that told them the gospel. Paul describes this as behaving according to human inclination, which is that very inclination I alluded to at the beginning of thinking that we have to make ourselves more important than our brother so that we will be loved more. Paul reminds them that it doesn’t matter who plants the seed that it is God alone who gives the growth. And here is a word of hope for us. If we have the Holy Spirit we can and will grow in God’s power to love. “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

It is only through God’s power that we can exhibit the righteousness of God.