Righteous Relationship – Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21, Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18

February 23, 2014 – 7th Sunday after Epiphany

We hear another portion of the Sermon on the Mount this morning in chapter 6. To deliver the sermon, Jesus goes up a mountain, sits down and for his disciples and the crowds who have begun to follow him, paints with words a picture of what God is doing in the world and what God’s people are to be doing in the world. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls that the kingdom of heaven. It’s not in some future time. Jesus says the realm of God–the kingdom of heaven–has arrived. It is here. It’s not something we’re sitting waiting for. It’s something we embrace now. It’s something we live now.

Sometimes we assume what Jesus is teaching and what we read about his ministry in the New Testament is brand new. But it’s not. Rooted in Jewish faith, Jesus reached into the deep roots of the life-giving law–the Torah–to speak about the realm of God and God’s intentions for God’s people and for the world.

So let’s go back to that life-giving law that we find in Leviticus.

Admittedly, “life-giving” is probably not the first association many of us have with the book of Leviticus. “Lots of laws” might be more what we first think about. And then we hear the seemingly impossible. “You shall be holy, for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Last week in the Matthew reading we heard, “Be perfect as God is perfect.” Doesn’t that, by definition, exclude us? Who can be holy like God? Who can be perfect like God?

One strand of theological thinking in the Bible says holiness is what God is and that is distinctly something other than being human.

But there’s also another theological understanding of holiness as something we strive for–looking at the nature of God as our to how we are to live. Leviticus breaks that down in specific, concrete ethical commands. The law we heard in Leviticus commands us to make sure there is food for the poor and the foreigner; commands us not no steal, lie or swear by God’s name. We hear the ethnical command not to exploit our neighbors, to deal fairly with those who work for us and not to make fun of those who are disabled. The law commands us to show no partiality in administering justice, not to stand by when our neighbor is in danger, not to hate or take revenge.

These are concrete, specific directions on how we are to live with others. How we are to live together so that we can all live together (which is what makes the law life-giving). And this is the way we ordinary human being live holy lives—as God is holy. One writer I read this week said, “Holiness in heaven is enacted as justice on earth.”[1] The tangible evidence of our holiness is the just transformation of how we live with others—individually and collectively. Our transformed relationships are how we evidence of holiness.

But now when we turn back to the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus talking about doing things in secret and not letting other people see our righteous or holy actions.

“Righteous” is a better translation for Matthew 6.1 because we tend to have bad associations with the word “piety.” We often connect “piety” with people who are pious and self-righteous which is actually the reverse of what Jesus is instructing here.

In chapter 5, Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to God.” (5.14, 16) And if we take the law in Leviticus seriously, then there are particular public actions that we must take in order to be faithful to God.

Now Jesus says “Don’t let anyone see what you are doing.” When you give your offering, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (Which might actually be neurologically impossible.) Don’t pray in public he says. Pray in secret in your room with the door closed. (Which would put an end to much of Sunday morning worship.) When you fast, don’t let anyone know.

So which are we to do? Live our faith visibly or secretly? Well, first, we need to recognize parody or hyperbole when we hear it. Jesus is exaggerating the excesses of those who give, pray and fast so other people will look at them. Do you need a brass band to announce your charitable giving? Do you love to pray loudly so people three blocks over will hear and praise you? Do you love fancy, flowery prayers with all kinds of religious buzz words thrown in because you think God will listen more? Do you take pleasure in making yourself look miserable so everyone will know you are giving up something? If so, you’ve already gotten what you’re after: the attention of other people.

When it comes to parody, Jesus could have said, “Turn off all your electronic devices with GPS features and leave them in a drawer. Go into the forest. Hike the most remote trail on a rainy day. Find the largest tree you can find. Climb it until you cannot be seen from the ground. Cover yourself with a tarp. Now pray.” That’s parody. That’s hyperbole.

The point isn’t about the location of where you can pray. The point is who you are praying for. In the forest, on a rainy day, in a tree, off a remote trail, covered by a tarp, the only one who will hear your prayer (or know where you are) is God. That’s the point. Pray that way–whether you are praying in the “quietness of your bedtime, in the middle of rush-hour traffic or in unison [on Sunday morning with the whole] congregation.” [2]

In talking about righteous living, Jesus uses examples his Jewish audience would recognize as significant expressions of Jewish faith: giving money to help others, praying and fasting.

Sometimes we think the Christian faith is primarily about believing certain ideas. And depending on who you talk to, it can be a lot of ideas or a few ideas.

But just like Jewish faith, Christian faith is also about doing certain things. There are actions or practices that are part of being Christian. There are the outward actions of living justly with other people–as we hear about in Leviticus and which Jesus also includes in the Sermon on the Mount. (And we heard some of that in chapter 5 the last two weeks.) There are also actions that help us nurture a life with God that Jesus talks about here: giving, praying and fasting. (And fasting doesn’t have to be just about food. We can fast from anything that distracts us from God.)

All these practices are about relationship. Relationship with others and relationship with God. Last week we heard Jesus talk about the essence of relationships with others and how we live out the reality of life in the realm of God. This week we hear him talk about the essence of relationship with God. These aren’t the only practices that nurture a life with God but they have been three common practices of Jewish and Christian faith.

Give. Pray. Fast.

These are often practices we take on in Lent. Which begins in another week and a half.

Here’s what I often see happen in Lent. We take on or give up something during Lent and then at the end of Lent we say, “Phew! Thank goodness that is over. Now I can get back to life as usual.” Except that that’s not the point. The point is not to muster through Lent and then get back to life as usual. “The practices and experience of Lent are what can shape us for all of our life”[3] writes Episcopal priest Maryetta Anschutz. “Lent is not about feeling holy, but about lifelong commitments that help us hold on to the things that will sustain us.”[4] “This is what Jesus asks his disciples to do. Do not be holy because it is what the world expects of you; rather learn to live holy lives because a closer relationship to the God who sees in secret will be reward enough.”[5]

As we get ready to begin Lent, what might it be that God is inviting you to practice in your relationships with others or to nurture a life with God?

* * *

[1] Walter Brueggemann, et. al., Texts for Preaching – Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p148.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p68.
[3] Maryetta Anschutz, “Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p20.
[4] Ibid., p21.
[5] Ibid., p20.


You’ve Heard It Said, But I Say to You – Matthew 5.21-48

February 16, 2014 – 6th Sunday after Epiphany

When I hear this passage I want to say, “Jesus! Do you have to make it so hard on us?” I’m pretty sure I can live my life without murdering someone but now Jesus wants us not to be angry with one another?
In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus looks at the law and drills down to what is at its heart. Given the culture we live in, I think it’s hard for us to not chafe against notions of the law. We tend to experience laws as things that restrict our freedom, that are someone else telling us what to do or what we can’t do. I’m from the West and in the history of our country, the West was a place people went in order to not have other people making up rules for them. The dream of the West was the place you could live your life and not be bothered by the constraints of other people. Now days, there’s barely any more space in the US where one can be that isolated and most of us wouldn’t want to live there even if we could.
But that’s not the way Jesus thought about the law. It wasn’t a shackle to throw off. One commentator reminds us “In Judaism, the law is a blessing, a good gift, a source of life.”1 The law shows us how to live with God and with one another–not so that we might be miserable and hemmed in but so that we might have life and have it abundantly.
In Matthew, Jesus announces the kingdom of heaven has come near and in the Sermon on the Mount (which is chapter 5, 6 and 7 in Matthew), Jesus sets out “a series of images and case studies that describe the nature of God’s reign.” One scholar writing on the Sermon on the Mount say Jesus is “the poet laureate of God’s empire, impart[ing] impressions and images that point the way for those who seek God’s will and ways in the world.”2
Jesus isn’t abandoning the law of his Jewish tradition. But he does demand that we get clearer about what God’s intentions are that ground the law. And in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, he does that with a series of case studies. Case studies that we might find a little searing. Case studies that illuminate what life in God’s realm is like.
I was thinking this week that if we used verses 23 and 24 as our call to worship–the part about if you get to church and remember your brother or sister has something against you, you are first to go and be reconciled with them and then come to worship. If that was our call to worship, there might be a lot fewer of us here for the sermon! It might even be that the preacher would be absent as well. And isn’t it interesting that worshiping God is not more important than being reconciled with a brother or sister? A right relationship with God requires a right relationship with other people. When Jesus says later on that the most important commandment is to love God and to love neighbor, he’s not setting that up as a choice. The way life is in the realm of God is to love God AND to love neighbor. One is not more important than the other.
I remember praying in the pastoral prayer a number of years ago that all our thoughts, words and actions would be pleasing to God. A church member came up to me after the sermon and said, “I can deal with my words and action being pleasing to God but are you really suggesting that even my thoughts should be as well?”
Can it really be that Jesus thinks it’s as bad to harbor an angry thought as it is to murder someone? I don’t think Jesus is quantifying which is worse. Instead, he’s saying it comes from the same place. A pastor writing on this passage said, “It’s a searing insight into all that God desires for and from us: that we refrain not only from killing but from nursing the anger that also kills.”3
We know that words can kill. This weekend we’re hearing more about the bullying and verbal harassment of Jonathan Martin by his NFL Dolphin teammates.4 Martin is still alive but from what I’ve read it sounds like his spirit is crushed. You don’t have to read too far back in the news to find stories of teenagers who have killed themselves because of bullying. And we know that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer youth who only hear disparaging comments about their sexual orientation or gender identity are at higher risk for committing suicide than youth who have support for who they are.
So Jesus comes down hard on anger and what it does to relationships between people. He’s trying to get our attention about life in the kingdom of God. A life that begins now. Jesus announces the realm of God is here now–and it calls us to live differently. It might sound crazy for Jesus to worry about anger. Why not just worry about murder? The world worries about murder. It’s less concerned about anger. How can we stop anger? But Jesus is trying to open our “eyes and ears to the reality and nature of God’s reign”5 which is really different than the way we assume the world is going to be.
Professor Stan Saunders says “Jesus’ starting point is not the brokenness, violence and alienation of creation, although he is well aware of these, but the reality of God’s empire, where restoration, inclusion, healing, abundance and true peace are the norm.”6
So imagine that: a world and a way of life where restoration, inclusion, healing, abundance and true peace are the norm. That sounds like a pipe dream, doesn’t it? Something lovely to think about but not real. Only that’s not the way Jesus sees it. Jesus proclaims that the world of God’s reign has broken into history–not completely and totally, then nor now–but it is here. And we are part of God’s realm when we live our lives the way Jesus did. With the assumption that restoration, inclusion, healing, abundance and true peace are the way–they are God’s will for the world. Not just in the future–but right now.
All of the “you have heard it said but I say to you” vignettes are about living as if God’s realm is a reality now. And each time Jesus pushes to free our imaginations that are stuck in notions of “that’s the way the world is” or “that’s impossible” or “that’s ridiculous–everyone knows…” whatever it is we assume everyone knows.
In God’s kingdom, anger and murder are replaced with reconciliation and restored relationships.
Like anger is to murder, lust is to adultery. Jesus speaks of our basic “attitudes, the choices we make about what we allow to take root in our imaginations, to shape our thoughts, to govern our actions, and to mold our relationships.”7 In God’s realm, adultery and lust are replaced with a recognition of our shared humanity and a concern for wholeness and justice in our relationships.8
Jesus’ words about divorce come from a context where women were property of men and men had all the control. A husband could declare a divorce with his wife but a wife could not make the same decision or declaration.
Everyone I’ve been reading on this text says divorce and adultery are as common today as they were in Jesus’ time. Jesus’ words are not about establishing a new law about not getting divorced. Instead, says Stan Saunders, Jesus is giving us illustrations “that reveal God’s empire, where different relationships and assumptions are possible.” These illustrations “point us toward a world where reconciliation is the norm rather than the exception, where the broken places in our lives are restored and we, together, are made whole. This is not the world we know on a daily basis, but it is the vision under which the church lives…The church is not a place where there is no conflict, or where there are only perfect marriages. But it can be the place where God’s reconciling power is on display.”9
Swearing falsely is about using God’s name as if it were a magic sign. That somehow if you made a promise and added God’s name to it, then God was obligated to make the promise come true. No, Jesus says. In God’s realm, trust and integrity are the norm because we speak truthfully and do what we say we will do.10
Then–turning the other cheek. This is not a direction for passivity nor for people to stay in abusive relationships. This is Jesus’ direction for non-violence. In God’s empire there will be no violence. So how do we live that reality now? Professor Tom Long suggests that we ask, “If someone does something evil to me, how may I respond with only good in return?” Human beings are created in God’s image to be a blessing to others–”even to those who would do violence.”11 There’s no retaliation in the kingdom of God.
And finally, why does Jesus tell us to love our enemies? “Because God is like this, and we are God’s children…If we love only those who love us, we are simply imitating the world…rather than imitating God.”12
It would be easier to just do it the way everyone around us does it. Retaliate. Hate our enemies. Let our anger eat at our hearts. Hold on to resentment. Assume estrangement is just part of the human condition.
It may be that some of these characteristics of the realm of God speak to a situation in which you live or a need you are aware of in our community. In a few weeks, we will begin Lent–the season of giving things up and taking things on that our lives might reflect more and more of the glory of God. Perhaps something you have heard this morning is God’s invitation to you to live out the kingdom of God here and now. You might hold onto that possibility and bring it to God in prayer and perhaps that will be something you will work on during Lent.
At its heart, the realm of God is about love. A wide-hearted, deeply-rooted love for all people and all of creation. A love that lasts. A love that changes us. A love that changes the world.
Poet Wendell Berry says it this way
Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.13

Jesus calls us into the lasting world of God’s realm of love.

* * *
1 Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 53.
2 Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 30.
3 Barbara Blaisdell, “Matthew 5.21-26 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 4, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) p94.
4 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/sports/football/in-report-on-bullying-the-vile-and-the-gripping.html, accessed 15 February 2014.
5 Saunders.
6 Ibid., 39.
7 Long, 58.
8 Saunders., 40.
9 Ibid., 42.
10 Ibid, 41.
11 Long, 63.
12 Ibid, 64.
13 Wendell Berry, Given: Poems, (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), p55.