Written by Pastor Ed
But I Say…
February 12, 2017
Psalm 119: 1-8
Matt. 5: 21 -37
Some of you may recall the broo-ha-ha that ensued when then President Jimmy Carter was asked if he had ever committed adultery. His response that certainly “in his heart” he had done so created quite a stir, and showed both his own acquaintance with the Sermon on the Mount, and many other people’s lack of acquaintance with the same text.
Every Christian tradition has what is often called a “text within the text,” that is a portion of scripture that is central to their understanding of what it means to be a Christian. And for the Anabaptist movement and Mennonites, that text has generally been seen as the Sermon on the Mount. As Lynn Miller, Mennonite pastor and author said so plainly, “We believe Jesus meant what he said and he was talking to us.” But that’s certainly not how the Sermon on the Mount is seen by everyone.
In his rather monumental work, The Sermon on the Mount: The Modern Quest for its Meaning, Clarence Bauman, former professor at Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN and one of my professors there, discusses the many ways that modern theologians have worked at interpreting these three chapters of Matthew. And for the most part it is an exercise in dismissing Jesus’ words or saying they don’t apply to us today.
Some see Jesus’ teaching as only applying to the disciples he was talking to at the time. The reasoning is that he was expecting the end of time to come very soon, and so one could follow this in the short run, but certainly times have changed and we can’t be expected to follow these teachings now.
In contrast, some see these teaching as only applying in some future time when Jesus returns and establishes his kingdom on earth. Obviously, since Jesus hasn’t returned yet, we can’t be expected to follow these teaching now.
Some see the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount as simply a way to show us how sinful we are and thus in need of God’s grace. Since, according to this view, it is impossible to follow Jesus’ teaching, they are simply meant as ideals to show humankind that we can never attain them, we are after all sinful beings, and so they were never meant to be followed, only to drive home the point that we never could.
Still others find ways of spiritualizing the saying or figuring out other ways of dismissing these teachings. There are only a few, most notably Tolstoy, the great Russian theologian and writer, who see in the Sermon on the Mount direction for how we are to live our lives. And, of course, Anabaptist-Mennonite writers and theologians have consistently pointed to the Sermon on the Mount as a model for how we should attempt to live our lives as disciples of Jesus.
So let’s look at the section of the Sermon on the Mount that is our text for this morning. Our text includes four sections, the other two we will look at next week, often called the “anti-theses,” all of which begin in the same way, “You have heard it said…but I say.” Jesus is employing a teaching method that must have taken his listeners by surprise, because it was different than most if not all of the other teachers of his day, or even Jewish teachers today.
I recall a lecture given by a Jewish ethicist to a group of Christian pastors in which he talked about the difference between how we approach moral issues. For the Jewish scholar, he said, when faced with a question about what one should do, for example, a Jewish scholar will generally answer by saying, “Well, Rabbi so-and-so says this, while Rabbi thus-and-so says this.” They will cite as many sources as they can and then suggest that from that you should decide what you should do.
In contrast, he pointed out, Christians tend to ask, “What did Jesus say?” Christians tend to talk about truth with a capital “T” pointing to Jesus, while others speak only of truth. So when Jesus says, “But I say to you…” he is breaking with long standing tradition and offering his own take on the issue at hand rather than citing all those teachers who had gone before. No wonder the other leaders became upset with him. How dare he!?
So what did Jesus do with these saying that had been repeated over and over in the past? I mean, after all some of these are part of the Ten Commandments which even today people point to as moral imperatives and want to post. How can you suggest we improve on “You shall not murder” or You shall not commit adultery.” Aren’t those strong enough? And yet Jesus follows those saying with, “But I say…” and suggests, no more than suggests, says that it not enough to simply not kill someone, you shouldn’t even demean them by calling them names, and you should actively seek to be reconciled to your brother or sister; that seeking to restore relationships that are broken is even more important than coming to church.
And as for adultery, well, don’t even think about it. Now we need to be a bit careful that we don’t push literalism too far, because clearly there are times when even Jesus exaggerated to make his point, and I don’t believe he really meant you should pluck your eye out or cut your hand off, but he clearly warned that it is not just the actions themselves that cause us harm and lead us down paths we shouldn’t go, but our inner thoughts also can cause us problems.
Some commentators combine the saying about adultery with the next one on divorce to point out that Jesus clearly elevates the status of women. Under the old rules, all a man had to do was hand his wife a bill of divorce, and he was free to marry someone else. Women were simply property to be lusted after, married and divorced at will. Women thus abandoned often became destitute and outcasts as damaged goods. As John Miller says in his little book The Christian Way, this saying is a “protest against conduct of adulterous men who bring about untold sufferings to their wives and children.”
And what about swearing of oaths? “You have heard it said”, Jesus says, that you should make sure you carry out any vows you make. But Jesus says you really shouldn’t need to make an oath to do something or that you will tell the truth. If you need to make an oath, then what does that say about all the rest of the time; that you can simply say what you want or not bother to follow through? Since there are many circumstances beyond our control, simply be honest.
It was interesting this week to hear someone who studies these things, saying that it would be better for politicians to not make any promises during a campaign because they would get less flack for not making promises than they do for making promises and then going back on them. They were talking about electoral reform.
Tolstoy, as he pondered these saying summarized them like this:
- “To offend no one, and by no act to excite evil in others, for out of evil comes evil.
- To be in all things chaste, and not to quit the wife whom we have taken; for the abandoning of wives and the changing of them is the cause of all the loose living in the world.
- Never to take an oath, because we can promise nothing, for man is altogether in the hands of the Father, and oaths are imposed for wicked ends.” (Bauman, p.21)
Now we might ask, “is it any wonder that the church, or at least many people find ways of dismissing these sayings of Jesus as not meant to be applied to us today?” I mean, isn’t it true that we can never live up to this completely? We do get angry, our eyes wander, divorce happens, and we can’t always follow through on what we hoped to do or not do. So maybe those people who see these sayings as only being good for pointing out how bad we are, are correct. But I don’t think so. Just because we can’t do something perfectly all the time doesn’t mean we should abandon them altogether.
Jesus calls us to a higher standard than even the Ten Commandments and the law of the Old Testament. As Michael Marsh said in a sermon on these texts,
“Jesus’ words show continuity and consistency between the Old and the New Testaments, not separation and opposition. According to Jesus it’s not just for murder that we will be held liable but also for anger, insult, and name-calling. By his definition adultery is not solely determined by physical relationships but by the thoughts, desires, and fantasies within us. In Jesus’ eyes divorce might sometimes be legal but there are always lasting consequences. For Jesus honesty and truth-telling are not to be governed by an oath but by every word we speak.”
These passages, and the ones we will look at next week, call us to examine our relationships with each other and with everyone around us and recognize that it is not just our overt physical actions that matter, but also what we think and speak that have consequences. And Jesus calls us not just to “not” do something, but rather to be proactive, reconciling with those who might have something against us, always speaking the truth so that we don’t have to swear oaths, and working at fidelity in our marriage relationships.
And when we fail, and we will, then we need to recognize our failures, be ready to admit our mistakes and seek forgiveness and grace from a God who stands ready to offer that, and from our brothers and sisters who may be the victims of our misdeeds. These are principles of the Kingdom, but that kingdom is not only a future reality, it is already present in and among us in the church and so we are called to live by kingdom principles even in the here and now. By so doing we will let our lights shine and thus give glory to our God as disciples of Jesus.
May we have the strength and courage to follow in the way of Jesus.