Interpreting God’s Heart
Sermon by Rev Steven McClelland on Matthew 5: 21 – 27. Focus on reason for Biblical interpretation and the standards of conduct that Jesus expects from us.
Let’s settle the issue once and for all – today. The Bible is not the literal word of God. It is the inspired word of God as interpreted by other people to us.
And that’s just what Jesus is doing in our passage. He is reinterpreting scripture. Four times Jesus says, “You have heard it said” followed by: “But I say to you…”
Four times Jesus offers a new interpretation on the Mosaic laws. An interpretation different from anyone else because he taught with authority, which means from who he was and not as the scribes and Pharisees, who were merely quoting some ancient source who had commented on the Torah texts before them.
What Jesus was doing is what we have to do today. We have to take these ancient texts and find the living God in and among the words as they fit our life experiences. To quote Reinhold Niebuhr we have to find the canon within the canon. The Word of God among the many words of God.
In Jesus’s one and only sermon he clearly states that he is not here to give us a new set of laws as if the laws given to Moses were not divinely given, rather Jesus clearly states that his sermon does not abolish the law and prophets, but seeks to fulfill them.
And how he proposes that we fill the requirements of the law are daunting – It’s not enough to refrain from killing one another. You have to stop harboring anger. It’s not enough that you are faithful to your wife. You are guilty of adultery if you lust in your heart after another. And you should desire justice so much that you would rather suffer a wrong than wrong another.
These teachings indicate that what a person does is only part of the problem. The kingdom that Jesus is building demands radical discipleship so that even a person’s thought world is transformed by contact with God’s reign.
Jesus’ teachings on anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths at first may seem unrelated, but as a whole his teachings address a common question: What does God’s kingdom look like here on earth?
Jesus talks about anger in the same way that he speaks about murder. He says both can land you in jail. Jesus is talking about slander here. He’s saying when you slander someone’s good name, integrity and honor; you will be brought before councils for judgment. And wouldn’t going to prison pretty much be the same thing as going to hell? It’s called hell on earth. Make friends with your opponents Jesus said, because once you get to court it’s out of your hands. It’s better to survive and fight another day so don’t be taken captive by your anger.
The next paragraph in Jesus’ sermon could be titled: “When desire becomes compulsion.” Just in case you haven’t lived long enough. Lust is not the same thing as love. It’s not even the same thing as desire or pleasure in the body. Lust is when desire becomes compulsion. Lust does not birth love and respect. It births stalkers and all kinds of predators.
Lust is when you would destroy a relationship in order to get high on sensation. You are, in a sense, willing to use and sacrifice the other person. And the question is what kind of disciple lets this kind of sacrifice happen? Don’t let your whole body be thrown into that kind of hell.
In Jesus’ time, a woman’s fidelity to her husband wasn’t based on a pledge she made. It was a requirement placed on her because Jewish law said she was a man’s property. This gave her a place in society but one without any rights. She would be valued to the extent that she could produce children and create a home to her husband’s liking.
She could not divorce her husband, but she could be divorced, for the slightest infraction such as burning toast, which then meant that future children born to her would be considered adulterated. When paternity – who’s your daddy – was unclear, the children were in some sense impure or adulterated because the patriarchal line of succession could not be determined.
In contrast to the way his society treated women Jesus treated them as equals. Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce is meant to reinforce the dignity of women by warning men against abusing women for their own gain and a warning that if they do this they are better off in hell.
And finally Jesus talks to us about telling the truth or taking an oath to do so. And he says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” It reminds me of the scene in Star Wars when Yoda is training Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi knight.
Yoda wants Luke to raise his spacecraft out of its watery grave using only the power of the force. Luke says, “Ok, I’ll try.” Yoda responds, “No! There is no try. There is only do or do not.”
Trying means you admit the possibility of failure. Jesus is saying: “Decide and then act. Don’t waffle around about your decision.” Jesus wants his disciples to be people of integrity, people who are faithful to their promises, people who have no need to swear that they are telling the truth because they tell the truth all the time.
This past week Fred Clark posted a blog about the The Daily Show and correspondent Jason Jones who went to Russia to interview people about their countries stance on gays. The Show’s website summarized the Jones’ segment this way. “Jason Jones questions Russian citizens about gay rights and finds their opinions compare favorably with American views of 40 years ago.”
Jones’ opening segment is somewhat bleak and depressing as he interviews various Russian citizens who all support the ban on gays but then Jones cuts back to an interview with one more Russian citizen, one woman in all of Moscow. She alone wields the hope and the determination to fight for her country to honor all of its citizens gay and straight.
Jones asks her “Are you hopeful that Russia can change?” “I have to have hope,” she says, “because otherwise it’s too depressing.”
So she hopes, but she is not optimistic. She protests in the streets as though her actions can make the world better, even though she doesn’t expect that they will. “I really do it just to not be ashamed of myself,” she says. “I want to look in the eyes of my children and my grandchildren and say, ‘I did all I could.’”
And then, to sum it up, she shares an inspiring quote. It’s not from Martin Luther King Jr., or Vaclav Havel, or anyone of national or international stature. It’s from the Buffy spin off Angel, season 2, episode 16:
Here’s the quote: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don’t’ think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”
That right there is what Jesus’ words look like in practice.
For the church to claim Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom come, it must strive to be the kind of place that reflects God’s reign. We must do more than merely tolerate one another we must celebrate one another.
As Paul says it: “In Christ there is neither east nor west, male nor female, slave nor free for all are one in Christ.” Now go an make a dent in your universe! Amen