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In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire."
Taken literally, we have either of two responses to Jesus words taken from the Sermon on the Mount: “not possible” or “I’m doomed.” If we say, “it’s not possible,” we are likely simply to dismiss this chapter entirely and go about living our life without care or regard for the impact our lives have on others. If, on the other hand, we fear that we are doomed, we are apt to pursue Jesus’ heart-law with such stridency that we become more unbearable than Oliver Cromwell or Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady.” Both are not only unpleasant, but deadly!
So, rather than dismiss this challenging passage, let’s dive in.
Why does Jesus teach in this way? What purpose does this new, or expanded, teaching have?
Well, there are a couple of reasons.
For starters, Jesus is transforming our understanding of and relationship to the law, to the Messiah, and, ultimately, to him. A little context helps. For the first century Jew, particularly for those who practice Judaism as taught by the Pharisees, the law and the Messiah were intricately entwined. Faithfulness to the law was not a simple moral obligation – it wasn’t simply about how to live rightly with one another. Rather legal fidelity had cosmic political implications -- it was believed that only through the law, the strict and total observance of the entirety of the law, every jot and tittle, that the Messiah was expected to return.
By intensifying the Law, Jesus is forcing us to realize that, if the Messiah is to come in response to the fulfillment of the law, we will be waiting a very long time. It is as if here were to say – there is simply no way for you to truly, and fully, follow the law. Therefore, according to your teaching, the Messiah will never come. Salvation, friends, cannot come through the law alone.
But the effect is to go further. The effect is not only to challenge the teaching of the Pharisees regarding the law and the Messiah, but to lead us to a new teaching – namely a teaching about Jesus himself. There is, Jesus seems to say, one who will fulfill the law – not simply by strict observance, but by living the very heart of the law. There will be one who will embody the law so fully that he will become, if you will, a new law – a law of love and grace. Here in this simple exchange, Jesus presents his first followers the opportunity to form a new relationship with the Law, a relationship shaped through him; to see in him the means of grace not possible through the Law itself, and to take up a path of life embodies the same grace and love.
Consequently, Jesus is offering to his hearers, a new path. It is not an easy path, by any means; but it is the path to life. Jesus begins, in this extended teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and in today’s verses in particular, to place before the crowds a new path that goes beyond even the most stringent observance of the law, promising that this is the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.
What Jesus is outlining, of course, is not only a transformation of action, but a transformation of the heart. Jesus’ interpretation of the law goes to the very heart of human relationships. Yes, it is critical to live relationship well. The Lord knows that it is critical to act faithfully and justly with and toward one another and that we need precepts to follow. Yet, relationships that are maintained solely through legal formularies are not relationships in any true sense. On the contrary, Jesus reinforces what we all already know – that the human heart is as critical in our relationships with one another as are our hands.
Jesus knows that we can not murder, and yet, with a look we can kill; we can not inflict any physical pain on another person, and yet, with a single word pierce to the heart. Jesus knows that the law that defines our actions is essential, but that formation of human heart for love is of even greater importance. Who among us hasn’t been hurt more by a friend or loved one with a word, or a look, or simply sigh? And who among us hasn’t wounded another, a friend, a partner, a son or daughter, without lifting a finger? (If and when I have done it to you, I am immensely sorry!)
Jesus knows this! No doubt he has experienced it – he has a father and mother!
And so he points beyond the law and places the human heart at the center of our relationships. It is not enough to not murder, or to not commit adultery, or to not lie; it is another thing altogether, for our heart to be truly shaped for and extended in love.
Of course, this is the Christian journey. We are on a journey, not only to change our actions, but to re-shape our hearts for love: Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all are soul; love our neighbor as ourselves. Love God, love neighbor, love ourselves. In all honest, we probably struggle with all three.
And so we come together here, to learn and to practice living from our hearts; to practice loving God and our neighbor.
Consider for a moment what we do here.
Each week we hear again how God loves. We hear of God’s first gift – the gift of creation and life. We hear of God’s second gift as well – restoration and redemption. Through the prophets we are remind of God’s passion and love for the poor and the oppressed, the refugee and widow. And, of course, we hear again and again the countless ways that Jesus loves his neighbor and how, by loving his neighbor, he loves God.
Each we, we also boldly confess that we have sinned. We take a moment out of our lives for remarkable honesty – to admit to ourselves that we have hurt and rejected others, through thought, word, and deed. And then we hear God’s response: forgiveness; absolution. In those words, “Almighty God have mercy on you . . .” we are reminded that our lives are marked not by God’s judgment but by God’s grace and forgiveness.
And if we haven’t heard anything at all, if we stripped away the bible reading and the preaching, we are given an opportunity to experience it all again. Each week, as we come around the Table of God, sidle up beside the disciples, with our own denials and with our own betrayals on our hearts, to receive God’s love again.
Finally, we come together to practice love ourselves. We come together to practice what it means to live not merely by a law, but by a heart of love. And so, we begin with a proclamation of praise: Blessed be God and its corollary in song as we sing the Gloria. Similarly, we practice our love for one another as we greet one another with a sign of God’s love – which ought also to be a sign of our own love. And finally, we recommit ourselves to living God’s love in the world as we are sent forth to love and serve the world.
Week-in and week-out, we come together to hear, to receive, and to practice God’s love, with the hope that what we hear, what we receive, and what we practice within these walls will become ever more natural in our lives beyond these walls.
Our task is not to dismiss the law, but to transform our heart, for the way of the heart brings life.