Righteousness is Relational - Sermon 3 of 4 - Matt. 5:21-37
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Matthew 5:21-37 -
Jesus said to the disciples: "You have heard that it was said to those in ancient time, '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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Grace, Mercy, and Peace are yours from the Triune God.
And thank God, because we need grace, mercy, and peace to deal with today’s gospel!
I did warn you. I told you last week that the expectations Jesus sets for our righteousness are just going to get more intense as we wade deeper into the Sermon on the Mount.
That’s one of the reasons that I decided to approach these texts as a sermon series… because we need to hear today’s challenging words in context:
We need to remember that Jesus started with a description of righteousness as EMPOWERMENT.
He pronounced blessing on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not because they will be perfect, but because they will be participating in God’s kingdom of the heavens…
And he pronounced blessing on those who are characterized by the counter-cultural ways of that kingdom – by mercy, and meekness, and peacemaking, and desperate need for God.
Before describing the expectations of righteousness, Jesus promised blessing to those who want to follow his way. REMEMBER THAT! We are blessed by Jesus.
We also need to remember that the righteousness Jesus is calling us to is PURPOSEFUL.
As we learned last week, Jesus is not overthrowing the law, he is reconnecting it to its core purpose – its moral center.
His challenge to live in a way characterized by true righteousness is about recognizing that righteousness means living out the prophet’s call to justice and mercy.
All of that is what sets up today’s righteousness challenge.
And it is, indeed a challenge:
“You have heard it said,” that righteousness is about what you do, “but I say to you,” it is also about what you think!
Refraining from murder isn’t enough… you also have to refrain from harboring simmering anger.
Keeping your hands to yourself isn’t enough… you shouldn’t even look at a woman in a way that objectifies her (and by the way, we women aren’t off the hook, since we do that to each other all the time).
Also, following the legal niceties won’t justify a divorce if it means placing your spouse in a helpless position.
You shouldn’t even use an oath to emphasize what you are saying… you have to be so consistently truthful that nothing beyond “yes” and “no” is necessary.
Jesus doesn’t ask much, does he?
That’s the natural reaction to this list of expectations if we hear them on their own. But remember the context we just reviewed.
Jesus is presenting this teaching in direct follow-up to his challenge that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). This list of expectations is framed according to pairs of opposites – what the theologians call “antitheses” - because Jesus wants to challenge the Pharisees’ model of viewing righteousness as “how much do I need to do”?
But “Exceeding” the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees is not by doing more; it’s about reflecting the purpose of righteous action.
We are not to ask “how much righteousness is enough?”
We are to ask “what is the impact of righteous behavior?”
We saw last week how the purpose of the law has always been mercy and justice. In today’s lesson, Jesus focuses in on what that looks like, and specifically on how such righteousness shapes RELATIONSHIPS.
The Pharisaical laws that Jesus describes by saying “you have heard it said” are all about outward action, with no account for how that action affects the people involved. But in his reinterpretation of the law Jesus focuses on the relational aspects. The integrity of human relationships is at the core of each of these four antitheses:
In the first and longest of these pairings Jesus focuses on the relational destructiveness of anger. You can’t let anger fester. You can’t use dismissive language to denigrate the worth of the other person, and you can’t hold that grudge, or even your words and acts of worship will be tainted by that broken relationship.
And it goes both ways – if you know someone else has a grudge against you, you have to address that too.
It’s not about who is to blame, it’s about mending the relationship.
And what about our cultural idolatry of physical attraction?
It doesn’t matter if you don’t act on it, you’ve already violated the personhood of the woman you are looking at if you reduce her to a body that exists for your gratification (or judgement), even if that never goes further than your own brain.
Better to be blind than to treat another human being that way.
I imagine the relational aspects of divorce are clear enough, so I will deal with that teaching a bit later.
The relationship consequences in last antithesis in this reading might be less obvious.
The prohibition against invoking God’s name as your witness when you make an oath could be about the ten commandments and “not taking God’s name in vain.”
But look at the final exhortation to let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Think about it… if you need to swear by something, it’s because your yes and no without and oath are not to be trusted.
This is about being a person whose word can be trusted every time. And trust is crucial to relationships.
So, if Jesus is interpreting the law to tie righteous to relationship, what does that teach us? How can that change our lives today?
First, I think it gives us a practical handle for understanding how to live in a way characterized by righteousness, which we know means justice and mercy.
Justice and mercy can feel like abstract concepts – they can be hard to get a hold of.
But we all have direct experience of relationships – and the ways that anger, and objectification, and lying can destroy them.
Righteousness is the opposite of that destruction. Righteousness is at the core of good relationships because it demands that we never use other people as though they were less important than us.
So, if you aren’t sure how to act with justice and mercy, think relationally:
Are you affirming or denigrating the worth of other people, especially people with whom you disagree?
Are you acting as though other people deserve all the same things you deserve, or are you acting like your comfort, or desires, or safety are more important than theirs?
Are you committing to tell the truth even when it’s inconvenient, or uncomfortable, or do you twist it to serve your own ends?
Righteousness is lived out in your answers to these questions.
And we ALL fail to meet this high standard. I have lost count of how many times I failed just this week, as I was writing this sermon!
But the second thing this relational understanding of righteousness does, is to SHOW us the difference it makes to our lives when we live righteously – which makes it a lot easier to keep trying after we fail. By “showing us the difference” I mean that in relationships we see the natural consequences of living according to the law of mercy and justice. We see the LIFE it brings.
Our first reading today (Deut. 30:15-20) describes it simply, but beautifully: “choose life” Moses says. Choosing life looks like loving God, and obeying God’s commands, which have at their heart showing mercy and justice to others.
And we know this is true, this this is life-giving because we know the difference between life-giving and life-destroying relationships.
Which brings me back to the bit about divorce that I skipped over a few minutes back.
This teaching from the mouth of Jesus has been used by many in the church to do the exact opposite of calling for life-giving relationships. It has been used as a blanket prohibition of divorce except for infidelity, but this interpretation completely ignores the context.
It ignores the context I have been talking about for the last 10 minutes which shows the way that Jesus is calling us to life-affirming relationships.
And it ignores the social context to which Jesus was speaking – a context in which divorce generally left the woman economically destitute and socially devastated. In that context, prohibiting divorce was protective of the most vulnerable member of the marriage.
But today things are radically different – that doesn’t mean divorce has no natural consequences to be considered, but it means that the better guide for what to do in the context of a bad marriage is the deeper theme of this passage.
What will bring life? What will show justice and mercy?
So, what does all of this mean for us as we try to follow Jesus and live according to the righteousness to which he is clearly calling us?
If righteousness is not a matter of just transposing the rules of the Bible into our lives… if we need to practice reinterpretation into our own context, just as Jesus did into his (knowing that we will clearly make mistakes in this process), what guidance does this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount have to offer us?
It offers us the relational core of true righteousness.
So in whatever situation we find ourselves, when we seek to know the righteous path to walk, we need to ask ourselves about the relational consequences:
Will my actions demean or deny another’s value?
Will they objectify a person, or treat them like my needs are more important than theirs?
Will my actions place another person in a vulnerable position?
Will they undermine trust?
Righteousness does none of these things.
You have heard it said “you must follow the rules,” but Jesus says to us “you must love your neighbor as yourself.”