You have heard that it was said, As we continue our look at the Sermon on the Mount, it occurs to me that the people in Jesus time must have had a hard time understanding how they were to use and apply their Scriptures just like we do. It seems that Jesus was responding to questions and debates about how they were to interpret the laws of Moses. Jesus going up on the hillside, must have reminded them about Moses going up to the mountain to get the laws. Now Jesus, on the hillside, was reviewing and interpreting those laws. "You have heard that it was saidÖbut I tell youÖ" The Torah, the holy book of Jesus and his disciples, was written hundreds of years before Jesusí time and it assumed an Israel governed by Israelites. It didnít really say anything about how one was supposed to respond when a soldier from an occupation force required you to carry his pack. And nothing Jesus says in our Bible tells us directly how we are to respond to global warming or terrorist attacks. But we have this Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, "you have heard that it was saidÖbut I sayÖ" Jesus permits us, invites us, indeed requires us to interpret the Bible for our time and place.
You have heard that it was said, God created the world in seven days but we know now that the earth has been evolving for millions of years. You have heard that it was said that God commanded human beings to have dominion over the earth, to fill and subdue it but now we know that our continued existence depends on our preserving the earth, limiting our growth, and living sustainably as one of earthís creatures.
Just as Jesus could claim that he came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, so we are to fulfill the spirit of the scriptures as they apply in our time and place. Jesus is very clear that the laws of Moses are still the laws according to which we need to live. Those 10 Commandments are still the 10 Commandments even though we like to treat them as 10 helpful suggestions that may or may not apply. Others like to use the law as 10 reasons why you will never be good enough but donít worry, Jesus has saved you so you donít have to obey the law anymore. Donít murder, donít steal, donít lie, donít be greedy, honour your parents, keep the Sabbath, worship God. Those are quite basic, reasonable expectations that we all need to take seriously. Jesusí words are not a justification for an attitude of superiority by Christians over our Jewish brothers and sisters. The love and mercy of God shown in Jesus does not replace the laws of God given to Moses.
The Sermon on the Mount, even with its repeated antithesis, or contrasting statements, is misused when it is quoted as proof that God has replaced Jews with Christians as the chosen people. Jesus was not denying his religion but applying it-getting to the heart of the matter. That is our task too. If Jesus was standing in this pulpit, we might have some questions for him. How can we be faithful in our time and place? How can we keep the Sabbath when it has become just another day? How can we raise up the children of our church family in the faith when their parents wonít bring them to church? How can we not covet when much of our economy is built on wanting what we do not have and buying what we do not need? How can we preserve the morality of our society when no one listens to the church anymore? How can we influence political decisions when politicians wonít listen to us and when no one really cares what the church thinks anyways? How can we keep the church going when there are only a few of us here on Sundays and we are all getting older?
When the people of Israel received the laws of the Torah, they were Godís chosen people preparing to live in the land that God had promised them. That myth, of Godís chosen people living in the promised land governed by the Laws of Moses and ruled over by a descendent of King David was in the minds of the people Jesus spoke to, but they all knew that Israel had not governed the land that God gave them since the Babylonians had exiled them a few hundred years ago. Even if they were back living in the land, the land was ruled by foreigners. The prophetic promise of an heir of David always on the throne ruling according to the Laws of God went unfulfilled. Had God abandoned them in favour of another group of people? Had they been so evil that God was still punishing them? Was their God not whom they thought? Should they throw their lot in with the ruling Romans? Their questions were not so different from ours. What happened to all those children who were in Sunday School 50 years ago? Where did we go wrong? Has God abandoned us? Does God even exist?
Who are we and what are we supposed to do? Those are our questions and those were the questions of the people listening to Jesus 2000 years ago. Who are we and what are we supposed to do now?
In the time of Jesus, different factions of the Israelite population responded in different ways. The Sadducees decided collaboration was the answer. There was no way to defeat Rome so you might as well get along with them and preserve what little remained of the faith. Well the church is declining. Thereís not much we can do about it. We might as well admit that and preserve as much as we can for as long as we can.
In Jesusí time the Zealots and some of the Pharisees decided that they should fight the enemy. A few of us still are up to protesting in the streets and sending off emails to politicians but we rarely do that explicitly from a perspective as a Christian. Most of the Pharisees decided that personal study and devotion was the wiser course. If Rome could not be defeated, and it could not, then at least one could preserve oneís faith in oneís family. The church doesnít have any power politically anymore and maybe it shouldnít. Some would say-Oneís faith should just be personal. You canít bring your faith into business or politics. Just live a good life and hope that God will intervene soon and reward you. The Essenes found a bit of property on the edge of town, near the Dead Sea where they could be self-sufficient and just ignore the rest of the world. There are times when that sounds like a good plan to me!
However, Jesus said, "No, no, no. You canít defeat your enemies by fighting them, you have to love them. And you canít hide in your own home. Donít put your light under a bushel. Put it on a hill. Light up the world. It is not enough to be a law-abiding citizen. You have to go the extra mile, be the agent of reconciliation, set high standards for yourself and live up to them, donít make excuses. Jesus sets us on the path of right living. He takes on murder, adultery, divorce, lust, legal game playing, and political revenge. And he tells us that if we cannot, his followers, embody love and reconciliation in our personal lives, well, then, reconciliation in the world wonít happen either. In other words he directs us to get our own Ďhouse,í our own Ďchurchí in order and work at keeping it that way.
Todayís words focus on anger and they are addressed to the bickering, resentful, bitter parts inside us, as well as inside those on the hillside. Jesus, a good Jew, starts with the Ten Commandments---Thou shalt not killóbut then he digs deeper. He suggests that each one of us has the potential to be a murderer. Each one of us can be an Ďincubatorí to kill life and love when we harbour anger and contempt toward anyone. And Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the hard part o reconciliation must start with usówith our decision to be reconciled to God and to neighbour. And we are to do this no matter who is at fault.
The word Jesus uses here for anger is not the kind which comes in short bursts of annoyance or frustration. Here he is talking about the brooding, pervasive kind of animosity that can eat away at us-a kind of leprosy of the soul. This kind of poison destroys relationships and leads to malicious gossip, to character assassination, and to the destruction of lives and reputations. Now so we are not tempted to excuse ourselves from such ugly behaviour, I ask you to reflect on your own lives for a minute. Who was the last person you gossiped about or maligned? How frequently do you label or stereotype others who may disagree with you? How willing are you to savour animosity and bitterness toward a friend or family member in order to hold onto your own hurt, your own self-righteousness, your own brokenness and pain? How easy it is for us to label others and put them in a box, rather than seeing them each as beloved children of God. We are called by Jesus to healing and forgiveness in our own lives.
To paraphrase Jesus, before you offer your peace plans about the world, you must go first and be reconciled to your brother or your sister. For love, according to Scripture, is not irritable or arrogant or boastful or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, but bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
(There is a true story about two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of one farmer got loose and mauled to death the two-year-old-child of his neighbour. The devastated father cut off all relationship with his neighbour, and the two men lived in cold, defiant enmity for years. Then one day a fire devastated the property of the dog-owning farmer, destroying his barn and all his equipment. He was unable to plow and plant, and so his future appeared doomed. Except that the next morning he woke up and found all his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation, he discovered that his grieving neighbor had done this good deed. Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he had plowed his fields -- and, if so, why. The answer was clear: "Aye," the former enemy said. "I plowed your fields so that God can live." My friends, hard-core Christian love is not about affection and friendship. It is about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is about a law deeper than litigation. It is about the law of grace and the power of resurrection.)
This day, if any of us feel estranged from God, it is not because God has moved away from us. It is because we have moved away from God. We have become distanced by all the anger and brokenness and disappointment in the relationships of this world.
They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, theyíll know we are Christians by our love. It is a tough time to be in the church. Things havenít been working for a long time. Our culture has been turning away from organized religion and there really are not many signs that the trend is going to change. So we are being forced to change and change is uncomfortable, difficult, even painful. Under such circumstances it is hard for us to always be at our best. We want people to accept that sometimes we donít act like we should when things just arenít going how we think we they should go. I think the message for us in this sermon on the Mount is: No excuses. Step it up. Set the bar high and plan on reaching it, every time. Be the person God intended you to be, loving, reconciling, respectful, truthful, forgiving, even perfect. If you are only as good as everyone else, have you done anything worth noticing? Be mature. Strive for perfection, for Godís sake, not our own pride. Look, I know this isn't easy. We live in an insecure world, where it is so much easier to accuse and blame and denigrate than to dialogue, love, and support. But if it's hard work we've been given, it's also good work, kingdom work, and we can do it because we do not work alone. We work together under God. Amen.