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Sermon on the Mount – PART 2
Sex, Politics and Religion

Corinthians 2: 1 – 2
Matthew 5: 17 – 48

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

I know.  I know.  You are not supposed to talk about sex, religion and politics.  But I cannot help it.  You see I am just following the Sermon on the Mount.  And in our reading for today Jesus is talking about sex, religion and politics.  You heard it for yourself.  I am just following his lead!

This is the second sermon in a series on the Sermon on the Mount.  Many people think that the Sermon on the Mount consists only of the Beatitudes: you know the sayings – “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who morn…..” and so on.  But the Sermon on the Mount consists of much more.  In fact it is 111 verses long and covers about 25 different topics.  It consists of the most popular saying of Jesus – like a collection of his top hits.

Today we heard some of the difficult sayings of Jesus about anger, adultery, divorce, oaths and turning the other cheek. Each of them begins with the line “You have heard it said….But I say to you.”  There are six of these sections.

Now the Gospel of Matthew was written for a particular community of believers.  They were a people struggling to survive in the face of the violent power of the Roman Empire.  The Sermon on the Mount is inviting the followers of Jesus to envision what it would be like to live in the Kingdom of God – in the here and now!

Many people misunderstand or misinterpret the Sermon on the Mount.  One misunderstanding is those who say that Jesus puts aside the Law of Moses and offers a new, better ethic to live by.  Some people divide up the tradition of our faith into “Old” and “New” Testaments and claim that the new overrides the old, that Jesus abolished the law of Moses.

The only problem with that thinking is that Jesus clearly says that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.  In fact Jesus was Jewish – in fact an observant Jew who followed the law.  He did not intend to start a new religion, but to renew Judaism.  It was only much later that the followers of Jesus and the faith of Israel split and went in different directions.

So when Jesus says, “You have heard it said…But I say to you”, he is not contradicting the Law of Moses, he is adding to it.  He is raising the bar.  He is pushing the envelope.  He is moving it out of the arena of just outward deeds to our inner feelings and thoughts.

Let us look briefly at these sayings in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus says, “You have heard it said… ‘You shall not murder’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry or insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  Now Jesus is not saying never be angry.  Jesus himself was angry.  Remember the story of him driving out the money changers.  When justice fails, anger may be the only recourse for the oppressed.  In order to unmask the principalities and powers and call them to justice, sometimes anger is an appropriate response to injustice and discrimination.

But here Jesus is talking about the community of faith.  You see, the term brother or sister, refers to fellow Christians.  Jesus is talking about how to live together in harmony and peace within the church community.

The next two about adultery and divorce we will consider together.  In Jesus’ time, women had no rights, no power, no security.  Their only security was through a man – a father, a husband or a son.  So in these two sayings, Jesus is trying to create some equality, give women some power and security.  This is a very political statement.

There is a terrible story about a Rabbi who had a beautiful daughter.  When he found out that his neighbour had cut a hole in the fence so that he could catch a glimpse of the daughter, the Rabbi did not confront the neighbour, but turned on his daughter and said, “You are a trouble to mankind, return to dust so that no man may sin because of you.”  This attitude is still around today.  But in this passage Jesus is talking to the men.  Women are not blamed and the men are not imagined as being unable to control

themselves.  In using the violent language of tearing out eyes and cutting off hands,  Jesus is pointing out that this is serious business.  But it is not meant to be taken literally!  So, again, Jesus is offering a higher standard, he is raising the bar, he is asking for higher values.

In the fourth contrasting statement, Jesus is talking about oaths.  Do you remember any of the oaths you perhaps used in the past?  I know as a Boy Scout, it was common to say to someone “What I say is true, Scout’s honour.”  Or how many children have said “Cross my heart and hope to die.”  Remember the game we used to play about being honest?  If you crossed your fingers behind your back, you could get away with telling a white lie.  But Jesus says, “Let’s cut through all this foolishness.  Simply be honest.  There is no need to add anything else.”

In the next one, Jesus quotes from the Old Testament, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”[1]  This is the law of retaliation found in the Book of Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  It is important.  It gets repeated. Interestingly, the law was actually meant to limit violence – to check the kind of uncontrolled vengeance which was common in that day.  It limited retaliation to retaliation “in kind”:  “No more that an eye for an eye. No more than a tooth for a tooth.”  It was a piece of progressive legislation.  But still the deep presupposition remains: the way to respond to one who has harmed you is through violent retaliation.

This presupposition is not just in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is in the very air we breathe – even today.  Our government’s whole approach to crime is one of retaliation.  There is little concern for the causes of crime – poverty, joblessness, homelessness. There is little concern for rehabilitation.  The motivation seems to be retaliation.

So Jesus says, “But I say to you, “Do not use violence to resist an evildoer.”  And Jesus gives us three examples of imagining an alternative.  Now each of these is comical.  In these sayings, I think Jesus is having some fun in giving us some surprising and humorous examples of how the Kingdom of God is different from the way the world works.  It is too bad that we miss the humour in our culture.

Consider what Jesus says about turning the other cheek. [2]  Notice that Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” That is important.  Why does Jesus specify the “right” cheek?  Because, you see, the striker would always use the right hand, and a blow to the right cheek would have to be a backhanded slap.  Think of all the movies where someone is challenged to a duel.  The act of humiliation is a backhanded slap on the right cheek.  This is a way to put someone down, keep them in their place, humiliate them.  Masters did this to slaves; superiors to inferiors.  So when Jesus says turn the other cheek – the left cheek, he creates an extraordinary situation.  It is not an act of passivity, it is an act of defiance.  For you see the person cannot backhand someone with the right hand on the left cheek.  Just try it.  It makes you look ridiculous.  So they are invited to strike a second time, but this time as an equal.  The socially superior person, the abuser is stuck.  What to do?  And for a moment the social order is interrupted.  Possibly a space is created where something new might happen.

Or consider what Jesus says about giving the cloak, or as I translate it the undergarments, as well.  Here is the situation: In Jesus’ day, the taxation by the Romans was so high that many people lost the little plot of land they owned and farmed.  So the rich would buy up the land and then hire the people back as day labourers.  The poor literally owned nothing but the clothes on their back – an outer garment and an undergarment.  So this poor man is being sued for what little he has left – his clothes.  So Jesus counsels, “If anyone wants to sue you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well.”  Which means the person would take off his undergarment and walk out of the court stark naked.  Curious folk would undoubtedly crowd around and ask, “What is going on here?”  The entire economic system would be unmasked for what it is – a system that milks the poor for the benefit of the rich. It is Jesus’ humorous way of challenging the principalities and powers.

Or consider the third example: “going the second mile” –my favourite example.  You see, the law at that time permitted a Roman soldier to force someone to carry his equipment for one mile – but no further!  The practice had been abused, so a law was enacted to limit the demands a soldier could make: one mile, no more, or else the soldier could get into trouble.  But Jesus says, “Go also the second mile.”  Now imagine with me the scene at the end of that first mile.

The soldier says, “Okay, that’s enough.  We’ve gone one mile.  You can put my stuff down and return to your business.”

      But the person carrying the equipment replies, “Oh, I’d be happy to carry everything a second mile.”

“What?” the soldier replies, “You cannot do that.  It’s against the law.”

      “But I would really like to help you out.  Please let me carry it another mile.”

“Hey, what are you up to?  I could get into trouble for that – fined or flogged.”

      “I just want to help out.  Could I please carry your equipment another mile?”

A wrench is thrown into the entire Roman war machine, and it grinds to a halt, even if just for a minute.  Possibly a space is opened up for something new and something surprising to happen.

You see what is going on here.  Jesus is making fun of the oppressive social order, of the principalities and powers, of the way things are always done.  He invites us to live in the kingdom of God in new, imaginative, even foolish ways.

Let me explain the final principle through a story.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

This story actually happened and continues to happen every week at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  I saw this when I was in Israel a couple of years ago.  The Wailing Wall is the last remaining part of the Temple in Jerusalem which was destroyed in 70 AD.  At the beginning of every Sabbath, on Friday afternoon, a group of women who call themselves “The Women in Black” gather there to pray.  Dressed all in black, the women chant the Jewish prayer of mourning for the dead, called the Kaddish. Facing the wall, they sing first for all the people of Israel who have died that week in the fighting; then with their backs to the wall, they pray for all the people of Palestine who have died.  They have been doing this for years and they elicit a wide range of reactions – from violent insults to compassionate solidarity.

One week, when they turned away from the wall, they faced a hostile group of rabbinical students and their teachers who spit on them while shouting curses and insults.  One man in particular spit repeatedly in the face of the woman who was leading the prayers.  The encounter grew more heated and threatened to escalate into physical violence.

The leader, a small woman, stopped her praying and spoke to the man trying to provoke her.  She said.  “I know exactly how you feel.  I have felt the same way too, with my heart filled with hatred and wanting to kill.”  The shouting stopped and everyone listened.  In a tear-choked voice she continued, “Six years ago in a suicide bombing I lost my beloved fourteen year old daughter, and I wanted to kill.  I wanted to kill anyone, to make someone suffer for my loss, anyone, I did not care who, and for months I lived like that.  And then slowly I began to realize that I had become just like the people I blamed and hated.  I was becoming inhuman and incapable of love.

And that is when I realized that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who respond to everything that happens with rage, hate, violence and, getting even.  And there are those who respond to everything that happens with love, forgiveness, seeking to understand, and peace-making.  I came to realize that we are all the same – we ache, we grieve, we love the same things – life, family, God, country, our grandchildren.  And I had to decide which group I belonged to: to those who hate and kill or those who love and make peace.”

Her voice dropped.  The she continued, “I decided.  Now it is time for you to decide – which group will you belong to?”  Heavy silence followed.  Then the man spit on the ground, cursed her and walked away.  She began the prayer again, with a cracked and soft voice which grew surer and clearer with each word she prayed.  And then it happened.  The students and teachers separated themselves.   Some spit on the ground and walked away, but others stood shoulder to shoulder with the women, not touching them, but praying the Jewish prayer of mourning together.[3]

You see when we gather each Sunday for worship, when we gather around the Communion Table, we are invited to imagine an alternative way of being.  This table continues the foolish and unpredictable acts of Jesus.  Remember Jesus was always accused of eating with the wrong people: the unclean, the outsiders, the tax collectors, sinners.  At the last supper he ate with the ones who would betray him and desert him.  At Jesus’ table everyone was welcome.  It was just one big feast.  But through these crazy meal practices, Jesus was re-imagining the Kingdom of God here on earth.  He was re-imagining the way we could live that would make us different from the principalities and powers and the ways of the world.

As Jesus ate and drank at the table, he was turning the old world upside down, just like he was doing in the Sermon on the Mount.  He was creating a vision of God’s new creation.  This is the joyful feast of the people of God.  People will come from north and south and east and west.  All people will come and sit at table together in peace and justice – in Shalom.

So come to this feast of Jesus.  Come and imagine.

Amen


[1] Exodus 21: 24, Leviticus 24: 20, Deuteronomy 19: 21

[2] My interpretation of these three examples comes from the work of Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp.98-111.

[3] This story is adapted from Matthew: The Book of Mercy by Megan McKenna (New York City Press, 2009) pp. 159-160

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