In 1983 New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce wrote a book called
"Hard Sayings of Jesus."
He identified seventy hard sayings altogether—four of them are found
in today's Gospel reading.
So, buckle your pew belts, friends:
It's going to be a bumpy ride.
This is the seventh sermon in a series called “Opening the Gift
of Christmas: One Truth at a Time,” and in this series we have been
working our way through the opening chapters of the Gospel of
Matthew, primarily, and learning who Jesus is.
As I've said before, it's not just a beautiful baby boy we
found under the tree on Christmas morning, but the Savior of the
World, and on the Sundays since then we have learned that Jesus is
the King of Kings, the Beloved Son, the Lamb of God, the Proclaimer
of the Kingdom, the Prophet like Moses, and the Fulfiller of the
Law. In today's sermon
we will discover that Jesus is also the Creator of Community, but he
goes about it in an interesting way.
It started last week, when he told his disciples that unless
their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees they
would never enter the Kingdom of heaven.
I suggested we might interpret that saying like this: "Unless
your righteousness expands
that of the scribes and Pharisees—that is, unless it is full of love
for God and others—you will never
experience the Kingdom of
heaven." In today's
reading Jesus, the Prophet like Moses, looks back to the Law of
Moses itself, and begins to fill it full of that kind of love.
“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” (Mt. 5:21-22).
I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the
Bible, which points out that the Greek word
adelphos (which literally means “brother”) refers here to fellow
disciples, whether male or female, and is therefore translated as
“brother or sister.” But
when I was a boy we didn’t have the New Revised Standard Version of
the Bible: we had the Old Revised Standard Version, or maybe the
King James Version, and what it said made my hair stand on end,
because it said, “If you are angry with your brother, you will be
liable to judgment.”
I knew even then I was in deep trouble.
Let me just inform those of you who didn’t grow up in a family
like mine: it is impossible to live in a house with five brothers
without getting angry.
You live too close to each other; you rub shoulders too often;
eventually someone is going to rub you the wrong way.
I must have rubbed my older brother Ed the wrong way, because
there was a whole season of my life where he kept inviting me to go
on long walks in the woods, but something about the way he said it
made me think of that time Cain asked his brother Abel to go for a
walk and one of them didn’t come back.
And then my brother Scott took up wrestling, and the person
he took it up on was me. He was bigger and stronger, but I was so
stubborn I wouldn’t give up, and so I would struggle in his death
grip until I was completely exhausted and then use my signature move
which never failed: I would burst into tears.
And then there was my brother Greg who took my place as the
baby of the family, something for which I never forgave him.
Years later, when my mother wasn’t around, I would sometimes
shut him up in the closet just to hear him cry.
But I remember a day when my mother
We were very young at the time.
I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.
And although I can’t remember exactly what it was that
provoked it (although I think it had something to do with throwing
Legos) or even who it was that said it (although I have a sneaking
suspicion it was me) one of us boys yelled at another, “I wish you
were dead!” And that’s
when my mother stepped in.
She said she wasn’t going to have that in her house and she
meant it. She said she
could understand if we got angry with each other, and she could even
understand if it came to blows at times, but she was not going to
let us hate each other.
She just wasn’t.
We were family.
And if you have ears to hear it, that’s what Jesus is saying to
his disciples here. He
doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not get angry,” because that would be
impossible, wouldn’t it?
We all get angry from time to time; and sometimes for very good
reasons. No, he says,
“If you are angry with one of your fellow disciples, you will be
liable to judgment.” And
remember that he’s not just talking to the twelve disciples here,
but to all those people who followed him up the mountain.
He’s looking around at that ragtag gathering he has just
given his blessing to—the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek—and
trying to make a family out of them.
In the same way my mother told us that we weren’t allowed to
hate each other, Jesus tells these brothers and sisters that if they
are angry with each other they will be liable to judgment, and if
they insult each other they will be liable to the council, and if
they call each other fools they will be liable to the hell of fire.
In other words, don’t do it.
Jesus warns them in the strongest terms imaginable.
He wants his family to be different than that.
I’ve shared with you before this quote from Walter Brueggemann,
that “the central task of ministry is the formation of a community
with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and
the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception
I’ve also told you that I think that’s what Jesus was doing.
He gathered a community around himself, and through his
teaching and preaching he formed within them an alternative,
So he said, “You’ve heard the old commandment—‘thou shalt not
murder’—but in this community I don’t even want you to be angry with
each other. Yes, you can
get angry. Everybody
does. But you can’t
stay angry: you can’t hate each other.
You can’t nurse old wounds or carry old grudges.
You can’t look down on each other or call each other names.
Not in my house; we’re family.”
So, what do you do?
You make peace. Jesus
says, “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.”
I may not need to point this out to you, but Jesus doesn’t
say if you have something
against your brother or sister, but if your brother or sister has
something against you.
Which means you have to think about it: “Have I done anything
to offend my brothers and sisters in this family—the church?”
And if it’s your first time you may need to spend most of the
day Saturday thinking about it so you can make peace before you come
to worship the next day. Whatever you do, do it quickly.
Jesus knew that the seed of anger can sprout, and put down
roots, and grow up into murder.
So you want to snatch it up quickly before it has a chance.
And speaking of that, listen to what Jesus says in the very next
“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” (Matt.
5:27-28). Again, Jesus
knew that seeds tend to sprout and grow, and that the seed of
lust—if you tend it and nourish it—will grow up into full-blown
adultery. But notice
that this time Jesus doesn’t say, “Everyone who looks at his
sister with lust,” but, “Everyone who looks at a
woman with lust.”
He is applying this rule not only within the family, but
outside the family, and in some ways it is a call to view every
person—male or female—as a member of God’s family.
I came across a song once with lyrics that went like this:
"Lord have mercy, what do I see?
A beautiful woman in front of
Her hair is long,
And her skirt is short,
And her legs
I can’t deny what it does to me,
The passion that rises inside
But heavenly Father
that’s somebody’s daughter
front of me!
“If your right eye causes you to sin—if it causes you to turn a
human being into an object of lust—then tear it out and throw it
away,” Jesus says. “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 go into hell” (Matt.
Jesus is exaggerating.
If we actually did what he said we’d all be one-handed and
half-blind. But Jesus is
speaking in the most graphic way imaginable so that these words will
stick in our minds: “Pluck out that lustful thought,” he might say;
“cut off that evil intent before you act on it, because if you do
there will be hell to pay.
Jesus goes on from there.
I don’t really have enough time to read the rest of this
passage or explain it.
He talks about honoring the commitment of marriage, about keeping
our speech simple and direct.
He talks about the consequences of failing to do either (Matt
5:31-37). If you’re not
careful you could begin to imagine that he is making a list of
commandments more strict and more severe than any “thou shalt not”
in the Law of Moses, that that’s what he means when he says our
righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
But that’s not what he’s doing.
He’s not trying to make a list; he’s trying to create a
community, and a certain kind of community at that.
If you want to call it church that’s fine, but let’s imagine
a church where people understand that we all get angry from time to
time, but where they work quickly to make peace with each other so
that no one is walking around nursing old wounds or harboring old
grudges. And let’s
imagine a church where no one casts a lustful look, either inside or
outside the family, where we treat each other as loving brothers and
sisters should. Let’s
imagine a church where we keep our promises: certainly the ones we
have made to our spouses but also the ones we have made to God and
each other. And let’s
imagine a church where we don’t have to spend a lot of time backing
up what we say, where we speak to each other with such simple and
direct honesty that our yes means yes and our no means no.
I can’t tell you how often I have been glad that my mother
stepped in that day and told us it wasn’t OK to hate each other.
And although I wasn’t always happy about it at the time I
also appreciate the fact that she made us apologize to each other
and forgive each other through the years.
She was keeping the peace between us, maybe only because she
knew that someday we would need it.
And she was right.
On November 25, 2011, my brothers and I got together for a
day-long meeting to talk about how we could best care for our aging
parents. If you had been
there I think you would have been amazed by the way we worked
together, by how complimentary we were of each other’s efforts
looking back and how cooperative we were in the plans we made going
forward. I still have my
brother Greg’s notes from that day, and here’s how he recorded
something Ed said, late in the afternoon.
Ed said through tears:
I would love to imagine my kids having this conversation about
me. Our being here today—how much this says about our Dad and Mom.
This feels like a church service.
He meant it in the best way possible, and I think my mother would
have been pleased.
Actually, knowing her, I think she would take have taken credit for
it. It feels like a
church service when brothers get together and remember what their
parents taught them, and this, I think, is Jesus’ hope: that when we
get together as brothers and sisters and remember what he taught us
it will feel like a church service, and when we are what he taught
us to be,
It will feel like family.
Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 99.