Matthew 5: 21-42
March 27, 2011
When I was a junior in high school, my English classroom was right above the school auditorium. So when the girls chorus practiced in there during 5th period, our teacher, Mrs. Norton, would look over her shoulder as if her glare could pierce through the cinderblock wall behind her to the auditorium below. Then she would face us and roll her eyes – she would drag it out for added emphasis. Sometimes she would make some snide comment to go with it, but you could at least count on the eye-rolling.
It’s kind of sad that’s pretty much all I remember about Mrs. Norton. Most of the time you have a stockpile of memories of teachers who heavily influenced you at some point during your life; and as hard as I’ve tried I can’t recall much more about her. You might be inclined, then, to say that this woman wasn’t much of an influence on me. But the fact is, she was.
Because there was one other thing I remember about Mrs. Norton’s English class, and it had nothing to do with loud girls choruses and predictable eye-rolling. It was something that happened when our class was discussing one of the books we’d been reading – typical 11th grade book; I want to say it was Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. We were talking about the interplay between the characters, the dynamics of their relationships. And that’s when Mrs. Norton provided me with one of those wonderful school moments when you know what you’re learning is going to stick with you far beyond the next test. She said, Every person you come into contact with in your life, no matter how short or how long you know them, every person becomes a part of who you are.
It was simple enough, and yet I’ve never forgotten it – even to this day, some 25 years later. The idea that everyone I meet in my walk of life – not only my wife, who knows me as well as anyone, but even the random person I briefly spoke with on my plane flight home from Austin last summer – every one has become a part of me in some significant way.
And in a sense I’m wondering if that’s what Jesus was getting at as he went deeper and deeper into his sermon on the hillside; as he got beyond his “blessings” and came to the very heart of his message to the people. We’ve been talking about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount during this Lent season, talking about this whole notion of “kingdom-living.” And we’ve wondered out loud if the issue Jesus is getting at here is not how we get to heaven when we die, but how we live on earth before we die?
So what exactly is “kingdom-living?” Well, one thing’s for sure – whatever it is, it’s not easy! That becomes quite apparent the more Jesus talks, as he digs deeper and deeper into the kingdom. We find five statements – more like formulas, really: you have heard that it was said, where Jesus states a well-known Mosaic law, followed by but I say to you, where Jesus takes that law to a different place entirely. And it’s more than simply adding a new twist to things; it flirts very closely with completely rewriting it: You know not to kill – but don't hate either! You know not to swear falsely – but don't lie at all! You know now to commit adultery – but man, don’t even look at her! You know not to retaliate – but dare to fight violence with nonviolence!
Two thoughts pop in my head as I read these. First, if the “blessings” Jesus laid out mere seconds before didn’t leave the people collectively scratching their heads, you can bet this certainly did. I mean, even some of the solutions Jesus offers sound pretty extreme – cutting off your hands or tearing out your eyes, turning the cheek, walking an extra mile. If this was the first encounter most of those people had with Jesus, you have to wonder how many of them stuck around!
The second thing that occurs to me, and I wonder if it does to you too, is that this deeper meaning that Jesus is getting at isn’t exactly making things easy for us, is it? We’re not supposed to kill – okay, that’s pretty basic. But not be angry – how in the world are we supposed to do that? We’re not supposed to cheat on our spouse – fine. But we can’t control our thoughts and our feelings! And we’re not supposed to fight violence with violence – makes sense. But what are we supposed to do, then – just suck it up and take it?
One of the pitfalls of these verses, I think, is that we wind up doing the very thing Jesus begs us not to do – to idolize the laws themselves, even the newer ones. Which is why I wonder if Jesus is up to something far more subversive here; far more radical than some refined “do’s” and “don’t’s.” I mean, look at what Jesus is talking about; look beyond the laws he quotes and the new ones he creates to see the key issues: Anger. Broken relationships. Lying. Violence. All of these share a common center: relationships. In their own way they describe how people interact with each other, the dynamics at play, how we fail to live into the kingdom of God.
Which makes sense, if you think about it, that Jesus would bring this up now. I mean, if the Beatitudes we talked about last week were the membership requirements of God’s kingdom – the “blessed” ones in Jesus’ eyes – then today’s verses are its Code of Conduct – not who the people are, but how the people treat each other.
And right here is perhaps where kingdom-living gets the hardest, where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Because it’s one thing to follow laws and check them off your list and look out for yourself. That’s what the Pharisees did – and, to be honest, it’s how a lot of people of faith seem to live today, treating the Christian journey as some solo excursion. But it’s something else entirely, as Jesus talks about, to be in relationship with others and engage in the Christian journey together. That’s hardly ever easy.
Now the fact that some people are difficult to get along with is reflected in, of all things, a sampling of bumper stickers that cruise around on the backs of our cars at any given moment. Perhaps you’ve seen some of them:
The more people I meet, the more I like my dog.
Sometimes I wake up grumpy; other times I let him sleep.
All men are idiots, and I married their king.
How can I miss you if you won't go away?
We laugh, of course, because it’s funny. But I think we also laugh because the truth hits home. It’s hard business getting along with people these days. It’s hard enough when you throw things into the mix like politics and religion and other things that we’re passionate about. But sometimes there are just people who, despite your best intentions, for no real reason whatsoever, almost seem to thrive in making life miserable for you. The fact that forgiveness is something we have to consciously choose to do, the fact that Jesus has to even broach the topics of anger and violence and truth-telling, tells us all we need to know – that our world is a broken one, and the greatest schisms come about from our fractured relationships with each other.
Shasta was telling me a few weeks ago about something the keynote speaker said at their recent senior high presbytery retreat. He asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine someone they didn’t get along with; someone who had hurt or wronged them at some point. Something I imagine we all could do! And then Todd invited everyone to do something that probably didn’t come very naturally – to pray for that person. And not pray things like, Dear God, please let so-and-so know what a rotten jerk they are. Not to pray at them, but to pray for them, sincerely and completely, as the child of God they are.
I wonder if that’s the kind of thing that Jesus was getting at here – beyond simple “do’s” and “don’t’s,” beyond basic exhortations like not being angry and going the extra mile. I wonder if what Jesus really wanted us to hear in all of this was the undeniable truth of the matter – that we were never intended to be unto ourselves, blazing our own trail, making our own way alone. We all are, in fact, tied to each other, symbiotically; and this is not some kind of sociological concept or psychological observation, but it is in fact our God-created and ordained reality.
I wonder if that’s why my 11th-grade English teacher continues to make such an impression on me all these years later. Because it changes the way you think when you realize that every person you come into contact with becomes a part of you, doesn’t it? It leads you to realize that in God’s kingdom – in this very world, in fact – we are all intertwined in a very real and powerful way. That kingdom-living, when we grab a hold of it the way Jesus so very much wants us to, will truly transform how we treat each other:
- We would not simply condemn the act of murder, but we would promote the value of all life, no matter how young or old, how rich or poor; no matter the nationality or religion;
- We would not only advocate strong marriages, but we would uphold the sacredness of all human relationships, as well as relationships with other creatures of God and with creation itself;
- We would not only chastise someone for using God's name in vain, but we would condemn any language that tears people down; and instead we would push for open honest dialogue to take its place;
- We would not only press for fairness and equality - “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” – but we would go out of our way to support peacemaking and nonviolent resistance to oppressive powers.
A long time ago, an ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the new day was dawning. "Could it be," asked one student, "that it happens when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?"
"No," answered the Rabbi.
Another student raised his hand. “Well, Rabbi, could it be that it happens when you look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?"
The rabbi shook his head again.
Still another student spoke up. “Rabbi, I’m wondering if it happens when you look off in the distance and can see faint signs of light where there was once only dark.”
“That is close,” the Rabbi replied, “but still incorrect.”
The pupils were stumped. "Well then, Rabbi, what is it?"
And the wise old teacher responded with words of immense wisdom: "You can tell when the night has ended and the new day is dawning when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that they are loved by God and that they are therefore your brother or your sister. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night." (http://homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?item_topic_id=927, visited on 3.21.2011)
My friends, my brothers and sisters, Jesus came to put us on notice: The night is ending. A new day is dawning. Thanks be to God! AMEN.