A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
February 16, 2014
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
“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. 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 go 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.
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 was around. 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 of reality.”[i] 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, liberated imagination. 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 verse:
“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 me.
Her hair is long,
And her skirt is short,
And her legs are lovely.
I can’t deny what it does to me,
The passion that rises inside of me,
But heavenly Father
that’s somebody’s daughter
in 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. 5:29-30). Obviously, 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. Trust me.”
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.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 99.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.