The Hard Call to Discipleship

Last week I invited you to read through the entire Sermon on the Mount including the bit that we heard this morning. So perhaps you can imagine my inner dialogue with Jesus this past week: “Really, Jesus. You had to go and say that?!?!?! Couldn’t you have skipped that little bit on anger. I mean, have you seen our political world right now? It’s all anger. And that bit about your eye causing you to stumble, what was that all about? And that stuff on divorce, you didn’t mean that to sound so preachy and condescending, did you?”

I also imagined the inner dialogues you might have had this week: “‘Read the whole “Sermon on the Mount,’ he said. ‘It’ll be great,’ he said.” Except it wasn’t always great. Just ask the vestry when we read this gospel passage at our meeting on Monday and some said, “Jesus sounds really angry here, not at all like the loving Jesus you preach about.” At the end of the conversation I asked, “Anyone want to preach this Sunday?” All I heard were chuckles.

So what gives? If we’re encouraged to truly live into Jesus’ kingdom as faithful disciples, and the Sermon on the Mount is seen as the highest call to that kingdom, what are we to do? We know that Jesus’ opening message when he went out into the area around the Sea of Galilee was this: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Immediately following this, Matthew describes Jesus calling disciples to be fishers of people, and they follow him.  Then we learn that Jesus went around to synagogues proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and also healed every disease and sickness of the people. As you can imagine, that made Jesus quite popular, and crowds started following him all the more, which leads to his giving this sermon.

If the good news of the kingdom includes healing and restoring the sick, and the first pronouncements in this Sermon were to bless the ones who felt cursed in life, it gives us an idea of where Jesus’ kingdom is headed. It’s a place where the ones who have been pushed aside or had a lesser standing are raised up. Like the sick and diseased, the poor and the ones who grieve. At the heart of the kingdom is compassion, especially for the ones who have felt left behind or forgotten by society. And not just any society, mind you, but one firmly rooted in the commandments given to Moses by God. Which is why at the very end of last week’s reading—and just prior to today’s—Jesus tells the crowd that he came to fulfill the law rather than revoke it, and that if they want to be a member of Jesus’ kingdom their righteousness needs to surpass the religious leaders of the day.

Which tells us that Jesus thought those religious types had somehow missed the boat. (Not because they were Jewish mind you. It’s far too easy to go down the route of dismissing or demonizing the Jewish religious leaders as all bad because of their religious identity, rather than recognizing leaders in any religious organization can go south fast due to their positions of power. Please don’t give in to anti-Semitic tropes when some of the Christian religious leaders of our day could be painted just as harshly as the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. Such leaders have given into the temptation of power, and looking down on those they deem “sinners.”)  These religious types saw themselves as more holy than the regular people. They used their power to shame and denigrate.  And they should have known better.  They should have known that the law was about the intention of their hearts and not just the outward appearance.  That what it comes down to is what’s going on inside your head and not solely your external actions.

Which raises the bar considerably. Jesus’ own actions and his teaching show that the way of his kingdom is the way of compassion and love.  So he wades into deep water on issues governed by the law like we heard today.  Let’s start with that first one, “You heard it has been said, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I tell you if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” He then goes on to amplify it even more with the problem of making insults or calling a sister or brother a degrading name. How many out there have ever gotten angry at someone? How many have ever insulted someone, or called them a derogatory name?

Exactly. Most, if not all, of us.  And that’s just as bad as murder, Jesus declares, because you let your anger get the better of you. You harm how you view another person and possibly how they view themselves and you treat them as if they are less than a child of God. That is not the way of love.  Love does not demean others. 

But then Jesus says something that doesn’t quite make sense if you think it through. He tells them that if they come before the altar with a sacrifice, they need to pause the worship liturgy they’re partaking in to make things right, to go back to the one they’ve offended and find reconciliation. But remember that offerings were made at the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. It would take a few of days to walk back and forth from Galilee to that sanctioned house of worship. Were the people really to interrupt the giving of their gifts in Jerusalem, catch a bus back to Galilee to make amends and then come back and finish? Even today that round trip would take a minimum of 5 hours. Jesus is being hyperbolic. He’s making a point and then some.  He’s saying, you need to go beyond in your keeping the commandments and really and truly show love.  Let me show you what it takes to do so with this crazy example. I bet the crowd hearing this looked around at each other and smiled, but they also got the point.

Which makes sense then when we get to the next call from Jesus to not commit adultery.  He says that even looking with someone with impure desire is breaking the intent of the law. The way of Jesus’ kingdom never devalues or cheapens others, seeing them as more of an “It” rather than a “You” using philosopher Martin Buber’s nomenclature. Seeing them as what they can provide us in terms of our own desires rather than as people to be respected and honored. And then Jesus goes overboard with the hyperbole again, saying that if a part of your body is making you do this, well harm yourself.  But it’s not really your eye that leads you to degrade someone; it’s what the mind does next after seeing that person.  (And notice, friends, it’s clear that the responsibility is on the one doing the seeing and not the one being seen. In our culture, the blame is often the other way round.”)  So let me be clear: Jesus doesn’t want you to harm yourself in any way, but to embrace his way of love that sees the dignity in every person—including you.

This leads directly into his injunction against divorce. This one is likely the hardest of all for us in our time and place.  What Jesus is pushing against is this: in Jewish law, men were the ones who could divorce their spouse, and generally not the other way round. And women in those days couldn’t readily get jobs or own property. By being divorced, the woman was left significantly hindered.  The understanding of the law could be reduced to the husband no longer liking his wife for whatever minuscule reason, and divorcing her at will, giving her a certificate, and sending her away.  It was harsh and made the woman significantly vulnerable.  So Jesus brings it back and places the blame squarely with the man—he is causing her to break the law by sending her away.

As a pastor let me add this: Jesus’ teaching is how it would be if his kingdom were fully realized. But it is not.  “The kingdom of heaven is come near,” he proclaimed, but it’s not completely here yet.  Divorce happens in our world due to unfaithfulness but also due to abuse, or because of addiction. Sometimes couples realize too late that their partners pull them down, unable to help them become who they are called to be.  Divorce is almost always painful and impacts many people beyond the couple, and is not to be engaged in lightly nor without care.  Jesus’ call is to the way of love, and for divorcing couples that means treating your spouse with respect even in the midst of  breaking apart. And it also means that we should do all that we can to maintain and strengthen healthy marriage relationships, though not at the expense of our own physical or emotional health.

Finally, a word about oaths. What Jesus is getting at here is this: In his kingdom way of love, we should exhibit truth telling. We should be honest. You’d think that having integrity shouldn’t be something that Jesus would need to address, and yet, we likely all know people all to well in our lives or in our world who have lied or shaded the truth because it helped them in the long run.  You shouldn’t need to swear by something in order to somehow “prove” or “force” you to tell the truth. You should do so always, with integrity. In so doing you exhibit that truth is an important aspect of love, because it values the other person in front of you and their relationship. By keeping your word, you tell that person that they matter and that you hold them with honor and trust.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his kingdom were as radical then as they are now.  He doesn’t let us take the easy route in faith were we play lip service to his teachings and then allow the inner workings of our thoughts and heart be contrary to his call.  We are called to love God and love our neighbor, and his teachings provide a fuller snapshot of what that looks like.  But it can be distilled down to that one word: love. Do so faithfully, wholeheartedly, compassionately. Do not give in to anger, or reducing others to objects in your life. Give generously of yourself to your spouse.  Tell the truth.  And live as Jesus’ disciples with God’s help taking your place in that kingdom Jesus came to establish.  May it be so. 

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