Sermon on the Mount – Part 3 Matthew 5:21-32
Jesus speaks in scripture with unprecedented authority that must have been quite unnerving. We have become so familiar with these texts that we lose some of that sense. We are supposed to be unnerved! Unsettled! Startled! And whenever he’s questioned notice how he chooses almost never to answer directly but turns the question back on whomever is asking so that they can go deeper with the issue. There is this provocative quality to his teachings that is intended to make us not only notice what he is saying but to go deeper with our wrestling responses.
But as for our reading today! …whomever feels anger…? Or insults anyone – even privately in their heads? And as for adultery even imagined?
And that whole issue of divorce? Of course we know treating marriage vows with contempt is wrong, but SURELY Jesus isn’t teaching that folks are forever locked into relationships that become soul-destroyingly toxic and destructive? We live in a world where things fail! We fail! Even with the best of our intentions! How on earth is it possible to survive without at times being drawn into any of what he warns against at some stage or other of our lives?
I think the asking of these questions reflects the very human reaction that Jesus was WANTING to generate from within us as his hearers. It’s as if he actually wants us to be stopped by his teachings, to question/wrestle with them and not that we may just mindlessly obey them but that we can go to work on them. We know that it’s in the wrestling that we come to grow in our discipleship and spirituality – not just in our obedience! So let’s wrestle a little with what it is that we are to embrace from this.
As an aside: I understand that there are two different words that Greek uses to describe what Jesus was referring to here – all of which are simply translated into English as ‘anger’. ‘Thumos’ refers to anger as the flame which may come from dried straw: it flares up fast and furious when sparked and dies down just as quickly! We all know that kind of anger, especially when we are tired or provoked. The other is described as ‘orge’: It’s the chronic, (inveterate), ingrained anger that we may choose to live with and worse, to feed. It is anger brooded over, long-lived. It needs to be nursed in order to keep it alive and hot – and so we do it.
Jesus is condemning the destructive power of all anger in us, but it’s especially that second type referred to here: the type that will not be pacified, that wants revenge! That’s the anger that morphs into prejudice as it calls people RACA[i].We do it! We’re not proud of it, but we do it! And Jesus condemns it! As he condemns so much of what we so easily and instinctively do…
Getting back to our reading and why he would teach these unrealistically idealized things. He must have known that keeping to the letter of these teachings is virtually impossibly – so why teach them? What’s Jesus’ point? I think that Jesus is wanting us to notice this incredibly high standard of ethical living not in order for us to imagine ourselves ever really getting it right, so much as that we can embrace our own insufficiency EVER to be able actually to achieve it in our own strength!
He wants us to own that the only way we are ever able to live lives that even begin to express the nature of our truest God-given selves is by acknowledging our weaknesses on our own and by allowing Christ to empower us with what we need to transcend our circumstances!
This is a call to what I’m calling TRANSCENDENCE ETHICS[ii]! Jesus’ point is for us never complacently to decide that we are good enough in and of ourselves! Because we’re not! We may be able to control some of what we say and do some of the time – but as for our thoughts? Christ is implying that instead of trying to be strong and sufficient in and of ourselves we are to look only to Him for everything! He – and he alone – is what is ultimately able to draw us out to be & to do all of who and what we are meant to be and do!
It’s only as we allow ourselves to acknowledge and confess our ego-obsessed weakness, our utter inability to follow Christ’s instructions that we are able to begin to live into some of those impossible things he taught! It’s not that we are strong enough and simply God’s wink every now and again for encouragement… It’s that on our own we realize our utter inadequacy, and how utterly dependent we are on God for everything: “It’s when I am weak that I am strong[iii]!”
And that’s the greatest irony of all! …because that’s when we may find that our anger DOES start to release its stranglehold on us, and when the insults and accusations that previously so easily flow from us DO begin to ease. That’s when the disrespectful attitudes and thoughts we have about ourselves/ others/ creation ACTUALLY do begin to fade and instead, a respectful value and respect – even love – begins to take its place. That’s when the very real guilt and pain of broken relationships begins to heal and we can be empowered to move on…
It’s not us who are meant to be the most faithful ones here, thank God, but Christ, who, as the song says, is our rock in times of trouble, lifting us up when we fall down, whose love is our driving liberation and anchor and in whom our hope is only ever always and alone.
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[i] A rude Aramaic word that contemptuously insults & writes people off as fools and empty-headed.
[ii] Our reading from today actually goes on in verse 38 to spell this out: 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
[iii] 2 Corinthians 12