Rev. Caroline Kramer
Sermon 16th Feb 2020
Epiphany 6 - Matthew 5: 21-27
As some of you might have noticed I have a stubborn streak. This means one of the ways to get me to do something is to believe I cannot do it. I have a good list of achievements based on people telling me that would never happen – however, I have never written that book because my mother told me that she believed I was perfectly capable of doing it and she would like to read it when I did.
We tend to treat Matthew’s Gospel with an attitude of opposition. If the huge demands of the Beatitudes do not get us off on the wrong foot at the beginning of chapter 5, by the time we get to today we will be fuming. How can anyone say this stuff, we ask, but all the while with a little worm of doubt eating away somewhere and questioning whether we really are any good after all – how hard can it be.
Let’s take a step back and see what Matthew might be doing here. Matthew is written after Luke and Mark and is pulling on the widest range of sources. He also has history in his favour – unlike Luke the destruction of Jerusalem does not hang as a portent of end times, which means the whole urgency of Jesus’ coming is diminished. You can see this in Paul’s letter. 1 Thessalonians is a breathless hurry, Romans a well considered theological homily.
So what do we know? Matthew seems to be writing from a Jewish Christian Community and likely one fairly recently removed from its synagogue roots. As such he finds himself needing to synthesize the life and example of Jesus with Jewish experience and expectations, and he needs to establish community norms. The more orthodox Jewish Community continued on its line of orthodox practice, whereas in his Gospel Matthew veers off into a spiritualized religion based in the love of Jesus.
Whilst this might sound a little esoteric, anyone with experience of Matthew’s Gospel will not make the mistake of thinking his ideas are either easy or divorced from the social and political reality with which he finds himself surrounded.
So, specifically, we move to this passage. The key phrases are “You have heard….” and “but I say to you”. Remember Matthew is setting community norms and his norms revolve around the idea that Jesus is not coming to remove the familiar law but rather to use it as a foundation on which to build a new Christian community.
So, are these injunctions or introductions to a new way of thinking. Is Matthew speaking literally or is he exploring new ways of being? Let’s look.
Firstly we have anger and lawsuits. Matthew insists that the inside and outside of people need to match. Looking good in the Temple, making your prescribed sacrifice is what the law demands, but what good is that really if you are furious or in dispute? Matthew asks readers (or hearers) to exceed the law’s demands. As those reading the Gospel we have to consider that for our own lives and in our own age. There will be times of dispute and, sometimes, litigious ones. What if we have tried everything conciliatory and still have to right a wrong? Is Matthew forbidding lawsuits or simply saying that they are a last resort? Is Matthew talking about people within the Christian community and how they behave towards one another?
The committing adultery verse should be the signal to us that these ideas are just that, ideas to begin to explore the issues which are raised by the law and how they should be lived out in Christian community. Do not be plucking any eyes out. That is not what Matthew wants you to do. What Matthew is asking is that we make sure and think through thoroughly what it is that we are doing and where, even the most private thought or action, might pull us away from God’s ultimate purpose of love.
Then we have the divorce verses. These cause so many problems to people. They seem cruel and unyeilding, especially in relationships where there is abuse or other sorts of mitigating factors. So what is the 21st Century equivalent?
Life in Matthew’s time was different – women were property of fathers or husbands. Many views of women came from knowing whose child was whose – but now we have other ways to do that and we have a different view of sexuality – where do we draw the lines?
Does this way of thinking make any sense at all in the 21stCentury – not really. We see things differently, not only in equal responsibility between genders for action but also in the bigger picture of the psychological disintegration of relationships which leads to infidelity. What is the Christian community’s response now – where do we draw lines, if we draw lines. Perhaps refusing to examine this verse with compassion causes more harm that anything else, trapping people, usually women, in dangerous and abusive relationships. Perhaps Matthew’s invitation to us is to consider that we should be the sort of community which welcomes those who are struggling to seek freedom from deadly realtionships and, therefore, challenge the norm for many Christian communities.
Finally, for today, we have the verses about oaths. Why do you need them, asks Matthew – are you lying the rest of the time? Can you not just be honest and keep to what you say you will do without swearing an oath. It makes sense.
What Matthew invites us to work for is a different sort of community which, in turn, creates a different sort of world.
Matthew’s whole Gospel is conciliatory, trying to push forward an agenda which enables and inspires evangelism. His whole point is in those last two verses – go into the world and make disciples of all nations…. He is hardly going to put up huge stumbling blocks to people if he wants them to be ambassadors for Christ but he does want those ambassadors to be seriously living into the life and love of Christ.
This is a very different sort of Matthew for us to encounter – and it is a meeting in a room full of questions. It is probably easier simply to be oppositional – to think – oh well, he is all wrong about divorce so he must be wrong about everything else which sounds difficult and we will just keep the miracles and pretend the Beatitudes sound nice. No!
Matthew is asking us to engage, to discuss, to challenge. He takes his norms and turns them on their heads. What are our norms, where do we have to challenge and then act? These things will be personal – some of them exactly what Matthew mentions and some will be institutional and societical – these will not be the same, but may have the same root causes.
Matthew is a book of Kingdom training, as Richard Hayes says,
“ to be trained for the kingdom is to be trained to see the world from the perspective of God’s future”.*
That is a conversation of cooperation with Jesus; his teaching, life and example.
*Hayes, Richard The Moral Vision of the New Testament, HarperOne, New York, NY, 2006