Series: September 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"From Purity to Protection: Sermon on the Mount 3"
Today, we continue in our ten-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ treatise that mentions not a word about what to believe, concerning itself entirely with who to be—what to value and how to behave in the world. This one will require some unpacking.
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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.
31 ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32But 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.
33 ‘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.” 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
From Purity to Protection: Sermon on the Mount 3
Ten weeks may not have been enough for a series on the Sermon on the Mount. Just as we could have devoted an entire week to each of the beatitudes – peacemaking, working for righteousness or justice, being merciful, meekness, poverty of spirit, enduring persecution for righteousness sake, we could spend several weeks on today’s passage. What ties its elements together, this teaching that talks about about cutting off body parts that cause one to sin, about hell, about divorce, and about not swearing (not the fun kind of swearing), all of it under the banner of the law?
I’ll sum it up in one word: protection, which may not be the first word that comes to your mind in relation to this passage. Rather than protected, one might even feel attacked by this passage. “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...(Mt. 5:29-30). I don’t need to go on, especially in a culture in which people, particularly young people, sometimes engage in acts of bodily self-harm because of some form of mental anguish. In one study out of 665 youth, almost 13% of 9thgraders and almost 8% of 3rdgraders reported harming themselves. One common form is cutting, whereby one cuts oneself to distract from other pain they feel, to feel something because they have grown numb, or other reasons altogether. Surely this is not what Jesus had in mind.
What did he, then? Remember how Jesus taught. He told stories, he used metaphors, he employed stark images, and he was no stranger to hyperbole. He exaggerated. He spoke boldly to get peoples’ attention, shake them up in order to get them to think or rethink. I don’t say this to water down Jesus’ teachings, only to help us recognize their form. His teachings always contain layers. What hand does he say to cut off if it leads to sin? (Right). What eye to…you know? (Right). What’s significant about that? Herman Waetjen, the New Testament Scholar whose Matthew commentary I mentioned last week—he’ll be accompanying us on this journey of exploring the Sermon on the Mount—points out that in the Jewish tradition, “the right eye ‘involves perception alone’; whereas, two eyes would imply physical contact.’” In fact, even looking at a woman a certain way could bring her shame, says Waetjen. Similarly, “the right hand is representative of power. To grasp a woman with the right hand would imply violence, even the violence of rape.” Removing the right eye and right hand is a symbol for removing the capacity for creating unwanted physical contact. Jesus was trying to protect the woman, protect someone from becoming a victim and you could say from someone becoming a perpetrator.
Jesus uses this stark imagery to point us to the inner work we have to do in order to live outwardly in a way that allows everyone to thrive. Unfortunately, sometimes this has been used instead to try and get us to deny natural emotions or bodily desires, condemning them as evil and sinful. Are we really able to cut out the emotion of anger? Waetjen acknowledges that of course anger is a valid emotion; it is letting it fester that leads to both internal and external destruction. What about the more delicate/intimate matter of having eyes for another outside your committed partnership? For three weeks we are hosting after-worship discussions about the next week’s sermon passage, so we can workshop it together. Last week, this very question about attraction came up. Again, these are natural bodily desires, evolved for very particular reasons. Jesus is concerned with the heart. Can you hold those desires up against your heart and recognize when giving into them would lead down a destructive path? Then, if you don’t like the image of cutting, excising, imagine acknowledging them and then simply excusing them. Ask them to leave because they do not serve. Imagine if we gave into every bodily desire in every instant.
If we misunderstand these teachings about desire, we run the risk of establishing a purity culture that is itself destructive. Lutheran Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about this helpfully in Shameless: A Case for Not Feeling Bad About Feeling Good, she writes. “Purity most often leads to pride or to despair, not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.” Separation is the simplest definition of hell. Jesus is neither interested in pride or despair, nor separation, but healthy, holy communion with God and one another. Jesus is not asking us to submit to unthinking purity; he’s inviting us into thoughtful protection of our relationships, and the web of relationships that form a community.
That leads us to divorce. Marriage today looks nothing like marriage in Jesus’ time. Women then were chattel, property. Their safety and security depended on the men to whom they were attached—father, husband, sons. To divorce a woman was to put her in great danger and Jesus is always trying to protect the vulnerable. New Testament Scholar John Dominic Crossan argues this isn’t really intended to be a universal teaching but a pointed critique at the corrupt ruler Herod and his marital escapades. That said, do I think we should give easily on our relationships? No. Jesus wants us to do our inner work. Sometimes we blame our partners for what are really our own patterns. Do I think there are times when people need to divorce? Yes. Jesus ultimately wants people to be safe physically, emotionally, spiritually, and materially. The question is which choice provides protection?
Those are a couple issues Jesus raises; what about the others I mentioned? How do they reveal Jesus’ devotion to protection. What about hell. Let’s go there. At our after-worship discussion last week, nobody wanted to touch it. I alluded to hell as the state of separation from God. When one acts in community in a way that does harm—violates others, shames others—it creates a sense of separation from God, the source of love and life that flows through creation. It is hell for the victim or victims, and it is a kind of hell for the perpetrator. Just because we believe nothing can ultimately separate us from the love of God in Christ—this is the Easter imagery of Jesus descending into hell to set people free—it doesn’t mean there isn’t a real experience of suffering that can only be described as hell. We’ve been obsessed in the church with hell after death, overlooking hell on earth. The word “hell,” by the way, gehenain the Greek, was an actual location outside of Jerusalem. It was associated with both a pagan fire rite whereby children were sacrificed as well as a garbage dump where a perpetual fire burned refuse. Jesus is teaching us to behave in a way that treats others neither like sacrificial lambs nor like garbage. Protection.
What about swearing, an odd topic? Do not swear, even by heaven, but let your yes be yes and your no be no. Ironic that we then have this tradition of swearing on a Bible—shows how few have read it carefully. Do not externalize the worth of your word. Again, it’s the inner work. Be honest. What’s the best way to protect a community, a web of relationships? Hold integrity as the highest value. Your word is good because it is good. Integrity protects us all.
Finally, the law, which gets such a bad reputation among Christians along with the Older Testament where it is found. The law was given to Moses as gift to the people to help order them, to help provide safe boundaries within which to exist, to protect life and property. Jesus says, I am not here to abolish my people’s law, but to fulfill it, to embodyit. New Testament scholar Ulrich Lutz talks about Jesus bringing the law into full expression. It's not enough to meet its statutes; we are to meet its intentions. It’s not enough to avoid doing harm outwardly; we are called to attend to the inner wounds that can drive us to harm. It’s not enough to resist harming others bodily; we are called to protect them from the particular harm of shame. It’s not enough to look pure on the outside or frankly look pure at all; we are called to devote ourselves to the protection of others and their dignity. That’s what it means to bring the law into full expression.
As you can see, we could spend weeks on this passage, but it can be distilled to a single value, not some impossible-to-attain individual purity, but an ethos of mutually assured protection for the community and the most vulnerable among it. That is a standard we can work to attain, and if we take Jesus’ teachings seriously, we must. Amen.
Nadia Bolz-Weber Shameless: A Case for Not Feeling Bad About Feeling Good