6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 6, 2011
William G. Carter
I hope you realize the Sermon on the Mount isn't intended for everybody. It isn't written for everybody everywhere, whoever, wherever. Neither is it intended for people with a casual interest in God. It's meant for people who are interested and committed.
Outsiders are welcome to listen in. But much of the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense unless you have decided to follow Jesus. It's a text for pilgrims, for people on a journey of faith. That's the only way I know for us to make sense of the text we've just heard. Jesus is preparing to give us a number of new commandments. And we are called upon to relate these commandments to the Jesus who gave them to us. The issue is how do we live with religious rules in light of a Savior who comes to forgive us when we break the rules? Or to put it in theological terms, what is the place of God's Law in the life of grace?
The place to begin is by looking where this passage is located. Right after this passage, Jesus teaches a list of difficult rules:
You have heard it said, 'Don't murder,' but I say don't you dare to insult anybody else. You have heard it said, 'don't commit adultery,' but I say don't even treat another person as an object to grab and possess. You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.' but I say, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Your love must be complete, perfect, as your heavenly Father is complete and perfect.
What a tough list that is! The burden is even heavier when Jesus says, "If you break one of these commandments, you're at the bottom of the kingdom's heap."
But recall where this passage is located. Right before this passage, Jesus speaks about the gracious embrace of God. "Blessed are those among whom God is working. Whoever is poor in spirit, pure in heart, hungry and thirsty for justice - - - blessed are you in the glory of God's kingdom." They are kissed by grace, even if they are denounced by the world.
Then comes the text for today, with its two affectionate nicknames: "You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world." All of us who hear Jesus speak are given a new identity. We are sent out to season. We are lit up in order to enlighten. Once again, we are kissed by God. We didn't ask for it. Jesus just spoke and we heard what he said.
The rest of the text, however, lies between the kiss and the commandment. Following the kiss comes the commandment. In the Sermon on the Mount, after 14 verses of kindness, there are 93 verses of instruction. That's a lot of do's and don'ts, shoulds and shouldn'ts, and I-say-unto-yous
And in a general way, that's the pattern of how laws are given in the Bible. Remember the Ten Commandments? Before God thunders down the commandments from the mountain, God says, "I brought you out of Egypt. You were slaves, and I saved you." That's the kiss. And it comes first.
It's the same pattern as the Sermon on the Mount. First comes the kiss, the blessed sign of God's love and grace. Then comes the commandment, the outer evidence that we are God's distinctive people.
However, the church has always wrestled with the same problem that plagued Israel. And it's the problem of holding kiss and commandment together. Ever since the beginning, good religious people like us have tried to live with one and without the other.
Some would say the kiss is enough, and nothing else is necessary. After all, the heart of the good news is that God cherishes us, particularly in a brutal, dangerous world. So why not bask in God's eternal mercy, and do whatever we want?
I'll never forget that fateful day as a fifth-grader when I closed my bedroom door and blurted out a few dirty words. I was pretty sure there wouldn't be a thunderbolt, and there wasn't. I got away with that awful crime, and felt pretty good about it. In fact, I felt so free that a few of those words rolled off my tongue at the family supper table. As I was exiled to spend the rest of that evening in my room, I realized that freedom comes with some awesome consequences.
On the other hand, you probably know someone who keeps all the commandments and ignores the kiss. "All that gushy grace?" they say. "Why, it's a distraction from our duty."
For some people, duty is what life is all about: do the right thing, live the right way, walk the right way. Living within those boundaries can be quite comforting. Inside is right. Outside is wrong. Inside is the way of survival. Outside is the way of chaos and confusion. That can be a great comfort.
A man I know drove all night to visit a sick brother. It was a long trip. He was tired. It began to rain. About two o'clock in the morning, he drove through a small town. He slowed down to thirty miles an hour. Nobody was on the street, but he knew how small town cops can be. Suddenly he heard the siren and saw the flashing lights. He pulled over and rolled down the window. The police officer said, "Mister, did you see that sign back there?" "What sign?" "School zone - 15 miles an hour." "But officer, it's 2 o'clock in the morning." "Did the sign say, 'School zone except at 2 o'clock in the morning'?" "But officer, it's raining. My windshield wipers aren't working very well." "Did the sign say, 'School zone except at 2:00 when your windshield wipers aren't working'? The law is the law."
I can understand that. I don't like it, but I can understand it. Legalism is the most comforting religion of all. Everything is certain and clear. Did you steal the loaf of bread? Cut off your hand. Did you lust over that Sports Illustrated swimsuit model? Pluck out your eye. Did you relax one jot or tittle of the Word of God? Go straight to jail.
How can you argue with a religion like that? It would be a wonderful way to live . . . if only it looked like living. When life is reduced to a checklist, the soul withers. It's all duty, no delight. It's all work, no sabbath. More to the point: it's all commandment, no kiss.
Now the Gospel of Matthew has its legalistic streak, to be sure. The writer loves to flash his teeth and frighten us into holy living. Why, you can hear it in the passage we heard this morning: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
That's hard to hear, until you also hear how the opponents of Jesus lived by commandments without kisses. They went through the motions, like actors on a stage. They talked a good talk, but their speech was self-serving. They walked a good walk, but their lives were not different from anybody else. Jesus said, "Your righteousness needs to exceed all of that."
And if we aren't sure what he's saying, Jesus went to great pains to show us.
The law said, "Don't touch anybody with a skin disease; it might rub off on you." Jesus touched a leper and said, "I choose to make you clean." (8:3) Some said, "That's a little excessive, don't you think?"
The rules said, "Don't mingle with sinners; whatever they have might rub off on you." Jesus ate with people of ill repute, saying, "God desires mercy, not sacrifice." (9:13) His enemies said, "Don't you think that's going a bit too far?"
The traditions said, "Important people need important positions and important titles. Hang around people like that, and their prestige might rub off on you." Jesus said, "Don't get caught up in titles, pomp and circumstance; God alone is Teacher, and you all have a lot to learn. In fact, here's lesson number one: the greatest among you will be your servant." (23:1-12) The critics said, "Aren't you stepping over the line?"
Well, maybe he was. He practiced what he preached, and somebody nailed him to a cross. He took upon himself all our failures, all our mistakes, all our broken commandments. When we could not be righteous, he showed us the deep righteousness of God. And he said, "Don't think I came to throw away my Bible. I came to flesh it out and make it complete."
Keep the whole picture in view: Jesus said, "Blessed are you! You are salt. You are light. I have commandments for you to keep." When we couldn't keep the commandments, Jesus climbed up a cross and kissed us again. Ever since, we are under obligation to keep all the commandments. And when we can't keep the commandments, he kisses us again, and says, "I forgive you." Then he requires us to keep his commandments.
On and on it goes. Day in, day out. We are continually loved, yet never off the hook. That's what it means to belong to God. We know the kiss. And we are called upon to do the commandments. The true child of God is the person who holds both together.
Have you ever met someone like that? It's the person who begins each morning with the words, "Lord, you have claimed me as your own; so I'm going to live as if I belong to you."
(c) William G. Carter
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