Wrestling With Ancient Texts


Weeks like this are the ones where I miss the lectionary and the ability to say – let me see what the epistle is this week, ha!

It wasn’t an easy week to walk up to the pulpit, but it’s week’s like these that are making me a better preacher – and we are all learning more!

Here is this week’s sermon!

Enjoy …


Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 29, 2019

Matthew 5:21-32

Wrestling With Ancient Texts

On Tuesday morning at the end of bible study, everyone was packing up and getting ready to leave when the subject of this morning’s sermon came.  The general consensus from the group was, “Well good luck with that.”

I read a commentary this week that said:

Many passages within the Sermon on the Mount are delights awaiting a deft homiletical hand.  This is not one of them.  These words from Jesus are charged with theological and pastoral landmines.[1]

All I have to say is, I am glad there is not a baptism today.

The challenge in preaching this kind of a text is that there is a really fine line between responsible biblical interpretation and self-righteous judgment from the pulpit when the reality is that we live in a broken world where life is not always as easy as “do this” or “don’t do that”.  Sometimes we fall short and we need the promise of forgiveness and redemption more than we need self-righteous judgement from a well-meaning person interpreting a biblical text.

And yet, we still have these texts in scripture that we cannot ignore, that are important to the narrative of our faith and that do mean something in our lives today.  So I am going to say the same thing I said when I preached my sermon on the divorce passage out to the Gospel of Mark last year – please trust me.  This morning, we are going to look at things like context and references to try to understand not only what Jesus is saying, but also what it means for us in our own lives, today.

The cool part is that what we are doing today is exactly what Jesus is doing in this passage.  Here in this passage Jesus is engaging ancient ethics from Hebrew scriptures and trying to make sense of them in his own world, which is exactly what we are trying to do as we read his words today.

I wrestled with this text a lot this week.  To give you a little bit of insight into my process, let me show you what my first set of notes looks like; when I start my sermon writing process, I usually print out the scripture and read through it while I am looking at study bibles and commentaries, jotting down notes directly on the paper.  Eventually, I move away from the paper and write out an outline using some of the information I gathered in my first set of notes – then I start writing the actual sermon.  Usually my first set of notes has four, maybe five points on it.

This is what my notes look like this week.

Like I said, I wrestled with this text a lot this week.  And so today I want to take a little bit of a different approach to my sermon.  Instead of building towards one big point, I want to first go through the entire scripture and look at what we know the be true, then again and look at what that might mean and then a third time to think about what we can take out of this text today.

So what do we know to be true about this text?  What is actually going on when Jesus says these words in the Sermon on the Mount and what is he referring to?

First of all, like I said last week, the Gospel of Matthew was primarily written for a Jewish Christian audience – meaning the people initially reading this Gospel are people who have spent their lives adhering to Jewish law.  They believe in God’s new covenant through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but still want to hold on to their old traditions.

Because of this, the Gospel writer is carefully reinforcing the narrative that Jesus is not trying to come in and wipe the slate clean; but rather that Jesus is, in fact, an observant Jew who knows Jewish laws, making him relevant to these Jesus Christian readers.  Jesus is talking about murder, adultery and divorce – all things that Moses talked about and was recorded in Hebrew law.

Jesus begins two of these sections with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said” and then says, “But I say to you.”  This was actually a common practice in rabbinic preaching; rabbis would cite a passage from Hebrew scriptures and then offer a fresh perspective.  Again, this reinforces the point that Jesus is an observant Jew, but it also reminds us that Jesus is talking about ancient scriptures; his commentary on anger, adultery and divorce are not things he, himself, is bringing up, but he trying to make sense of his own existing religious texts and framework.

Jesus begins this section about anger by talking about murder, referencing Exodus 20:14, the commandment, “You shall not murder” in verse 21.  Then he continues to reference the Ten Commandments in verse 27, “You shall not commit adultery,” which can be found in Exodus 20:14.  While his somewhat graphic suggestions about what to do with your body if you are tempted are likely a hyperbole for effect, it is important to note that the punishment for adultery is actually death in this context, so tearing out an eye and cutting off a hand may seem like more of merciful punishment.

His discussion on divorce, however, is not something out of the Ten Commandments.  Similar to his discussion on divorce in the Gospel of Mark, he is most likely referencing the passage in Deuteronomy 24 where Moses says that it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife if she does not please him.

So that is what we know – here is what I think some of it means.

First of all, Jesus talks about murder, but he immediately opens up the discussion to talk more broadly about anger.  And when talks about anger, it is clear that he not necessarily condemning anger itself, but our response to it.  I think that is why he starts with murder and then moves to anger – he is looking at the motivation behind murder.

Anger, I think, is a natural emotional response to our surroundings and circumstances.  But what we do with our anger, Jesus says, is what really matters.  We need to reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters, come to terms quickly with our accusers – and not let it escalate further than that.

Second of all, when Jesus talks about adultery, again, he is not really talking about the act of adultery, itself, but the motivation behind it – lust.  And so what I think Jesus is doing here, like with the discussion about murder and anger, is pointing out that it is not necessarily just about following commandments, but about taking five giant steps back and thinking about why we need to follow these commandments in the first place.

Jesus is asking us to look at the motivation behind our transgressions and then to do the hard – and sometimes daily – work of reconciliation and demonstrating faithfulness with and to the people who we are in relationship with.

And it is not easy; we are not just in relationship with our brothers, sisters, husbands and wives.  We have close relationships with our friends, our coworkers, our church members.  And so we have to approach all of these relationships with respect, humility, patience and love.  We must resist the motivations around us that cause us to be unfaithful, whether it is unfaithfulness in marriage or family relationships or friendship or colleagueship.  Jesus is saying that we should not not do these things simply because it is the law, but that we should not do these things because we are called into this covenant, not just with God, but with one another.

And that means something.

We all fall short sometimes – we fall short as individuals and also in our relationships with one another and in community.  But I believe one of the reasons Jesus came into this world was so God could know what it feels like to live in human flesh and to understand the struggles, temptations and imperfections we, as humans face.  Jesus knows what he is asking us to do – he knows how hard this is.

I think the whole point of this section of the Sermon on the Mount is meant to remind us of just how important reconciliation is when it comes to being in covenant with one another.  The system is broken – Jesus is pointing that out when he talks about the complexities of the consequences of adultery and divorce.  And so when he tries to untangle some of this stuff, it is almost as if he is saying that it is just not as simple as saying something is right or wrong.

And, to be clear, I do not think Jesus is saying we should commit adultery or get divorced.  But I do think that Jesus, like we all are today, is trying to leap back into time and engage an ancient ethic and try to make sense of it in his world, which is just not an easy thing to do.

So what does this mean for us, today?

Good question.

Well, for starters, I do think that the discussion about motivation reminds us that, even if we have not committed one of these specific transgressions, we likely have, at one point or another, experienced the motivation behind them.  And so this is why introspection and reconciliation are so important in our day-to-day lives, because it not only helps us catch the small things before they become the big things, but it also reminds us that we were meant to be in relationship – in covenant – with one another and it helps us see beyond our own world.

And even more than that, I think Jesus is reminding us that people matter more than anything; and so we do have to work hard on our relationships with people, even in those moments when it is hard.  Because it is through our reconciliation with others that we are able to full reconcile ourselves with God.

It is really hard to read scriptures like these.  But it is also important to remember where Jesus started – reminding us that we are blessed in the eyes of God.  And so not matter what we have gone through in life or what we are currently struggling with, we are still created, redeemed and sustained by a God who knows us and loves us and wants to make us whole again.

So I would encourage you all, as you leave the safety of this sanctuary today, to first of all think about how you can reconcile yourself with others.

And then keep wrestling with this text; because it is just as important to talk about the hard scriptures as it is the easy ones.  Jesus did not turn away from the hard stuff – neither should we.

Thanks be to God!

[1] Feasting on the Gospels (A Feasting on the Word Commentary). Matthew, Volume 1, Chapters 1-13. Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Page. 99 – Homilectical Perspective. Written by Gary W. Charles.

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