Matt. 5:21-26, 43-45
Today we’re going to focus on a section of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. But before we do that it’s important to look at how Jesus frames this teaching.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And so on.
I like one translation that reads like this:
“Wonderful news for you who are poor in spirit!”
“Wonderful news for you who are meek!”
“Wonderful news for you who mourn!”
Jesus is saying, perhaps surprisingly, that God’s kingdom and blessings are for these kind of people. For ordinary people who aren’t society’s high and mighty or the spiritual supermen. It’s for those who face daily struggles and hardships, who at times are discouraged and worn out. For people like us here. “Wonderful news!” Jesus says, “God’s kingdom is for you!”
Jesus starts his Sermon with the Beatitudes so that we won’t hear his instructions in a moralistic way disconnected from union with a loving God. God is blessing us. He is a gracious God who loves us. A God who is on our side, who has our back, who is for us, not against us. In all the instructions that follow, God will be with us to help us grow in faithfulness, and forgive us when we fall short.
Another part of Jesus’ framing occurs in verses 13-16, where he says, “You are the salt of the earth. . .You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Jesus’ instructions describe a new way of life — the ways of God’s kingdom –for various areas of human relations. He addresses conflicts, sexuality, marriage, truth telling, responding to ill-treatment and others. The Sermon on the Mount is all about relationships. Jesus calls us to relate to each other and to all people in loving and just ways. As we learn to do that, God is glorified, and we serve as a model of the love, justice and peace that God wills for all humankind. We will be like a shining city on a hill that lights up the surrounding countryside.
One other thing about Jesus framing of his Sermon is his repeated saying: “You have heard it was said . . . but I say to you . . .” Jesus is declaring that he, Jesus, is now the center of Israel’s faith and life, and of ours. He calls us to live and apply his instructions in loving relationship with him, to keep him as first in our lives, and to follow him above all others.
So let’s look at today’s text, Matthew 5:21-26, 43-45. Jesus says that the purpose of the command “you shall not murder” wasn’t just to keep people from killing each other. Rather, God calls us to seek right and healthy relationship with others, to reject hostility toward others and live in peace.
This is an uncommon way of life. It’s “normal” for us to separate people we know into two categories: those we get along with and those we don’t. Or, as Jesus puts it, those we love and those we hate. With the second group our stance is often oppositional, and hostility and conflict frequently follow. But Jesus instructs us to treat all people with respect and kindness, just as God shows mercy to all.
Jesus also wants us to understand the gravity of treating others with hostility. For example, he says that calling someone “raca” will bring one before the supreme religious authority. “Raca” was a term of contempt, an insult, like calling someone “a stupid idiot.” Saying “you fool” was even worse. It meant calling a person morally depraved.
This kind of language is all too common today. Many people, including some who profess to be Christian, seem comfortable with expressing contempt toward other people. Toward people of a different ethnicity or race, of a different political party, of a different religion, toward some co-workers and even toward one’s wife or husband.
Jesus wants us to understand how destructive such hostility and language is. He uses various metaphors relating to the consequences: the law court, the religious authority, prison, the burning trash heap outside town. Jesus is warning us that contempt and hostility toward others is a grave wrong with severe consequences.
Unfortunately, we often fail to speak and act as we should. My own experience is that I mess up a lot. So Jesus urges us to take the initiative with someone who we might have offended and try to work things out. Being quick to recognize and admit our fault is an essential Christian virtue.
When we lived in Mexico, we heard that a neighbor had become alienated from us. So Diana made a batch of cookies which we took to the neighbor and we apologized for any offense our family had caused her. The neighbor accepted our apology and went from being angry to being a friend. Learning to sincerely apologise, to say “I’m sorry” and mean it from the heart, is a vital habit to learn if we are to make peace. And sometimes our verbal apology must be accompanied by specific reparative actions.
Of course that kind of happy result doesn’t always occur. That’s why the Apostle Paul writes that we are to live at peace with everyone, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you.”
It’s not always possible to have peace with someone, because they may not want to be reconciled with us. And not always, but sometimes, that’s our fault. We sometimes say things that we deeply regret, that hurt someone badly. A broken relationship occurs that is not easily healed. Often the only thing we can do is to keep praying for God to act to heal and reconcile. With time healing may eventually happen by God’s grace and the gracious generosity of the other person.
We began by talking about the framework for the Sermon on the Mount. One other aspect of the overall picture is that Jesus’ instructions are not meant to be applied mindlessly and rigidly. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit and God’s gift of wisdom to know how to apply them in our own particular situations.
An example is the case of spousal abuse, either verbal or physical. The victimized spouse isn’t called to be a doormat or a punching bag. She, or sometimes he, needs wisdom to know when and how to speak up for themselves, to seek outside help, or to separate themselves, perhaps permanently, from the abusive partner.
We must not mistake Jesus’ teaching for passivity. Sometimes we’re called to act in a conflictive situation. Remember that Jesus spoke harshly to arrogant, hypocritical religious leaders. We too, in our personal lives and the larger society, sometimes need to confront evil and injustice, to call out wrong behaviour, and to oppose wrong-doing.
We are to act with kindness and seek to be at peace with everyone. But genuine peace often requires a re-ordering of relationships. A transformation to create right and just relationships. That’s the meaning of the biblical word peace, or shalom. “Peace, shalom” isn’t the mere absence of conflict, it’s the presence of justice.
On a societal level, I’m reminded of the anti-apartheid movement in the Republic of South Africa. Some Christians said that Blacks and Whites should simply work on getting along, being reconciled personally. Without working to make profound changes in the society, in effect leaving White Supremecy unchallenged. That’s not Jesus’ way. Reconciled relationships are just relationships.
A powerful historical example of confronting societal injustice in a Christ-like way – marked by love — was the Civil Rights movement in the United States led by the Black churches and rooted in Biblical values. Like Jesus, the Civil Rights activists were disruptively confrontative, yet in non-violent ways.
Civil rights activists engaged in boycotts, sit-ins and various forms of civil disobedience, breaching local segregation laws and customs. While remaining non-violent themselves, they didn’t back down in the face of violent attacks. In 1956 Dr. Martin Luther King’s house was bombed with his family inside, though no one was injured. A horrified and angry crowd of King’s neighbors and supporters gathered outside his house. He told them, “Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. . . Love them and let them know you love them.”
In our world today as well, racism, economic injustice and various forms of bigotry and discrimination must be challenged. Confrontation which is both disruptive and loving may seem impossible, but Jesus and the Civil Rights movement did it. May God give us the discernment to support such movements today for a more compassionate and just world.
Let’s close by reminding ourselves the goal of the Sermon on the Mount and of all Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ instructions are intended to form in us the very character of Christ and teach us how to participate in his work to repair the world. God is redeeming humanity to be made in Christ’s image of self-giving love, to live with him and each other in love and right relationship in a renewed creation for ever.
Wonderful news indeed!