“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Matthew 5:17
A little over three years ago, there was a book that came out by AJ Jacobs, a journalist for Esquire magazine who did a one year experiment on following the Bible, to the letter, as closely as he could. I think I mentioned this in a sermon just as it was coming out and the author was doing the rounds of the talk shows about the book release. The book was called The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. The author was a self-proclaimed agnostic and secular Jew, but had the sincere ambition of carrying out the project with an open mind and pure journalistic curiosity.
As we might expect, parts of it are pretty funny. Aside from not cutting his hair or beard all year, always wearing white robes (Ecclesiastes 9:8) and not wearing any garments with two kinds of fibers (Lev. 19:19) he also noted that there are many instances in the Torah where people are commanded to stone someone who has sinned in a certain way. He decided he could carry this out to the letter of the law if he carried a pocket full of pebbles around with him wherever he went and threw them at people who he discovered to have violated these laws, like being a rebellious child (Deuteronomy 21:21). He did feel inclined to toss them gently and sometimes covertly, like walking by a person and doing a little underhand toss that would bounce off of their coat, unawares: an undercover hit and run act of biblical faithfulness.
Other parts were quite profound and, for him, transformative. Confessing his workaholic tendencies, he fell in love with the Sabbath, taking the day to be completely free from work obligations and spend time with his family – although, after I thought about that it seemed that following the Sabbath was part of his work for that year, so he wasn’t absolutely, literally not working, but we won’t hold that against him. The Bible says to love your neighbor, and he noticed how hard it is to love his neighbors in New York City since he didn’t really know any of them. So he initiated a relationship with a neighbor and still keeps in touch with him. When asked about his biggest personal challenges, he said: “That’d be no coveting, no lying, no gossiping. They’re little sins, but they’re killers. My year made me realize just how many of these sins I committed every day. And refraining from them for a year was really hard but completely transforming.” (Click here for online reference)
His project is a nice lead-in to this portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we’re covering today.
After opening with a series of beatitudes, giving a couple images of what the discipleship community is like – the salt of the earth, the light of the world – and assuring his listeners that his intention is not to do away with Scripture, the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, to accomplish their goal, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount by setting out a series of examples, of what it might mean to creatively, faithfully, live a righteous life, to fulfill scripture. For people who value the Bible as a guide in how we live, these are especially noteworthy. The Bible is our guide, but how? We don’t take everything literally, but we do try and take everything seriously and listen for how it guides us. The way that Scripture is interpreted, the way that the faith community understands, acts out, and internalizes the teachings of scripture are at the top of the list of topics that Jesus covers in his sermon. So just what does “living Biblically” look like?
Of all the possible teachings of Scripture, Jesus chooses six instances, for examples, case studies, to comment on – four of which we’ll cover today and two next week. Each one contains some form of these provocative lines: You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…
In regards to trying to get ahold of what Jesus is doing here, Glenn Stassen and David Gushee have made a chart that I find really helpful, that I’ve included in the bulletins as an insert. Rather than a duality in the teachings – not this, but this – they suggest that what is really going on here is a triad, a series of three things that, they believe, show up consistently throughout the Sermon on the Mount, almost without exception. If you look at that, you’ll note that each teaching would start with 1) naming traditional righteousness (e.g. you shall not kill), then 2) naming a vicious cycle that we can get caught up in even if we happen to follow traditional righteousness (e.g. being angry and insulting), and 3) offering one or more creative suggestions for some kind of transformative initiative to get out of the vicious cycle (e.g. go and be reconciled).
When Keith and Anne and Caroline read the passage we divided the parts up into those three different voices.
So, what I’d like to do is to go through these four case studies that have been read and make some observations, keeping this question in front of us of what it means to fulfill scripture. Not an easy question, and perhaps Jesus’ answers here aren’t always completely satisfying.
I want to re-read each little section and just make the note of when we’re shifting from traditional righteousness, to vicious cycle, to transforming initiative.
Traditional Righteousness: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
Vicious cycle: 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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.
Transforming initiative: 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Back to vicious cycle at the end)
This is one of those situation where Jesus isn’t changing or relaxing the law, but actually making it harder, radicalizing the law. It’s not enough not to murder. The disciple is also to monitor anger so as not to get stuck in the cycle that keeps breaking down relationships. The direction Jesus takes this first situation is an indicator of just how important human relationships are for him. He gives this little scenario that we can imagine of going to the temple, or being in church, and worshipping, and bringing your gift to the altar, or having the offering basket come around. And all of a sudden, you think about this relationship that isn’t quite right. You’re upset with her, or he’s upset with you, or that last conversation you had just ended on a totally wrong note. This is what we think of sometimes while we’re in worship. And it’s good that we think of it. It’s good that we have daydreams about our relationships when we’re in church. That’s what church is supposed to do for us. It makes us think about these human relationships that we have and how much we value them and how precious they are to us. Kurt Vonnegut has this great line that he once said: “church is a place where we daydream about God.” (don’t know reference.) And we could add that daydreaming about God, naturally leads us into daydreaming about human relationships.
So if the sermon ever gets too long winded, just do some daydreaming about God and your relationships and we’ll just keep having church together.
Jesus moves from agreeing that murder is off limits, that the anger and bitterness behind murder keeps us in destructive cycles, and then offers a transformative initiative. To get unstuck, try this out. When the offering basket comes around, just keep your money in your pocket, get up, leave church, and seek the person out, to be reconciled. Take the initiative. It’s more important than giving your monthly pledge that day. Anyway, we know where you live. We’ll come and find you if we need the money.
We fulfill scripture not just by not murdering, but by noticing these inner energies that destroy relationships, then tending to these precious relationships that we have.
Next example of fulfilling scripture:
Traditional righteousness: 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.”
Vicious Cycle: 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Transforming Initiative 29 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. 30 And 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.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t one of the passages that AJ Jacobs in his year of living biblically tried to take literally. There’s certainly some hyperbole going on here for how to deal with lust, specifically male lust as Jesus words it. But it does keep with the theme of tending to what is going on within one’s own self.
To get a little more perspective on this teaching consider a couple different scenarios. The Freedom Center downtown recently had a display of lynchings that happened around the country in the 20th century. It included pictures and descriptions of the charges against those who were lynched, many of them, African Americans. Several times the charges were that a black man looked at a white woman wrong, or it was perceived that he was flirting with her. So the operative rule here is: if you see someone who you think might be lusting after somebody in your tribe, tear out their eye – or worse. But Jesus’ teaching turns this kind of hateful vigilance on its head and asks his listeners to direct their vigilance toward themselves. Be vigilant about your own heart.
Another scenario that comes up often when lust comes into the discussion is to blame the woman, who one is lusting after. How many times do women get blamed for dressing too suggestively, for being too beautiful or even just too friendly? Jesus directs his teaching at the one doing the looking, not the one being looked at. Tend your own heart.
I think before going on it’s hard to avoid noticing that this is the second time now that Jesus has talked about hell as a consequence of staying in the vicious cycle. Maybe if he did this once, we could let it slide, but two times in a row provokes the question of what he means by this. Listening to Jesus pull out the hell card, which is sort of the nuclear option of religious rhetoric, doesn’t square very easily with the loving Messiah that we see throughout the gospels.
Hell has an interesting history of development in human consciousness and at this time Jesus, who uses the word Gehenna, is drawing on a literal place right outside Jerusalem, a valley by that name south of the city. Early in Israel’s history this valley was a place where some of Israel’s kings practiced the pagan ritual of sacrificing their children to the god Molech. The prophet Jeremiah condemned this practice and Gehenna came to associated with a place of uncleanness and eventually became the place where local garbage was discarded and burned – carcasses of dead animals and other refuse. It was something like a continuously smoldering city dump. Mt. Rumpke of ancient Palestine, only instead of a mount it was a valley.
So when Jesus warns against burning with anger against someone, he gives a warning about the fire of Gehenna. And when he talks about being vigilant not to be consumed with lust, he notes that “it is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.”
So we might think of Jesus as saying something to the effect that if we don’t deal with the root causes of anger and lust within us, then our lives will become something like a smoldering garbage dump. A wasteland where the bad stuff never really burns up or goes away. Certainly a place others try to avoid, except to dump more of their garbage onto us. While we just smolder. Jesus gives an invitation out of hell, out of Gehenna, but it takes some work on our parts. And it has to do with paying attention to these inner forces at work within us, and allowing them to be creatively transformed into forces that lead to life and healing, and by this we fulfill scripture.
Traditional Righteousness: 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
Vicious Cycle: 32 But 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
It wasn’t too long ago that the issue of divorce and remarriage was the hot and controversial topic in the church. This passage certainly played into that discussion. Deuteronomy 24 notes that a man can divorce his wife if he “finds something objectionable with her.” By Jesus’ time two schools of thought had developed around this. The more liberal Hillel gave a very broad definition of “something objectionable,” giving the man quite a bit of leeway if something about his wife displeased him. Shammai taught that “something objectionable” was limited to adultery on the woman’s part, the only grounds for divorce. In each question, the issue was over the man’s right to divorce the woman, not the other way around. Jesus usually sides with Hillel in other disputes, but this time goes with Shammai.
Some have seen this as a form of protection for women at the time. Rather than allowing the man to leave a woman for just about any reason, Jesus protects her economic and social safety that was given her within the marriage in a patriarchal society. But a plain reading of Jesus’ teaching does present difficulties for us in its instruction for marriages to stay together at all costs.
We might note that there is no transforming initiative offered here, the only one like this in the whole Sermon on the Mount according to the chart. I wonder why. At the least, it might make us ask the question of how we would fill in that blank. What is the transforming initiative? We recognize that divorce is always painful, but have also come to recognize that sometimes it is the healthiest option, and sometimes even urgent in the case of abuse. And we also recognize that the one instance where divorce is permissible here, marital unfaithfulness, need not always lead to divorce. Some couples are able to rebuild the broken bonds of trust and come out stronger on the other side.
This has been one of those cases where the church itself has had to do its own version of, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.” “You have heard that it was said – divorce is always wrong,” but we say to you, “When you commit yourselves to marriage, work like crazy to get through difficult issues together, but know that there are times when divorce is the most life-giving option for a couple. And there is a release and a gracious freedom to find another life partner if you choose to do so.”
Traditional Righteousness: “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.’
Vicious Cycle: 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is God’s footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
Transforming initiative: 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Lynn Miller is a former Mennonite pastor, and theologian of the church. He tells a story about a time, a while ago, when he was to testify in court. And it was a while ago that I heard this story, so I hope my reconstruction of it is mostly accurate. So he was in court and was called forward, and asked to place his left hand on the Bible, and raise his right hand, and was asked, “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And he said, “No.” And the clerk looked at him with some surprise and said, “Excuse me?” And Lynn said “No, I do not swear.” And Lynn went on to say that he finds it difficult to swear with his hand on a book that tells him not to swear. He said, “I will tell the truth, but there’s no need for me to swear about it.” So he affirmed that he would tell the truth.
Mennonites and Quakers are two groups of Christians who have taken a more literal approach to this particular teaching. At stake is the simple act of truthfulness, and resisting having a double standard for the truth. We shouldn’t have to swear to tell the truth, because truthfulness should be normal. We’re weary of language inflation where one must give extra assurances that one will be truthful.
No oath taking has not been an absolute for Mennonites, but we do take these words to heart and try and stick with the advice that the book of James echoes along these lines: “Let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No” (James 5:12).
Perhaps it might be nice if we could take Jesus’ teachings at their literal face value of what we should and shouldn’t do to live a life of faith. Maybe we recognize that we don’t follow all of the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures in a literal way, but at least we can count on Jesus, in his most important sermon, to give it to us straight and speak words that are easy to understand and implement. But this isn’t how Jesus does it, not his pedagogical strategy. Instead we get these provocative calls to go deeper than traditional righteousness, to step outside of the vicious and destructive cycle of harm, and to take creative initiatives to transform relationships. These are as far fetched and outrageous as popping your eyeball out and tossing it in the garbage, and as practical as approaching someone who has something against us and asking for forgiveness, or committing to tell the truth, even if it hurts. We are lured, enticed toward faithfulness to God, and sometimes lovingly poked and prodded, rather than given the blue print that must be followed exactly, or else…
We as a community do seek to fulfill the scriptures, to accomplish their goal. So we proceed with humility, and a good dose of sincere curiosity and willingness to try out some of these teachings that just may end up being transformative.