Matthew 5:21-37 & 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Preached on 02/16/14
Jesus comes to us with an antithesis. His words, in this text specifically, and the whole of his message and life and calling speak of and call us to a break. This comes straight to the forefront in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .” These words are radical in the truest sense. They are radical not just because they seem to call for some pretty serious and crazy sounding things. They are radical because in them Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus takes up sayings from the law of Moses and the traditions deriving from it and sets himself up in contrast to them. For Jesus the law codes are not nearly serious enough and he sets himself up as an authority over-against and beyond them.
The subversive and radical nature of these claims lies, not first of all in how demanding or difficult the claims themselves are, but rather in the fact that they come from Jesus over-against other authorities. It is not in itself a radical thing to say that, if we shouldn’t murder, it’d be a good thing for us to go further than that and not harbor anger towards one another. That’s a pretty straightforward good thing that most people wouldn’t have a huge problem with. And the same could be said about most of the statements Jesus makes in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. In and of themselves the statements may be demanding, even seemingly impossible, but the fact that we ought to desire and strive for these sorts of things is not something unspeakable, dangerous, or radical in itself. What is unspeakable, and dangerous, and radical is the fact that Jesus presumes to speak to us as Lord.
Jesus takes up all the hard words of the law and says, not only that they don’t go far enough, but that he is the authority for this claim. This is the radical point: that Jesus is the authority above all authoritative voices that have come before. What is central here is not even primarily the message that Jesus brings — though of course that belongs to the center! — rather it is Jesus himself. Ernst Kasemann writes:
For the Christian there are absolutely no basic values if one takes the New Testament seriously. The Greek world knew of cardinal virtues, but Christ brings no new system of values, no particular worldview, no particular picture of human existence of an idealistic or materialistic stripe, no conservative or revolutionary norms and categories. He brings himself, thus the image of God, into a milieu in which God’s as well as our image are perverted by pride or despair. his program, his promise and summons, his cardinal virtue, and his basic value are described by a single word: discipleship. A Christian is one who follows the Nazarene. . . . The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes because the Nazarene has appeared in their midst, has descended into the earthly inferno and takes to himself the victims of demons, takes those who protest and demonstrate against inhumanity, revealing mercy and salvation to the poor. (p. 122)
This is the important point to which I wish to draw our eyes: that Jesus comes to us, not to bring a new law, a new code of conduct, or a new morality — though he does call his followers to concrete and difficult things! — rather Jesus comes to us to bring us himself, to bring us to himself, and thus to bring us into God’s liberating kingdom.
And this really is the important point, the point that we must see if we are to hear Jesus’s statements in the Sermon on the Mount rightly. If we hear them simply as a new law, as a set of morals or virtues that are recommended to us on the same plane as other such recommendations, then there is no Gospel and no ultimate reason to be interested in Jesus. If we takes these sayings as abstractions, as nothing more than really, really rigorous commands, we are left in despair and hopelessness.
If however, these commands are to be heard, not primarily as commands, but as declarations of the life we are called to under the liberating rule of God that is coming for us, and coming to us from God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, then we have something far different.
All our human moral strivings, our religious constructions, our attempts to be righteous in this world take place “according to the flesh” as Paul puts it in our epistle reading. And it is precisely into this world, the world of powers, sin, and death, the world of human standards and measures into which Jesus speaks, and into which he proclaims the coming of God’s liberating kingdom which calls into question even our best attempts at righteousness and goodness.
When Jesus comes to us and proclaims that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees and that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, this is supposed to be good news. But if it is simply one thing alongside all of our other human strivings and attempts at righteousness it can only be a terrible burden, and impossible load. And yet, for Jesus, his message is precisely the opposite. Whenever we read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount we all come immediately to a sense of its radical hardness. Even if we believe it is possible, we know its not very likely. However, if we avoid lifting these discourses of Jesus out of the context of Jesus’s proclamation of the coming, liberating kingdom of God, things start to look different. They start to look different in that Jesus seemed to think the very opposite in regard to the message he was preaching. Jesus thought he was offering freedom, not merely really, really difficult lists of demands: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
In Jesus’ view, the call to discipleship that he was preaching was not simply something hard and burdensome, but rather a call to leave such burdens behind. Jesus seems to think that discipleship is is not the truly hard, the truly life-denying path, and that by contrast it is restless striving of the Gentiles and the burdensome commands of the priestly elite that is hard (cf. Matthew 6:32; Luke 11:46; 12:30). In other words, Jesus viewed his call to radical discipleship in a way that is exactly opposite from how we view it when we encounter it. What is to us an impossible demand that must have some other explanation is for Jesus the call to radical liberation from the dominating forces of slavery and death.
And this is the point we must see here. For Jesus the striving after righteousness under the law and the striving without the law are both being radically ruptured and called into question by the coming kingdom of God which proclaims a new freedom and a new life and a new world. Jesus’s “commands” then, are not items to be catalogued alongside other things in this world. To be sure they call us to concrete forms of life and action in the world, but they have meaning and reality as a message of the royal rule of the God of life and liberation who is breaking the world open in Jesus.
The truth is that we will miss how radical the Sermon on the Mount really is if we look at it just as a collection of commands we ought to perform. What makes this message and this calling radical is not that it demands the impossible. There are plenty of crazier, more impossible things we could demand from people (and there are plenty of religions and philosophies that do just that). What is radical about Jesus’s message here is that it is a proclamation of a kingdom that promises to transform all creation into freedom and life. It is a message that life and freedom are breaking into the world in Jesus and thus death will not be the final outcome of history or of any of our lives. It is a promise that God will never abandon us and will be with us always, unto the end of our lives and unto the end of this age. It is a promise that when we are faithless, he remains faithful, that when we deny, God will not deny himself.
It is this proclamation that makes sense of the calling to go above and beyond any law or morality. It makes these things not only possible, but inevitable. It makes them not merely achievable, but liberating. It is only where we forget, when we deny in our thoughts and in our actions that this kingdom is real, and that it is coming that these callings become burdensome. This is a hard word, but if the Gospel is true, then this is in fact the reality. That these callings are not burdens but freedoms, not constraints, but wide open spaces into which we may run into the kingdom that is coming for us.
But even now, even as we try to hear this, and as I try to say it, and as we all try to believe it together, we know, we have that hanging-on thought clinging to the back of our minds and hearts and bodies. That fear, that suspicion, that worry that all this really is too hard. That the kingdom isn’t really coming for us, or even if it is, we don’t know that that is really true, right here, right now in your life and in mine. That it is true not just ultimately, but in this very moment, in this very scenario, in this point in my life and in yours. We don’t know if we really are believing that this is true, here and now, for you and for me. We fear that maybe this really is just a bunch of work, a calling that will use us up and leave us empty if we try to take it on.
All this calls to mind a similar story from Matthew, in which Jesus again proclaims the coming of the kingdom and the seemingly high cost of entering into it:
Now someone came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.
For you see, to take this act, to sell everything and follow Jesus, this would be the act of faith in a kingdom that is truly coming. To be free from the hold this world has on us and to turn to Jesus, walking after him unfettered, undivided, into the kingdom of God that is coming to make all things new. Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers up the message of the kingdom, which sounds hard when heard according to the flesh, according to the law, according to the pattern of this world. But when heard according to the Spirit, according to the kingdom that is coming, this word comes as life abundant. The question is how we will be willing to hear it. Will we hear it as the coming of a new kingdom, a new life, a new world of possibility and hope, or simply as a new, and impossible law?
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven! Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God.” The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for mere humans, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-26)
In this passage Jesus singles out the rich, but what seems central about this singling-out is the fact that the rich are well-connected to the pattern of this present world. There’s a lot going for us here, and the proclamation that all this is to be dissolved and transformed into a new creation is a threatening word for those of us that are well-connected. It is within this world that we know how to think, how to function, and even, how to be righteous and good. But Jesus proclaims something far greater than that, and thus more threatening. Jesus proclaims the shattering of this closed circle and the coming of the kingdom of God. He proclaims the loss of all our possessions), all our being in charge, all of our being in a position of control and management, and proclaims the coming of a life amidst death, of freedom in the face of slavery. He proclaims something impossible, something that we have every reason — according to the flesh — to walk away from. But, for God all things are possible.
We are still plagued with doubts about if this is really possible. If the kingdom really is possible for us, for our world, for our concrete broken lives. Even in our moments of confidence, of trust, when we step out of the boat, when we take the risk, even then, the shadows of doubt and fear linger. To that doubt I can give you no simple solution. We are not given that because Christ was not given that. The same Lord who proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God and the gift of the easy and light yoke is the same Lord who prays for the cup of crucifixion to be taken from him, the same Lord who cries out wondering where the hell God is on the cross. Servants are not better than their masters and if Jesus must suffer doubt, indecision, and uncertainty about the coming of the kingdom, then we are not too good for it either.
In the face of the proclamation of the kingdom and its radical calling we are are not given certainty, nor are we promised that our faith will not falter or that we will not be sifted and tried. We are not promised that our faith will not crash down in failure — what could be more of a failure than death, after all? But we are promised that where we are faithless Jesus remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. And so we are given, not certainty but hope that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. We are given this hope because Jesus came, not to bring us laws, not to bring us morality, but to bring us himself. That he continues to come to us, and continues to bring us himself and so bring us to himself. And that in giving us nothing other than himself, his rejected, crucified, and resurrected self, that he is giving to us a kingdom that will never be shaken, even when we are. We have this hope, because Jesus does not bring us anything according to the flesh, according to the law, according to human standards, according to history, and power, according to realism and reason, but because Jesus comes to us and brings himself.