Text: Matthew 5:21-37
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
February 12, 2017
“I hate you!” “I wish we had never met!” “I want a divorce!” “Sometimes you make me so angry, I wish you had never been born!” Have you ever uttered any of these statements? If you haven’t, I am confident you can recall occasions when you felt like saying something like it. To become angry is human. And when we get angry, these are the kinds of thoughts that fly into our minds. It takes self-control, and often a lot of biting our lips to keep these thoughts from being verbally expressed. When they are expressed they go to the heart and hurt deeply. If they are not expressed, but linger and burn in our being, we are only delaying the moment when things blow up with a destructive force. And yet while this is our reality, we are confronted with Jesus words: “You have heard it said, you shall not murder, but I tell you if you are angry you have committed murder.” What are we to make of this? Just what does Jesus mean?
For the past three weeks and next Sunday, our Gospel is taken from our Lord’s most famous homily, the Sermon on the Mount. In last week’s reading, as Mary so elegantly illustrated, Jesus calls us as Christians to be both the “light of the world” and “the salt of the earth”. Today He turns to the kinds of things which occur in our daily living that would prevent us from fulfilling this calling. Equally important, he tells us what we can do about it! This is what I want us to reflect on this morning.
Matthew tells us that Jesus began this sermon when a large crowd had gathered. He then went up the mountainside and began to address them in the valley below. As Matthew describes the situation, it is easy to see what Jesus is doing. He is bringing into the memory of these people the occasion when their great leader, Moses, had come down from Mount Saini and had given their ancestors the law by which they conducted their lives. So, it was not a surprise to them, nor should it be to us, that after his introductory remarks and stating his central theme, he then turns to three of the ten commandments: “You have heard it said to those of ancient times You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not swear falsely.” But what would have startled them, and what we will focus on, is what he said next: “But I say to you….” He then proceeds with an interpretation of these commandments which they had never heard before. Jesus stated plainly that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. His understanding, however, brings about a whole new meaning to the law than they had understood before. As Christians, we often state that what Jesus is doing is showing a contrast of living out the spirit of the law rather than simply abiding by the letter of the law.
I can illustrate the difference from my childhood experience of going to church. My father was as Mennonite and my mother was raised as a Methodist. When they married, they decided to join a church that had broken away from the Mennonite tradition because it had been influenced by the 19th century holiness revival that had burst the boundaries of Methodism. (This revival was much like what happened in our lifetime when the Pentecostal movement invaded the rest of Christendom in the form of the Charismatic Movement). As a result, these Mennonites adopted a holiness code of Christian living. People would know they were Christians because they didn’t use tobacco, drink alcohol, play cards, go to movies, or dance. The women did not cut their hair, wore dresses that covered their ankles and sleeves that covered their elbows. Makeup and jewelry of any kind was forbidden, including wedding bands. Cars were permitted, but colors needed to be muted: black, brown or dark blue were preferred. They loved to use a biblical term to describe themselves: “We are a peculiar people.” The larger community, of course, responded: “You sure are!” When you got to know them, they were a wonderful people, but they understood the letter, not the spirit of the law. Some of the more thoughtful among them would raise the question – “In seeking to be faithful to the teachings our Lord, are we really being “the light to the world?” “Are we really being the salt of the earth?” Good questions, aren’t they! Questions that all of us need to ask ourselves from time to time about how we live out our faith.
But while understanding what Jesus is telling us in this sermon is to live out the spirit of the law is certainly an advance over observing the letter of the law, I wonderful if it really gets to the heart of the matter. What I really think Jesus is saying: “If you are going to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, you can only rightly keep the law as you stay in relationship with the lawgiver.”
Again, I illustrate by using an example from my own experience. I wasn’t married very long when I began to realize that being a good spouse means more that being a good provider for my family, taking out the garbage without complaint, not forgetting to put down the toilet seat after using the bathroom, replacing the cap on the toothpaste after brushing my teeth. All those things were important, of course. But if that is all you do, there is still something missing. If you are not engaging one another at your very deepest level every day, the marriage soon loses its spark, routines become drudgery, tempers flare, distance and alienation tend to result. The joy of living simply becomes fulfilling one’s duty.
That is why Jesus says you have heard it said do not murder, but I say if you are angry with a brother or sister you are liable to judgment. And that is why he goes to say, when you come to church and you are aware of that anger, before you come to the altar, go to that person and ask forgiveness. Only then can the relationship be restored.
Our Lord is not telling us that it is a sin to be angry. We should get angry when we see injustice taking place just as he did when he cleansed the temple. Jesus and Paul both called people “fools.” By why? It was because they were blindly allowing their religious practice to distort their lives with God. In calling them fools, Jesus and Paul were simply making statements of fact.
When, however, we act upon our anger in ways that are hurtful to others, or allow our anger to brood, it destroys the relationship the other, it distances our relationship with God and those we love, and it robs us of the joy of living life to its fullness.
A cartoon from Peanuts sums up nicely what I am trying to say. Lucy is in Sunday school, having memorized a bible verse. She proudly says the verse when called upon. But when the teacher asks what book of the bible, what chapter and verse did it come from, she realizes in a panic she had forgotten this part of the assignment. Where was Charlie Brown when she needed him. Finally, she blurts out: “The Reevaluation of St. John 3:16.” Whenever our Christian life begins lose its spark and expectations become a duty, may it be a warning signal to us about our relationship with God, it is time for reevaluation, a time to experience anew and afresh what it means to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.