After restoring sanity to every demoniac on the Psychiatric Ward, and cleansing the skin of every leper on the Infectious Disease floor, and discharging every patient in I.C.U., Jesus departed from his growing fame and the clutching crowds to a hilltop overlooking the Sea of Galilee. There, he invited his disciples to get comfortable on the grassy pews and listen to his most famous sermon.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers an extended interpretation on the Law of Moses and the 10 Commandments. The discourse begins with the Beatitudes and ends with a warning about the end of time. In between, he makes a series of moral demands on his disciples.
Here in today’s text from Matthew, why does Jesus care about his followers’ behavior?
Matthew 5:21-37 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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. “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.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Our behaviors reflect back on God.
Personal responsibility is the most faithful response to grace.
Our actions participate in hastening God’s kingdom come.
Joanna Adams tells the story of a woman was stuck in traffic, furious about everyone’s inability to drive. She laid on the horn, banged on the steering wheel, had a road rage temper tantrum. In mid-rant, she was interrupted by a police officer charging, “Lady, you’re under arrest. Get out of the car and put your hands up.” She was finger-printed and photographed, processed and booked. Hours passed until the police officer returned, unlooked her cell and apologized. He said, “I was behind you in traffic, heard you cussing the world out. And I noticed the two bumper stickers on your car. One said, ‘Follow me to Sunday School.’ The other, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ So I assumed you had stolen the car.
Some religious people believe that faith is an intellectual exercise, that if I read the commentary footnotes and study the scriptures and pass the systematic theology exams, then I’ll be right with God. Others religious people believe that if I follow the letter of the Law, if I obey every legality, if I work really hard at it, then I’ll be right with God. And still another group of religious people believe that if my car bumper stickers cover up a lifetime of moral laxity, then cheap grace will make me all right with God.
Jesus cares about our obedient behavior because the fullness of God’s will is lived out in our human responses, because heaven is less a destination to arrive at after death and more an experience of life as it was meant to be available right now, because righteousness is required to enter the kingdom of God.
So cut out the cursing and release your anger, it only leads to yet another funeral, yours and theirs. Instead, join God in a reverence for all that has been created good. Give up the grudge and stop the infighting, we have enough broken relationships. Instead, join God in the work of reconciliation because church rituals can wait till later. Stop the wandering eye and the chasing tail, lust has been predatory for long enough. Instead, join God in treating women like people instead of property. Enough with the random divorce, husbands abandoning wives because their vows became inconvenient. Instead, join God in the celebration of covenant, partners yoked for all time. Silence the deceit and end the lies, there are enough falsehoods sworn under oath. Instead, join God in the radical act of simply telling the truth.
While these moral imperatives are nearly impossible to observe alone, we are reminded that the blessing of the Beatitudes and the company of fellow disciples go with us. That while the perfection of the Sermon is heard on the Mount, the imperfect practice of our faith is awaiting us down in the valley. So with God’s help, we give ourselves over to following a Jesus who is asking a whole lot more from us.