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February 12, 2017



2.12.17                               Epiphany 6                    - Matthew 5:21-37 ESV


21{Jesus said,} “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.33“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”




Kellyanne Conway is credited with coining the expression “alternative facts” in answer to a reporter’s question regarding a statement the press secretary made about crowd size at the president’s inauguration.  It started quite a firestorm.  “Alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods,” the reporter argued.  I’m not going to get into that debate today, but it occurred to me that Jesus could be accused of stating alternative facts in this section of His sermon on the mount.  “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” is how He introduced several profound statements on controversial topics.  These are technically called, “antitheses,” opposing propositions.  But really Jesus is taking the conventional wisdom of His time and turning it on its head.  He is not contradicting the Commandments, as it may sound, rather He’s intensifying them.  He’s raising the bar of the law to a level no one can reach.  They’re uber laws.  These facts are not alternative opinions; they are ultimate truths even though they may be inconvenient for us. 


We should note that these verses immediately follow the lesson we read last week where Jesus explained that He came to fulfill the Law, not abolish the Law.  In fact “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  And “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Then He proceeds to provide examples, introducing each one with this formula: “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.”  Jesus claims a higher authority than the religious leaders and legal experts of His time.  And what He says will hit us right between the ears if we’re listening.


You’ve heard it said, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.”  But I say that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”  He stretches it even further, taking it to the limit, “whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council (the Sanhedrin); whoever says ‘You fool!’ (a Jewish profanity that included a gesture) will be liable to hellfire.”  Obviously Jesus is not cancelling the commandment forbidding murder; He’s clarifying what it means.  Anger is where it starts.  There is a righteous anger Jesus showed when the holy things of God were being abused (like when He cleansed the temple), but anger between people can kill relationships.  When Jesus says, “brother,” it may refer to fellow disciples since the Sermon on the Mount was addressed primarily to them, as we’ve learned.  But the principle is the same for everyone in the family of mankind.  Hateful anger is hurtful to others.    


In 1894 the Baltimore Orioles came to Boston to play a baseball game.  One player got into a fight with another (no one remembers why) but soon players from both teams were brawling on the field.  Quickly it spread to the grandstands and the fans got into it.  Someone set fire to the bleachers and the entire ballpark burned to the ground.  In fact, newspapers report that the fire destroyed over a hundred neighboring buildings. 


Anger is destructive, often resulting in violence that spreads like wild fire, as we’re seen in our own country.  So Jesus urges us to nip it in the bud before it gets out of control.  In the context of worship He advises Christians to reconcile with others before expressing their gratitude to God for His forgiveness.  In the judicial realm He urges Christians to settle their disputes before going to court.  And there’s a clear reference here to the ultimate judgment of hell that dare not be ignored.  This is an alternative fact that some dismiss to their dismay and deny at their peril.         


Next, Jesus addresses another commandment: “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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”   Ouch! now He’s getting personal. This can apply both ways, of course, man/woman, woman/man, but Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter which is human nature.  Not just the outward act but the inner idea is forbidden fruit.  Who can avoid looking in this age of media saturation, where modesty has been thrown out the window?  Why, you’d have to be blind not to look?  Yes, but can you look without lust?  If not, better to tear out your eye so you can’t see; cut off your hand, so you can’t do.  Seriously?  Sin is serious, so radical repentance is necessary, although Jesus would hardly order self-mutilation which would violate another commandment.  Therefore, most commentators suggest that He’s using hyperbole here to make a strong point.  Because . .. 


. . . this affects marriage, God’s institution for family which is the basic building block of society.  So Jesus goes right into the subject of divorce.  Jewish tradition allowed men to divorce their wives for most any reason at the time of Christ, as long as there was a certified document to authenticate it.  But again, Jesus tightens the standards, restricting the grounds for divorce to “sexual immorality,” it says here.  That would be “having an affair” in our parlance.  Without making this an essay on divorce (including what’s called “malicious desertion” as another possible cause), suffice it to say that the translation here can be misunderstood when it says, divorcing a wife - “makes her commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  English doesn’t have a good way to translate the Greek verb, but it means something like being “stigmatized as an adulterer.”  In other words, people might think that the newly married couple had been in an adulterous relationship which caused the previous divorce. 


Rather than mincing words, however, let’s maintain a high regard for the holy estate of matrimony as Jesus and the Bible do.  It’s not like trading in cars for a newer model.  But a little humor helps.  I read this Luther quote the other day:  "Good God ...What a lot of trouble there is in marriage! Adam has made a mess of our nature.  Think of all the squabbles Adam and Eve must have had in the course of their nine hundred years.  Eve would say 'You ate the apple' and Adam would retort 'You gave it to me.'"  Sometimes laughter is the best medicine for marriage. 


One more alternative fact that Jesus corrected in this gospel lesson is on the subject of oaths.  “You have heard that it was said . . ‘You shall not swear falsely . . but I say to you, ‘Do not take an oath at all.’”  This may not be specific to any one of the Ten Commandments, unless we combine, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” and “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  However, it seems that rabbinical law at the time of Christ had devised a system where some oaths were considered less binding than others.  Swearing an oath is not to be taken lightly, according to Jesus, for it’s calling upon God to witness the truthfulness of what we say.  There are times when that’s important.  Jesus under oath confessed that He was the Son of God.  The oath of office is sacred.  Testifying under oath at a trial is an assurance that what you say is the whole truth “so help you God.”


But here the people thought that they could invoke things associated with God’s creation (heaven, earth, a royal city, your head) without mentioning His name and that would give them some wiggle room.  The Lord not only exposes the fallacy of such knit-picking, He asserts that frivolous oaths are not necessary at all if you’re an honest person.  “Yes” or “No” is sufficient.  You may know, Quakers refused to place their hand on a Bible and be sworn in to testify in court because they believed taking an oath is wrong.  Eventually it wasn’t required of them because they were known to be “truth-tellers.”  That’s a good reminder in our society where unthinking utterances like “Oh my God” have been twittered down to three letters: “OMG.”  No, “hallowed be Thy name” because God is holy.


And that’s the point, don’t you see?  Unless your righteousness exceeds the holier-than-thou righteousness of the Pharisees, Jesus asserts, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  “You must be holy for I the Lord your God am holy,” the Lord God proclaimed to the Israelites.  “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus preached to the crowd in this Sermon on the Mount.  Who can measure up to that standard?  No one!  No human being can keep the holy law of God perfectly.  That’s why we need Jesus.  That’s why we need to hear the gospel tell us: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2Cor 5:21)  That’s why Jesus set the bar so high that no one could ever hope to reach it on his/her own.  Anger is as bad as murder.  Lust is as bad as adultery.  Swearing is as bad as lying. 


You have heard it said, “Do the best you can, and that should be good enough.”  But Jesus says to you, ‘Your best is not nearly good enough; in fact, it’s worse than you think.”  That may sound like alternative facts to some today, straight from an alternate universe.  But the fact is, when it comes to our salvation, there’s no alternative to Jesus.  Amen.