A Sermon based upon Matthew 5: 17-27
Last Sunday we heard Jesus’ description of a “new identity” for his followers, based on the “Beatitudes” -- embracing such traits as poverty, humility, mourning, peacemaking, and taking a prophetic stand in public… even if it puts you at risk of rejection and harm.
Today Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Mount” by pointing his disciples in a new direction – where they will forge a new path that goes beyond where their contemporaries had settled, stretching their definitions of righteousness beyond conventional boundaries. Brian McLaren (in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”, Chapter 28) calls it a new path to “aliveness”.
Let me explain what he means by that phrase. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus does not use those terms. Instead, he refers to life -- true life, eternal life, life abundant, life to the full – in Greek “zoein aionian”, “zoe” as in “zoology” means “life”, and “aeons” refers to “the ages” timelessness. As a synonym for the Kingdom of God, this term means (literally) “life of the ages.” In the Apostle Paul’s letters, terms he uses like “life in its fullness”, new life, life in the Spirit, and “life in Christ Jesus” all closely resemble the concept in the Gospel of John. So Brian McLaren simply refers to “aliveness” to connote a higher quality, deeper intensity, broader expansiveness, richer meaningfulness, and more fruitful depth of life. “Aliveness” is God’s Will being done now.
What we all want is pretty simple, writes Brian McLaren. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist, but to thrive! To live “out loud”; to walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid… more awake, more grateful, more energized and purposeful. We capture this kind of mindful, over-brimming life in terms like “well-being”, shalom, “blessedness”, wholeness, harmony, life to the full, or simply “aliveness.”
The quest for aliveness is the best thing about religion, he writes. It’s what we’re hoping for when we pray. It’s why we gather to worship, why we celebrate; why we attend and sing and contemplate. When people say “I’m spiritual,” what they mean (says McLaren) is simple: “I’m seeking to be more alive.” I’m seeking “aliveness”.
Returning to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (picking up the story from last Sunday), McLaren says: Anyone present that day would have felt some tension in the air. [You see] many in the crowd stuck to the familiar road of tradition – playing by the rules – leading conservative, conventional, and respectable lives. [And I would add: there’s nothing wrong with that! There’s nothing wrong with them. The only problem would be if that familiar road was feeling like a rut, or if their rule-keeping was getting in the way of their relationships.]
Brian McLaren suspects that these “conservative, conventional, respectable” people -- who “stuck to the familiar road of tradition” and who “played by the rules” of their society -- may have been worried that Jesus was too different, too non-compliant [too much of a non-conformist]. (!)
But McLaren says that there would also have been “others” among Jesus’ followers “who ran on a very different road.” Unfettered by tradition, they gladly bent any rule that got in their way. They [may have been] worried that Jesus wasn’t different and defiant enough!
If Jesus is to be believed, it seems that neither group was on the road to “true aliveness” – neither the rule-keepers nor the radicals.
When Jesus said (in the text that Marilyn Kettler read for us this morning), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets,” you can imagine that the traditionalists in the crowd felt relieved, because that was just what they feared he was about to do!
When he added, “I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them,” they must have tensed up again, wondering what he could possibly mean by “fulfill”. … Then, when he said, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” the non-traditionalists would have looked dismayed. How could anyone be more righteous than that fastidious crowd? [Who would want to be!?]
As Jesus continued, it became clear [that] he was proposing a “third way” that neither the compliant nor the non-compliant [neither the rule-keepers nor the radicals] had ever considered before. (!) “Aliveness” won’t come through unthinking conformity to tradition, he tells them. And it won’t come from defying tradition, either. It will come only if we discern and fulfill the highest intent of the tradition – even if doing so means breaking with [some of] the details of tradition in the process.
If tradition could be compared to a road that began in the distant past and continues right up to the present (says Brian McLaren), Jesus dares to propose that the road isn’t finished yet. (!) To extend that road of tradition into the future – to fulfill its potential – we must first look back to discern its general direction. Then, informed by the past – [aware of every iota of the Law, every dot, even the least of the commandments] – we must look forward and dare to step beyond where the road currently ends… venturing off the map, so to speak, into new territory.
To stop where the road of tradition currently ends… would actually end the adventure and bring the tradition to a standstill. (!) So [according to Jesus], faithfulness doesn’t simply allow us to extend the tradition (and seek to fulfill its unexplored potential), it requires us to do so.
But what does it mean to “fulfill the tradition”? Jesus answers that question with a whole series of examples [taken from the traditions and the teachings of Judaism of his day]. Each example begins [with Jesus saying], “You have heard that it was said to the men of old…” which introduces what the tradition has taught. He refers to the command, “Thou shalt not kill”; he refers to adultery, he refers to swearing oaths, and to retaliation (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, life for life”), and traditional teachings about who to love.
Each time Jesus introduces the tradition under discussion with the words “You have heard that it was said…” but then he dares to say: “But I say to you…” With those words, Jesus extends the road of tradition into unchartered territory!
Now, his critics will claim that to do so “abolishes” the tradition; that it’s an act of destruction and disrespect toward the teachings of the elders. (!) But Jesus says that he has no intention of “relaxing” even one of the least of the commandments, but rather to creatively fulfill the intent of the tradition.
The tradition said, “You shall not kill.” Don’t murder! That was a good start. [I mean, don’t you wish people we read about in the news would follow that straight-forward command?! “Don’t murder!” DUH! ] However, the tradition doesn’t want us to stop merely at the point of avoiding murder…
So, as a first step beyond what the tradition required, Jesus calls us to root out the anger that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder.
As a second step, he calls us to deal with the verbal violence of “name-calling” [that exacerbates the anger] that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder. [Jesus would have us put an end to the cyber-bullying on social media, the “ad hominem” attacks in political debates, calling your adversary a “fool”, and so forth. For God’s sake, in Jesus’ name, cut it out!]
As a third step, Jesus urges his followers to engage in (what Brian McLaren calls) pre-emptive reconciliation. In other words, whenever we detect a breach in a relationship, we don’t need to determine “who is at fault”! [We need to do something about it.]
The intent of tradition isn’t merely to [prove that you are] “in the right”; no, the goal is to be in a right relationship! So Jesus encourages us to deal with the breach quickly and pro-actively, seeking true reconciliation. It’s not about “being right”, it’s about being in a right relationship, that was the intent of the tradition all along. Avoiding murder was only the starting point; Jesus takes us deeper into it all.
The kind of “pre-emptive reconciliation” that Jesus teaches [in this part of his Sermon on the Mount] will help us avoid the chain-reactions of offense, revenge, and counter-offense that leads to violence and murder; and which keep our court systems busy and our prison systems full.
After extending the road in the area of violence, Jesus moves on to four more issues – each deeply important both to individuals and to society – matters of sexuality, marriage, oaths, and revenge. In each example, conventional religious morality (which Jesus calls the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees”) – focuses on not doing [a public] wrong – not murdering, not committing adultery, not forcing illegal divorce, not breaking sacred oaths, not seeking revenge. But for Jesus, the pathway ahead focuses on changing our deeper desires [getting at the “roots” of our behavior, not just the “fruits” – attending to our inward mindfulness, transforming our heart].
So, regarding sexuality, the tradition taught by the scribes and Pharisees requires you and me to “avoid adultery”. I remember as a kid in Pilgrim Fellowship that we were talking about “teenagers” and the changes going on in our bodies -- hormones, voice change, growth spurts (in all the right places!). We talked about Jesus’ remarks in this very Sermon – about the need to learn to manage our internal “lustful” desires, before we are in the backseat of someone’s car in the moonlight at Mich-e-ke-wis, or on a country road at the end of a date. Mrs. Barksdale (“Madge” to her friends, “Mrs. B” to us PFers), who was notorious for mis-speaking simple clichés said that “adolescence is that stage between puberty and adultery.” (!)
Yes, people should avoid adultery. But Jesus says to extend the road of that tradition – to go further & deeper -- by (first) recognizing your internal lustful appetite (your desire), and (second) to decide to manage it within your heart and mind before it drives you to an “inappropriate” expression of sexuality with another person. [As I say: we should attend to the “roots” before they produce their “fruits”.]
Regarding divorce, we can do our best to “make it legal” in the eyes of society – “no fault” divorce, looking out for the best interest of the child, absence of acrimony in the legal proceedings, fair sharing of community property and alimony, and so forth. The scribes and Pharisees had arranged matters such that men could easily (legally) dismiss their wives with no “prejudice” attaching to them when they remarried another woman; the social scandal of “being divorced” (and the poverty which usually followed) applied only to their former wives.
Jesus challenged them (and challenges us, too) to go beyond the traditional rules that have been crafted to make divorce “legal” and “acceptable” within a given society. Jesus challenges us to go further and deeper in that tradition by desiring true fidelity in your heart. So that when we make vows to one another (and before God), to bless our union “so long as we both shall live”, we actually mean it!
Jesus goes on… Regarding oaths: you can play a lot of silly verbal games to shade the truth (says Brian McLaren) [and we all have witnessed quite a number of bold public misstatements and downright lies – “fake” news! -- in the ploys that politicians (& their lawyers & their media spokespersons) use!] Or you can go further down that path of “truth-telling” -- go deeper than the tradition requires -- by desiring simple, true speech; saying what you mean, and meaning what you say. [I mean, how hard is that?! (!) It’s called “integrity” – a person’s “word” used to be their “bond -- a “handshake” agreement was binding because one’s reputation meant something.]
And regarding “retaliation” against injustice: you can react in ways that play right into the unjust system [against which you are fighting! Think of a “shouting match”, how it escalates… “If you don’t stop hitting your sister, I’m gonna spank your behind.” Violence cannot defeat violence. Revenge does not eliminate hate. Guru Mohandas Gandhi (who was a lawyer before he got into politics) once said of the law of “talion” (what we call “retaliation”): “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth soon leaves everyone toothless & blind”.]
Rather than playing by the rules of pay-back and revenge, Jesus suggests we go further and deeper, transcending those systems entirely. Here Jesus gets very practical (writes Brian McLaren).
Living under Roman occupation, the people listening to Jesus were used to getting shoved around. It was not uncommon for a Roman soldier to give one of the native people “a backhand slap” – the insulting whack of a superior to an inferior. When this happened, there was no outlet for the rage of the person being “dissed” (publicly disrespected). Some would sulk away in humiliation… perhaps looking for someone “beneath them” to take it out on (watch out spouse, children, they might even kick the dog on the way out the door). Others might beg the bully not to hit them again. But those kinds of reactions rewarded the oppressor’s violence.
Some people dreamed of retaliation – of pulling out a dagger and slitting the throat of the oppressor. (!) But that would reduce them to the same violent level as their enemies. The vicious cycle would escalate… tit-for-tat, pay-them-back, see how you like them apples!
So Jesus offered them a creative alternative: stand tall, and courageously turn the other cheek, he said. In so doing, they would choose non-violence, courage, strength, and dignity… and they would be modeling a better way of life for their oppressors, rather than mirroring the violent example that the soldiers were setting.
In a similar way, a Roman soldier had the legal right to order a civilian of an occupied nation (such as Israel) to carry his pack for a mile. [Roman roads often had “mile markers” along the side, like many of our highways do, too.] If the civilian subject refused to carry the soldier’s pack, he would be showing courage and asserting self-respect… but he would also probably end up dead right there, or in jail. (!) As a result, most people would comply with the soldier’s order. But, once again, that would reinforce the oppressor’s status as “superior” and add to the person’s own sense of public humiliation.
Jesus tells his followers to surprise their oppressors by volunteering (when they reach the mile marker) to take the pack a second mile. The first mile may have been forced upon them, but the second mile they will walk free. If in the first mile they were oppressed, the second mile transcends their oppression and treats the soldier as a human being -- a companion on the way -- demonstrating the human kindness that the soldier himself fails to practice.
[I can imagine there may be some conversation between them on that second mile. Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you? Where did you ever get that idea? Who are you, anyway?]
Brian McLaren says that neither the compliant [traditionalist] nor the defiant [radical] typically imagine such creative responses. Jesus is helping their moral [imagination] and their social imagination to come alive. Using example after example, Jesus directs his disciples beyond what the tradition requires to what God, our Creator, desires.
Jesus reminds them that God doesn’t let rain and sunshine fall only on “good” people’s lands, leaving “bad” people to starve. No, God is good to all, no exceptions! What Jesus refers to as God’s “perfection” is compassionate [and inclusive, generous] and gracious. It goes far beyond the traditional requirements of the scribes and Pharisees.
For us today, as for those first followers on that hillside, this path is our better option. Better than compliance to tradition, better than defiance of tradition. This is our third way, a creative option.
God is out ahead of us, calling us forward – not to stay where tradition has brought us so far, and not to defy tradition reactively -- but to fulfill the highest and best intent of the [biblical] tradition… to make the road by walking forward together.
 McLaren, Brian D., “We Make the Road by Walking” New York: Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group, 2014, pages 131-135, also Introduction, page xv
 Ibid., Introduction, page xv