February 12, 2023
"The Better Way”
Rev. Scott Landis
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 & Matthew 5:21-37
We have spent the past three Sundays considering Jesus’ teachings in his famed “Sermon on the Mount” or what I referred to last week as Jesus’ “I Have a Dream” speech. The sermon is a compelling outline of Jesus’ hopes – his dreams – or his interpretation of all that he has learned – teaching that he now cast into his own words so that his disciples might form a new community based upon and steeped in – LOVE. The dream of a community that has yet to become a reality.
The section of the sermon we read today is sometimes referred to as the “Antitheses.” “You have heard it said … BUT I say to you …” It’s a teaching technique often employed by rabbis as they expound on sacred texts and put their unique spin on them. They do not dismiss the text as outdated or no longer relevant. As a matter of fact, their intention is to amplify the ancient words and, in this case, to drill down – or go deeper – to elucidate the meaning for their day and their situation. That’s exactly what Jesus was doing.
He began with a biggy. “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, “You shall not commit murder.” To which they would all be shaking their heads affirming the law. But he continued, “But I say to you even if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” I bet that caught ‘em off guard. He continued, “Even to insult a brother or sister could result in severe punishment.” Which, I bet, elicited silence as they wondered if he had lost his mind.
He went on to give instruction about repairing broken relationships – “leave your gift at the altar until after those relationships were restored and only then to return to give your gift.
Then he went further, “You have heard it said you shall not commit adultery.” General agreement there – with only a few looking down at the sand while others stood tall thinking to themselves, “I’m good on that one.” But he continued, “But I say to you that anyone who LOOKS at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart.” Dang – caught again. Not to mention the whole eye plucking and hand severing thing.
And then he moved to divorce. Here’s where it hit home for many of his listeners – and perhaps for you – it does for me. Statistics tell us that probably half of us in this sanctuary have or will at one time be divorced. It was a big deal then and still is today. Oh, it may no longer bear the stigma it once did – but the pain is very real no matter when it happens – to the couple AND their families. Jesus didn’t even have to mention the part about adultery. If you’ve been through a divorce – for whatever reason – you know what I mean. You’ve experienced all that comes with it and it's not pretty. That pain is punishment enough.
Finally, there was his teaching on vows with the idea being that when we make a promise – we ought to keep it – it’s that simple and sometimes it’s that difficult. [Pause]
So, what does any of this have to do with you and me who have gathered for worship on this Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – the last Sunday of Epiphany – as we pause in this historic church perhaps hoping to hear a word from God?
First-off, I believe we need to hear these words – as said in Hawaiian “me ka Ha’aha’a” (with humility). It’s not enough to say we want to live haipule (with deep devotion). We must receive these words of Jesus with repentant hearts AND with an openness to the possibility of “newness of life,” and not proud followers who think we deserve God’s grace.
I believe the reason Jesus inserted these words into his provocative sermon was not to shame his listeners for what they had done wrong – how they had blown it so that they would come groveling back seeking forgiveness. No. He was pointing out the hubris of those who felt they had already earned God’s favor because they were so good at keeping every jot and tittle of the law. He revered the law, but he loathed the audacity that many felt fully justified – beyond reproach – based on their slavish maintaining and keeping of the law.
What Jesus was calling for went much deeper than all of that. In fact, I believe he was seeking to liberate his followers from tablets of stone so that they might live and cultivate communities of shalom, love, aloha. [Pause]
You remember Jesus central command. It was not any one of these specific laws. It was much more comprehensive than that. I bet you can say it with me, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Do this,” Jesus said, “and you will live.”
We can debate all day the nuances of anger, and adultery, divorce, and vow keeping and breaking. We all make mistakes. We’ve all broken the law. And we have all deeply disappointed those we love – including God. AND we have all probably been the victims of others’ insensitivity. That’s not what separates us from God or from our neighbor.
What separates us are not the mistakes we make but our lack of desire to choose the better way. The writer of Deuteronomy said it this way, “See, I’m setting before you today prosperity, death, adversity, commandments, decrees, ordinances, in short, everything you need to keep you on the path of holiness – but none of that will make a difference if you choose to bow down to other gods.” That is if we try and go it alone – our own way.
It's pretty simple and amazingly obvious (my translation). Choose Life! So that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days. [Pause]
When Jesus went throughout the region of the Galilee, he was seeking to establish little communities of love – groups that truly cared FOR one another – and took care OF one another. They prayed for each other weeping with those who wept and rejoicing with those in exuberance.
It’s what we must strive for today as the tide of Christianity is shifting and changing in our lifetime. We no longer have the luxury to do things the way we have always done them. That ship has sailed. But the basic reason for being the church has not.
Our reason for existence is both to create what the Greeks called koinonia (fellowship groups of love), but also to bring that same love to our neighbor – and neighborhood. Choosing the better way is to hunger for righteousness and to thirst for justice as we do what we can to heal a broken world.
Let me try this out as my antithesis:
“You have heard it said” – that is our reality – taking stock of WHAT IS. And in some cases resigning ourselves that the future is dim.
“But I say to you” – look up – open your eyes – begin to see a new reality with renewed hope – casting a vision for what could be.
I believe, that is what Jesus was calling for then – and now.
What Jesus invited in this sermon and in all of his teaching – even at the cost of his own life – was to love God, love our neighbor, as we love ourselves. That’s choosing the better way. That’s choosing life. For all beings. Do this and live.
May that be our reality in these challenging days of opportunity.