You might want to read Matthew 5:21-37 before you go on.
There’s a common exchange between parents and children that goes like this… The child comes to the parent and asks permission to do something that the parent can’t allow, for example, a child who is just learning how to swim asks, “Can I jump off the diving board?” Of course, the parent says, “No.” And then the child comes back with, “But everybody else is doing it.” To which the parent responds, “We’re not everybody else.”
Ever hear those words? They may sound so familiar to us that they’ve become a joke. But this little dialogue communicates something significant for children to learn about the things they do and don’t do in the world. Their behavior is related to their identity. Because you are a part of this family, you live a certain way in the world that sets you apart from other people. Everybody else may be doing it, but we’re not everybody else.
This is not unlike what Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. You’re not like everybody else, he tells them. You’re part of a counterculture. You’re blessed. You’re salt. You’re light. You’re living within the kingdom of God. And because of that, you have been set apart from other people.
Jesus contrasts his followers with the good religious people of the day, the scribes and the Pharisees. From the Pharisees’ perspective, following the law was what it meant to be Jewish. And by the law, we’re not only talking about the Ten Commandments, but hundreds of laws that were part of Jewish tradition. The problem was that they had added so much of their own interpretation to the law Moses handed down that all their exceptions and loopholes and picky-yuny details obscured its original message.
And so, Jesus says, “You have heard it said…” to describe the popular application of the law in his day. “But I say to you…” His goal was not to introduce something radically new. His goal was to return to something radically old. He’s calling his followers to return to the original intent of the law as God gave it to Moses.
Often when we think of the law, we think of rules. And when we lay a bunch of shoulds and oughts on people, it may feel like we’re just out to ruin everybody’s fun. But in a reasonable society, that’s not the purpose of rules. I was reminded of this on Wednesday as I sat at home watching the TV reporters in snow-covered hats, microphones in hand, standing before treacherous streets with the sound of spinning tires in the background. There was an overzealous reporter who started wandering around the lanes on Independence Boulevard, talking to people in their stopped cars. The CMPD called the station and told the people in the newsroom that she had to get out of the street. It was important to follow the law lest we all watch her getting run over on live TV.
And there were other invaluable rules shared with us TV viewers that snowy day. One reporter made it a point to tell us that if you must drive, make sure to clear your windshield first. And another one pointed out how slippery it was and if you’re walking you need to be careful. Someone else told us not to burn candles in the house. You’ll fall asleep and burn your house down. Use flashlights. And then there’s the one that should go without saying, but unfortunately always has to be said when there is danger of power going out in cold weather -- don’t start a charcoal fire inside your home. It emits carbon monoxide and it will kill you.
Okay, I’ll admit that I found humor in a lot of this, especially coming from the North, but the fact is, if you don’t have enough sense to follow some simple rules, you may not survive a snow-storm.
Do you remember the story of how God gave the law to Moses? God’s people had been slaves. They had been told what to do all their lives, and now, suddenly, they were free. They needed some laws or they were never going to make it to the Promised Land. So, God gave them the Commandments as a gift. And that gift served them well. They made it. The gift of the law got them there. Now they were about to enter into the new land God had promised them. And they had a choice to make. Would they continue to live in relationship with the God who had delivered them from slavery and kept them safe all along their journey? Or would they not? Would they choose life, or not?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his followers of the law Moses received from God. It is a gift. It’s about living in a relationship with the God who loves you and offers you life. The law wasn’t given so that we would keep the law for the law’s sake. The law was given so that we would keep the law for OUR sake.
It’s a lot like why I taught my kids not to play in the street, to treat other people with kindness, to tell the truth. It wasn’t just because I wanted to keep them in line. It was because I wanted to help them get more out of this life than they would have if they played in traffic, if they were mean and rotten to other to people, if they lied and cheated to get what they wanted. I loved them too much to allow them to do that.
Notice that each of Jesus’ different injunctions in today’s gospel is about how we treat one another. When Jesus interprets the law, he’s not encouraging people to simply follow the law to prove they can do it. He’s encouraging them to follow the law because they are in relationship with God in a way that affects their relationships with everyone else.
So, Jesus starts with a commandment that most people could feel pretty good about keeping: the one about killing other people. You have heard it said that you shouldn’t kill someone and if you haven’t, you may think you’ve followed the law, Jesus tells his listeners. But the original intent of that law goes deeper than that. It’s also about treating one other with kindness and respect, and that means not speaking hateful words. Don’t think that just because you haven’t killed the person who bugs the hell out of you, you have fulfilled the law. There is danger in unreconciled anger. Not only for the one you are angry with, but also for yourself as you carry the anger around inside you. That’s not the kind of life God wants for you.
You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. And you may think that’s about physically avoiding the act of adultery. But the intent of the law goes deeper than that. We also don’t objectify other persons by seeing them as a means to satisfy our desires. People are not to be treated as things. If you don’t get that, you don’t get the law about adultery.
You may be familiar with the current divorce laws, Jesus says. According to those laws, a man could divorce his wife for all kinds of ridiculous reasons, like if she burned the bread. When Jesus spoke against these laws, he stood up for the most vulnerable in his society, women and children. They are people, Jesus says. And people are not disposable.
Then he goes on to challenge the integrity of God’s people. Why is it so necessary that you have to take an oath to back up your words? Speak and act honestly so that oaths become completely unnecessary.
Can you hear what Jesus is saying? Don’t get side-tracked by the talk about cutting off body parts and burning in hell. That wasn’t to be taken literally. It’s hyperbole, spoken to magnify just how important our relationships are to God.
Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus is asked to name the greatest of all the Commandments, and he couldn’t answer the question. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart and all your soul and all you mind”, but before he could take a breath, he had to link it to another one: Love your neighbor as yourself.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes what that looks like. Being in loving relationship with God means being in loving relationship with other people. It’s not something you have to force yourself to do by following the rules. It’s something that just happens when you’re in relationship with the God of love.
Ironically, or maybe I should say sadly, many Christians have interpreted the Sermon on the Mount very legalistically through the years. They have taken these sayings of Jesus and used them to demand that people follow the law much like the Pharisees did. Which, of course, is precisely the approach to the law that Jesus is speaking against.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t making it even more difficult for his followers to live by the law. His teachings were not meant to create more laws we can never keep that lead us to more self-loathing and guilt. He’s showing us the way to transcend that kind of legalism.
A little later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me...” (A rabbi’s teachings were known as his yoke. A disciple would take the rabbi’s yoke upon himself.) Jesus told them, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” No, the followers of Jesus are not like the Pharisees, who bear the heavy weight of the law. That’s not who they are.
For life in God’s kingdom is not about following rules. Life in God’s kingdom is about relationship. It’s not something we can work to achieve. It is pure gift. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters with whom he is well pleased.
To live within that relationship is to choose life. It’s to allow the unconditional acceptance of God to transform us. And then, we are capable of doing good, true, beautiful acts. That’s something fearful rule-makers and law-keepers will never understand. It’s what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom. Because we are God’s beloved, we live a certain way in the world that sets us apart from other people. It doesn’t matter what everybody else is doing. We’re not everybody else.