Sometimes the Lectionary passages as selected ask the preacher to do the seemingly impossible. How do you faithfully exegete a passage as diverse, as significant, and as complex as the passage before us?
However, it is in wrestling with such a passage that we come to understand the depth of meaning found in these life-giving, life-altering words of Jesus. Matthew’s presentation of the “Sermon on the Mount,” unique in the New Testament treatment of the teachings of Jesus, requires careful thought to mine the depths of the passage, not demeaning or belittling its intent, nor reducing it to moralism and vague “spiritualities.”
Jesus is asking his followers to trust, to rely on, and to love the Scriptures. His references to “the Law and the Prophets” was always done with a level of respect that must inform our handling of the Old Testament. For us to engage in a demeaning of the place and value of the Hebrew Bible is to miss the point of what Jesus is saying to us.
In the opening passage (17-20) Jesus lays a foundation of respect for the Old Testament that will not allow us to dismiss it as irrelevant. Rather, Jesus relies on the moral commandments and his interpretation of them, to be the true understanding of the central meaning of the Old Testament. It is out of that understanding that the “antitheses” find their application to living in relationship before God with God’s people and with a broken and contrary world. Jesus does not contradict the Law, but deepens it.
It is easier to live by lists of rules and laws than it is to live in authentic, dynamic, and redemptive relationship to people. Laws can be static and arbitrary. Jesus reached into the Law to reveal its objective: the valuing and the protection of others.
For instance, it is not enough to prohibit the killing of another. The point is the value of the other. What is required is that we not only fail to do them harm, but that we are engaged in proactively seeking their good, affirming their worth, even to the risk of our own good. And it begins with us. We dare not wait for them to act, to seek us out, to offer us a hand in reconciliation. We cannot even worship well until we have stepped redemptively toward another with whom we are in conflict.
The challenge regarding adultery and divorce can be so easily reduced to moralism and “self-discipline.” But there is so much more at work here than we see at first glance. It begins with the recognition that the culture of that time had reduced women to the status of property and sources for male satisfaction. Jesus bluntly and repeatedly elevated the status of women far above the male patrimony of the culture. In that setting, women as property, owned by the husband, could be “managed” as necessary for the benefit of the husband. For Jesus, the value of all persons prohibits our objectifying them through lust, or discarding them through divorce. Rather, we are to treasure and nurture one another as sisters and brothers, as equals, and as worthy of honor and protection.
All of this stands on a foundation of simple and profound truthfulness. Christians have spent far too much time trying to argue whether or not one should be required to “swear” an oath in order to testify in a court of law. What Jesus asks of his followers is an utter trustworthiness that does not need oaths of affirmation in dealing with one another. The formal swearing of an oath in court has little to do with the point Jesus is making. What he asks is that we live utterly true, transparently honest, dependably trustworthy. This is the reflection of the character of the Trinity, who in relationship with one another are never in dispute, never at a distance from one another, and never act in disregard of the value of the other.
Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Leadership, Nazarene Theological Seminary.
General Superintendent Emeritus, Church of the Nazarene