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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 02/13/2011

You have heard that it was said, you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not bear false witness.  Yes you have; you have heard those things said along with other “Thou shalt nots.”  I know that if you were raised Lutheran and went to Sunday School and Confirmation you heard the things Jesus mentions today said along with the rest of the commandments as the commandments are a central component of Luther’s catechism. 

It’s important that we have heard it said, the problem though comes when the result of hearing you shall not, you shall not, you shall not is that faith mostly becomes about behaviors to be avoided and not much else, and I’m afraid that is the perception of many.  It’s not that there aren’t behaviors to be avoided, there are; but the community Jesus talked about and called into existence can’t be determined and defined by what it avoids, by what it doesn’t do.  You’re not a good Christian just because you don’t do certain things.

So Jesus counters “You have heard that it was said…” with “But I say to you.”  If you were hoping for relief from the “You shall nots” though, it’s not forthcoming and that’s not what we should expect anyway, not with Jesus saying a few verses before this, “Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law; I’ve come not to abolish it but to fulfill it.”

What Jesus does then with his “but I say to you-s” is that he interprets scripture.  As a bit of an aside, I think one thing that does is to identify the fact that scripture is meant to be interpreted.  For those who would say, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it,” no, no it doesn’t.  Yes the Bible does contain truth for all people for all times, but by its very nature it is open to and calls for interpretation in light of changing circumstances.  That has always been the case and that’s what Jesus is doing here as he takes on the role of a rabbi and offers his interpretation of these laws; that’s what rabbis did, always looking for one more interpretation.

It would appear that the situation for Jesus was that he must have had people self-righteously saying, “The Bible says thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not commit adultery and I haven’t done either of those things so I’ve kept those two.  Maybe this commandment thing isn’t so tough after all.”  But Jesus says, “Not so fast.  Have you ever been angry with anyone?  Have you ever looked at a woman and thought to yourself, ‘Hey she’s not bad?’  Have you ever had those thoughts?”

As we engage in interpretation of what Jesus says here there is definitely second use of the law stuff going on.  You remember the second use of the law don’t you?  It’s to make us feel guilty about our inability to follow the commandments and teachings as we should and to make us recognize our need for God’s forgiveness.  You remember that.  It’s foundational Lutheran stuff and it’s useful; it has its place.

That may be part of what Jesus is doing here.  But there has to be more to it than him just laying a guilt trip on his listeners by raising the ethical bar so high that no one can ever reach it.  There has to be more than just adding to the list of thou shalt nots, more than just adding to a list of behaviors to be avoided.  There has to be more.  At the same time though, we have to be clear about the fact Jesus is not setting the law aside and saying we don’t have to worry about it; that’s not it either.

Taking a slightly different angle on this, what Jesus is doing here can be seen as a caution more than it is a prohibition.  It’s a caution that does address certain behaviors but even with that it’s probably better understood as being more general in nature than it is about specific behaviors; it’s a caution to help save us from ourselves.  What Jesus is into in this part of the sermon is root causes of sinful behavior.  He knows for example that before someone commits an act of murder a lot has happened to bring the killer to that point.  We see this or hear about it all the time whenever an act of violence takes place and part of the investigation is to figure out what was going on.  How did the individual get to this point?  Unless it is someone who is totally insane, they didn’t just wake up one morning and decide they’re going to kill someone or a bunch of people.  A lot has happened in the heart before the hand is lifted against another person.

Usually it starts with anger, hence Jesus caution against anger.  Again though, it’s not Jesus saying don’t ever be angry with anyone.  In our humanity anger is going to happen for one reason or another so added to the caution about anger is the call for positive action in response to anger, the call for reconciliation, the call to repair the broken relationship.  Otherwise, the anger can in effect wind up destroying two people and that can happen whether or not a hand is ever lifted.

What this and the other “But I say to you-s” get at is the commandments and the law of the Bible as a positive guide to life lived in community as opposed to simply being a bunch of things we shouldn’t do.  In other words, the commandments represent God’s will for human life.  In light of that Jesus offers this caution about behaviors that put us on trajectories that lead to broken relationships because the kingdom he talked about is based on life giving relationships; with him and with each other.  The law is the presenting issue here, but what Jesus is really talking about is the community and the kingdom revealed and anticipated in that community.

Jesus is acting as a teacher here, but we’re also back to Jesus the prophet challenging his listeners to imagine a reality different than what they have come to accept as “normal,” just the way things are, and it sounds like what was normal for them isn’t a whole lot different than what we accept as normal. 

For example consider the level of anger we accept as normal in our public discourse.  Some were relieved that the shootings in Arizona seemed to be the act of a crazy man rather than the response of someone affected by the angry rhetoric of politicians and political commentators.  That may be true, but if you think such rhetoric and the anger it generates doesn’t have an effect, think again.  Some say, “Oh, it’s always been that way.  Read your American history.”  That’s true, but it doesn’t make it right.  I dare say that there aren’t many if any here today who don’t have someone you won’t talk politics with because it will just make both of you angry.  No one is dead as a result of that, but a relationship is damaged.

In Jesus time divorce was considered normal and acceptable for reasons as trivial as the woman burning the man’s dinner.  The context is different today but divorce is a normal part of our society too.  Importantly I should add that it can be a necessary part, but again what Jesus is getting at is damaged relationships and I think anyone who has experienced divorce directly or indirectly and that’s all of us, will acknowledge a network of broken or damaged relationships that has resulted.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants us to have kingdom imaginations.  He wants more from us and more for us than a morality check list.  No murder today; check.  No adultery today; check.  No swearing falsely today; not so far anyway.  Jesus wants more for us.  He wants us to imagine a kingdom that isn’t constituted by obeying laws and observing check lists but by tending to relationships.

Jesus offers an alternative and wants us to imagine it and he wants us to sign on to it.  Baptism is our entry point.  One of the things I like about the new hymnal is that they modified the baptismal liturgy.  It used to be that the one being baptized or in the case of an infant the parents and sponsors were asked, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil and all his empty promises?”  Now three questions are asked, the first similar to that one, but the second is “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”  The powers of this world that rebel against God would include those things we consider “normal” and acceptable but which foster the un-kingdomlike characteristics of division and brokenness.  Do you renounce those powers?   

The third question is “Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” a question that calls for personal reflection. Affirmative answers to those questions signs the baptized on to the Jesus alternative.  It does involve imagination, imagining the possibilities.  It also involves commitment to those possibilities…because Jesus does want more for us. 

You have heard it said that his kingdom is about what happens when you die.  But I say to you, this life, the here and now, is full of kingdom possibilities.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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