Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Sermon #171 St. James the Less #78 2/16/20
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:21-37
A few years ago my brother Jake got one of the first versions of a Virtual Reality headset. You may remember when these came out the first time, they were a hot ticket item.
Though they haven’t completely revolutionized how we watch TV, they are still pretty popular. For those of you who’ve never seen one it’s a black headset, and a phone is put into the front which then plays certain videos. If you’ve never experienced it then you’re missing out, it may be one of the craziest things I’ve seen.
When you put the headset on you are instantly taken to another reality, hence the name “Virtual Reality”, and while wearing it you can look all around in any direction, and you have options where you want to go. It is a completely immersive experience.
You can go on a helicopter ride from base camp to being right next to Mount Everest. You can swim with dolphins and whales, or be right on the edge of a 70-story building. You can even experience a dinosaur walking right up to you.
The visuals are so realistic, and because you can look up and down and all around you, your mind is tricked into thinking it’s real. When Jake first got the headset my whole family got together and ended up passing this thing around, and my aunt experienced a dinosaur walking towards her, and she started backing up and she would’ve walked through the living room window if we didn’t stop her. It’s just that real.
I am fascinated by the experience. I know that I am not actually underwater swimming with a humpback whale, but in the moment, it feels so real. The people who created this Virtual Reality not only thought about the sights and sounds that are surrounding us on a daily basis, but how our experience of reality can be enhanced.
Did I mention this sermon is brought to you by Samsung?
Jesus the VR
I say all that because I think Jesus is doing something similar here in our gospel reading on the Beatitudes. Since the day that Moses had come down Mount Sinai with the Law, that would then define every part of Jewish life, the Law was their reality. It is what held them together as a people of faith.
The Law shaped how they saw the world, and how they interacted with the world. And Jesus is a faithful Jewish leader who does not want to destroy the Law, but he actually wants to enhance it.
He doesn’t just want his listeners to hear the commandments, but he also wants them to experience the reality of the Law. And for that to take place they have to go deep… It is as if when the Beatitudes begin, Jesus hands all of his listeners a Virtual Reality headset, and tells them, “Let me show you the reality of the Kingdom of God.”
The reality he is showing them, at the beginning of our reading, deals with two major things: anger and lust. It’s with these two things that he is going to give his listeners an enhanced and clearer experience of the Law. And so let’s take a closer look at what he has to say…
Jesus starts out like any typical rabbi of that day and time with the classic line, “You have heard it said…” This was the great intro statement for a rabbi’s teaching. A rabbi would then quote Scripture or one of the great rabbis from ages past.
So Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
The crowd is expecting him to then go on and quote one of the ancient interpretations of this line from Deuteronomy -- an interpretation that had been passed down from rabbi to rabbi for generations. But Jesus does something unheard of in his day and time -- he gives his own interpretation.
It’s not that Jesus was unable to have his own thoughts and opinions, but the whole Jewish structure around studying the Bible was built on the assumption that you would study under a rabbi, learn his interpretation (which he had learned from his rabbi years ago), and then go around to villages sharing that rabbi’s interpretation.
It was like seminary, and being able to show the diploma on the wall that said, I studied at this institution under Professor So-and-So. It was a stamp of legitimacy.
But Jesus tells the crowd, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”
Now what is about to come out of his mouth is his own interpretation, and he goes in a surprising direction. “You have heard it taught this way about murder,” he says, “but now I’m taking it a step further, and we need to talk about anger. Because if you are angry with a brother or sister you are liable of judgment, and if you insult them you are liable to the courts, and if you let your anger brood to such a point that you lash out at them and say, ‘You fool’ you are liable of the fire of hell.”
And so, Jesus has taken a classic text on murder, and shifted the interpretation to focus on the emotion behind murder, which is anger. But the way the Greek form of “angry” is used here actually gives us more clarity in what Jesus is trying to say.
Here in the passage the word can mean “carrying anger, remaining angry” or as we like to say today “holding a grudge.” That really shifts how we think about Jesus’ teaching on anger. People get angry, Jesus got angry, but it is what you do with that anger that Jesus is focused on.
With his new command, Jesus has enhanced the Law of Moses. He has brought them into a deeper reality of God’s kingdom, a clearer vision of what God had in mind when he first commanded: do not murder. This new command goes beyond the law that protects life; Jesus is also wanting to protect people by saying: you shall not continue to be angry with a person.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us wondering how to overcome our anger and be reconciled; he very practically gives us some advice: if you are offering your gift at the altar, and you remember you’ve been holding a grudge against someone, drop your gift, leave it there, and be reconciled with your brother or sister. After you’ve done that then offer your gift.
It’s all about immediate reconciliation. That even while worshiping God it is better to leave the church, having people awkwardly stare at you as you walk out, and be reconciled, than come to the altar knowing there is someone we have been holding a grudge against -- that in fact, our relationship with God is affected if we don’t have a good relationship with people… But as Jesus shows in our passage, anger is not the only thing that affects our relationship with God.
In the same format as before Jesus talks about adultery. “You have heard it said, but I say to you: if you even look at a woman or man with lust then you’ve already committed adultery.” Jesus has enhanced the law on adultery to an unbelievable level. It’s gone from a law against acting out of lust to the very thought of it.
One writer gave a helpful distinction by saying, “Jesus does not condemn looking ‘with lust’, every look at an attractive person is combined ‘with’ some desire. Jesus condemns looking ‘in order to lust.’ There is a difference: one happens, the other is allowed to happen” (Bruner, 220).
And as with anger, Jesus gives some advice, this time a little more grotesque, but the idea is the same. Immediate, swift action must be taken. Jesus doesn’t caution us, or tell us to slowly back off the lustful desires. He recommends immediate surgery. This isn’t going to be fixed with a few Band Aids, this is much more serious. He’s saying, “Cut it out!”
Jesus pairs lust and anger together because they share so many things in common. Both seek power over another person. Both of them put other people down, though in opposite ways- one by hatred and the other by desire.
Anger, like lust, simply happens, but in both cases, it is allowing it to continue to happen that Jesus challenges. And Jesus knows as well as we do that the longer we hold onto anger and lust the more likely those feelings will take root and shape us; that in fact, both of these are highly addictive.
Jesus in these two new commands puts a protective shield around every single person we meet, and says, “They matter. Do not hurt them with your anger, and do not touch them with your wrongful desires. They are mine…and you are mine.”
But in our weakness, we daily flirt with the temptation of holding onto anger with our families, co-workers, and classmates that deeply affect our relationship with them and God. We also flirt with the temptation of looking at a person in order to lust rather than to see them as the precious child of God they are.
I personally battle with these temptations every single day, and if we are honest with ourselves I think we all do.
It doesn’t help that it sometimes feels like we live in a culture that runs completely off angry and lustful energy. Just watch a TV commercial or walk around a mall, and see if you can to figure out what emotions they are trying create in us in order to buy their stuff.
We need to look better than the people we work with, or be as happy as that family on TV, or as attractive as those models on the poster. The goal of commercials and malls are not to make us feel good about ourselves, but that we are not good enough until we have “that certain thing they’re selling.”
Why do people in beer commercials always look like they are having the time of their life? Why do Victoria Secret commercials excite men so much, and degrade women? Because they are saying: only with our product can you feel that happy and look and feel that attractive.
And like a stick of dynamite Jesus’ new commands break into our culture. Jesus’ counter-cultural commands are actually an invitation…an invitation into a new reality…one we like to call the Kingdom of God.
This is not the kind of reality where you can have a dinosaur walk to you in your living room, rather it is a reality that was inaugurated at an empty tomb. It is a reality where anger and lust have no influence, but power resides with God alone; where power is made perfect in weakness.
Jesus’ commands are an invitation into a radical kingdom where people matter because they were made in the image of the Creator of the Universe… It was a radical message when Jesus first proclaimed it, and it is still radical today.
The question is what will we do with it?
Is this just another gospel reading, or is it in fact a command to rethink how we interact with every single person we meet?
Is this just another teaching by Jesus, or is this actually an invitation to see each relationship as God sees it?
With God’s help, may we have the will and strength to look at every single person we encounter, and see the protective shield that Jesus has put around them and hear him whisper to us, “They matter. Do not hurt them with your anger, and do not touch them with your wrongful desires. They are mine…and you are mine.”
Sixth Sunday of Epiphany. Year A. Matthew 5:21-37. D. Bruner’s commentary Matthew vol. 1. Photo here.