Being Formed in Love, the Sermon on the Mount – The Rev. Michelle Meech
February 12, 2023
For much of my adult life, I was a trainer. I trained new hires how to call people and ask how their experience was at the Honda dealership or the BMW dealership or the VW dealership. I trained doctors and nurses how to use billing software. I trained people how to take flower orders in preparation for Valentines Day and Mothers Day. I trained cashiers and customer service workers how to do various kinds of transactions and warehouse workers how to receive and send electronics.
No matter exactly what job I was teaching people, I learned was that my job was never to tell them exactly what they needed to do. My job was to give them enough information so they learned how to reason their way through a decision. My job was to teach them how to figure it out for themselves.
There are various kinds of learners and various kinds of learning. But most people learn by practicing because that is what develops muscle memory. Creating a neural pathway that, with practice, gets stronger and well-worn over time so that the task, the thing we’ve learned how to do, becomes a part of us.
Over the past 3 weeks now, our Gospel reading has been pieces of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which spans over 3 full chapters – Matthew 5, 6, and 7. As with all scripture, context is important. So let’s begin with the context of Matthew’s writing of the Gospel.
In the years after Jesus’ death, his followers were practicing Jews who considered themselves to be a part of a movement, but certainly not a separate religion. Matthew’s own community was so Jewish, he didn’t even bother to describe Jewish practices because he assumed his audience would know the references he was making. Scholars estimate that Matthew wrote this Gospel sometime around the year 80 so the community at this time was full of second generation followers – many likely raised by those who knew and followed Jesus. This community kept Jewish law, known as the Torah or the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
It’s crucial to remember the larger storyline here. Rome had occupied this land for about a century and most of Jewish leadership was more interested in keeping the Roman governor happy so that they could stay alive, continue practicing their religion, and, for some, receive compensation as an employee of Rome. Rebellions cropped up, of course, and they were all squashed under the weight of the Roman army.
The Jesus movement, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to call it, was seen by Rome and by the corrupt members of Jewish leadership, as just another one of these rebellions. In their eyes, Jesus was summarily executed just like every other rabble-rouser in order to keep the peace, to keep the Pax Romana.
Eventually the Roman government had had enough of this constant drama and, in the year 70, Titus Caesar Vespasianus began his siege of Jerusalem just a few days before Passover. About 4 months later, the Roman army destroyed the Temple.
The Temple had been the last stronghold of Jewish rebellion and many Jews were massacred during the siege. Those Jews who remained were taken into captivity, trained to work as servants of the Roman government, sent to their death in the arenas of gladiator contests, or just enslaved and sold off.
Of course, many Jewish people fled from Jerusalem – the great Jewish diaspora. And in the ensuing years, those who were Jesus followers began to start identifying themselves differently – as Christians – in order to distance themselves from their Jewish roots and keep themselves safe. Although in the first 200 years Christians were constantly terrorized and executed so it couldn’t have been that safe.
It was in this climate that Matthew’s Gospel was written. Paul had been establishing Christian communities amongst non-Jews all over the Mediterranean for a couple of decades already, but the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish people in Syria (just north of modern-day Israel and Palestine). But they were not Jewish enough anymore for the synagogues of Syria, where the rabbis would not let them worship with the rest of the Jews.
So Jesus followers were a people in flux, trying to find their identity in a world torn apart by a government they did not trust. Matthew’s interest in writing this Gospel, then, is formation.
He wants to help people understand who they are by understanding who Jesus was – how he thought, the things he said, the things he did. He wants them to know Jesus the rabbi – the teacher. The one who doesn’t just tell them what to do, but the one who can help them understand the deeper meaning of the Torah. Jesus, the teacher who doesn’t come to replace the law, but to fulfill the law, to teach the wider implications of living into the true Spirit of the law by being one another’s keepers.
Matthew’s Jesus is this teacher, not only through the brilliant Sermon on the Mount, but in the very way he walks in the world throughout the Gospel. But because Matthew took 3 chapters of his work to offer us the Sermon on the Mount, we know that this is the centerpiece of the larger Gospel.
It starts with the Beatitudes… “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” These words are not saying that these people are blessed because they are poor in spirit or because they mourn, but Jesus is literally offering them a blessing with his words at the very beginning of his speech.
Then he tells the disciples – “You are the salt of the earth!” “You are the light of the world!” But you must retain your saltiness, you must not hide your light! Jesus is calling them into ministry, giving them responsibility.
And then he starts to reflect on the Torah, God’s law.
Verse 21 from today’s Gospel: “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 a sister, you will be liable to judgment”… the same thing if you insult them or call them a fool.
You can’t get out of this by just leaving a gift at the altar. If we remember our prophets – namely Isaiah and Micah, who we’ve heard recently – God doesn’t want this kind of worship, where empty gifts are offered and there is no amendment of life. We are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. So, the path isn’t prayer or worship. The path is reconciliation, making things right.
This is called “putting a fence around Torah.” It’s a Rabbinic Judaism practice in which precepts of the law are explained more thoroughly by giving more description. It’s like that story I told you earlier about how to train people – you tell them as much as they need to know so that they can learn to reason it out themselves. (Thanks to Amy-Jill Levine and her book, Sermon on the Mount for this understanding of rabbinic practice).
In this specific case where Jesus is “putting a fence around murder,” we come to understanding that simply stating: “Thou shalt not commit murder” even though it may seem pretty easy to understand, there is more here to the story. Because violence, as we know, is not just about murder.
Anger leads to all kinds of misbehavior – neglect, gossip, passive-aggression, envy, depression. Anger is actually a poison that will actually eat us alive if we allow it too much space in our lives. As the Buddha said: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” So, it’s not just the outward manifestation of anger, which is violence onto others, it’s also the toxic brew we concoct for ourselves that we must guard against.
When Jesus puts a fence around murder, he is giving more information, more space, which gives the student the ability to make a deeper connection with the intent and spirit of the law and, therefore, discerning better for themselves.
This fence also prevents unnecessary aspects from becoming a part of the discernment… such as whether or not this person deserves to die… which is not a helpful part of the discussion, especially if we believe that only God has that power.
Or I didn’t hurt him, I didn’t even touch him. I just called him a _____. Jesus actually says, “don’t call someone a fool.” Because names hurt. As a matter of fact, names can kill. In the last few decades, we’ve really started to understand the impact words have on us. Jesus may have said not to call someone a fool, but he was really talking about any word that can be used to manipulate, control, demean, or bully others.
So, the simple commandment of “Thou shalt not murder” needs this fence because it is really about violence in all its forms, needs this fence to help us understand what violence really is.
Then, Matthew has Jesus explaining another commandment in verse 27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart.”
He goes on to talk about how damaging this can be. He even goes so far as to say that if here is a part of you that you cannot get in line, get rid of it! He wasn’t advocating for actual self-mutilation, of course, he was speaking metaphorically about self-control and maturity. You see, it’s another fence: It’s not just about the act of adultery. It’s also about the thoughts that, if we choose to indulge them, will consume us.
In all of this fence building… he goes through several more commandments… Jesus is not teaching us exactly what to do in every situation. He’s not saying – click here then click there. Jesus is teaching us how to become followers, how to discern what the law means through the lens of Love and therefore, what the scriptures are trying to tell us. Jesus is teaching us the path of reconciliation – reconciling ourselves to God, to ourselves, and to one another.
Matthew has given us an amazing piece of Christian formation, in my opinion. This brilliantly written Gospel gives us the example God’s discernment and wisdom found in Jesus. Jesus is God incarnate, the one anointed to bring us back to God and save us from ourselves in a world gone mad.
Jesus’ words are radical! Think about it. Think again about the time and the place of Matthew’s Gospel. To practice non-violence in a world that only knows violence. To insist on forgiveness in a world that has only taught people how to be broken. To talk about loving one’s neighbor as the supreme value when chaos, hunger, and disease reign.
Sane people would be talking about how to survive such a place and time. Sane people would be talking about arming themselves or cheating the system or numbing themselves or gaining more power, even if it’s false power, or finding someone else to point their fingers at. Mad Max and the Thunderdome.
Sane people would not be talking about Love. But then maybe Love the only sane thing to talk about.
But I’m not talking a happy-clappy, everyone gets along, valentine’s day, I’d like to teach the world to sing soft drink commercial from the 70’s. I’m talking Micah kinda love: the do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God kinda love.
This kind of love is not about having an affinity for someone. This Love is hard work. Which is why it is so much easier to talk about guns because hate is so much easier than love. Love requires the discipline of not indulging your every thought.
While hate is lazy because it requires nothing of us but to indulge the lowest common denominator in our own thoughts. And if we do that often enough, if those are the neural pathways we choose to create, then hate owns us.
Professor and theologian, bell hooks, who died just about a year ago, wrote a lot about love in her writings on culture, gender, and race because she knew it was the only actual antidote. She said this:
“The moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom.”
It’s as simple as that, really. Love is the practice of liberation. The Sermon on the Mount is many things, but it is mainly a love letter from Jesus to his disciples, teaching us that God’s law is, at its core, about love and so, it is about liberation.
If we take God’s law and turn it into a tool of violence, then it’s no longer God’s law. Love, you see, really is the only sane thing in a world gone mad.