Sixth Sunday of Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Mathew 5:21-37

The “Sermon on the Mount” before us in St Matthew 5 this morning is sometimes referred to as having in it “The Beatitudes”. gordon3These different terms brings to our attention how the church at various times has profoundly distorted the meaning of the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  In St Matthew’s gospel which is directed primarily to and associated with the Jewish Christian community, is one in which we are meant to see a type of New Moses who delivers to the 12 disciples, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, a new law.  But the new law which Jesus teaches is such that it puts an end to understanding the law as a way of salvation.  ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven’. ‘Thou shall not kill’ means you shall not be angry, and the consequences of anger is hell fire.

The law says, ‘you shall worship the Lord your God and him alone’. But worship becomes and is impossible if, in bringing your offering, you have some grievance, or someone has a grievance against you. In these words, Jesus indicates at one and the same time the drastic judgement that has come into the world in his word and work and the help and comfort which his teaching brings.

Yes, help and comfort! This intensification of the law’s demands by Jesus teaching shows the depths of our alienation from the created truth of our life in relationship to the source of our life in God.  The ‘thou shalt’ in front of the commandment to love God, which we understand so well, is the one thing we should not understand. The thou shalt in front of the commandment to love and worship God indicates the depths of our rejection of the truth of our life in relationship to God. It shouldn’t be there, but we understand the command so well when we hear it and that tells us that we in fact don’t love or worship God. We would rather hide from God with our guilty conscience.

Jesus knows this and He faces us with the contradiction in which God finds us all. But Jesus does this not in order to leave us with the knowledge of our incapacity and alienation. He is the one in whom our incapacity and alienation is overcome, in him God is loved and worshipped for God’s sake alone: the unselfconscious relationship of love and truth which exists by nature between the eternal Father and the eternal Son in the eternal Spirit is now made ours by grace. For in the obedient humanity of Jesus who receives that full measure of the Spirit in his baptism He goes on to fulfil every jot and tittle of the Law. Not for his own sake, he didn’t need to be made righteous he is the ever-righteous Son of the Father, he obeys the Law for our sake. Even though through His obedience he suffers his death on the cross as the Judge judged in place of all.

Thus, the Sermon on the Mount cannot be understood if it is separated from Jesus and turned into an assembly of moral maxims.  The sermon on the Mount is not a rarefied form of the old law of Israel.  If we were to take the sermon as moral exhortation to us it would make no sense at all; it would be irrelevant to our human condition, and most of us are aware of this when we read “The Sermon on the Mount.”  For example, Jesus says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, “we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven”, that is the righteousness of those who made it their life’s work to study and apply the law.

If we think we can overcome this problem by saying that the scribes and pharisees were interested only in the outward performance of the law, whereas Jesus is concerned with inward motivation.  Well, if we think this, and many of us have heard sermons which portray the verses of the sermon on the mount as a series of moral ideals to strive after. But let us attend seriously to Jesus’ words. “The law of old says you shall not kill but I say to you ……whoever says, ‘you fool’ shall be liable to hell fire”. Further Jesus says, The Law of old says, “You shall not commit adultery”, ……. I say to you whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.

This supreme intensification, the radicalisation, of the law by Jesus words is to indicate that the way to righteousness by fulfilling the law by our outward action or inward motivation is an impossibility.  Jesus builds a mile-high wall around the law as a way of righteousness.

He does this in order to invite us to allow our lives to be illumed by Him who speaks these words to us.  For, he says, he has come to fulfil the law not to abolish it.  But Jesus fulfilment of the law is not for his sake, he as the Son of God knows no sin.  He fulfils the law in our humanity for our sake. 

When Jesus in these same verses pronounces his disciples “blessed”, this is no pious incantation, but a declaration that all that he is in himself in relation to God, as the one who fulfils the law, is theirs as His gift to them. So, what the disciples take away from the mountain is not the law of righteousness but righteousness itself.  And it is this gift, identical with the life and presence of Jesus with them, that distinguishes the disciples as the foundation of the New Israel, the church, whose central act of worship is Jesus own appointed way of giving us to participate in his own eternal righteousness and life: His word and His sacraments.

This, however, brings us to one of the consequences of these miraculous words of Jesus in his so-called “Sermon on the Mount”. For if it is true that Jesus words bestow upon Christians by His grace, a new righteousness, as Jesus takes to Himself our sin and gives us the righteousness of His obedience unto death; then this has implications for our lives.

The “But I say” sayings of the “The Sermon on the Mount.” All these verses presuppose, assume, that because of Jesus presence with the disciples, his call of them, and His naming of them as ‘blessed’ because the purpose of the old law of Moses, which stated where his people ought to be in relationship to God and their neighbour, this purpose has now come to fulfilment in all that Jesus wills to be for the disciples through his binding of himself to them.  The ought of the old law, you ought to do this or that,  this has now been replaced by the “you are” of Jesus blessing of his disciples in his sermon on the Mount, giving them to participate in His own eternal righteousness,.

The new righteousness of the disciples which they receive by Jesus identification with them has its consequences in practical terms; why, because Jesus identifies himself with them as God’s enemies. They understand only too well the ‘Thou shalt in front of the commandments and therefore identify themselves as haters of God, His enemies.  So the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the law of retaliation against the enemy is now set aside because the one whose life the disciples now share, by the grace of Jesus call, is the one whose life is taken up, spent, in the service of God’s enemies.

These words are not to be interpreted as an abstract principle of non-resistance as a form of natural political wisdom of a sage.  The named enemies here are God’s enemy.  The question here is that there can no longer be any grounds for holy wars about holy lands.  The coming of Jesus puts an end to the justification of war, between nations and individuals based on faith.  The holy wars that Israel fought against its neighbours has come to an end, there can be no more holy land since the Messiah has come, the whole earth is become the subject of God’s reign of righteousness. The mission of the church as the New Israel is to the whole Gentile world. The fulfilment by Jesus of the old covenant has this effect for the church – that Christians are to relate to non-Christians as those enemies of God with whom Jesus identifies himself.  Jesus breaks down the dividing wall of national and individual difference by tying all people together as God’s enemies that he may have mercy on all.

It is this mercy of God by which Christians live that ties them to their non-Christian neighbours in a solidarity which finds expression in this generosity of Jesus words in Jesus sermon. This generosity of the second mile in patience and forbearance toward the one who treats them as an enemy, expresses the patience and forbearance of God which has come to light in Jesus, adopting the place of the enemy of God, with all that that involves for him in the cross. It is this demanding, drastic freedom, which Jesus bestows upon Christians in the righteousness He gives them in His words of this ‘Sermon on the mount’. For when Jesus calls a person, as Deitrich Bonhoeffer once said, “He bids him come and die.”

Dr Gordon Watson.

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