We talk a lot about God’s grace in this church – as well we should! It’s critical that followers of Jesus understand we are flawed, imperfect creatures, but that God loves us enough to forgive our weakness and let us push the reset button on our lives again and again (and again and again). Thank God for that!
At the same time, today’s Scripture text reminds us of another important truth: Jesus set very high standards for his followers. Trusting in God’s grace and forgiveness doesn’t mean anything goes. That would be what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace,” grace without discipleship, without repentance. It’s a critical distinction. Our culture may say: I’m ok; you’re ok; I’ll do what’s right for me; you do what’s right for you. But that’s not what Jesus says. In fact, Jesus not only upheld the Jewish laws of his day, he sought to raise the bar. In the section of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve just read this morning those challenges are front and center.
It’s important, though, to read all of these “You have heard it said, but I say to you” antitheses against the background of their preceding verses. Verses in which Jesus commends the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Verses in which Jesus explains he has come “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5:17) I remember learning in my Judaism classes in college that additional, extra-biblical laws were put into place as a “fence” around the Torah. Strict adherence to the Torah was felt to be so important that in order for faithful Jews to be certain they did not violate its commands, they would follow additional, carefully constructed rules and regulations as well. In other words, Christians certainly don’t have a monopoly on high expectations for behavior. We could learn a great deal from the care and attention many of our Jewish neighbors devote to the choices and actions of their everyday lives. Nor would we want to claim in a simplistic way that their rules are only about external behaviors and Jesus was the first to have standards for our inner lives as well. Everything faithful Jews do is done because they love the Lord their God with heart and mind and soul.
In other words, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Jesus is not saying, ‘this is what the old law said, but I’m going to cast it aside and give you a new and completely opposite law to replace it.’ Rather, he is saying, ‘Here is what the law says, and I am going to the heart of that law to show you how children of the kingdom of heaven live out its deepest meaning.” “The law neither remains as it was nor is it done away with; rather, it is fulfilled and transformed in Jesus Christ.”
As for the particulars, Jesus demands that his followers consider carefully not only our actions, but also our thoughts. And frankly, this is where he loses people sometimes. Suddenly those hundreds of rules and regulations about what we should and shouldn’t do, according to Jewish law, sound almost easy by comparison! Because at least we have control over what we do. How on earth are we supposed to control our thoughts in the same way?
There’s no question, the list is a daunting one. But here’s the point: “Jesus wants his disciples to be people of integrity, people who are faithful to their promises, people who have no need to swear that they are telling the truth because they are truth-tellers. They should be people who honor their commitments … and who respect the commitments of others. The women in their midst are not people to be used and abandoned at will, but fellow disciples. They are among the ones who are now blessed by God’s reign. For the church to claim Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom come, it must strive to be the kind of place that reflects God’s reign. In these antitheses, Jesus provides a glimpse of God’s kingdom come.”
I’m afraid we don’t have time to go into every section of this text in equal depth today, but a few elements are particularly important to highlight, as they can be real stumbling blocks.
First, let’s turn for just a minute to Jesus’ words about divorce. As preaching professor Tom Long explains, “we need… to acknowledge that the word ‘divorce’ in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean exactly what the word ‘divorce’ means today. In the first-century world, divorce was similar to what we would call ‘abandonment’ – someone simply walked out (or, more likely, threw the woman out) with little ceremony…Jesus’ word about divorce was spoken to preserve the value of the people involved in marriages. [Today, in a very different cultural and legal context] when a marriage becomes the very arena where people are destroying each other, we should ask: how can the safety, nurture, and honor of the marriage partners best be preserved? This will mean viewing with compassion the people and their relationship, not merely defending the institution of marriage as such. Marriage was made for humanity, not humanity for marriage.” In other words, divorce should never be considered lightly. It’s tragic, in fact, because it involves breaking lifelong vows. But we all know of instances when divorce is a better option than remaining in a miserable, loveless, or abusive relationship. As we interpret a Scripture passage that is precisely about upholding the spirit and not only the letter of the law, let’s not make the mistake of taking Jesus’ words about divorce out of context.
It’s also terribly important that we understand the admonition in today’s text to turn the other cheek. In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” How many wives have been battered, how many children cower in fear of a cruel parent, only to think the Bible has told them not to resist, or to protect themselves? Worse yet, how many preachers over the years have taken these dangerous words and gone precisely that route – explicitly telling their congregations that such treatment at the hands of another, if not justified, is at least to be tolerated.
But here is another place where careful cross-cultural translation is so critical. Certainly at first glance Jesus’ words “sound like ludicrous counsel to those living in a violent world. It sounds as if Jesus is not just standing on a mountain, but is living with his head in the clouds, as if he’s saying, ‘Just lie down and let the world run over you.’” But Tom Long urges us to take a closer look at his words. “’If someone strikes you on the right cheek,’ … they are most likely not using their [fist or even the palm of their hand]. Think about it. Most likely they’re backhanding your right cheek.”
Walter Wink explains “the backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, ‘Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” In other words, if they’re going to hit you, don’t also let them humiliate you. Change the terms. Change your stance. Thrust forward your other cheek; in other words, position yourself so they must take you on as an equal. I can’t change the fact that someone has hurt me. But what can I change, so that I won’t be hurt again, at least in that same way? Turning the other cheek, in order to preserve my dignity. You can slap my face, but you can’t take away my worth as a child of God. I can reposition myself. And in the case of abuse, let’s be clear, that also means I can leave.
There’s one additional interpretive detail I want to point out in today’s Scripture lesson, and that is the hyperbolic language used to describe consequences for not doing the right thing, or thinking the right thoughts. Jesus intentionally uses extreme examples here to make a rhetorical point. For instance, if your hand causes you to sin, he says, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If you’re ever in a conversation with someone who insists the entire Bible is to be taken literally, ask them why so many of us Christians are walking around with both hands and both eyes! The Scriptures use many different genres and figures of speech to convey God’s word to us. Some passages are to be taken literally, and some are written in metaphorical language. The point of all of this hyperbole here in Matthew 5, of course, is simply that sinful thoughts and actions are a big deal. We need to pay attention to our inner lives. We may appear on the surface to say and do all the right things, but if our hearts are seething with anger and resentment, jealousy and unfaithfulness, we still have quite a bit of work to do.
We are called to follow Christ body and soul. There’s not a part of us that shouldn’t be getting in on the action of being transformed, by being a follower of Christ. No one ever said it would be easy. In fact throughout the gospels, Jesus says quite the opposite. We are called to a hard life, a narrow path, but one that is richly fulfilling. Will we perfectly be able to regulate our thoughts? Of course not. But will we sometimes be able to catch ourselves in the act of thinking a vicious or lustful or judgmental or vengeful thought, and make a midcourse correction? You bet we will. That is well within our power.
Again, we won’t always get it right. It’s important to understand that the word “perfect” in the concluding verse we read this morning - “be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) – that word in the original Greek actually means whole, complete, mature. It’s something we should aspire to. But we needn’t fear we are letting Jesus down in a catastrophic way if we don’t achieve 100% on this test! Remember, we began our sermon today with the reminder that we are flawed creatures. And that’s where God’s grace comes into the picture.
Still, let’s not underplay what Jesus asks of us. Certainly squirming our way out of these Sermon on the Mount commandments would be a whole lot more comfortable than taking them seriously. But again, that would be cheap grace.
And finally, as N. T. Wright points out, “The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about us… It’s about Jesus himself. This was the blueprint for his own life. He asks nothing of his followers that he hasn’t faced himself…[So] The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about how to behave. It’s about discovering the living God in the loving, and dying, Jesus, and learning to reflect that love ourselves into the world that needs it so badly.”
No matter how challenging, wouldn’t you say that’s worth a try?
 Tom Long, Matthew, p. 55.
 Long, p. 53
 Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37 by Carla Works, NT professor, in texweek.com, Feb 16, 2014
 Long, p. 60.
 Tom Long, “One Christian’s Voice Against the Death Penalty,” in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2006, p. 41.
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 99-100.
 NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 53