Main Text: Matthew 5:14-48 (Way too long to post here! Read it in your own Bible.)
1 John 2:1-5
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: …
Good morning! We continue our series this morning called, “So You Want to Be a Disciple?” Last week we explored the topic, “Disciples Trust and Imitate Christ.” The topic today is “Disciples Follow Jesus’ Commands.” When I first envisioned today’s sermon I pictured myself talking through every one of Jesus’ commands. But as I got into it I realized that’s impossible. Or, well, intolerable! In 1925 the great missionary J. S. McConnell wrote an exhaustive treatise on the 338 commands of Jesus, classified into 21 categories. He went through the gospels in the King James Bible to extract and comment on literally ever single red-letter command. You can find McConnell’s list on a site set up by his son John in 1999, at http://www.wowzone.com/commandm.htm . McConnell, by the way, would later become the founder of Earth Day.
On this second website- Cust.idl.net.au/fold/teach/Top40/The_Top_Forty.html - I found the list you have in your bulletin, with scriptural references. If we have top forty song charts, I guess we can have top forty ‘Commands of Jesus’ charts! I would not necessarily say myself these are the ‘top forty.’ Other helpful online studies list 38, or 50. They combine the duplicated commands into one, and give all the scripture verse references. Then, you’ll find lots of sermons out there called the Eight Commands of Jesus, or The Seven Commands of Jesus, since the preacher is looking for that perfect Biblical number! Not so helpful. I even found a few sermons which had reduced the commands of Jesus to three sermon points. Even less helpful! So I’m not going to try to summarize. Instead let’s look at Jesus’ relationship to laws and commands.
We want everything to be simple, don’t we? That’s always been true: Jesus was asked: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. See? Even Jesus summarized further. Matthew 7:
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
If you want to follow Jesus’ commands, just do the golden rule. Libertine Christians in our day take this as an excuse for very loose ethics, overlooking or rejecting the details of the Law, including Jesus’ direct commands. If Jesus set us free, then do we have to follow all these antiquated culture-bound rules? Didn’t Saint Paul teach us all is acceptable to God? Not so simple. Jesus also said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their hypocrisy in holding themselves and others accountable to an impossible standard of following to a jot and tittle the 613 rules of Leviticus. But he also honored the Laws, their reasons for continuing as important social and religious standards.
In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus took his listeners deeper, into the intents of the laws, calling people to an even higher standard. It is one thing to follow laws by rote, priding oneself in one’s accomplishments in following, shaming oneself in one’s failure, criticizing others for either their failures or refusals to follow the laws at all. That’s called deontological or legalistic thinking, and it becomes a trap. Jesus instead started with what he called the greatest commandment: to Love God with all of one’s being. He said that commandment is manifest in Love of self and others. Then he summarized with a principle: the golden rule. The golden rule is found in every one of the world’s great religions. Though we do not know Jesus was influenced by Hinduism and Confucianism and Buddhism, we have no good reason to believe he was not.
The golden rule is a universal principle. The particular and the universal. Both are necessary. Particular rules gives us clear direction. Universal truths and values help us weigh up the significance of particular rules and expectations. We weigh some necessary ethical decision in the moment against the golden rule. Would I want someone to affect me in this way? How can I illustrate? I don’t know. So many examples. Let’s say it’s hot outside. Your city asks residents to voluntarily reduce use of water so there’s enough water pressure for firefighters when the need comes. But your grass looks like it’s dying! Maybe it’s just going dormant, as grass can. Or maybe the dirt underneath really is turning to useless powder. You spent the summer before planting and weeding and watering. So, now what? How would you apply the golden rule? I’ll leave you to decide. But the universals also inform the particulars. At what point does the City decide it really does have to impose a watering ban to protect the safety of it’s residents, the welfare of all concerned? That IS their job, right? We face such ethical decisions all the time. Elected officials have to even more. Sometimes they fail to apply the universal to the particular by not passing necessary laws. But it’s also possible that they could create and enforce a law that might really not be in the best interest of all concerned. Corrupt politicians might even choose to enact and enforce something that helps some people more than other people, or even neglects or oppresses the most vulnerable people. the cynic would say maybe the real reason for the water ban is to make sure rich people can fill their swimming pools and keep their yard fountains working.
Immanuel Kant, at the end of the 19th century, proposed what we now call the Kantian Ethic. “If everyone did this, how would it affect us all?” It was what we call a teleological ethic, with choices based on the predicted ends. If everyone cheated on their taxes, what would be the consequence? If everyone watered their lawn today, what would happen? If everyone was without health insurance, how would that affect all of us? Or, if everyone were included in a health insurance program including both private insurers and government programs for the most vulnerable, what positive or negative difference might that make for us all? But Kant’s ethic was also deontological. This means it depended on the will of the person acting, so must therefore be grounded in some rule or principle.
These may not sound like the kinds of ethical questions addressed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to you. But let’s take a look. Here we see the relationship Jesus took to the whole process of making and having and keeping commands. Let me first say, we Christians have different ways of approaching the Bible including the Sermon on the Mount. Biblical literalists might try to follow ALL the commands, but end up like the Pharisees impossibly mired in their own sinfulness and judgmentalism. Christian fundamentalists pick and choose and proof-text their favorite commands- like those against homosexuals, for instance- and sometimes overlook others- like ‘don’t eat lobster.’ “New Covenant” disciples decide the “Old Covenant” laws no longer matter because of Jesus’ summary. Liberals focus on Justice and the kingdom and overlook some of the hard relational or social commands. Jesus’ teachings on Divorce, for instance, might to them seem antiquated. Evangelicals pick their focus on salvation in the cross of Christ setting us free from Law, but may overlook the other ‘harder’ commands of Jesus: for instance, to pick up our own crosses as well and follow him. Libertines might believe if we are “saved” then following commandments is just not necessary. Those who seek to interpret scripture in historical and cultural context would want to begin with an analysis of why a particular law was important in it’s context. Pork carried trichinosis, so eating it was wisely forbidden. But the reasons for other Levitical laws are more obscured, or even seem oppressive in our own cultural context. None of us, for instance, prevent women who are menstruating from going outside the house. We have other ways now to deal with the health and social consequences of that.
When you add to this that we are not really sure which truly were Jesus’ commands and which were added by particular Christian communities for this purpose or that and put in Jesus’ voice, we can get confused.
Jesus say it is helpful for us to follow Jesus’ commands to be examples. We’re a city on a hill. Our behavior shines to others, calling others to Jesus. We don’t choose to be ‘good’ to prove something to God, or others, or even ourselves. We try to be ‘good,’ lawful, obedient people, to spread the good news of God’s love, which is, by the way, one of Jesus’ commands. We’ll detail that in the last sermon.
Jesus wants our righteousness to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, who argued endlessly over how to implement laws. They were right, in that it IS about DOING. But not doing Law. Doing Love. God gives us the freedom to choose what that looks like. God forgives us when we fail. Always we get to begin again. That’s such a wondrous part of the life of discipleship! We don’t have to fret over whether we’ve been loving or not. Yes, we evaluate. We consult the Bible and our interpreting tradition. We let others help by holding us accountable. But if we fail, we confess, and repent, and begin again. That’s also in his list of commands. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.
But Jesus does get specific, into the particulars. We clearly are not to ‘murder.’ Murder is premeditated, malicious, and violent. It violates the Kantian Ethic. It violates the golden rule. It violates Love of God and Neighbor. But Jesus goes beneath. What leads us to murder another? Isn’t it greed, jealousy, anger? So, if we find the anger welling up in us, we’d better stop and take a deep breath, walk the other way. Not because God hates us for it, but because any of us is capable of murder in the wrong circumstance. The command includes a call to humility and self-assessment, then control of our own emotions. There’s a whole sermon in this and I’ll preach it sometime. Some these days say anger is normal, healthy. Not Jesus. Psychologists now help us see our anger is a defense mechanism to shield us from harm or hurt. Anger gets the adrenaline flowing, helps us fight when we must. But facing emotional hurt is bearing our own cross. Let’s all help each other do that, rather than anger out! Elsewhere Jesus said ‘turn the other cheek.’ Similar advice. The deeper ways to follow this command follow.
Jesus’ next command here is about reconciliation as worship. Do you really want to Love God with all your strength, heart, soul and mind? Kneeling at the altar rail here, or putting money in the offering plate, is a secondary way to worship God. We think it’s primary. True worship of God happens in our lives, in Jesus’ example, in our relationships. Following religious rules matters much less than reconciling with that person with whom you’ve had some fuss, to whom you haven’t spoken in years. Get your priorities straight, Jesus is saying. Loving relationships ARE worship of God. Likewise, keep your fusses out of court if you can. Settle it face to face.
But then Jesus meddles in the social rules of family relations. Guess that’s his right! We’re not the only culture struggling with social parameters for human sexuality. Jesus’ culture obviously did too. Adultery, visual lust, physical sexual abuse, divorce. We could legalize these issues, reduce them to rules. We could focus on the particulars to excuse the universal violations. Remember when President Clinton was accused of sexual misconduct? His public answer was, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” What came out later, was that he had apparently not performed sexual intercourse, what some of us would now call adultery. It was all in how you define “relations,” right? An apodictic approach: the lawyer’s way! Jesus looked instead to the deeper relational reality. A married man abused a younger woman and abused his power to violate his covenant with his partner. Jesus said just a lustful look might be enough to constitute such a violation. An inappropriate touch with the hand or arm- a hug wrongly intended- could hurt or violate another. Jesus understood the seriousness of sexually motivated violations.
But do you think Jesus literally meant we should pluck out an eye or cut off an arm? That kind of eye-for-an-eye punishment was in the cultural law- still part of fundamentalist Arab culture in places like Afghanistan to this day. No. Jesus calls us to examine ourselves, our motives, and our behavior. Do you men look at a woman and fantasize being with her? Stop that! Ask God to help you relate honestly and lovingly with or to this person. Ladies, guys are guys. The way we are wired is different. But I’ve known women who share this problem. We live in a culture which systemically objectifies people. It’s how companies sell their goods. We get caught up in it. Jesus says “Stop that.” Look away. Better, pray for deeper values and a caring spirit. God will help you. If you are choosing pornography to escape relationship, and far too many do in our culture, then consider the consequences for yourself and others. Would you want others to do that to you? Every air-brushed model with her picture in a magazine is a human being. There is a deeper ethic.
Divorce is trickier in our culture, isn’t it? Almost half of marriages end in divorce. Jesus’ teaching us it’s not just about getting the paperwork right. He says, ‘Don’t divorce;’ and, ‘Don’t marry someone who’s been divorced.’ If it’s any consolation, most scholars place this command in the mouth of Jesus’ followers in Matthew’s community, not on Jesus’ tongue. But that analysis seems too modernly convenient to me. I’ve taken my marriage vow very seriously, and I know most of you have too. I also know many of you have divorced, most for good reasons. And, some of us have married partners who were previously divorced, including me. There are good reasons for divorce, aren’t there? There are also frivolous and neglectful reasons. Again, we hold this ethical tension between the particular and the universal. The particular law in Jesus’ day said you stone adulterers to death. They apparently did not stone divorcees, as long as they had the proper paperwork. So, Jesus was taking the particular on divorce very seriously. It truly is one of those ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus, assuming he really did say it. On the other hand, in a particular instance he put the universal above the particular law: he stopped a crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery.
I don’t have time to cover all of these Sermon on the Mount commands today. But I want to end addressing two more: the second mile, the given cloak, giving to beggars, making loans- same principle. He is saying our love, our service, our giving of ourselves, should be proactive, trusting in God, risk-taking, not reactive and fearful. He challenges us to take the lead in doing good. When we do, he says elsewhere, we heap live coals on the head of our enemies, including the Evil One. But, is it possible you could be NOT loving a beggar by repeatedly supporting the begging? Yes! Jesus confronted a man who laid by a pool begging, using the excuse that no one would put him in the water when angels passed by. Jesus said, “Take up your bed and walk.’ The man did. Jesus applied a higher principle. Someone asks you for money. Do you give it? If you feel compelled to do so because “Jesus said to,” but beneath you are fearful and just want to get this person out of your face, you are applying the deontological ethic, legalism, not the command of Jesus. Are you demonstrating true compassion? If not, then it might make more sense to sit down with the person and pay for a meal and share it, get to know him or her, perhaps even share the good news of Jesus if the moment presents itself. He or she might even offer Jesus to you! What would you want, if you were the one asking for help?
Jesus goes on: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I think this is the hardest command of Jesus, don’t you? But what a difference it can make in our world, in our lives, in the lives of others! It’s forgiveness seventy-times-seven. It’s a counter-cultural stance. It’s pro-active love in its highest form, I think. It gave rise in the last century to the non-violent resistance movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Jesus’ commands can be done. Doing them changes the world, and changes you.
Next week: Disciples Grow to Love and Bear Fruit