Today's Gospel lesson is a continuation of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. We have been listening to that Sermon for the last two weeks--it began with the Beatitudes. Unfortunately, we shall not read any more of it this year. One of the difficulties posed by a lectionary, the list of lessons set apart for the various Sundays of the year, is that, in this case at least, we are not able to hear the full discourse in its entirety, in one sitting, as it was meant to be heard. We only get sections at a time, and some of them--such as today's lesson--have snippets cut out of them. The end result is that we do not get the full flavor of the sermon. It would be much the same if I were to stop this sermon right now and pick up with the next paragraph next week. It wouldn't make much sense, would it?
The Sermon on the Mount is unique to Matthew's telling of the Gospel story. To be sure much of the material in the Sermon can be found in other Gospels, particularly in Luke--but Luke has Jesus preach the sermon on a level place, a plain. Mark seems to omit the event entirely. The Sermon is also much longer in Matthew's version--some 110 verses, while the Lucan version is only 32 verses.
The person whom we call Matthew obviously had some purpose in mind as he produced his edition of Jesus' teaching. What was it?
The form of the Sermon gives us some clues. The Sermon is a carefully reasoned discourse which moves from the Beatitudes, through a discussion of the Law, into a consideration of proper piety (including teaching the prayer, Our Father), followed by warnings concerning pitfalls in leading the Gospel life, concluding with an injunction to heed these teachings. At the end of the Sermon Matthew gives us an insight into what is going on: the crowds, he records, were astonished with Jesus' teaching for he taught them as one who had authority.
The Sermon on the Mount then, establishes Jesus' authority for Matthew, establishes Jesus' authority as a teacher. It establishes without doubt that Jesus is a rabbi.
What is that important for Matthew?
The answer is quite simple. The congregation or audience for whom Matthew was writing were Jewish Christians, Jews who believed the Gospel. These Jewish Christians
were being persecuted by other Jews: charged with heresy and beginning to be expelled from the synagogues. Hence, the verses at the beginning of the Sermon: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (5:10-12)."
It is possible that some in Matthew's audience were beginning to believe that their critics were correct when they charged that the Jewish Christians were no longer Jews, that the Jews who followed the teacher Jesus had abandoned the Law, the Torah of God, the observance of which made a Jew a Jew.
Countering this belief Matthew emphasizes that Jesus did not put aside the Law, rather (in another verse unique to this Gospel) Jesus says: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill...For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (5:17, 20)." This saying which concluded last week's gospel reading is the introduction to today's lesson.
Jesus now proceeds to a typically rabbinical form of teaching. He quotes the Law and then comments on it. He quotes the commandment on murder, the commandment on adultery, the commandment on bearing witness. But in his commentary, he does not just explain the meaning of the Law, he expands it: one kills not just in the act of taking a life but whenever one is angry or levies abuse and insults--and in either case one is liable for the punishment due for murder. Likewise, one commits adultery not just in the physical act of violating the marriage covenant, but whenever one lusts after another, even if only in the imagination of the heart. It is not good enough that one not bear false witness just when under oath, but at all times a person's word must be truthful--so that no oath is ever necessary.
In short, Jesus commands his followers to go beyond merely observing the Law. They must expand their observance of the Law into all aspects of their lives, inwardly as well as outwardly. Why? The text tells us: so that their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. To put it bluntly: so that they be above criticism, that they be better Jews than the most scrupulously observant Jews, the Pharisees, in order that there be no grounds for the charges that the Jewish Christians had abandoned the Law, the basic religious and moral code of Jewish society.
What has that got to do with us? We do not live in a society that is governed by the dictates of the Torah. Is this teaching applicable in our situation? I think it is.
Just as those first century Jews-becoming-Christians to whom Matthew was writing had to live by a moral standard above and beyond what was legitimately expected by their contemporaries, so too, we twentieth century Christians are called to live by a moral standard above and beyond that expected by our society. It is not enough that we be good people: we are called to be exemplary people, to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect. And this striving for perfection must affect every facet of our lives, from the way we deal with our anger and bring about reconciliation, to the way we deal with our desires, to the value people can put on our speech, knowing that whatever we say, whenever we say it, is truthful.
But then you say, "That's impossible, I can't be perfect. Besides, are you telling me that I have to work my way into heaven?"
No, I am not saying that. But you have hit on one of the paradoxes of Christianity. We cannot be perfect--we cannot because we are sinners. No matter how hard you or I try, none of us can achieve on our own that perfection to which we are called. Yet, we continue to strive for it.
Why do we? We do it because of Jesus. Jesus has called us to share the perfect life of the Kingdom of Heaven with him. And we strive for that perfection knowing as Paul tells us and the Corinthians in today's epistle, that God gives us the ability to grow, to grow into the full, mature stature of the sons and daughters of God, to be transformed bit by bit by the grace of God into the perfect life of the Child of God, Jesus our brother.
That is our calling: to be transformed daily in the way that we live inwardly and outwardly in order to reveal to the world around us that in Jesus we have found something. We have found a new way of living together. It is a way of living marked by a desire to make peace with those whom we have wronged or who have wronged us. It is a way of living marked by a respect for others for who they are not as objects of lust and desire. It is a way of living marked by a commitment to the truth so strong that our "Yes" means "Yes" and our "No", "No". Above all it is a way of living made possible only through the Grace of God, who loves us, who has redeemed us from sin and death and who makes us Holy.