We Ourselves Heard | Transfiguration

2 Peter 1:16-21

16 We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Most important, you must know that no prophecy of scripture represents the prophet’s own understanding of things, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will. Instead, men and women led by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (CEB)

We Ourselves Heard

I remember exactly where I was. My American Christianity class with Dr. Grant Wacker was scheduled to end at 9:50 a.m., but I think we got out a little early that day. I was walking back to my car. My path took me past Duke Chapel, across Science Drive, and between the Engineering and Physics buildings. When I crossed Circuit Drive, I heard the radio of some construction workers blaring. But it wasn’t music. It was the DJ from 96.1 WBBB saying that the president had shut down all air traffic across the United States, and I heard the phrase, “terrorist attack.”

I thought, that’s weird, and got into my car to drive home. My radio was already tuned to the same station, so I listened as reports about planes crashing into the World Trade Center buildings. I got home and turned on my television just before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. It’s impossible to convey exactly what I felt in that moment or throughout the day as other buildings fell, as the Pentagon burned, and as we wondered how many more planes were going to crash into buildings. I certainly felt shock. Anger at the people who would cause such wanton death and destruction against people who had never harmed them. People who, like me, only wanted to live another day with their family and friends. I remember praying a lot. I remember crying. I remember thinking that our nation would be going to war, and that other lives would be lost. A new cycle of violence would begin, and it would leave new scars, deep scars, on the world.

We live in the shadow of significant events that shape our world and impact our lives, yet those events can leave our generations somewhat fragmented. My children will never understand how Tuesday, September 11, 2001 impacted my life and the world into which they were born. They never got to experience the shift that occurred that day. They were simply born into new reality on this side of it.

In the same way, I’ll never understand how the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or Robert Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr. affected my parents and their generation. Or, what it meant when Freedom 7 took Alan Shepard into space, or to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon. And, my parents probably don’t quite understand life under Prohibition, or how the Great Depression affected their penny-pinching parents who would never dare buy something if they couldn’t pay in cash. Honestly, the stories of my grandparents and parents don’t quite affect my behavior as much as the events I, myself, experienced have affected my behavior.

The transfiguration of Jesus was one such event that marked a transition for Peter. Yet, it’s not easy for us to imagine the event as he would have witnessed it. The descriptions found here and in the Gospels surely fall short of the experience itself. What did that magnificent glory look and sound like? I can imagine something like the explosion of the Death Star set to a ripping guitar riff from Jesus Christ Superstar, but it might not do the transfiguration justice.

Besides not being able to fully imagine the event, itself, we can’t really grasp the difference between the world before and after that pivotal moment of Transfiguration. We only have Peter’s words telling us about a magnificent glory and a quotation of what a voice from heaven spoke: “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased” (2 Peter 1:17b, CEB).

What we do have is the significance of what witnessing the transfiguration meant to Peter. He explains earlier in the chapter (verse 14) that he knows he’s going to die soon and he’s eager for us to remember what he outlines as a Christian life in verses 5 through 8. What the transfiguration confirmed to Peter, and what he lays out in our text, is that the teachings of Jesus Christ are not of human origin, but from God.

Some scholars think Peter was addressing Epicurean teaching that had either seeped into the church or become an outside opponent to it. Founded around 307 B.C., Epicureanism grew into one of the major schools of Hellenistic philosophy that lasted into the later Roman Empire. Epicureans taught that there could not be an afterlife. The gods, or any deity for that matter, were uninterested in our world and are so distant that couldn’t really do anything about things here anyway. The world and everything in it; every thought, feeling, and sensation; every body, every soul, even the gods, are merely the random movement of atoms.

Epicurus taught that the goal of life is enjoyment and happiness by ridding oneself of fear and pain. We should enjoy life, but in moderation, because enjoyment in excess can also lead to pain. Too much eating of your favorite food, for example, can give you indigestion and make you not enjoy that food any longer.

Regarding the gods, Epicurus taught that human beings are free from all divine meddling: fear of divine punishment, providence, fate, and myth. He held that the world, itself, was not created by any divine being, nor was there any rationality behind it. It’s all random atoms clumping and breaking apart. In a sense, as merely random clumping of atoms, none of us really even exist.

If the scoffers Peter mentions later in chapter 3 are arguing from an Epicurean vantagepoint that it’s ridiculous for Christians to claim that Jesus is coming in power because religion is all just myth that human beings invented out of fear and foolish hope, then Peter kicks the leg out from under the argument that humans invented this stuff. Peter reminds us that what we believe doesn’t come from repeating crafty myths that human beings invented. Quite to the contrary, Peter, James, and John, witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus Christ with their own eyes. They heard the voice speaking from the magnificent display of glory with their own ears while they were together in a very real place. It wasn’t a myth. He saw it. He says, “We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:18, CEB).

This was one of those watershed moments for Peter where his life wasn’t the same after as it was before. There were witnesses alongside Peter who heard God’s voice declare that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Peter’s words of personal witness might not convince an Epicurean, but they do remind followers of Jesus Christ that our faith is based on actual events that happened to actual people who lived and breathed just like the rest of us. This is not a fancy myth or tall tale. First John begins with a declaration that has a similar ring to it, “We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life” (1 John 1:1, CEB). What the disciples experienced of Jesus was real enough that they knew it with all of their senses.

Scoffers, especially if they came from an Epicurean viewpoint, would also say that, in a world that has no intelligent design or order, prophecy makes no sense. But Peter declares that we do have a reliable prophetic tradition which foretold what happened to Jesus Christ, and further speaks of his coming as a judge. In chapter 2, he tells how there is such a thing as justice. God does, indeed, punish the wicked and save those who do what is right. God punished Sodom and Gomorrah while saving Lot. (And, remember that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because they “didn’t help the poor and needy” [Ezekiel 16:49, CEB]).

Peter says, “These things show that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and how to keep the unrighteous for punishment on the Judgment Day” (2 Peter 2:9, CEB). There is a divine rationality to the world. The words of the prophets are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Prophecy speak to God’s purposes, not human attempts at cleverness. Peter calls us to pay attention to that prophetic witness because it has already proved itself reliable.

Prophecy and promises look to the future, and that’s something even Epicureans do all the time. Not only do we remember, but we make plans. We do things that expect that the sun will rise tomorrow as it did yesterday. We exchange vows and bind our lives to a spouse. We have children and hope for their future. We build friendships and nurture our family relationships. When we do these things, we’re entering into covenants that expect the promise of a future.

The transfiguration of Jesus Christ is a moment in time that points toward a future reality. Our Christian faith is not simply faith in Christ who lived, died, and rose for us a long time ago. It’s a faith in the Christ who is coming in power as the prophets foretold. It’s a faith that is never complete, never finished growing, never fully developed because our faith is constantly being transformed—transfigured—into a fuller glory. While our faith and the promises of God to which we hold are a present reality in that we are expected to bear the fruit of holy living now, the promises of God are always future driven. The vision of the prophets foresees a future where we are fully in Christ with a new heaven and a new earth as our home, where nothing can harm or destroy (Isaiah 11:9), and is no longer mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).

In fact, Peter states that our faith is something we must build up when he says, “This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever lacks these things is shortsighted and blind, forgetting that they were cleansed from their past sins” (2 Pet. 1:5-9, CEB).

If we aren’t building our faith up, we risk becoming stillborn Christians: inactive and unfruitful. Peter sounds a reminder for us to exercise an active and fruitful faith that holds up this prophetic vision of the future until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Christ will come in glory to transfigure the world and make all things new. This is the promise of God through the prophets; a promise of glory which Peter saw when Jesus Christ was transfigured before his eyes.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Be Perfect | 7th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (CEB)

Be Perfect

In a society where everything seems to be based on the dynamics of raw power, the one with the strongest fists, the most guns, or most advanced military wins. Instead of the Golden Rule of Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, the ethic in our world sounds more like a Sylvester Stalone line from the movie Oscar, where Snaps Provolone says “Do unto others before others do unto you.” For some people in power positions, it means, If others do anything bad to you, finish them off before they do anything else to you.

Often times it seems that the “Golden Rule” should, instead, say, The person with the most gold makes the rules. The people with power order the world so that it benefits themselves, so they can gain more power. This kind of survival-of-the-richest environment was as real in the ancient world as it is today.

As with our text last Sunday, in the reading for this morning, Jesus interprets the law and suggests an adjustment in our understanding of faithful living within it. People have long understood the language in the law, “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound” (Exodus 21:23-25, CEB). as permission to do unto others as they have done unto us. What we often fail to see that the law of Moses was a mitigating and moderating force against the all-out, no-holds-barred retaliation that often took place in the ancient world.

If someone knocked your tooth out, you aren’t commanded by the law to go knock their tooth out, rather you are restrained by the law to only go as far as knocking out their tooth in retaliation. In other words, you can’t kill someone if they knock out your tooth. This is obviously how Jesus interpreted the law—in terms of restraint—when he says, “But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:39-42 CEB).

At least for me, I can understand these words on a purely academic level, but to get past the academics to real life application, this boggles my mind. How do we even think about living out these things in our lives today? These expectations seem more than a little crazy. Imagine a Christian in Posey County—or anywhere for that matter—who gets up one morning and decides to do what Jesus teaches here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the wanted amount. This person would be broke, homeless, and in the Emergency Room at Deaconess Hospital. So, what are we to do with Jesus’ teaching here?

One way we can think about this is to see how Jesus provides a strategy for robbing violent and oppressive people of their power. As a hypothetical situation, say a supporter of a dictator punches a protestor and the protestor retaliates by trying to hit back. It’s then that the dictator and their supporters have won because they’ve established violence as the agenda and have the protestors reacting on their terms.

But what if the protestor, after being punched, should stand there firmly and offer the dictator’s thug their other cheek, as if to say, You may like violence, but you are not in control. I choose another way, a way of nonviolence. You can hit me, but I’m not going anywhere.

The turning of the other cheek shows that, while cruel people may do violence, they do not have the power to take away the dignity and humanity of other people. Nonviolence is the kind of resistance that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached because it’s the kind of resistance that Jesus preached.

This leads us to another way of understanding these words of Jesus: as good news that in God’s new creation there will be no violence. No one will have to stockpile weapons or carry a can of pepper spray. People won’t have to put deadbolts on the doors of their homes or set the alarms on their security systems to protect their loved ones and possessions from thieves. In fact, people won’t want to lock up their belongings at all because we’ll want to share all that we have with others.

Lawyers and judges and people who file lawsuits will be a thing of the past (as well, I might add, as preachers and church committee meetings!). No one will resist a neighbor because no one will need to. This is the way things will be in the kingdom of heaven: God’s will, perfectly lived. All these things Jesus says here that seem so crazy and difficult, will be the norm.

Then, we come to Jesus’ teaching on love. The law of Moses says to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). And as long as we get to choose who our neighbor is, this is a pretty easy thing to do. You see, the law doesn’t say anything about not hating our enemies. In fact, many religious people interpreted the law in such a way that they felt that they were allowed to hate certain people. The law says that we have to love our neighbor…okay, so I can love the people who live next door, and even the family down the street a ways, but I can be hateful toward my non-neighbors. If I can pick and choose my neighbors, I like this law. It’s easy.

In the neighborhood where I grew up back in Evansville there were people we didn’t like. One family, in particular, was troublesome. I don’t think we hated them, but we definitely didn’t like them. Their kids were mean. The older boy was a few years older than me, the daughter was a year older than me (and she could beat up boys), and the younger boy was about 2 years younger than me. All three of them did really mean and hurtful things to other kids in the neighborhood, and more than once beat other kids up. Thankfully I was never one of them. It was not easy to like those people, let alone love them. They are the reason people put those bumper stickers on their cars that say “Mean People Suck.” So, does it really mean that I have to consider that family as my neighbors?

Well, like it or not, yeah it does. The heart of the law, as Jesus interprets it, is to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. The reason we ought to do this is because this is how God acts toward us, and we—who were God’s enemies—have become God’s children precisely because God loved us. God doesn’t hate the person or people that we call our enemy. In fact, the good gifts that we have in life—the sun, the rain—these things are lavished upon everyone. Eternal life itself is just as available to our enemies as it is to us. If we only love those who love us, then we’re no different from the rest of the world. Jesus tells us that even the people of his culture who were vilified as enemies of God—the sinners and tax collectors—loved those who loved them. If we’re only nice to people who are nice to us, how are we any different from the people we think are evil? What differentiates us from the people who are not Christians? If we want to be like God, if we want to imitate God, then we need to love our enemies and love those who hate us.

So how can we live today in the light of this kingdom that is defined by Jesus’ teachings? First, I think we need to move past the idea of justice as fair play, as in If you do this to me, then I’m doing the same thing back at you. Instead, we need to ask, If someone does something evil to me, how can I respond with only good in return? Now, the idea is not, of course, to be a victim and say, “Thank you, Sir, may I have another?” (c.f. Animal House). Rather, the idea is to be a human being created in God’s image, and ultimately, to be a blessing even to those who would do violence to us.

In Jesus’ day, living the kingdom meant opening one’s coin purse to the village beggar. In our day, it might mean working for programs or ministries which provide jobs for those who need work, or supporting safe shelters for those who need housing, or food for the hungry, and community mental health services for those whose minds are diseased.

In Jesus’ day, living the kingdom meant not swinging back when you were slapped, and showing that you refrained from fighting back out of love rather than cowardice. In our day, it might mean angry words that are spoken in our homes or on the streets are met with words of compassion and not fists of aggression.

The call to live in the Kingdom is a call to perfection. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that we make an A+ on every test. We’re all going to mess up, probably royally at least once a day. Perfection is about wholeness, being consumed by love, and desiring the holiness of God. To be perfect is to respond to other people—even our enemies—with love and compassion, even a desire for our enemies to receive good things from God’s hand. John Wesley talked about Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. And he didn’t believe that Jesus would give us a commandment that we would not be able to fulfill: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect. Now perfection might look like it’s a long way off for the majority of us. But the question isn’t, Are we there yet? Rather, the question is, Are we moving on to perfection? Are we on your way? Are we seeking ways to live life in the Kingdom of heaven here on earth? Are we trying to connect with God in such a way that our life becomes a source of grace to the world around you; even to our enemies?

Are we moving on to perfection? John Wesley was fond of that question, and he often asked it to Methodists. If we’re serious about our Christian Faith, then perhaps the only way we can answer is by saying, “With God’s help, I am.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


You Have Heard It was Said | 6th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.

31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. 34 But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 35 You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. 36 And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one. (CEB)

You Have Heard It was Said

When I read this text, I can’t help but ask a question. How are Christians to understand and relate to the Jewish law? This is an ancient question that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Matthew 5:21-37 follows on the heels of Jesus stating that he didn’t come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). In this text, Jesus is an interpreter of the law. Rather than saying, I’m going to cast the law aside and give you a completely new law, Jesus is saying, Here is what the law says, and I’m going to get to the heart of that law to show how the children of the kingdom of heaven live out its deepest meaning.

The first thing Jesus tackles here is anger. The law condemns murder, but at the heart of this law is respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God. Jesus says, “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘you fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And when I read this I admit I immediately think of Master Yoda’s quote to Anakin Skywalker when Yoda sensed that he feared losing his mother. Anakin responds to Yoda by saying, “What’s that got to do with anything?” And Yoda replies, “Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Jesus and Master Yoda are both right on here. While anger is a part of being human, it can consume the one who is angry and consume those toward whom that anger is directed. Similarly, if a person is angry and flings curses at a brother or sister they are saying, at least in that moment of fury, I wish you were dead.

Now, this language is tough, but does it mean that if I lose my temper at a church meeting and unload on some poor soul across the table that I’m going to burn in the everlasting fires of hell? No, I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. Jesus mentions that those who become angry will be liable to the judgment, the council, and the hell of fire. So, it might help if we understand what judgment is in the Biblical sense. We always hear about judgment in the negative but the Biblical reality of judgment is that it is a good thing: it is God’s exercise of good judgment, repairing the brokenness of creation.

Judgment is God’s scalpel carefully removing the malignant tissue that threatens life. Judgment is God’s burning away of all that is cruel and spiritually broken in order that we may breathe the air of compassion. Judgment is good news; it’s God setting things right. And when God sets things right there is no room for murder. In fact, there’s no room for murderous words or vicious deeds. Jesus goes on to say that if we come to worship (literally, offer your gift at the altar) and we remember that someone has something against us, it ought to be a matter of concern. And, we should do everything in our power to heal that breach in the relationship.

Then, Jesus talks about lust. If raw anger toward another moves toward saying, I wish you were dead, then lust toward another person’s spouse or someone who’s unmarried moves toward saying, I wish you were mine. Marriages in the Christian community should strive, through the faithfulness between husband and wife, to be expressions of the faithfulness that God demonstrates toward the world. Adultery, obviously, breaks the bond of faithfulness. Lustful desire contemplates—is thinking about—that kind of break and is therefore the first step in that direction.

The law forbids adultery because it invades and destroys the marriage covenant. Jesus goes to the heart of the law by his word against lust. In our erotically charged society, where even car and fast food commercials are filled with provocative innuendos, Jesus reminds us that such playfulness is not always harmless. Jesus speaks to our basic attitudes and choices about what we allow to take root in our imaginations: things that shape our thoughts, govern our actions, and mold our relationships. Lust is covetousness at the heart of a person. Lust considers breaking a marriage covenant with thoughts and imaginings that are just this side of action.

On the matter of divorce, the law specified a divorce procedure: if a man found something objectionable about his wife, he could write her a certificate of divorce and send her out of his house. This law assumes a male-dominated world where men are in charge and make the decisions about whether or not their wives are welcome in the home. The law, as it stands in Deuteronomy put one constraint on divorce. The requirement to write a certificate of divorce gave a small measure of protection to the woman because it certified that she had been divorced by her husband and allowed her to remarry without any suspicion of adultery. So, we have to look at this divorce law in its own social context, which is an ancient patriarchal culture in which a wife was seen as the legal property of the husband.

Jesus assumes that divorce is always initiated by men. His teaching on the matter says there is no divorce procedure a man can follow that will leave him with clean hands. To abandon his wife, with or without a certificate, is to treat her as worthless (which is the effect of the phrase, “causes her to commit adultery”). Jesus clearly speaks to forbid divorce, with the only exception being a Greek word, porneia, the meaning of which is not very clear. It could refer to almost any form of sexual deviation, but in this context it most likely means adultery. The main point is that Jesus allows no room for the practice of divorce in his own culture where divorce was an assault on the value of women, an abuse of power, and a trivializing of faithful commitments.

So how do we receive Jesus’ words today? Hardly any family is untouched by divorce. Is divorce outside the bounds of the Christian faith? Is remarriage forbidden by the Sermon on the Mount?

Even in our divorce saturated culture, in most instances, marriage is taken quite seriously. Divorce is a serious and sometimes tragic matter. Even though about half of all marriages end in divorce, not many of them end easily. Rather, they usually end with great cost, much pain, and deep wounds. Some people, to be sure, leave their marriages casually. But most of the divorced people I know have left their marriages behind because they had to. What do the words of Jesus mean for our divorced family and friends?

Now, before I go any further, there is something that we need to acknowledge. We need to understand that neither the law about divorce nor Jesus’ teaching on it can be imported into our modern culture and applied exactly as it was back then. It simply won’t work. There are too many differences in culture and values. Even the word divorce as used by the law and by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean the same thing that it means today.

In the ancient world, divorce would be similar to what we would call abandonment—where someone simply walked out or, as it would have been done back then, the man threw the woman out and locked the door. In modern nations where the Christian church has been a major factor, divorce laws have been changed to make abandonment illegal. In other words, most contemporary divorce laws have been affected, to some degree, by the Sermon on the Mount. The kind of divorce that Jesus is talking about is not same kind of divorce that happens today, though the result of both is a broken marital covenant. Abandonment is not legal in our country, but that’s exactly what divorce was back then.

One important thing we can do is to discern what lies at the heart of Jesus’ words, just as Jesus discerned what lay at the heart of the law. Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people whose mutual fidelity expresses the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honor for the two people in the marriage covenant and for their children. In Jesus’ day, the customs and practices of divorce were a direct assault on these values. Today, however, it is sometimes an ironic fact that a hopelessly broken marriage can be an assault upon those very values of communion, fidelity, safety, nurture, and honor. A marriage can become distorted. It can betray its intended purposes and become a place where people are in physical, emotional, or mental danger, where they are tragically dishonest and mutually destructive.

I think Jesus’ words on divorce were spoken to preserve the value of the people involved in marriages, especially the more vulnerable women. So, when a marriage becomes the very arena in which people are destroying each other or where one is suffering abuse from the other, it’s appropriate to ask how the safety, well-being, and honor of the marriage partners can best be preserved. This means we should exercise compassion toward people in these situations and not merely defend the institution of marriage as if it is more sacred than the people involved. Marriage was made for humanity, not humanity for marriage. The people in the marriage are what we should value most.

Finally, Jesus discusses oaths. People in the ancient world would invoke the name of God in order to make the vow or promise they were making more solemn. Remnants of this old practice remain today when witnesses in courts of law are pledged to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The Jewish law condemns false oaths, where a person would promise something in the name of God and not do it. Some have argued that what Jesus is against here is swear words. But, while Jesus might not have approved of uncouth language, common profanity is not the main subject here.

The real issue has to do with what it means to utter the name of God. In the ancient world, a person’s name was bound up with their identity, with their essence. To utter a person’s name was to, in some way, call up their identity. For instance, when Moses asked God what God’s name is, he wasn’t asking for information, he was asking for a more intimate relationship. And God responded with a name that is really impossible to capture in translation, something like, “I AM WHO I AM.” There is something about God’s name itself that slips from the grasp of human language. We can use God’s name to call upon God and find ourselves in God’s presence, but even when we name God we name a mystery; we name the One whom we do not and cannot fully know: I AM WHO I AM. God enters into relationship with us, but is always beyond our control.

So, what was happening in Jesus’ day that led Jesus to speak against all swearing of oaths? It’s possible that instead of calling upon God’s name in to experience God’s holy and mysterious presence, people were using the name of God in such a way that they arrogantly assumed that God could be controlled, domesticated, harnessed to pull whatever wagon they wanted to ride. People were invoking God’s name as a way of legitimizing their personal agendas.

I think Jesus is reminding us that we do not control God, so don’t swear at all. Instead, we should simply be a people of truth. When we say “yes” we should mean “yes”; when we say “no” we should mean “no.” “Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” I mean, if we have to swear an oath in order to make ourselves sound more authentic or believable, we’re probably not a very truthful and honest person to begin with.

How are Christians to relate to the law? The teaching of Jesus is not simplistic or easy but, as the Son of God, it is his interpretation of the law that we listen to. Jesus really does dig deep and examine the spirit of the matter. It makes us think. For some of these things there is no easy or cut-and-dry answer, it takes serious study and some real wrestling with the matters at hand. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to teach us about the law’s heart. His teaching shows us how to live and reveals what we should value: things like fidelity, truth and—probably most importantly—each other.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Salt and Light | 5th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:13-20

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. 14 You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

17 “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. 18 I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. 19 Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (CEB)

Salt and Light

This is one of those well-known texts that has been interpreted and used in a multitude of ways throughout the centuries. Often times, pastors and scholars try to put a modern kind of interpretation on the text. My favorite modern interpretation was about as off-the-wall as they come. In talking about light, the interpreter mentioned how light can be concentrated into laser beams. First of all, the first laser wasn’t built until 1960, so I highly doubt Jesus had laser beams on his mind when he gave this sermon. Secondly, I couldn’t get the image of Dr. Evil’s discourse on sharks armed with laser beams out of my head. I mean, when an interpretation conjures up scenes from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, it just throws the whole thing out the window.

That said, it is important that we look at different interpretations in order to find meaning. Salt, alone, has lots of possibilities because it can be used in a lot of different ways. It is one of the most important minerals in the history of human existence.

First, salt’s ability to preserve food was a contributing factor to the rise of human civilization. Yes, salt was important stuff, but probably no more important in the ancient world than it is today, even if it cost a little more back then.

Then, there’s the idea that salt was so valuable that it was used as a currency, and Roman soldiers were paid in salt. So, when Jesus tells us we are “the salt of the earth” it might mean that we should be valuable. But, a little research into this persistent myth reveals that you shouldn’t believe everything you find on Wikipedia. The myth begins with our English word salary, which possibly comes from the Latin word salarium, which contains the Latin word sal, meaning salt or salty, as a prefix. Now, the thing is, this connection was a guess by 19th century Latin lexicographers. It’s a good guess, probably a correct guess of the word’s origin, but it doesn’t connect salt to having been used as a salary.

One problem is that, according to Polybius (a Greek historian who chronicled the Punic Wars and rise of the Roman Republic), the wage of a Roman foot-soldier was two obols per day, which was twenty copper as coins (c.f. Polybius, Histories, 6-39-12). Another historian, Livy, records the price of salt at 1/6th of an as per pound (c.f. Livy, History of Rome, 29-37). So, to adequately pay a Roman soldier in salt, you would have to give him 120 pounds of salt per day. Something tells me that would have somewhat hindered the maneuverability of Roman Legions. While the salt trade was lucrative enough in high volumes that cities were built upon it, the cost of salt, itself, wasn’t high enough that Romans would have used it as a substitute for copper or silver currency. So, value might not be what Jesus is talking about here.

Many Ancient Near Eastern cultures would salt the earth by spreading salt over a city their armies had destroyed. It was meant to purify the land from the rebellion and/or enemy people, and act as a curse to anyone who would dare to rebuild on the site. Judges 9:45 records how, when Abimelech’s monarchy was falling apart (he was actually the first king in Israel, not Saul), he slaughtered the people of Shechem and salted the earth. The practice of salting the earth wasn’t necessarily done to make the land infertile, nor are there any records of conquerors spreading sufficient quantities of salt to do so of which I know. But connecting Jesus’ words to this practice doesn’t make much sense. I highly doubt Jesus is calling us to be the purification and curse of the earth after nations practice the wholesale slaughter of cities and peoples.

Salt can be used as an antiseptic, but it’s not one most of us like to use. We have that phrase, salt in the wound, for a reason. It’s painful! So, if Jesus is talking about salt in the sense that we keep the germs of the world at bay, then we’re apparently supposed to accomplish it by causing pain and suffering. So, maybe that one’s out, too.

Salt is a seasoning. That might work. It enhances flavor. It makes foods taste better than what they would without salt. Maybe. Maybe Jesus is saying we make the world taste better than it would without us. It seems a little iffy to me but, perhaps, closer to the point than the others.

Salt is a necessary nutrient for life. That sounds good, except Jesus calls us the salt of the earth. So, I’m not sure how that plays into Jesus’ message. Maybe it works if we’re necessary for living out and sharing the message of God’s redemption and offer of salvation to all the world. Possibly.

Ezra 4:14 suggests that salt was seen by some ancient peoples as a sign that they are in service to someone. A group of people wrote to the king of Persia to complain about Ezra and said they’ve shared the salt of the palace, meaning, they’re loyal servants of the king. But this was more likely a Persian idea than a Jewish one.

The thing is, when you look at salt from a Jewish perspective, it has to do with purity and holiness. When the Lord told Moses to make incense, God said, “Take an equal amount of each of these spices: gum resin, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense. Like a skilled perfume maker, carefully blend them together and make incense, seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Exod. 30:34-35, CEB). Here, salt is described as both pure and holy.

In regard to offerings, Leviticus 2:13 says, You must season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from your grain offering. You must offer salt with all your offerings” (CEB). Because salt was considered pure, it had the effect of making other things pure and holy. To omit the salt of God’s covenant would render the sacrifice unholy and unacceptable.

In Numbers, God speaks of the offerings that belong to Aaron’s household as “a covenant of salt forever in the LORD’s presence, for you and your descendants” (Numbers 18:19b, CEB). A “covenant of salt” means that it’s a holy covenant.

So, when Jesus tells us we are “the salt of the earth” he’s building upon the kind of faith he describes in the Beatitudes by telling us that our faith is to be holy and pure. And, since faith is not some separate thing from our everyday lives but something that we every second of every day, Jesus is reminding us that our lives are supposed to be holy and pure. Then, he asks how salt that has lost its saltiness can be restored and declares that it’s worthless. More on that in a minute.

He follows this by saying, “You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, CEB).

Real holiness, true purity of life, is something that people can see. That’s not to say we should be showing off on the street corners. Jesus describes that as false piety. But, Jesus does tell us we know people by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23). What we do reveals more about us than what we say even when we’re not calling attention to the things we’re doing. A smooth tongue can make us look good but doesn’t always speak the truth about us. What we do, however, says a lot. We Methodists have always held faith and works together. In fact, as James 2 tells us, true faith is revealed in our works of love and mercy. We can’t claim to have faith if we never act faithfully.

So, what does it mean to have this kind of faith? In 1630, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, spoke before his people saying this:

“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man”

 (Sorry about the masculine language. This is from 387 years ago).

“We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. So that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going. (I modernized the spelling throughout).

To be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world means we live lives that are holy and pure. It means our righteousness of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes, which was concerned with the observance of tradition. It means that we live out the kind of community John Winthrop described in his address. Are we the salt of the earth, or has our faith lost something of its purity and holiness?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!