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!


A Love Song

Isaiah 5:1-7

1 Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes – but it grew rotten grapes. 3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes? 5 Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. 6 I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. 7 The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (CEB)

A Love Song

I probably know what you’re thinking. This doesn’t sound like much of a love song. In fact, if this is Isaiah’s version of a love song, I’m not sure I would want to hear him sing a diatribe song. How can something like this be a love song? It’s full of judgment and punishment. The message Isaiah speaks is one of the reasons some people don’t like the Old Testament as much as the New Testament. This sounds more like love that failed. Love that turned sour. Love that became something despised. And maybe it is. The thing is, when you look at this closely, the fact that it gets angry doesn’t mean it isn’t a love song from start to finish.

The story is in the form of a parable. If you remember from the parables of Jesus, the tricky thing about parables is they invite the hearers to judge the situation. But what often happens is the hearer finds themselves judged in the end. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? The legal expert to whom Jesus spoke the parable did not like the answer he was forced to give.

Parables have a way of drawing us in and making us think we’re either on the side of righteousness or that we’re a neutral party asked to impartially judge a situation. The latter is what happens here. It’s a courtroom situation, where the plaintiff brings his case against a defendant in the form of a song. Everything is going well until the last line of verse 2: “but it grew rotten grapes.” (CEB). After that, everything falls apart, and the plaintiff gets angry.

Why do I still contend that this is a love song? Up to that point, everything the gardener did for the vineyard was loving. First, the gardener chose a fertile hillside. Then, he prepared the soil by digging, loosening, and turning it over. He removed the stones and planted the soil with the best vines. He gave it every protection, including a hedge, a wall, and a watchtower. He carefully pruned his vines as they grew, trimming just the right places to give the vine a maximum yield. He hoed the soil to keep it loose. He prepared for the good fruit the vines would bear by digging out a wine vat. Great care was given to the vineyard in every possible way. It was all a labor of love.

In fact, the words used in the text strongly suggest love is behind it all. The words which we translate into English as “beloved” are often used in regard to God’s beloved, such as Israel itself. Then, the words we translate as “love song” could actually be translated as “loved-one’s song.” The word there, “loved-one” is used by the young woman in Song of Songs in reference to the man she loves. Another connection to Song of Songs is the word “vineyard,” which is used as a metaphor for the woman who is beloved by the man.

Everything was lovingly done. The vineyard was given every possible care, but the grapes were rotten, wild, bitter grapes. So the gardener presents his case to the listeners in Jerusalem and the people of Judea. “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes?” (CEB).

Anyone listening to the case would have said, “There was nothing else to be done! Of course it should have given you good grapes! We’re flummoxed by this, too! You did everything right!”

Can you imagine the experience of doing everything right in a matter, only to have your efforts fail in the end? It would be incredibly frustrating. It would make me angry. To pour so much of yourself into something only to have it quit on you, or to invest yourself into a person only to have them betray you, would drive anyone to anger. Love is a vulnerable thing.

C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors. In fact, one of the reasons I started writing my own fiction is due to a question I had after reading his Sci-Fi/Fantasy book, Perelandra. In Lewis’s book, The Four Loves, he said, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken… The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” (Lewis, 121).

So the gardener, who acted with love, has had his heart broken. He lists the things he will do to the vineyard. By the way, it might help to understand that the original hearers listening to Isaiah present his case were probably thinking he was speaking about his wife and their marriage. With the talk about his beloved, his loved-one’s song, and the vineyard, they probably thought he was speaking metaphorically about his wife, to whom Isaiah gave so much care, but things weren’t turning out well.

So Isaiah announces his intentions: “I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” (CEB). It’s all about the removal of protection. The people probably thought, Ah. Divorce. Here it comes. He’s going to cast his wife out and remove his protection from her. After the case he presented, she deserves it. He did everything he could for her, but all she did was disappoint.

But what Isaiah does at this point, when the people are formulating judgments in their minds, is identify the defendant. “The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress.” (CEB).

The people found themselves judged, and we’re left wondering how the God of love could leave. How is that love? Don’t the Psalms sing of God’s steadfast love that endures forever? How can God do this?

The thing is, even the abandonment of the vineyard and the removal of protection can be seen as love at its most sorrowful moment. If the vineyard doesn’t want the gardener’s protection, then taking down the wall and hedge, promising to stop pruning and hoeing, allowing the beloved vineyard to return to its wild and uncultivated state, overgrown with thorns and thistles, is a kind of consent of the lover to the will of the beloved. Even though God knows it will end badly, God grants the people the independence from God that they clearly desire.

Yes, God pulls back. Yes, God is angry in this moment, but that doesn’t mean God’s love, itself, is withdrawn. In his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly About Prayer, C.S. Lewis said, “Anger—no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous, scalding indignation—passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it” (Lewis, 126).

After all, the best part about fighting is making up. Everyone knows that, including C.S. Lewis. In his book, The Horse and His Boy, he wrote, “Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently” (Lewis, 241).

Just because there is anger, it doesn’t mean love is withdrawn. Sometimes love means we let our beloved learn the hard way because it’s the only way they’ll truly learn. As strange at is might seem, the assurance of love can sometimes be part of the problem for people like Israel and people who follow Jesus.

The people of Israel and Judah knew about God’s love for them, just as we know about God’s love for us. Their experience of God was one who brought them up from slavery in the land of Egypt, who chose good land, who prepared the soil, who cleared the stones, dug holes, and planted hand-picked vines. Their experience was a loving God who provided them with everything they could possibly want—and even gave them things they demanded, but God didn’t want to give them. The people demanded a king, and God said, That’s a really bad idea. I’m your king. But they demanded over and again. So God gave them a king, saying, “They have rejected me as king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7).

Out of love for the people God had chosen, God gave them the desires of their hearts. God even sent Jesus, his own son, to redeem us and offer healing and forgiveness from sin. Most of us know, in many ways, the love of God. So it’s just as easy for us—as it was for the beloved people of Israel and Judah—to feel comfortable in that care. We can begin to think we’re immune to devastation because God loves us. God is for us, so who can be against us? What have we to fear? As one scholar put it, “In no time, we are lounging in the easiest of all the world’s religions, leaning back into the entitlements of grace and an arrogance of heritage” (P.S. Duke in Feasting On the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, 343).

We talk about God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness as things that are freely offered. What we often forget is they are not free of expectations. Isaiah says it three times, in verses 2, 4, and 7: “expected,” “expected,” and “expected.” God expected certain specific returns for the labor of love he invested. A vineyard is for farming, and farmers expect a yield. God expects people to experience the goodness from God’s own hand and respond with similar goodness, generosity, love, sharing, peace, happiness, goodwill, invitation, and community.

The vineyard failed to produce the things God expected. God expected justice and righteousness. What God saw was utter devastation: bloodshed and screams. Indeed, the fact that justice and righteousness so often appear absent from our world is the true expression and proof of the devastation in which we live.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we all stand rightfully judged by Isaiah’s love song, and that’s never easy to hear, let alone accept. The good news is that a love song is still being sung over us. Later on, in Isaiah 27, God sings about a vineyard that is restored, which God guards and waters every moment of every day: a vineyard with such bountiful fruit that it fills the whole world with its produce. There is still room for repentance so that our community can produce the kind of fruit God wants to see growing on our vines. God still sings a love song over us, and God still hopes we’ll produce the fruit God expects: justice and righteousness lifted up together in a new community where bloodshed and cries are no more.

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


P.S. – After preaching this sermon, I had a visitor tell me it was a good sermon. He noted that I’m “a young preacher.” (Full disclosure: I’m 40 years old with 17 years of pastoral experience in local churches, the last 13 of which have been full-time). He said, “All of you young preachers want to preach from the Old Testament. The Gospel! You need to preach from the Gospel. The Gospel.”

With respect, I disagree. I preach from the whole of the Scriptures (at least the more limited Protestant version of the corpus). I believe the Old and New Testaments deserve equal time. I do preach from the Gospels, and the prophets, and Paul’s letters, and the Pentateuch, and the Epistles, and the writings, and Acts, and the wisdom books, and Revelation, and the Psalms. What faithful pastor would not?

It seems there is a misconception somewhere. The word Gospel comes from Old English godspel, meaning good tidings / news / tale / story. My contention with the idea that I – or any preacher – should limit their preaching to, or give priority to, the four Gospels is the undeniable fact that the Old Testament also contains good news. In fact, the Old Testament books have such good news for us that I am compelled to share that gospel in my preaching.

It’s too bad this gentleman wasn’t here on July 31 to hear my sermon With Bands of Love. I explained a good bit of this idea there. I do not apologize for preaching everything from Genesis to Revelation. The advice is not something I can accept and still remain faithful to my call. #SorryNotSorry. If I only preached on my favorite stories – or yours… well, that would tell you more about us than about God. We find comfort in our preferences and favored Bible texts, but sometimes our preferences are not what we need to hear. Sometimes it is the very thing we do not want to hear that we most need.