GOSPEL: Matthew 5:21-37
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Read the whole passage)
Ouch, that was a bit rough. Jesus isn’t taking it easy on us. The sermon on the mount that began so gently with “blessed are the poor in spirit,” sure seems to take a turn towards some hard truths today. It is our 3rd week in a row of listening to that familiar sermon from Jesus, and the tone has changed a lot from when we began.
We are on the final green Sunday before we turn towards Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday and Lent. And this season following the Epiphany, the day on which the magi came to honour the Christ-child feels like it was lifetime ago. We have since then watched a grown up Jesus get baptized in the Jordan, meet his first disciples and call them from their fishing boats and now preach this 3 weeks long sermon on the mount.
And this list of things that Jesus talks about today is not so friendly: Murder, judgment, hell, adultery, lust, divorce, sin and swearing falsely. A bunch of things that would make for a really easy opportunity to preach a hell-fire and brimstone, turn-or-burn kind of sermon. You know, one of those sermon that your grandma used you warn you about hearing from the pastor. And to be sure, this part of the sermon on the mount has been used for that kind of preaching, and used to condemn and shame people.
Yet, we haven’t forgotten was Jesus was talking about for the past couple of weeks, the beatitudes followed by salt and light – things that are not so easy to turn into condemnation. It seems strange that within the same sermon, Jesus would go from promising God’s blessing for the poor in spirit, the mourning and meek, the peacemakers and persecuted to condemning people who don’t measure up.
And so of course, we know that this isn’t really about the threat of hell and condemnation that it appears to be on the surface.
So what is Jesus getting at?
After three weeks in the sermon on the mount, there is a theme beginning to emerge in Jesus’ preaching. A theme that only make sense when we unpack the world of the crowds sitting on the mountain listening to what Jesus had to say.
For the people of Israel, religion was a complicated system of keeping righteous, keeping in God’s good books. Follow the law, the laws handed on by Moses to the people escaping slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert, and you will be righteous. And you will know you are righteous because you will be blessed. Blessed with health, wealth and status. You will be what God has deemed us to be, salty salt, light shining for all to see.
Except that most people weren’t blessed, most people weren’t salty sal or bright shining lights. Most people couldn’t keep the laws and remain righteous.
And so these unrighteous, unclean crowds had to find hope in other places. Hope in the desert listening to hermit preachers like John the Baptist. Hope on the mountainside listening to wandering rabbis like this Jesus of Nazareth.
And right off the bat, Jesus undercuts this system of keeping righteous. Blessed are poor in spirit, the meek and the mourning, the peacemakers and the persecuted. The blessings that you thought were signs of righteous are not in fact blessings — God’s presence is with the people you least expect.
And don’t strive for holiness and righteousness, strive to be what God called you to. If God has you to be salt, you are salt. If God has made you to be light, you are light.
Finally today, Jesus gets into the nitty gritty of the 10 commandments, the very core of the rules that if followed will lead to righteousness. And Jesus begins turning them on their heads too. These commandments aren’t checkboxes that if filled gain entry into heaven. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie or bear false witness or steal. Simply not killing, or cheating or not telling an untruth or not slandering your neighbour is not enough. Each step of the way, Jesus elaborates and explains that these commands are also about loving our neighbour. About maintaining good relationships and caring for the people around us, not just limits on certain behaviours.
And when added up, Jesus’ message is: You are not as righteous or unrighteous as you thought, you are not as holy and perfect are you thought, and you haven’t kept the law as you thought. But more importantly, you are not earning your own salvation like you thought.
Of course, things are little different for us in our world. We don’t operate by quite such a rigid and structured a system as the people of Israel. Salvation and righteousness aren’t understood in such a clear cut path in our world.
In fact, knowing whether or not we are righteous really isn’t the right question for us as it was for the people sitting on the mountain listening to Jesus preach. For us, the question is more a matter of how… how do we attain righteousness and salvation. And our world has a plethora of answers. If you follow the rules, if you pray hard enough, if you are a good person, if you are enlightened enough, if you buy the next magic solution that someone is selling, if you are secure, protected and powerful enough… You too can be righteous and saved. All for one low cost, all for following the latest trend or fad, all for a little easy work in 20 minutes a day, all for following the simple steps, all for having the right relationships and network.
Righteousness and salvation in our world is about hearing the right voice in the multitude of voices vying for our attention and our dollar, about hearing the right voice long enough to hand over something of enough value to earn our salvation.
Except we know that this is all fake news and false hope too.
And just like the rigid system of rules that Jesus is undermining on the mountain, he is also undermining the multitude of voices in our world that tell us they know the secret to being saved.
Even if our questions are different from the people of Israel, our problem is the same. We are trying to earn our own salvation, trying to be righteous by our own efforts.
It is in the letter to the Corinthians where St. Paul states clearly the issue that Jesus is coming around to.
To whom do we belong? To Paul or Apollos? Will following this guy or that guy, these rules or those rules, this path or path earn you salvation?
No, following neither will make us righteous.
To whom do we belong?
For we are God’s servants working together, you are God’s field, God’s building.
For we are God’s servants
For we are God’s.
To people wondering if they are saved, if they have done enough rule following Jesus says, Don’t worry about that. You belong to God.
To people wondering how to be saved, if we have found the right path, chosen the right thing, Jesus says, Don’t worry about that. You belong to God.
You belong to God.
And it is God who decides if you are blessed, God who comes and searches out the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted
And it is God who makes you right. God who makes you salty if you are salt, God who makes you shine if you are light.
And it is God who saves, God who makes you righteous. So don’t follow the rules because they make you right with God, but because your neighbour needs your love and care.
God is the one earning our salvation. This is what Jesus has been getting at for 3 weeks.
And this is what Jesus is preparing us to keep at the forefront as we move towards Transfiguration and Lent.
We belong to God, the One who makes us righteous, the One who saves us.
We don’t achieve it ourselves. We don’t find the right path or follow the right rules. We don’t save ourselves.
God does the saving work. And God does it in the one preaching the sermon on the mount, salvation comes to us in the Christ.
You don’t belong to Paul or Apollos. You don’t belong to yourselves.
You belong to God in Christ, the one making you righteous in all the unexpected places, the one making you alive when all there seems to be death.
The One who will meet us on the mountaintop, the One who goes with us into the valley, the One who will be nailed to a cross, and One who is raised from the dead.
You belong to that Christ, you are made righteous and saved by that Christ, and freed to love your neighbour, who is also loved by Christ.
And so on this day, at this end of the sermon on the mount, on the precipice of Lent…
Jesus reminds us one last time… it is not how we follow the rules or how blessed we think we are or how much good we do…
But rather is about to whom we belong.
And we are servants belonging to God, brought to new life in Christ.