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Blessings and Curses

Sunday, February 16, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Matthew 5:21-37

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Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5-7, constitute the core of his teaching about what the life of discipleship in the kingdom of God is like. He begins with the beatitudes which turn all of our assumptions about who the blessed ones are upside down, moves through our lectionary passage for today with it’s “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” rhythm, which is followed by a similar set of sayings about vengeance and his command to love our enemies – a passage which was the subject of some astonishing back-and-forth at the most recent National Prayer Breakfast, which just goes to show you that biblical faith is anything but irrelevant. It then includes Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, teachings about the close relationship between material possessions and anxiety, finishing up with a discourse on the dangers of being judgmental, and an urging to ask God for what we want.

For anyone who wishes to follow Jesus, these 3 chapters are essential. They are challenging, they are demanding, and they lead you into the very practical, down-to-earth heart of what Jesus is summoning us to do. They blend the interior life of the disciple with the exterior actions of that same disciple.

It is fascinating to pair the Sermon on the Mount with our text this morning from Deuteronomy 30, because Deuteronomy 30 seems to be working with the question of whether the commands and instructions of God are do-able, or whether they are so ridiculously demanding that no one could possibly expect us to actually take them seriously. “Surely the commandment that I am commanding you today,” says Moses, “is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” There are ways of life, Moses is saying, that leads to happiness, blessing, contentment, joy, meaning, and abundant life; and there are ways of living that lead to anxiety, greed, resentment, oppression, isolation, brutality, and death. “Choose life,” Moses says. You can do it.

Deuteronomy 30, with its emphasis on the do-ableness of the Torah commandments of neighborliness and worship, seems to me to be an Old Testament corollary to Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11 (just a few chapters after our passage this morning) to take his yoke and his burden upon you, because his yoke is easy, it is do-able, and his burden is light, compared with the crushing burdens of Pharaoh, or Caesar, or the consumer economy that tells you that you’ve never got enough stuff, or the expectations of a society that tells that you that you’re not popular enough or cool enough or successful enough. Jesus says that’s a bunch of ridiculous garbage. Follow me, Jesus says, my way of love and neighborly solidarity and compassion – though not much practiced in the world – is far more excellent.

In Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus walks us through a series of down-to-earth, real-life situations, in which some schools of thought would tell you that what you must do is to meet some external threshold or regulation. As long as you meet that minimum, you’re good. He goes through murder, adultery, divorce, and oath-swearing. There were religious prescriptions for all of these, and what Jesus observes is that it is entirely possible to meet external prescriptions, to check off the necessary moralistic, religious boxes, maintaining your purity status, while inwardly having a hard heart, and having destructive effects on the people around you. Jesus shows himself here to be unimpressed by people who follow the letter of the law, who keep their official records spotless, but whose hearts are hard and even cruel.

In that time, with its patriarchal culture, men controlled almost all of the social power and women could become very vulnerable, very quickly. In that culture, a man could write a letter of divorce for his wife if he so much as lost interest in her, whereas women could do no such thing. When a woman was divorced in that culture, she lost most all of her security. In his statement here, Jesus is not only affirming here the deep and abiding importance of marriage; he is placing a check on men who would subject their wives to social ostracism while following all the rules. He draws the reader’s attention beneath the legalistic performance of a rule – by which men could say “Oh, I’ve got a divorce certificate, I’m good” – to the deeper importance and commitments that marriage is intended to represent.

Likewise with murder and adultery. The prohibitions on murder and adultery come, of course, from the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were intended to provide for the well-being and coherence of an entire community, so they prohibited killing and acts of adultery and betrayal. When people do those kinds of things, when people kill and cheat and steal and take what does not belong to them, the coherence and integrity of a community is undermined, and the community begins to unravel.

Jesus, like Moses, wants stable communities – after all, especially when we are in times of turbulence, we realize that stable, coherent communities are themselves a great gift – but Jesus doesn’t stop there. Jesus also wants people to be whole and grounded and at peace with neighbor, self, and God. He does not want them to nurse grudges. He does not want them to view other people as objects of sexual gratification. And Jesus knows that external compliance alone cannot generate that.

Jesus turns out to not be particularly interested in forming externally compliant people who keep their noses and their records clean, but who are nursing hard hearts of manipulation and greed. Jesus wants to change our hearts, because he knows that when our hearts are changed, healed, and transformed, we’re not going to murder, cheat, and steal either. We will engage in the external behavior that is good and stable and coherent, but we’ll do it from the inside out. Psalm 51, which we will pray next Wednesday on Ash Wednesday, prays, ‘create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’ That’s what Jesus is after here. Rules, protocols, and ethical guidelines have their very necessary place, but rules alone cannot produce a new and warm heart.

These words of Jesus don’t just stay on the surface, but they penetrate us all the way in. Do not nurse anger. Desire reconciliation with people from whom you are estranged. Do not harbor lust in your heart. Anger, estrangement, lust happen to us. They are real. When we discover that anger or lust live within us, when we are reluctant or hesitant to reconcile with others, when we are unsure about our arguments, and so we speak much more loudly and “swear on a stack of Bibles” in order to seem more persuasive than we feel – that’s what the sayings about oaths and swearing are about, when we do these things, we may fall into despair and think that we’re just not cut out to be a disciple of Jesus, that it’s just too hard.

But that’s not what Jesus is trying to do here. Jesus is not trying to make us feel ashamed of ourselves because we aren’t naturally inclined to do the things he’s talking about. Loving our enemies does not come naturally.

That’s the whole point.

We must be formed to be these kinds of people. Jesus is calling us to come to him, so that he can help us learn how to live that way. He never says that there’s nothing to it. It is still a yoke; it is still a burden. It’s just that his yoke and burden are easy and light, compared with the burdens that the world tells us to carry. He is saying that it is do-able in partnership with him. He can help us become the kinds of people who forgive our enemies, who speak simply and clearly, who are willing to reach out to those from whom we are estranged, who can look at others with respect rather than with lust. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become these kinds of people. We can grow in discipleship and grow in grace. It is not too hard for us, it is not far away.

When you read through these words of Jesus, what strikes you as your growing edge? Where does your heart need to be healed and changed, so that your life can be more grace-filled, more secure, more accepting of your own vulnerability and that of others? Know that Jesus is ready to help you become his disciple, in deeper and deeper ways. To God be all the glory. Amen.