Click here to view the full sermon video, titled "Hear/Say"
In the limited BBC series Inside Man, Stanley Tucci plays the criminologist Jefferson Grieff. It’s an apt name as we are introduced to Dr. Grieff on death row, awaiting execution for the grisly murder of his wife. Despite this, or maybe because of it, people seek him out for his insights on criminal behavior to solve unsolved crimes. Although they do have to meet his one rather surprising criteria, that they have moral worth. One of the guiding principles in his work is the rather Calvinist assertion that everyone is a murderer. “You just have to meet the right person,” he observes, sounding something like a dating app gone wrong. Or as he puts it another time, “Everyone’s a murderer. You just need a good reason and a bad day.”
He doesn’t sound that far from Jesus in this section of what’s often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Over three chapters, Matthew introduces us to Jesus through a series of his teachings. It’s been observed that you can learn a lot about a gospel by how the writer introduces us to Jesus. In Mark, one of the first things we see Jesus do is silence and cast out an evil spirit. In Luke, we see him return to preach in his home synagogue only to be rejected for his favorable words about the faithfulness of gentiles. In John, we see him work a miracle at a wedding, turning water into an abundance of celebratory wine. Each opening casts our impression of Jesus as the one who vanquishes evil spirits, who embraces the outsider, who has the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Matthew wants us to know Jesus the teacher, the rabbi with a gift for describing the blessing and promise of God’s heavenly realm and reign come near. As he teaches, he talks about the blessing of things that don’t always feel, or sound blessed, but are as this kingdom comes near. And just as Abraham was told that he and his descendants would be a blessing to the nations. Jesus tells the crowd that is gathered that in this kingdom that has come near they too are salt and light, preserving what is good and lighting the way. And lest we fall under the all-too-common misconception that what Jesus has to say is a repudiation or replacement for the law of Moses handed down on a different mount, Jesus makes the point of clarifying that his coming is in no way a replacement, or meant to supersede the law and the prophets, only to fulfill them. In fact, he goes so far as to say that it isn’t enough to simply keep and teach the commandments of God, we’re to exceed the righteousness of even the most learned and religiously devout. That’s an important thing to remember as we approach today’s section. But you’ll be forgiven if the prospect of that sounds fairly daunting. To be sure, after hearing what comes next most people feel understandably uneasy. How are we supposed to keep from getting angry, or noticing when someone is physically attractive, or failing to keep the promises we make? None of this feels very light. In fact, in the wrong hands it can become unbelievably heavy.
One of the first phone calls I ever got as a pastor began as a voicemail that was waiting for me before my first day at the first church that I was called to serve right out of seminary. I’d met this young guy and his wife on the Sunday the congregation voted to call me as their pastor. I remembered them because they offered a quick word of welcome before rushing off to attend to a dental emergency for one of their kids. Now, a couple of months later, he was telling me that he needed to talk to me because he and his wife were getting a divorce. Whenever a marriage dies it is painful. Anyone who has been divorced, or known someone who’s gone through a divorce will tell you that. Even the most amicable splits carry with them the grief of disappointed hopes. But that doesn’t stop any number of onlookers from arriving at some judgment upon hearing about someone else’s divorce without a hint of compassion. In this particular case I came face to face with the kind of damage that an overly literal reading of Jesus’ pronouncement here can do. This guy had come late to the Presbyterians after being raised in the Church of Christ. Not the United Church of Christ, the progressive Christian tradition with whom we Presbyterians have a long cooperative history. No, this was the far more fundamentalist strain commonly found in the bible belt of the southern U.S.. Not only was this young man mourning the loss of his marriage, he was haunted by the teaching of his childhood church that viewed people who divorced as adulterers condemned to the fires of hell. Was this truly what Jesus had in mind? To compound the pain of a ruptured relationship with the righteous judgment of one’s own church? Is this what it means, as Jesus instructs immediately prior to this reading, to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?
It's been said that one of the problems with people of the book, that is people who revere a sacred text and imbue it with divine authority, is that they tend to love the book more than they love the people. The cruel irony of condemning divorce based on this passage is that each of these antitheses, as they’re sometimes called- You have heard it said… but, I say to you- is Jesus inviting us to be a part of something bigger and more connected than a slavish devotion to the letter of the law, following the rules for the rules’ sake. To exceed the kind of righteousness that is built on following all the rules, doing everything by the book, does not actually look like doubling down on strict adherence. It looks like something entirely different. Because that kind of righteousness is a recipe for self-righteousness. That kind of righteousness, the kind that comes from getting it right is not the same as the kind of righteousness that comes from being in the right kind of relationship to what’s a stake. We only exceed the self-righteousness of following all the rules by shifting our focus away from trying to follow all the rules. That may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s precisely what Jesus is getting at.
You want an award for not committing murder? Good for you. But everyone’s a murderer given a good reason and a bad day. Murder isn’t something that just randomly happens. It comes with all kinds of extenuating circumstances and starts in our hearts, in the kind of thoughts we’re willing to entertain, the grievances we harbor, the grudges we nurse. It’s a shorter ride than we might imagine from the anger and insults that wish someone dead to making it so. If the commandment says not to commit murder, Jesus seems to suggest it’s a good idea to attend to the cause and not just the effect. It’s not all that different from adultery. In fact, murder and adultery have something in common, both tend to dehumanize the people involved. If a murder victim is really just the object of someone’s anger, then an adulterous affair is the object of someone’s desire. Both tend to turn humans with subjective agency into objects of another’s anger or lust. Can we really say our hearts are in the right place just because we refrained from the end result of such dehumanization? Likewise, what Jesus calls into question with respect to divorce is the righteousness of something that may follow what the rules of marriage allow as practiced by men, but nevertheless leaves women powerless and at the mercy of their husbands.
Jesus is on a roll now. The problem with perjury isn’t that you swore to tell the truth and then lied. The problem is that you thought that swearing to God gave you some extra measure of credibility. Why are you dragging God into this? Why are you using religious sanction to prop up your words instead of simply being known as a person of integrity who doesn’t have to swear they’ll do something because they just do it.
At the end of the day, righteousness doesn’t come from what we do, or don’t do. The rules we follow and the rules we break. That doesn’t mean those rules are unimportant. But the are important only insofar as they speak to the very real pitfalls of the human heart and the sin that leads to so much of our own destruction. The anger and lust that disfigure us long before we get all the way to murder and adultery. The rupture of relationships that cause us to act out of hurt rather than compassion. The idolatry of using God’s name so that people might believe that we’re actually righteous when we’re not. In Jesus, the law is fulfilled only when stop trying to keep it, and let it keep us instead. Let it show us the danger we’re in and save us from our own worst impulses. These words of Jesus aren’t about doing more, they’re about attending to the small things that can lead to big things. They’re about avoiding the trap of self-righteousness that comes from thinking we’re so much better because we haven’t done what someone else has done when the seeds for the very same thing have been in our hearts all along. If we can let these words of Jesus keep us, instead of the other way around, then we may begin to see what Jesus has been trying to show us all along, that faith is never about going to heaven- but trusting that heaven has come near to us.