SJF • Epiphany 6a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Moses said, “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity... Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.
We continue our readings today in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage Jesus speaks particularly about a number of passages from the Law of Moses, several of them from the Ten Commandments. In this, Jesus is taking on the role of a New Moses — he is, after all, as Matthew emphasizes, giving this teaching about the Law on a mountain, just as Moses received the Law from the hand of God on another mountain.
Matthew and others in the early church got the message about a new Moses appearing on the scene to teach the people, based on a promise Moses himself made in Deuteronomy, his farewell address to his people in chapter 18. He said, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (18:15) Matthew wasn’t the only one who saw Jesus as fulfilling this promise. Simon Peter quoted those very words from Deuteronomy to the same effect when he defended himself before the people for having healed the afflicted man who sat by the Beautiful Gate, a scene from Acts 3 portrayed in the stained glass window just around the corner from me. Peter proclaimed that he worked this miracle through the power of God made known in Jesus, and through the faith of Jesus Christ, and he quoted that passage from Deuteronomy. This Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is the fulfillment of Moses’ promise, and more.
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So what, acting as the new Moses, what does Jesus do in this portion of his sermon on the mountain? We are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as the one with the light touch, the lenient and tolerant one who forgives; the generous one. And indeed he is that — when dealing with individuals, especially individuals demeaned and judged by others, or those willing to throw themselves on the mercy of the court. In those cases Jesus is acting as a pastor — the best pastor, the Good Shepherd! In those cases, such as the one where he stands up for the woman caught in the very act of adultery, Jesus acts as a defense attorney.
But on the mountain Jesus is acting as a new Moses, as a supreme court judge who is giving a strict interpretation of the Law to those who have sought loopholes or made excuses. Here Jesus cuts through the evasive undergrowth to get to the spirit undergirding each law. And in this cutting to the core each law ends up being sharper and more demanding, not easier and more casual. Just as when you sharpen a knife: there is actually a little less of it — you have actually ground some of it away — but it is sharper than ever.
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Our reading from Deuteronomy sets the stage for this, showing Moses presenting the commandments of God, and following them or not, as a matter of life or death. This is not just idle speculation or trivial argument about nonessentials. This is a turning point in the history of God’s people, a decision made before crossing the Jordan; as weighty a matter for them as crossing the Rubicon was for Julius Caesar. The Law of Moses will be a source of life or a source of death, depending on how it is treated. It is like a very useful tool — a very sharp knife indeed — that comes with a warning note on the box advising just how sharp and dangerous it is. If you obey the commandments, using them in the way God intends, you will live and prosper; but if you are careless, or misuse the tool, you will fail and die.
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As I say, Jesus raises the ante — if you think getting beyond matters of life and death can be raised, seen, and called. But this is a game of strip poker Jesus is playing: He strips away all of the protective padding in which the Law had become encased over time, all those evasions and excuses, to get to its sharp and dangerous core. In the passage we heard today, Jesus addresses murder, adultery and swearing falsely — three commandments from among the Big Ten delivered on that other mountain, and he polishes the sharpness of these Laws so they cut like Ginzu knives!
He starts by quoting the law, “You shall not murder,” but immediately gets beyond the letter of the law to the spirit, beyond the crime itself to the evil energies that lead to the crime. He is like a good detective addressing the murder mystery by looking at the motives that lead to and underlay the crime: anger, hatred, insult, and dissension.
He takes up another of the 10 Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery.” But once again, he clarifies that it is what lies behind and beneath adultery — that is the real problem — the lustful eye that casts its gaze on another man’s woman, or the dismissive and unloving spirit that sends a wife away with just a piece of paper.
Finally, at least in the portion assigned for today, he summarizes another set of commandments from different parts of the law — not just from Sinai — under a single principle: “You shall not swear falsely.” But then he tosses even this basic principle aside to affirm one even more basic: do not swear at all and risk not being able to follow through on your promise, but simply say Yes or No, and then take or refrain from action, as appropriate.
In each of these moral situations Jesus sharpens the knife: he provides those who first heard him preaching from the mountainside, and us, with principles that are after all easier to understand than the complexities of the Law, with all those evasions and loopholes, but perhaps harder to follow and more demanding to obey. This passage, especially the part about plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand if either of them leads you to sin, is considered to be one of the “hard sayings of Jesus” the things that some Christians, including a few preachers, would like to soften and explain away. Volumes have been written by those attempting to make Jesus mean something other than what he said.
In doing so, such commentators attempt to redo the very thing that Jesus wants to undo: they want to dull the edge of the moral conscience; to wrap it in the cotton wool of legalism, to put it on a shelf out of sight and out of mind; to find a likely suspect and convict him rather than do the hard detective work of ferreting out the motive that led to the crime; or to cry out in this game of poker, ‘all bets are off.’
But Jesus will not have it so: and if we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world — as he told us in last week’s portion from this gospel — then we should not have it so either. Rather let us look into our hearts and our consciences with the same piercing examination, and honest evaluation, that Jesus calls us to. The sharp knife of discernment and judgment is like the surgeon’s scalpel; or like the knife that young man used to cut off his own arm when trapped by a boulder (you can even see the movie!). It is one thing to save your body by being willing to sacrifice your arm. How much more vital to save one’s immortal soul by allowing the Good Physician to heal us and restore us by his sharp teaching.
You have heard what was said by Moses; and you have heard what Jesus had to say. May each of us choose wisely, for it is life or death that awaits us, and the choice is ours to make.+