The title of this sermon is “This, not that.” So the logical place to start is to unpack what “this” is and what “that” is in the context of this long and difficult teaching from Jesus.
Last week my colleague, Taylor Burton-Edwards, provided these comments to be thinking about over the week:
[This week’s theme] represents the way Jesus teaches (this) over the way people had normally taught the law and the prophets (that).
“This” and “that” are “pronomial adjectives,” or adjectives that may be used as pronouns. They are also both four letter words. And they are related to each other as distinguishers. “This” (plural, these) usually points toward what’s right in front, right here, or about to come next. “That” (plural, those) usually refers to something that is somewhere else, over there, or back in time.
The distinction between “this” and “that” we have in English is not unique to English. It exists in many other languages, including Greek. And it is operative in Matthew 5:19. “So, whoever loosens one of the least of these commandments and teaches other people to do so shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens.”
Did you catch that? These commandments. If Jesus (or Matthew) had intended to say “those commandments,” there is a different Greek pronomial adjective (ekeinwn) to describe them. He didn’t. He used “toutwn” (these). So the direction of Jesus’ reference to “one of the least of these commandments” is not backward toward the aforementioned law and prophets. It is instead forward toward the teaching (commandments) he is about to offer, a teaching that will truly lead people to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (verse 20) and fulfills both the law and the prophets, even down to the jot and tittle (vs. 17-18).
Next week our theme is “This, not That.” It represents the way Jesus teaches (this) over the way people had normally taught the law and the prophets (that).
According to Taylor’s read on this passage, the this in the text refers to the commandments as they have come to us not through Moses, but as interpreted in light of the person and message of Jesus Christ. Jesus is calling his disciples, and us, not just to understand the law differently, but to live differently because of this new understanding. As we talked about last week, again Jesus calls us not so much to “do” something as his followers, but to “be” something as his disciples.
Don’t just do this outwardly because the law prohibits it. Be a different kind of person altogether because you follow not just the letter of the law, but because you live the Spirit of the law.
Then, of course, Jesus goes into detail about what this entails. And let’s not mince words. The details are difficult. Jesus gets into not just the disciples’ business, but ours as well. He crosses over into “meddlin,’” as we like to say in the south; and I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable to talk about some of these subjects from the pulpit.
What does he take on? Our anger, our relationships, and our propensity for not just telling lies, but accepting dishonesty, including everything from outright falsehoods to half-truths and what we have innocuously named political “spin.”
So let’s talk about anger first. According to Jesus, it is anger that is underneath the commandment to not commit murder. Murder is the presenting issue, but anger is the underlying condition that disciples need to address. Anger left unchecked might not culminate in murder, but it can still be incredibly destructive.
As I sit here writing, as I noted above, it is one week until the presidential elections. By the time you read my words not only will the election have taken place, but the new president will have been recently inaugurated. I don’t know how people will be feeling in early February. But I do know that anger is fueling the last weeks of this presidential race in an unprecedented way. According to an article written in July 2016, the anger of American people is rooted in a dissatisfaction with the economy. Do you want to know why people are angry? Follow the money.
Economic issues that fuel anger include high unemployment, pay inequality, stagnant incomes, and massive debt. Many hardworking people have not had a raise in five or more years, and the median household income is stuck at the level set in 1995. While in past decades Americans believed that hard work would eventually pay off with higher wages and upward mobility, as we approach 2017, faith in the American Dream has declined. People no longer think the future is secure. Middle-aged workers worry they will have enough money for retirement. Many do not believe their children will be able to enjoy the same or better economic status than they have achieved.
Anger has led to playing the blame game on a whole new level. As immigrants and women have entered the workforce in large numbers, at the same time many companies have closed down or moved operations overseas. As a result, those who believed that a middle class lifestyle was in reach have become bitter, enraged, and even violent.
This (anger), and not that (murder) is the real concern, not only for people today, but for the people to whom Jesus was speaking. This (anger) is what fills us up and threatens to boil over. And it is this, says Jesus, that his disciples need to address first.
As it turns out, this is something that the church is particularly well-equipped to help people navigate. Jesus tells us straight out that we must be reconciled with our brothers and sisters; that is, we need to have dealt with our anger and have tried to find a way to make peace—before we can come to the Table of the Lord to share in the bread and the cup. Now I realize that as Protestants we may gloss over or even miss entirely this demand to be reconciled before we come to the Table. But let me remind you that our liturgy for the Great Thanksgiving begins with these words: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.” Despite the fact that Methodists go out of their way to explain that all are welcome at the Table, the truth is, not all are welcome. Specifically, those persons who have not earnestly repented of their sin and/or are not seeking to live in peace with others are not welcome.
That is to say, those who are holding on to anger, resentment, and ill-will toward others are decidedly not prepared to join Christ and their brothers and sisters around the Table.
How often do we in the church take this invitation seriously? How many of us recuse ourselves from participating in the holy meal because we are clinging to our righteous indignation or holding onto a grudge against an individual or a population of people? How many of us refuse, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, to work past our feelings of animosity, and continue to engage in name calling and insults, even while we consider ourselves to be faithful Christian people?
Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said ... “You shall not murder,” but I say to you, work on your anger and find a way to make peace even with your worst enemy.” This is what transforms the world.
The next thing Jesus asks us to confront is the nature of our relationships. This time we have two presenting issues: adultery and divorce. Again, Jesus is pointing not to that—the laws themselves around the actions adultery and divorce—but rather, to this, one’s motivations, one’s heart, and one’s thoughts. Feminist scholar Amy Jill Levine notes that this is especially important for women, since it calls into accountability the way that men viewed women and thought about women. She believes this extension to thought, not just action, implies a teaching against the sexual objectification of women by men. I want to suggest that Jesus’ words here, although explicitly directed at the marriage relationship, could be expanded to help us consider not just how we act toward other people, but what is inside each one of us, in terms of how we think about other people. We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters, after all.
When have we had thoughts about others that could fall into the category of objectification, either sexual or otherwise? How have we failed to care for sacred relationships with friends or family members by holding on to our grudges, harboring resentments, and refusing to find a path to reconciliation and peace?
The final category Jesus asks us to consider is that of what I am calling dishonesty, although Jesus speaks of oaths. An oath is a ritual action of swearing to honor a promise made to another person. When we swear falsely, that means we have failed to uphold our end of the bargain. In essence, we have lied in our promise by failing to deliver on it. I want to suggest here that we live in a time when honesty and truth-telling are no longer normative. People swear to tell the truth, and then they blatantly lie, whether in court, in politics, in the media, or even in communities of faith. A man’s word is no longer assumed to be his honor.
Again, the that Jesus is speaking of is the breaking of an agreement, but the this is an issue of character. If we are not honest ourselves, how can we expect others to be honest with us? If we accept lies as truth and judge truth as lies, what happens to our ability to know the difference? What happens to society when telling the truth is no longer an expectation? What happens when we start to act as if there is no objective truth, no objective right or wrong, and no trust that people will honor their promises?
What Jesus is saying to his followers and to us is that we need to think about our character by concentrating on our roots. Discipleship is less a matter of what we do as it is a matter of who we are. We need to pay close attention to what is on the inside, on our thoughts and our feelings, on what is deep inside our hearts. Once we do this, and if we all do this, then that (murder, adultery, divorce, and other dishonorable and harmful acts) will take care of itself.
The good news is God knows we can’t do this perfectly. We can try, and we can pray, and we can work on healing our anger through reconciliation, and we can work on our relationships by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, and we can work on honoring our commitments. We can work on our spiritual selves. But we will surely be working on it for all our lives and continuing to make mistakes. But we need not worry. This is not the end of us because, as John Wesley put it, we are going on to perfection when our righteousness will be abounding, exceeding even that of the scribes and the Pharisees. And in the meantime, there is grace enough to carry us along, despite our human failure. Praise be to God for grace in Jesus Christ.