Rarely does a lesson provide more opportunities for preaching than this Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37). Still, though, I’m not sure I want to preach on any one of them.
Intention rather than action leads to judgment.
Jimmy Carter and the Playboy interview.
Another offertory sentence in the midst of strong ethical teaching.
Figuring out which part of our body we need to cut off to keep from going to hell.
Remarriage after divorce = adultery.
It’s a preacher’s dream.
At this point during the week, I usually know how the sermon will go on Sunday, but I’m still trying to synthesize the enormous chunk of teaching that Jesus offers in this part of the Sermon on the Mount in order to pull some sort of thesis out of the text. No one enjoys a preacher who preaches three different sermons at the same time, so I’ve either got to narrow my focus to a few verses or figure out how all of this hangs together.
Jesus, it seems, is trying to get to the heart of the matter. The law has all of its requirements. Jesus’ culture carries all of its customs. But Jesus wants to go deeper—not just to make life more difficult but to give it more meaning. Murder is wrong, sure, but so is uncontrolled anger. Adultery is wrong, sure, but so is uncontrolled lust. Divorce isn’t just a legal proceeding; it’s the breakdown of a marriage. Swearing false oaths is criminal, but swearing oaths at all is a sign of distrust. What should the world look like?
The law and the customs of the day provide boundaries for living. It’s what keeps order in society. But we don’t just want a society that is controlled at the limits. We want order and structure that starts at the center. Murder is wrong, but so is hatred. It’s not a crime to hate someone, but it’s wrong. If everyone lived at the borders of civil society, we’d be a pretty wicked place. And some might think that’s exactly what’s wrong.
Jesus asks us to value what’s really important—not just walk the tightrope of breaking the law. Relationships—both human-human and human-divine—are what really matter. You can’t nurture right relationships by keeping the law. Imagine coming home on Valentine’s Day and saying to your spouse, “I didn’t get arrested today. Happy Valentine’s Day!” There’s more to it than that, and Jesus asks us to remember it.