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When no one can read (and by that, I mean that most people are functionally illiterate), the phrase “you have heard it said” takes on a whole new meaning. People had probably heard a lot about what the scriptures said and didn’t say when it came to the law. Some of it, no doubt, was made up. Other parts were interpreted to fit the respective agendas of whoever interpreted the scripture. If the rabbis or teachers looked and sounded convincing, the crowds were liable to believe anything they heard. People, then as they are now, were susceptible to misinformation, disinformation, and believing in anything that sounded vaguely religious, as long as it had a few “thees” and “thous” sprinkled in.

Then comes this upstart young Rabbi out of Galilee, preaching up a storm, calling into question how everyone has heard, understood, and interpreted everything that came before him. He’s setting up a new paradigm for how people in his faith tradition should understand the law, the commandments, and the rules that have guided their people for over a thousand years. Because, as Jesus points out, and later on down the road, one of his most important followers would emphasize even further, a man named Paul, the law (and those whose job it was to make sure people followed it) had become a burden to ordinary people. Instead of freeing them for the worship of God and love of neighbor, they did the exact opposite. Following the law became their God. The law became more important than the God who gave it to them. That’s a problem. So the Sermon on the Mount is about one big idea, how do you reconcile the law (what you find in the Old Testament (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) with Jesus’ views of love, community, and wholeness? In other words, how do we walk and chew gum at the same time?

The first thing we need to do is recognize that Jesus is on a tear here. He’s getting wound up; he will use metaphors, humor, and vivid illustrations. We see Jesus teaching at his Rabbinic finest. He’s going to make some outlandish examples that are not meant to be taken literally to illustrate these points: you cannot be literalists when it comes to the law, no one can live up to every fine point of the law, it’s impossible to do, even those who claim they can do so. We are all lawbreakers. God is the only law keeper. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Sadducees taught that every law mattered to God and carried the same weight, no matter how trivial that law seemed. In the 18th and 19th chapters of the Book of Leviticus, God prohibits homosexuality, shellfish, and mixed fibers. God draws no distinction between homosexuality, enjoying shrimp, or wearing polyester. God doesn’t do 1st, second, or third-degree commandments. (Remember, there are 613 total commandments in the Old Testament.) In the eyes of those who compiled Leviticus, one sin is as bad as the next. None of us have a high horse to rest upon. Jesus is about to make these examples. Have you ever heard of a church splitting over seafood? It’s in the Bible, right there beside the verses about homosexuality. But we like our shrimp and scallops, and we’re comfortable with double standards, no matter how small. I think this is Jesus’ question this morning. How can we be people of faith and integrity?

He starts each illustration with these words, “You have heard it said.”  He knows what gets around. He knows what people prioritize as major laws and minor laws. He knows a great deal of finger-pointing and “at least I’m not doing that, Lord” going on in the crowd. Jesus wants to level the playing field. He starts with a big one from the ten commandments: murder. We can all agree that murder is wrong. You can see their heads nodding in the crowd. Oh yeah, murder is horrible; we would never murder anyone for any reason at all. Then he comes around and hits them with the one-two punch. Well, do you know what’s as bad as murder? According to the law, if you insult and call them a fool, “You will be liable to the hell of fire.” Wow! That went from zero to a hundred in an instant. Then, like the train Kenny Rogers is traveling on with the Gambler, the train got deadly quiet. Wait one minute, Jesus; we’ve all called someone a fool. Driving home from work, down at the docks unloading fish, in an argument with a family or friend person, you’re telling me the punishment for that is hellfire damnation? Maybe I need to rethink my position in this law business because it looks like I’m going to hell from where I’m standing.  Jesus says it’s a certainty.

A moment ago, I was good at casting judgment on murderers, but now, just being judgmental and calling someone a fool has landed me in Hell. Jesus has made his first point. If you’re going to enforce all of them and all of them equally, the law, that is, we’re all going to end up in Hell.  So maybe we better be careful when we start throwing around terms like “God’s law says” because we might be condemning ourselves. He goes on to make the same argument about debts, but it’s the next one where he casts the net wide and where it ought to make some of us, including me, uncomfortable.

Jesus goes back to the ten commandments. “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery.” Again, I think we’re all on the same page that adultery is wrong.  He defines lusting in your heart as adultery.  Remember when Jimmy Carter talked about this one? Okay, we can accept that it’s probably not moral, but Jesus equates just thinking about another person in the wrong as bad as adultery itself. Then he takes it one step further. “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” He’s got me there. I’m done, for I’ve committed adultery. I’m a ten commandment violator. Do you want my ordination credentials, or should I mail them in after the service? I’m betting we’ve got some other adultery committers, according to Jesus’ definition, here this morning as well. That’s one of the big ones, one of THE 10 commandments.  According to Jesus, I’m living in a state of constant adultery. I’ve no plans to divorce Mary, and she tells me I’m stuck with her.

Is that what Jesus is saying? Does he deny the reality of divorce and broken marriages? Or is he saying no one can live up to the full measure of everything written in this book, and if you tried, it would result in total paralysis? And if you did, you’d be hypocritical by trying to call out the sins of others because you are breaking the ten commandments and consigning yourself to Hell just by getting out of bed in the morning! We’re all breaking the ten commandments in one way or another. So how can we get on our religious high horses and start condemning others for doing the same? This is what Jesus is saying. When you think you’re following God’s word and law, you realize you’re not and will never be able to.

Maybe, Jesus is saying we ought to find a better way to relate to the law rather than forcing (or ignoring that we are) ourselves to live as hypocrites and judge each other when not one of us can measure up to the rules outlined in the Old Testament. Do we want to pretend to be holy hypocrites or loving neighbors?  This is the contrast Jesus is trying to make. How do we keep the law from becoming a burden, a means of exclusion, that if we had any integrity at all, we would kick all of us out of the church, shut ourselves down, because none of us are sacred enough to be members of the church if we say, “its God’s word all or nothing.” We’ve all broken God’s word; we will keep breaking God’s word, and Jesus says you don’t have to be held prisoners by the “You’ve heard it said to those of ancient times” way of life.

Jesus is saying remember what I told you a few verses ago, not in ancient times, but right now: blessed are those whom the law would seek to mow over, condemn, judge, forget, deny, exclude, and perpetually ignore. Those are the people I’m trying to reach, the very fools for Christ, those cut off by divorce, broken by grief, death, and loss, and who live in fear for their lives. 

How do we live between these two guardrails? Jesus’ beatitudes and the excesses of the law, excesses that can cripple the spiritual life of believers if we let them. The answer, key, or clue, if you like, can be found in the last couple of verses. Jesus is trying to point us in the right direction to help us keep it on the road. Living this way, swearing by the law, and claiming falsely (like you could live by everything in the Old Testament) is just going to age you prematurely, turn your black hair white, or in my case, cause it to fall out.

The stress isn’t worth it; he’s ultimately saying.  He does, however, add this, if you want to be right with God and your neighbor, just let your yes be yes, and your no mean no. When you combine that with loving your neighbor as you love yourself, everything else will fall into place. You will gain a sense of perspective that’s not possible if you’re trying to nitpick each other on who’s following every commandment in the Old Testament or realizing you’ll never measure up to each point in the law. Jesus wants us to see the bigger picture, his perspective, and that we’re all doomed without his grace. We need him, not the law, and certainly less of our interpretations of Old Testament laws written for illiterate people living in Israel over 2000 years ago.

If we can’t be happy with him, we won’t ever be satisfied, and there isn’t anything I can do about that.

–Richard Bryant