Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:21-37 Commentary
Say the word “radical” to the average person and the name of “Jesus” will likely not be the first thing that springs to anyone’s mind. If you think about “radical acts,” the Sermon on the Mount is unlikely to come to mind, either. Radicals throw Molotov cocktails at police and stage sit-ins and carry placards in the town square. But that’s not Matthew 5-7! We like to think of the Sermon on the Mount as gentle and soothing. The Beatitudes are so lovely. Jesus’ teaching of what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” is likewise lyric as is the passage that follows that prayer about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. This just does not strike us as all that radical.
But as I was taught in New Testament class a long time ago, the root of the word “radical” is the Latin radix and that is the Latin word for “root.” The word radix lives on in mathematics to refer to the base number in some larger system of numbers and numeration. The radix is what is at the bottom of something, at the foundation or below the foundation, at the roots. The radix gets at the root, at the origin of something. And so there is a sense in which a radical is someone who wants to return something—a political system, a religious belief system—to what it was intended to be in the beginning, at the root of all things. If you visit the 9/11 Museum in New York City, you will go underground to what is referred to as the “bathtub” where the foundations of the World Trade Center were. There you see a giant retaining wall with tie-backs into the concrete to hold back the nearby Hudson River. Those deep walls and foundations were the radix of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, though they were not ever seen by anyone above ground. But they were more than a little important and are, of course, the only surviving pieces of those decimated skyscrapers.
In this lection from Matthew 5, Jesus is indeed a radical after all because what he is doing with God’s Law here is radicalizing it, getting everyone’s attention back to the basics and the root origin of God’s commands—Jesus wants us to go underground to see what has been holding this whole thing up from the beginning so as to understand things afresh. From the outside looking in, it looks like Jesus is making the Law of God ridiculously hard to keep. He’s turning the Law into something different, something harder and more difficult.
“You haven’t slept with a woman not your wife? Good for you. But you looked at your co-worker Jill and thought about it so that ‘Do not commit adultery’ command is in shambles in your life as far as God is concerned.”
“You haven’t stabbed anyone through the chest or shoved someone to his death off a cliff? Good for you but when in your anger you told Harold last week to go take a flying leap, in God’s eyes the ‘Do not murder’ command snapped quite cleanly in two in your life.”
“You haven’t sworn out a false oath in God’s name? Good for you but when you knowingly lied to your boss about what you did while attending the convention by saying ‘I swear by my children this is not true,’ then in God’s eyes the ‘Do not give false witness’ command died a sudden death because your children are God’s children and they bear his image.”
But is Jesus changing the Law into something new and different? No, he is radicalizing it, he is bringing everyone back to the roots of why God gave the Law in the first place. Of course external behavior and actual deeds are always worse, always more injurious than secret fantasies. And only a very careless person would conclude that if an adulterous fantasy gets you in as much trouble as the actual affair then you may as well have the affair, too, while you’re at it. That is, to state the merely obvious, not exactly Jesus’ point here.
So what is the point? The point is that the Law of God was meant to foster human flourishing at every level, including at the deepest levels of our hearts and minds. God wants us to respect each other, to love each other, to see God’s own image residing deep within one another. Human life is not supposed to be some giant game in which you scheme and scam to get ahead for good old #1. We are not to use people as pawns, as objects of our lust, as receptacles for our scorn, as the targets for our desires to brutalize, manipulate, and then discard.
And it’s not enough that all of this does not show up on the outside of our behavior. Hypocrisy is everything it’s cracked up to be and sooner or later it has a way of brutalizing the hypocrite, too. Remember in The Inferno Dante’s clever punishment in Hell for hypocrites: they were clothed with elaborate and resplendent golden garments but the garments were lined with lead. To wear this attire every day literally weighed the person down with weariness and an unending sense of burdensome heaviness. And that is what unremitting anger and lust and deception does to us on the inside: it weighs us down, saps our joy, and sooner or later really will show up on the outside in how we treat others, talk to them, regard them.
Of course, the root origin of God’s Law is not all about human psychology or some me-focused program of self-improvement. It is finally also about other people and about God himself. How do we see others? How do we treat them in our heart of hearts? Do we think it doesn’t matter how furious we are at every driver who cuts us off or makes some mistake in traffic (a driving mistake that we surely have made more than once ourselves)? Do we think it’s pleasant to nurse a grudge for years such that every time we see Marge or Bill our innards coil up and bile curdles all over again in our gut? Do we think that that attractive guy or that fetching woman exists for our pleasure only? Do we think that this other person who just asked us a question is so worthless as to be undeserving of hearing the truth such that we will play God in his or her life by dictating his or her grasp of reality?
Look, by getting back to the radix of the Law, Jesus really does nail every last one of us and there is a sense that the larger function of Jesus’ teachings on the Law does cast us back to a reliance on grace alone (“your righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees”—good luck with that one). We are sufficiently mired in sin and selfishness that we know full well how easy it is to see ourselves in the pictures Jesus sketches. But Jesus is not just being tough on us: he is at the end of the day reminding us of a truth that is actually so very encouraging: God created us to flourish in his good creation. God wants all of us to flourish.
If it is difficult to see how routinely we undercut the flourishing of our neighbors and of ourselves, it is nevertheless glorious to know that the Creator God of the cosmos is on our side and really does desire to see all things and all things and all manner of things going well in his good creation.
The term translated in verse 22 as “raca” is probably the equivalent of our word “idiot.” Also, when Jesus refers to calling someone “a fool,” he uses a term that calls into question the other person’s morality–it might be the equivalent of calling someone “a dirty rat,” someone you don’t trust for a second. Taken together Jesus is decrying our belittling of people’s mental powers and our belittling of their moral status. “Let your anger get the best of you in simmering grudge-bearing,” Jesus says, “and sooner or later you’ll start to denounce the people around you as stupid and immoral–as not worthy of your time.” You may even start to regard them as sub-human, and it’s a short step from that to treating them in sub-human ways, too.
Jesus knows the utter untruth of the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As Dale Bruner says, there are lots of people in mental hospitals because some hurtful word is lodged in their psyches like a bullet in the spine. When people hurl words at us that cast our mental or moral abilities into question, these angry words reach places inside our nervous systems where no laser can reach. Our Lord is against such angry words because they murder the spirit.
A couple of vignettes related to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:
–In his novel, A Widow for One Year, John Irving depicts a man who lures women into his studio supposedly to model for true art. He begins by taking Polaroid pictures of these women in the nude. His first photos are of the whole person and show the woman smiling and looking lovely. But as time progresses he begins to snap pictures of only body parts, and suddenly the part of the woman’s face you can still see becomes twisted into something profoundly despairing. This supposed artist, like all pornographers, had taken their humanity away from them.
–We all know someone whom we could best describe as “an angry person.” They rarely if ever forget anything negative that has happened to them. Franklin Roosevelt’s closest political advisor was a man named Louis Howe. Mr. Howe, with some frequency, would be very rude and cruel to certain people at dinner or cocktail parties. On one such occasion Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “Louis, why did you do that?” “Because,” Howe replied, “he was once unsupportive of Franklin.” “Oh goodness,” Eleanor exclaimed, “I’d forgotten all about that.” “I never forget,” Howe snapped back. And that’s just the way some folks go at life: they nurse old wounds and so allow them to fester into an entire cesspool of resentment and anger.
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