United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“From the Heart”

Feb. 12th, 2023

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        I, personally, think this is one of the more difficult passages to preach on.  First of all, the issues of anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing are bound to personally and painfully touch almost everyone in your congregation.  It is like wading into a field seeded with land mines.  Secondly, we normally think of Jesus as simplifying or condensing the law: (Think of what we call the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”).  Here he seems to expand it! 

        “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

        No murder becomes you shall not be angry with another.

         No adultery becomes you cannot even look at someone else with lust in your heart.

        Divorce (with a certificate) becomes no divorce.

        No swearing falsely becomes no swearing at all.

        AND, on top of that, the penalties, or ways of dealing with these infractions are pretty unbelievable: dropping everything (including giving your offering to the church!) until you have resolved the argument with a brother or sister (or you might be handed to the judge and then to the guard, and then into prison—where you will rot until you pay)—TO cutting off, or plucking out whole body parts because is it better to be maimed than to go to hell—TO saying anything but yes or no and you are speaking words from the evil one.

        It is enough to make a preacher go sprinting for any other passage.  Deliver me, O Lord.  And yet, I was intrigued.  Here Jesus has all these people gathered to hear this great speech.  He starts out really strong, telling them that many of them are actually blessed (rather than cursed as the religious authorities might have told them).

    I can imagine murmurs of assent, and looks of surprise (except maybe for that last Beatitude)—but we quickly move on to other common images, salt and light.  And again a very positive take on these—You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world!  You have what it takes.  I call you into that.  And then we fall off a cliff.  I can almost hear mumbling crescendoing to jeers or even outright catcalls as these “but I say to you” add more and more seemingly impossible things to the list of “what is expected of you.”

        Who are you, Jesus to tell us we have to do more than the law requires?  Nobody can live up to that!  And yet this is exactly what Jesus is suggesting, or demanding in the last sentence of last week’s reading (right before our passage for today), “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be read as a whole (although we break it up into parts).  We have talked about how this sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ Vision statement about how the world should be, how the world could be, how the world (as seen through God’s eyes) already is.

        In Jesus’ Vision people that the world counts as losers and suckers and unlucky and not in the realm of reality are actually those who God favors.  Common place elements, salt and light (and later on bread and wine) come front and center in our understanding of what it is that God expects of us.  So what is Jesus doing here?  Why does he vault from blessed are and You are to “But I say to you”?  Why from beatitude and salt and light to what seems like embellishment on the already heavy law.

        Obviously he doesn’t want to abolish the law, for he says he wants to fulfill it. (Again from last week’s reading) “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”


       Now maybe he’s trying to blunt the criticism that will come that he doesn’t follow the correct teachings of Mosaic law—and the religious authorities of his day will argue this very case.

       I think Jesus knew that he was going to have to deal with all these questions about his vision versus “the law” and so he comes right at it—face to face.

        Starting with telling his listeners that they will have to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.  Now that was saying something.  From the caricatures we have in scripture, the scribes and Pharisees were always dressing in their finest, and going to feasts, and walking away from anything unclean (including wounded people).  They looked down their noses on anyone who couldn’t manage to remember and abide by all those laws (or who couldn’t then afford to bring a sacrifice for atonement).  How in the world were they, the common people, supposed to be more righteous than that?

        And here is where I think Jesus is playing with us.  In his audience he also would have had people who had feuds with others, who had stepped out on their spouses, who had gone through divorces, and who, if they were anything like us, had trouble not swearing!  And yet, he not only brings up these commandments—he pushes them past their literal meaning, to the fullest extension of themselves.  The actual deeds—which were what was forbidden in the commandments—become the emotions behind the deeds, so that anger and lust and breaking of promises and not using respectful speech are lifted up as problems as well.

        Who is going to be able to perfectly abide by these restraints?  And this is where we need to remember that Jesus has been talking about a vision, a dream, what should/could be—what we are to strive towards.

      Jesus isn’t satisfied with the law, doesn’t think that the law is fulfilled, if it allows people to continue to hate each other (even if they don’t physically kill one another), or to objectify one another for purposes of sexual tingles, or to cavalierly walk away from ties that bind, or to use words as if they didn’t have power to hurt or maim, or to dilute thought, and make something that is God-like (remember God creates, in the beginning, by speaking, and it is …) to make that special gift that makes us like God less than it can be.

        This is how we are to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, by pushing out the words of the commandments to what was behind the words—the spirit of the law.  This is will be a theme of Jesus again and again and again.  And it is not something that is optional.  This vision of the kingdom of heaven, as he calls it, is meant to be held in front of our eyes every morning when we wake up and every evening before we go to sleep.  It is, like the law, to be written on our hearts, and order our steps, and call us to be better.

        And to make his point about how important this is, Jesus goes to extraordinary lengths to talk about how to achieve this in our lives.  Don’t wait to fix things (to the extreme).  Maim yourself rather than sin (to the extreme).  Don't swear or you are mouthing words from the evil one (to the extreme).

        And as much as you think anger and lust and breaking promises and throwing words around as if they don’t have importance are a big list—Jesus goes on to even more difficult things (which we are not going to get to read this year, and so they have found their way here).  For Jesus doesn’t stop with the four topics we have talked about so far.  No, he goes for the jugular “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; [if they want your coat, give them your cloak as well, if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…]

        And the one that probably is the hardest for any of us to hear “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…] Until he gets to his point “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

        And here is the crux.  We are to strive for these things because that is how God is.  God is, once again, shown to be involved in things that are not “of this world.”  Who gives more than they are expected to give (especially if you are being forced to give!)?  Who has on their religious laws to love enemies?  What country acts like that?  Jesus has just made himself political (and very probably heretical).  There are many instances in Jesus’ Scriptures where God is quoted as saying, “Go destroy this people” or “I will be with you so you can wipe out that people.”

        This idea of loving your enemy would put a lot of Biblical history (and every other history) in the category of “not of God.”  No wonder the religious authorities were not happy.  And the civil authorities weren’t happy either.  This was a radical shift in how we treat one another.  It would upend the traditional way of doing just about everything.  That goes for today as well.

        What would it mean if we took to heart what Jesus is calling us to be and do in these lessons?  It is a shocking suggestion.  It is a shocking vision.  And maybe Jesus’ high rhetoric about cutting off hands and tearing out eyeballs is meant as a way of shaking us and saying—Hey, I want to knock you out of your carefully crafted world.  God’s vision, the coming reign of heaven, is a total shift in worldview.  Nothing that you thought you knew, about how to act, about how to relate to one another, about how God relates to you, will stay the same. 

        It’s not that we are wiping out what God wanted in the law (which was the purpose of giving the law on Mount Sinai in the first place)—no, the law needs to be fulfilled, God’s desires have yet to come to pass, the vision of heaven on earth, God’s vision, is too important to put on the “when I get around to it” list.

        And it is also abundantly clear that “being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not something that anyone can claim they can achieve.  So, those scribes and Pharisees who were claiming righteousness—uh uh.  All of a sudden we are all in the same boat—one of falling short of the goal, but asked to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try it again.  The only one who is ever going to get it totally right is God.  The rest of us are just plugging along, living in our imperfect world, and called to try to make that world different than it is.

        The reading for this morning from the book of Deuteronomy puts it in terms of choosing Life over death, choosing blessing over curse, choosing God over anything else.  And that is as true for us as it was for the Israelites perched on the hills overlooking the Jordan River.  It is as true for us as it was for the people surrounding Jesus hearing the sermon on the mount.  God’s vision of life on earth isn’t supposed to be something we put in a painting and place on a wall, or something that we pull out when we are at our lowest ebb, or something we yearn for but can’t imagine coming to pass.

        Jesus intends for us to start to bring that vision to pass by engaging us in the things that make up our very lives—emotions, actions, being hurt and hurting others.  This law which is entwined with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven is intended to change our hearts, to change our lives, and in so doing, maybe to change our world.  Being perfect as God is perfect isn’t something that one can order off Amazon, or take on as a weekend warrior.  Jesus wants us to begin to be salt of the earth and light of the world, to be blessed.  That happens when God’s vision becomes real to us, as real as what others say is reality.  That happens when we are willing, however falteringly, however imperfectly, to make God’s vision our own.  That we will treasure it, and wrap ourselves around it, and fiercely defend it, and work tirelessly to bring it about.  And to do all of that: from the heart.          

                                      May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.