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February 12, 2023

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37


Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,

grace and peace to you

from the one who helps us find a way

in the midst of an ever-changing world. Amen


I don’t like this gospel text.

Taken on its own,

pulled out from the sermon on the mount,

which is how it’s usually used, even in worship,

it just isn’t good news,

in fact the way some folks use it,

it is about as comforting as a punch in the gut.


Now of course not everything Jesus said and taught

was meant to be comforting,

much of it was to shake people out of complacency,

to get us really thinking about our relationships with God and neighbor

and how when relating to one another

we often put the law/ rules before people

focusing on following the letter of the law

rather than the spirit of the law,

meant to promote healthy relationships.


Because of this tendency

sometimes we have to stop

and take time to thing

‘what is this law or rule really about?’


Actually this is what Jesus is trying to do

with his teaching in our reading for today,

So let’s take a step back and put this passage back into context.


Jesus starts his ministry preaching

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”

and gathering disciples to start living in this kingdom

With this in mind he travels around

proclaiming the good news of the kingdom

and living it out

by curing all sick he encounters,

even the toughest cases,

he cures them all.


Word starts to get around

and great crowds start following him.

Seeing the crowds,

he goes up a mountain and gathers his disciples

and begins to teach them more in depth

about this kingdom that he is proclaiming and living out.


He starts with blessings,

he blesses all the people that we don’t think of as blessed,

the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek,

those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful,

you’re even blessed when people persecute you, he tells the disciples,

you who are the salt and light of the earth.


Jesus is turning the world upside down with his teaching,

but before the disciples throw up their hands and say

‘the old ways, including the law don’t matter anymore, whoopee’

he cautions them: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”


Now this is starting to sound harsh,

especially since we tend to focus on the negative things

like Jesus saying that unless your righteousness

exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,

you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


The scribes and Pharisees considered themselves

the most righteous people,

and many in society do as well,

exceeding their righteousness seems like an impossibly high standard,

until we remember that Jesus,

as Matthew will describe in more detail later on,

considers them hypocrites,


so what Jesus has done with this saying

is actually lower the bar drastically

to a simple ‘don’t be a hypocrite’


And then finally we arrive at our passage for today

where Jesus starts teaching

what it means to exceed the righteousness

of the hypocritical scribes and pharisees

saying “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you…”

and in doing so

shifting the authority from scripture to himself.


Jesus realizes that as helpful as scripture is,

it just isn’t flexible enough

to cover everything that we encounter in life,

especially the new life in the kingdom of heaven that has come near.


So Jesus shifts the authority to himself

(He is the one who God called beloved Son at baptism after all,

this doesn’t come out of nowhere)

and then he starts teaching his disciples

how to interpret and more importantly live out the law under his authority

as they encounter all that life brings their way


and like the good teacher he is

Jesus uses concrete examples

that are contextual to that time and moment.


And here is where we run into trouble with this passage

because we have tried to turn these examples

born in a particular time and society

into literal law

instead drawing out the meaning these examples were meant to convey.


M. Eugene Boring who wrote the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on Matthew

notes that what Jesus is really doing is “providing counsel for day-by-day living for imperfect people who fall short of this call to live by the perfect will of God. The new age has come in Jesus, but the old age continues and Christians live in the tension between the two. Disciples can take the antitheses (the examples) seriously as models for their life in this world in the same way that they take the advent of the kingdom of God seriously as both present and yet to come.” (NIB VIII, 189).


He goes on to summarize the meaning of each of these examples

and when seen from this perspective

the point of the teaching on anger is that “love shows no hostility”,

and the point of the teaching on adultery and marriage is that “love is not predatory”

and the point of the teaching about swearing oaths is that “love is unconditionally truthful”


and put this way,

these seem like teachings that we could actually put to use

in the variety of situations we encounter in our daily lives.


Jesus knows that even as we have been given the vision and blessing

of the perfect kingdom of heaven

and told to live this way,

we still live in a world that is far from perfect,

a world which frequently runs contrary to the kingdom of heaven

and that we will have to find a way to navigate life between the two.*


and Jesus knows that this will take practice and flexibility,

that we won’t always get it right,

which is why Jesus makes himself the final authority,

and demonstrates again and again

that his is the way of love and forgiveness,

of second and third chances to try again,

to continue to grow,

that one mistake, or one poor choice is not the end,

that there is always redemption,

there is always the opportunity to choose life,

because Jesus has chosen life

and in the end life, especially life in the kingdom,

is up to God.


As Paul reminds the Corinthians: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:)


We certainly have a role to play

in the work of God in the world,

in the bringing about of the kingdom,

but the end result it is not up to us,

it is up to God,


and so when faced with an ever changing world,

caught in between the already of the kingdom

and the not yet of the world,


we do our best to love without hostility,

to remind ourselves and other that love is not predatory,

that love is truthful,


we live as best we are able,

and we leave the rest up to God,

placing our trust in the one who has blessed us

and sent us to be salt and light for the world. Amen







*Boring in his commentary notes “In 5:21-26, we can see the interplay between the vision of the kingdom of heaven and the practical way that this kingdom is to be lived out in Christian community. The first half of the passage (5:21-22) says, in effect, that all anger and hostility are outside the bounds of God’s kingdom. The second half of the passage (5:23-26) admits that Christians get angry and suffer through broken relationships, and tells us what to do when that reality occurs. The difference between the two halves of the passage, between the vision and the practice is not a matter of hypocrisy, but of promise and hope. A loving parent would say to a child, ‘I love and cherish you. Every good gift I know how to give is yours. I promise that nothing will ever change my devotion to you. Now, go into the rough and tumble of the world and live out this blessing.’ Just so, Jesus announces the good gift of God, a world where anger has no place, where destructive human relationships cannot endure, and then says, ‘Now, go into the rough and tumble of the world and live out what is already true about you.’” (NIB VIII, 196-197).


Boring, Eugene M. “Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8. Abingdon Press, Nashville. 1995.

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