As One with Authority
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
In order to read and interpret the gospel of Matthew properly, we must understand that Matthew was, among other things, an apologist. He wrote his gospel in the ninth decade of the first century, as Judaism was seeking to redefine itself after the catastrophic end of the Jewish War, when the Roman legions under Titus sacked Jerusalem and razed the temple. To be accurate, at the time Matthew wrote there was no such thing as Judaism in the singular. There were a number of different Judaisms—different branches of the one stream of Israel’s ancient religion, including the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the newest group, who called themselves the followers of the Way—and it was a live question which one would prevail and become the normative form of the faith. The gospel of Matthew can be understood, at least in part, as Matthew’s attempt to defend Christianity against those who tried to discredit it, and to present the Way of Jesus as the rightful bearer of the mantle of Judaism.
This helps to explain the sometimes vicious polemic Matthew directs toward the scribes and Pharisees in his gospel. In Jesus’s lifetime, the Pharisees were a somewhat influential but distinctly minority party within Judaism, and if you look closely at what the Pharisees believed, you might justifiably suspect that they and the followers of Jesus would be natural allies rather than opponents. But fifty years later, when Matthew composed his gospel, the Pharisees had become the dominant faction and were the leaders of the movement that would eventually succeed in excluding the Christians and labeling them heretics. The bitter attacks that Jesus launches against the scribes and Pharisees throughout the gospel, but especially in chapter 23, seem out of place coming from the mouth of Jesus in the late twenties, but they make perfect sense in the context of Matthew's community in the mid-eighties.
One of the more obscure ways Matthew asserts the legitimacy of the Christian movement is through the use of the numbers three and fourteen, which apparently had some mystical significance in the first century. For reasons that are lost to history, the Pharisees made a point of claiming that their rabbis descended from three sets of fourteen generations going back to some luminary from Israel’s past. Matthew claims similar authority for Jesus. He opens his gospel with a genealogy consisting of—you guessed it—three sets of fourteen generations, starting with the luminary of all luminaries, Abraham.
Three is also an important number for Matthew. His gospel is chock-full of triads, or threefold patterns. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream three times; the magi bring Jesus three gifts; Jesus faces three temptations in the wilderness; he often tells parables in sets of three; Peter denies him three times; and, of course, by Hebrew reckoning he is in the tomb for three days before being raised. W. D. Davies and Dale Allison have identified more than forty triadic patterns sprinkled throughout the gospel.
Glen Stassen has found these triadic patterns in the Sermon on the Mount as well. In fact, he has found fourteen sets of triads in chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew. Just like the triad of fourteen generations in Jesus’s genealogy. Just like the Pharisaic rabbis’ claim of triads of fourteen generations in their own backgrounds. Clearly Matthew wants to highlight Jesus’s credentials in relation to those who are trying to discredit him and his followers. But Matthew is not content with merely placing Jesus on the same level as the scribes and Pharisees; he wants to say as clearly as possible that Jesus is superior to them. At the conclusion of the Sermon, he sums up the crowds’ reaction this way: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt 7:28–29).
One of the ways Jesus demonstrates his superiority over the scribes is by teaching on his own authority. It was practically unheard of for even the most eminent rabbi or scribe to offer a commentary on the Scripture without making reference to what earlier rabbis had taught: “As Rabbi Shammai taught,” or “Rabbi Joseph said such and such,” and so on. Rabbinical teaching consisted of the exposition, interpretation, and working out of what had come before, in much the same way that attorneys build their arguments based on existing case law and precedent. But Jesus teaches as one with his own inherent authority, as though he were speaking on behalf of God.
We see this clearly in our passage for today. These are the first four of a total of six instances here in chapter 5—we will get to the last two next week—in which Jesus reinterprets traditional teachings on his own authority. In each case he follows the same pattern. He says, “You have heard it said,” followed by a saying from the Torah or the oral tradition, but then he says, “But I say to you,” and he gives his own teaching that either nullifies what has come before or radically expands it in some way. To offer himself as a sufficiently authoritative voice in this way is a bold move indeed.
Today’s examples deal with traditional teachings on murder, adultery, and oaths. Jesus cites the tradition, but then offers his own take in ways that seem at first glance extraordinarily difficult or harsh. For instance, on the subject of adultery, he radicalizes the message so that it is not just the physical act of illicit sex that makes one culpable, but the private and internal experience of lust. He says that those who look at someone lustfully have already committed adultery in their hearts, and he tells them, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (v. 29). Not the most accommodating stance one could imagine, from a pastoral perspective.
The seeming harshness of these six sayings, which commentators have dubbed the “six antitheses,” has made the Sermon on the Mount something of an enigma over the centuries of church teaching. Both the Catholic and Protestant traditions express ambivalence about the Sermon. We laud it as one of the most profound sets of teachings to come down from any religious or moral teacher in history, but then we tend to dismiss it as an actual blueprint for how we ought to conduct our lives.
At some point in the medieval period, the Church came to see the Sermon on the Mount as a special teaching for monks and fanatics and those who wished to be perfect, but it was not considered appropriate or applicable to the rank and file layperson. It just wasn't practical for someone who had not devoted herself to a cloistered life of striving after absolute holiness. Those outside the monastic communities could admire the Sermon as a beautiful ideal, but could rest easy in the knowledge that it was safely unattainable.
The early Protestants took a different tack. Luther and Calvin and their cohorts were on record as taking the Bible with utter seriousness, but they also had a deep suspicion of anything that seemed to threaten their doctrine of justification by faith through grace alone. Parts of the Sermon lent themselves to legalistic interpretation, so the Reformers solved the problem by spiritualizing the Sermon—declaring it applicable to one’s inner life but not binding on one’s public behavior. A different solution, but one that, just like the Catholic Church before them, absolved the great mass of Protestant Christians from the necessity of living by the Sermon’s teachings.
In those instances in which people have tried to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, the effect has too often been discouraging. When Jesus’s teachings are viewed as impossibly high ideals that we are nonetheless required to live out, the predictable response is resistance, resentment, and guilt. When we consider the Sermon as a matter of human striving, we doom our efforts from the outset.
But Glen Stassen writes in his book Just Peacemaking, “The Sermon on the Mount is not about striving toward high ideals but about God’s transforming initiative to deliver us from the vicious cycles in which we get stuck” (Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 37). Unfortunately, that message gets lost when we interpret the sayings here in chapter 5 as pairs or antitheses. To read, “They say you shouldn’t murder,” as the first side of the equation, or thesis, and, “But I say that if you call somebody a fool you’re going to hell,” as the antithesis, or only other option, is to paint ourselves into the corner. It is to remove grace from the picture altogether.
That’s why Stassen’s discovery of the fourteen triads in the Sermon is so important. He says that instead of two parts, a statement of traditional piety followed by Jesus’s intensification of the demand, each saying has three parts. Part one is the traditional understanding, but part two, rather than being an impossibly demanding ideal, is actually Jesus’s clear-eyed description of the vicious cycle that keeps us in bondage. It’s a description, not a prescription. Jesus then follows with the third part of the triad, an initiative that will transform the situation. If you want to be my disciples, Jesus says, if you want to experience the new life of the reign of God, then here is a practical way to do that. The initiative always comes from God, but God graciously offers us the opportunity to participate in those transforming initiatives that will deliver us from the downward spiral of sin and guilt.
Let’s take a look at the specific examples Jesus presents in this passage. The first one has to do with murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment’” (v. 21). Jesus is describing the accepted traditional teaching. Pretty straightforward. Then he says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (v. 22). Notice that none of the verbs in that verse are imperative. Jesus is not saying that you must not be angry or insult anyone; he is merely describing what happens when we give in to our anger and don’t do anything about it. Unresolved anger goes in a downward spiral to insults to contempt to dehumanization, and ultimately to murder. It’s simply the way the world works. It’s human nature.
But he doesn’t leave us there. In the third part Jesus offers us a way out of the cycle. God provides a transforming initiative to deliver us from our hopeless human predicament:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny (vv. 23–26).
The transforming initiative God offers us is the opportunity to seek reconciliation while there is still time. Rather than nursing our anger and remaining isolated from the one we are in conflict with, Jesus counsels us to talk it out and be reconciled. He does not tell us not to be angry, but he does provide a way for us to keep our anger from turning into something worse.
The same holds true for the saying about adultery. The commandment is “Do not commit adultery.” We find ourselves in a vicious cycle when we not only look at someone with lust but also begin to contemplate acting on it and placing ourselves in situations where doing so is easier. Jesus says that if we find ourselves looking with lust, we should pluck out our eyes. This is an exaggerated way of saying that we should remove the occasions for lust. He does not tell us to have squeaky-clean thoughts and pure motives; he tells us to take a practical step to keep ourselves from acting on our lust. If being near someone else's spouse to whom we are attracted stirs up lustful thoughts, we should remove ourselves from the situation. Jesus doesn’t say, “Keep on looking but do not lust,” which is impossible; he says, realistically, “Change the practice that is putting you in danger.”
The saying about oaths does not follow exactly the same format as the first two, but we can still discern the three-part structure. Traditional piety says, “Do not swear falsely,” but Jesus points out that any kind of oath embroils you in evil and judgment, so he concludes, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’ (v. 37). By refusing to swear an oath but instead practicing simple honesty, we can avoid the vicious cycle that leads to lying. “Anything more” than such simple honesty, Jesus says, “comes from the evil one.”
The crowds who heard Jesus’s new brand of teaching were astounded because he taught as one with authority. Those of us who seek to be Jesus’s disciples are bound by that authority. For us to ignore or brush off the Sermon on the Mount because the demands sound too hard and the ideals too high would be a betrayal of our calling. It’s also a misreading of what Jesus is trying to tell us. He acknowledges the way our anger, lust, selfishness, and so on serve as mechanisms of bondage, and because he has compassion on us he provides a way out. He invites us to take practical initiatives that will transform and defuse the situation and get us back on track. Left to our own devices, our unchecked anger will lead to murder. Our unchecked lust will lead us into adultery. Our rashness in making vows will lead to perjury. Luckily for us, Jesus does not leave us to our own devices.
Last week we heard Jesus call us the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Now he shows us ways to shine our lights and sprinkle our salt. By seeking reconciliation, by starving lust of its opportunities to act, and by committing ourselves to simple honesty in all our words and dealings, we declare our allegiance to God’s countercultural reign that is breaking into this world even now. What could run more counter to the world’s ways than to practice discipline, take the initiative to restore relationships, and live our lives honestly? In a world that revels in excess and abhors restraint, what better way could we find to let our light shine? Who knows but that we may become agents of grace and transformation in the lives of those we encounter each day?
Stassen, Glen H. 1992. Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace.
Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.