holy cross sermon for epiphany 6 / year a / february 13 2011

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Today’s Gospel lesson continues the theme of last week’s, where Jesus said: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5.20).

 

This cycle of Gospel readings is taken from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” – a long discourse in which much of Jesus’ prescriptive and moral teachings are to be found. It has been said that, whereas each of the four Gospels has a perspectival preoccupation, in Mathew it is The Law – the Torah, and specifically the manner in which Jesus interprets, or supersedes, or fulfills the Law.

 

The very fact that this is the sermon “on the mount” reminds the attentive listener of another set of commandments given from a mountain: Moses on Mt. Sinai. The book of Exodus says:

 

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain…. Moses called to [the people of Israel]; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. And afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. (Exodus 34.29-32)

 

So likewise here Jesus calls the people to him from a mountain, and gives them in commandment all that the Lord has spoken to him. This is a bold move on the part of Jesus, and on the part of those who witnessed and recounted what he had done and said. Whereas for Jews, Moses was the father of all the prophets, and the greatest prophet, and in a sense the originator of the Jewish religion, here Jesus – talking to an audience of religious Jews – places himself on a par with Moses, and even above him.

 

We can see this in the series of Jesus’ teachings where he says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say…” Within Jesus’ religious context, this would have been radical talk. Jesus is adding his own word to the sacrosanct word of the Lord given through Moses, the greatest of all the prophets. This audacity of Jesus is a clue to his identity. In the last book of the Mosaic Law, the Lord had promised to send another prophet like Moses. In Deuteronomy 18 (vv. 15ff), Moses says:

 

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren — him you shall heed — just as you desired of the LORD your God at [Mt. Sinai] on the day of the assembly… And the LORD said to me, “…I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.

 

And the last chapter of the last book of the Mosaic Law says: “…there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face…” (Deut. 34.10).

 

So what is the point of all this? The point is that Jesus is this long-awaited prophet – and more than a prophet: God’s own Son. Jesus is the one God promised to send, the one whom God knows “face to face” – the one in whose mouth the Lord has put his words, who speaks as God commands him, the one whom God commands us to heed. This, at any rate, is the claim of the Gospel. And it is a bold claim.

 

This sermon on the mount, then, is the completion of the prescriptive commandments of God, which began with the Torah, the books of Moses. And what does Jesus say to his followers? Firstly, in the Gospel lesson we heard last week, Jesus says: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Scribes and the Pharisees were the keepers and the arbiters of the Torah in Jesus’ time. So Jesus here tells his followers that they must not only keep the commandments that God has already revealed, but that they must go beyond them. And this is why Christians must not only be kind and loving and so on, but we must first keep the moral law. Jesus does not abrogate anything: he prescribes MORE.

 

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5.21-22)

 

God is not merely concerned with how we behave, but with the disposition of our hearts. But God had said all along that this was coming. In a sense, our whole problem is hard-heartedness. And I mean the problem at the bottom of human life, and at the bottom of OUR human lives, as individuals. Hard-heartedness motivates dysfunctional (sinful) behavior – but even righteousness is of no avail if our disposition remains disordered. This likewise may be seen in the Greek word for “repentance” – metanoia – which literally means to have one’s mind transformed.

 

You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5.27f)

 

In our time we ought to say out of the box that this does not merely apply to men looking at women, but to women looking at men, men looking at men, and women looking at women. Marriage, Adultery, fornication, and lust are what they have always been. But Christians must not only guard marriage and avoid the rest, but we must practice chastity in our interior life as well. And whereas Cain claimed not to be his brothers keeper, Christians DO claim to be one another’s custodians. Hence the importance of modesty. Our deference to the Lord’s command should extend to an awareness of our brothers’ and our sisters’ interior chastity, with which we are entrusted. One of the consequences of the incarnation is that we are never alone – isolation is an illusion for the baptized. And one being one another’s “keepers” is a fruit of our togetherness in Christ. We belong not only to him, but to one another; and the main upshot of our belonging to one another is that we are entrusted with one another’s belonging first to him.

 

I have often said that as we draw closer to Christ, the same movement draws us closer to all those who are drawing closer to Christ. This is not a principle of theology but of geometry and physics. Thus another way of understanding the radical nature of the life to which we are called is as its being a consequence of this principle – that we will be saved together, or we will not be saved.

 

Jesus “went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…. I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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