Out of context, today’s Gospel passage is a difficult one. In context, well, it’s still difficult. But I think we are obligated to read it as part of the Sermon on the Mount, and not as a standalone edict. Our lectionary, which divides the Bible up into passages and assigns them to particular days, has created an artificial division within the document, as though Jesus took a week’s break between last week’s passage and this week’s. He didn’t. Let’s put it back together—that is, let’s re-member it—and see where that puts us.
The Sermon on the Mount occurs right as Jesus is beginning his ministry. Crowds are starting to follow him, and you get the sense that he wants to train his disciples a bit more before things get out of hand. He goes up the mountain, and they follow him, and he begins to preach.
The sermon opens with the Beatitudes, which bestow blessings on those who are lowly by secular standards. Jesus is beginning to unpack his vision of God’s Kingdom. If you can remember the first time you heard the Beatitudes, you get something of how radical this is. I remember hearing them and thinking this was some secret truth buried far beneath the outer workings of the world. As though our sense of power was almost entirely mistaken. And indeed, Jesus would display power made perfect in weakness.
Having issued a prophetic and poetic counter to the exploitative power schemes of our world, Jesus proceeds by giving the metaphors of salt and light. In each, his disciples are compared to elements that find their value in relation to other things. It follows thematically from the Beatitudes, as they are told that power, which is entirely expressed as God’s love, flows out ever more broadly, rather than being held back in a personal reserve. Salt and light both have meaning only in how they relate to others. Power, which is love, is meant to be shared.
This dynamic of inversion continues to our salvation, as we discussed last week. Salvation is not a commodity we acquire, but is something we participate in by living into our covenant with God, and by serving as an example and invitation for others to do so. Put differently, you don’t achieve salvation. You realize it. The Sermon on the Mount urges us to pursue an inward transformation, to take on the radiant depth of the salt and the light, and not just put forth hollow performances of them.
Again, you may have heard this message enough times that it is losing its edge, it’s—dare I say—saltiness, but the insistence that we are most connector with the divine when our inward experience of love extends to an outward offering of love is something that we can never hear too much. We truly need God’s help to keep these values in our practices.
So when Jesus turns to the topic of anger, we should not be looking for rules to guide our behavior, but rather for principles to guide our spiritual growth, which will then reflect authentically in our behavior. Jesus is not giving new rules, but revealing the spiritual depth behind existing ones.
The commandment not to kill should really be an easily achieved baseline. The spiritual movement behind it, though, is one of reconciliation. Jesus counsels us not to make our offerings at the altar before we are reconciled to one another. The offerings we make reflect our inner state, and to be authentically worshipful, our inner state must align with our outer state. This is why we confess our sins and then greet one another in peace immediately before our offertory and communion. We do not come to this table to set ourselves apart or reinforce worldly rivalries. We come to it together, to become as one, and we must honor one another and ourselves.
It is not enough to simply not commit adultery as we typically understand it. That’s a physical obedience, and Jesus again pushes for a spiritual depth. In particular, Jesus sets his sights on the hetero male gaze, saying that objectifying women violates the covenant we make in marriage, and more broadly in life, to honor God’s presence in each person. I have heard stories that people other than heterosexual men objectify others, but we have certainly caused more suffering with our lust more than any other group. I am not offended by being singled out here. As with the other topics, Jesus is pointing to a spiritual orientation that honors the inherent value of each person.
Divorce. This is the tough one. The commandment is “whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But Jesus pushes harder, saying that anyone who divorces his wife—and I think the gendered language makes a difference here—except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery. That sentence sure is rough.
The gendered language points to a unilateral dynamic in these divorces. The man divorces the woman, and she receives the consequences . And I think the setting aside of the woman’s unchastity as the exception to the rule emphasizes that the divorces Jesus critiques represent a societal violence toward women. In such a patriarchal society, divorced women were in a very vulnerable position. And so the act of divorce is even more traumatic than it is now. The woman, who is here blameless, now faces the consequences of a divorce she did not cause. She now lives outside a marriage she did not break. The arbitrary severing of commitments truly hurt other people. Nothing happens outside of relationship to others and to God.
This story doesn’t reflect an understanding of marriage that we embrace today. Things like love and happiness, which are very big and biblically articulated values, are at least nominally at the center of our modern marriages, and our understanding of marriage as sacrament implies a quality of goodness and grace that can certainly be eroded by things other than infidelity.
What I’m saying is that this isn’t a legal manual for marriage, but a spiritual lesson on relationship and accountability. Under the literal operation of the text, which is very loud with this particular text, something spiritual moves. The text is, in classic Biblical fashion, centered on the man, but once we face that fact, we can see spiritual value. This isn’t about marriage vows. It’s about relationship.
If you think I’m shortselling marriage vows, pay attention when Jesus starts talking about oaths. Jesus does not care about oaths. He also, I believe, is not terribly impressed by marriage vows. Vows are the promise of action, the promise of a certain way of living, but they are not the living themselves. Anyone can take an oath. But unless the oath reflects your soul, it is spiritually negligible.
All of this, the whole thing, is an invitation to pursue transformation. It is not easy. The temptation to selfishness, or to a hollow sort of morality, is strong. Those are the easier paths. But they are not the paths to wholeness. It is easier to participate in relationships that disregard or exploit others. It is, in fact, deeply woven into the economy of our world. But we cannot do it without diminishing our own relationship with God.
The Sermon on the Mount is a lengthy, remarkably deep call to a new way of being. It is not an instruction manual for each step of the way. We have to figure those out for ourselves. But we know we do it in relationship, and with practices that challenge us to value our own participation in God’s love as much as other people’s participation in God’s love. The Sermon on the Mount was given to people living in a different society, and we need to remember that. Taking the Bible literally almost always cuts off most of what it has to say. But is is also, I think, the greatest sermon ever given. So we need to sit with it, at times wrestle with it, and let it speak spiritually to us. Every time I read it I see new layers and new implications.
It’s complicated, this Sermon on the Mount. Parts of it radiate grace, and parts clang off of our modern ears. It may be the greatest thing ever committed to paper, but it is also intensely of a time and place we don’t fully understand. And so we don’t diminish it by claiming to exclusively understand it. We honor it by grappling with it. This week, I simply invite you to read Matthew 5 again. Keep going into chapters 6 and 7 if you have time. The Sermon on the Mount keeps going. It is a remarkable and complex invitation to a world turned beautifully upside down.