High Standards

Matthew 5:17-48

GalileeThis is where the best sermon ever was preached.

Maybe that statement sounds like a ridiculously high standard. How could any one sermon be definitively “the best”? But this one was: the preacher was Jesus, and it’s recorded for us in Matthew 5 – 7. You might have heard it referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

These pictures are from the elevations around Galilee, ones that look more like hills than “mounts” to us here in Western North Carolina. They sure are beautiful, though. On my trip there last year, our tour bus dropped us off at the top of a hill, not far from the Church of the Beatitudes. We wandered down the gentle slope toward the sea. There’s no way to know exactly which mountain in Galilee that Jesus used as a natural auditorium for the Sermon on the Mount, so we wondered as we wandered: Was it right here? This very spot?

The site of the best sermon ever.

I bet you are familiar with at least some of the material from this sermon. It starts with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” It includes a charge not to put our lights under a basket, but to let them shine before others. We hear how to pray using the Lord’s Prayer, and we’re told not to worry about what we’ll eat or wear.

That’s all very nice and often poetic; but much of the Sermon on the Mount becomes challenging – almost uncomfortable – once we really stop and carefully listen. Today’s Scripture is some of the hardest stuff in here. If you read it, you found it long – but I wanted those in church today and you the reader to feel the full weight of this hard, uncomfortable teaching. It includes six antithesis:

     You’ve heard it said, “Don’t murder.” I say, “Don’t get angry.”
     You’ve heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery.” I say, “Don’t even look at someone.”
     You’ve heard it said, “Divorce by the proper means.” I say, “Don’t divorce at all.”
     You’ve heard it said, “Keep your oaths.” I say, “Don’t swear at all.”
     You’ve heard it said, “Retaliate evenly.” I say, “Don’t retaliate at all.”
     You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor.” I say, “Love your enemy, too.”

Jesus is doing something remarkable here. It’s not the clever, repetitive structure (you’ve heard it said… I say…); that’s cool, but other rabbis and scribes were known to use antithesis to refute the teachings of others. What’s remarkable is that Jesus isn’t refuting another rabbi or scribe; he is referring to the Law, the Old Testament, and revising those teachings.

If this doesn’t strike you as radical, think of it this way: What if I preached something like:

You’ve heard it said, “Pray like the Lord’s Prayer,” but I say, “Sing all your prayers.”

I’d hope you’d at least raise an eyebrow, in part because it’s ridiculous and in part because I’m messing with what Jesus taught. So how do you think the crowds reacted to these revisions?

Now for me – and maybe for you, too – the fact that Jesus is taking the Law to a new level doesn’t bother me. I’m a 21st century Christian. I believe Jesus to be the Son of God. So go ahead, Jesus, revise the Law all you want. No problem here.

The problem arrives for me in the consequences, because the consequences tell us how serious Jesus is with this new teaching.

You’ve heard it said, “Don’t murder.” I say, “Don’t get angry.”
Or you’ll be thrown into hell.
 You’ve heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery.” I say, “Don’t even look at someone.”
Or you’ll be thrown into hell.
 You’ve heard it said, “Divorce by the proper means.” I say, “Don’t divorce at all.”
Or you commit adultery.
 You’ve heard it said, “Keep your oaths.” I say, “Don’t swear at all.”
Anything else comes from evil.
 You’ve heard it said, “Retaliate evenly.” I say, “Don’t retaliate at all.”
(Turn your cheek; give away your coat; go the extra mile.)
 You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor.” I say, “Love your enemy, too.”
Otherwise, you’re no better than the tax collectors and Gentiles.

These consequences are no slap on the wrist. The first two get someone thrown into hell. The original Greek doesn’t use the word “hell” – it’s “Gehenna,” a location outside of Old Jerusalem’s walls associated with child sacrifice and an ever-burning trash heap. (This always makes me think of the Springfield Tire Yard.) Arguably, whether we say “hell” or “Gehenna” the meaning is the same: a place of terrible punishment. That’s where people who get angry and lust end up.

Y’all, we’re in trouble.

The third antithesis tells us the result of divorce is adultery. This becomes uncomfortable when we go back to the Old Testament punishment for adultery: death for both parties involved (Leviticus 20:10). Our oaths make us “evil,” and if we love only our neighbors we’re no better than the social and moral outcasts of Jesus’ day. The only antithesis without a clearly-defined negative result is the bit about retaliation, but there the instructions are so unpleasant – turn your cheek, give away your coat, go the extra mile – as to be consequences in and of themselves.

Who here hasn’t fallen short of this list? Who hasn’t looked at another woman or been angry or taken a little revenge? And if Jesus means what he says here – who isn’t subject to some horrible punishment?

The first way I got my head around all this, once I really started reading it, was with this logic: Jesus is demonstrating that no one can meet God’s high standards. No one can be good enough for God. Thus, the purpose of these harsh antitheses is to allow us to fully understand how much we need Jesus’ death and resurrection to save us.

That lets me sleep pretty easy at night, but I don’t think it does full justice to the best sermon ever.

I remember a few years ago going to a big youth worker’s convention in Atlanta, Georgia. There were about 5,000 people there, and they brought in big name bands and speakers for the worship sessions. One of those big names was Shane Claiborne, a guy who has written a couple books, worked with Mother Teresa, and started a successful faith community in inner-city Philadelphia. I had read a book of his and heard him speak before; like most of the people there, I was looking forward to hearing him speak more than any of the other big names.

When Shane took the stage, he did a few opening bits (I think he juggled for us, even). I remember thinking that he seemed almost nervous, which was strange for a guy who was used to speaking in front of crowds like this. Then, as he entered into his real material, he explained that he had thrown out his original speech, and he was sorry if some people were disappointed, but he felt really compelled to read the best sermon ever instead.

And then he read – you guessed it – the Sermon on the Mount. When he was done he simply left the stage. The event organizers were obviously flustered, trying to explain why one of their big names had just delivered material over 2,000 years old.

For at least one person there that day, Shane’s recycled sermon left quite an impression. I realized exactly how important Matthew 5 – 7 is, and how easily we sometimes write it off.

So returning to our harsh antitheses… The high standards of these teachings definitely help us more deeply appreciate our need for grace, but that’s only half the truth. We need to push ourselves to the whole truth, including the possibility that Jesus really meant what he said about not getting angry, or lusting, or retaliating and such.scales

Jesus said it himself: He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. In order to understand that, we have to tip the scales.

See, many Christians approach Jesus’ teaching with the scales tipped one of two ways. Sometimes they’re grace-heavy – which is how I’d describe my original approach, throwing out a need to exactly follow Jesus’ instructions and instead leaning on Jesus’ grace and forgiveness when I get them wrong. Other times, we Christians can be standard-heavy – forgetting that Jesus gives us grace, and coming down hard on anyone who falls short of the high standards that Christ sets for us.

So which is right?

Neither. Both.

What Jesus gives us is a set of scales that are broken. Or, maybe, “fixed” is a better way to say it. A way of life where we are called to high standards AND given high grace, all at once. So the ideal is that we never get angry; Jesus wasn’t joking when he said that, so we work relentlessly to resist anger in our hearts. But when we miss the ideal, there is high grace to reconcile us with our God of love. The ideal is that we don’t get divorced; shoot, I think anyone who’s been affected by divorce would agree that divorce is not the ideal. As followers of Christ, we give our best to our spouses. But sometimes, despite all our best intentions, it doesn’t work out. Then there’s grace, in equal doses with Jesus’ expectations for us.

High standards and high grace. A wonderfully broken scale.

This can be difficult for us to keep in balance, because it’s not how the world works. We’re used to consequences for our choices. It can be very difficult to strive for the best and accept forgiveness when we fall short. It can be almost impossible to hold others to a high standard and offer them an equally high amount of grace.

I think we can learn something from Disney World in this department.

I last went to Disney in the spring of 2010. We had nine people in our group, ranging in age from 4 to 64. We were toddlers, teenagers, young adults, and grandparents. Oh – and one pregnant first-time mom: me.

Needless to say we did not stick together very well. We had varying interests in teacups and roller coasters and variety shows. Then, once we were together, it was a challenge to find seats for everyone. I remember one lunch in particular where it was my job to secure tables while everyone else got their food. The only tables I could find were literally right in front of a sign that said,

“Please: No saving seats.”

This made me somewhat uncomfortable, because I am a huge rule follower. In other words: My scales kind of naturally tip in the “high standards” direction. If the sign says, “no saving seats,” I want to obey and not save seats, and then judge those who do. But on this day I was tired and pregnant and stressed about keeping our extended family together. So I worked to try and find chairs from other tables to make enough room for nine in a crowded cartoon-forest-themed lunchroom.

Before long, a “Cast Member” noticed my inefficient work. If you’ve been to Disney much, you know that they don’t have cashiers or street sweepers or bathroom cleaners – they have “Cast Members.” As this particular young woman walked over to me, my stomach dropped. I have broken one of Disney’s high standards. I will face the consequences. She will take my tables. I will be shamed.

She looked at me in a way that told me she understood my frazzled Disney-exhausted state of mind. “Can I help you get some more chairs?” she asked. At my surprised nod, she hurried off and quickly came back with all the seating I needed.

I think this is what Jesus is trying to call us to. Yes, it’s a good rule not to save seats. We won’t throw out the rule – that rule helps make sure there’s a place for everyone to eat. But there should also be enough grace available to offer help to a tired lady heavy with child.

Sometime soon – possibly this very day – you will encounter someone who does not meet the high standards that Jesus has set. Don’t forget that the scales are broken. Jesus is offering them a huge helping of grace along with those standards.

And sometime soon – possibly this very moment – you will feel your own scales out of balance. You will feel guilt and shame because you’ve fallen short. Or, you will gloss over this greatest sermon ever as though it’s not important whether you lust or get angry or seek revenge. Don’t forget that the scales are broken. Jesus is offering us a life full of both:

High standards,
and high grace.

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