open book on a table

“Vital Separations”

A sermon drawn from Matthew 5:13-20

Ouch. Sometimes, we read these things that Jesus says, and wonder whether we’ve gotten the wrong idea about him. Because Jesus doesn’t sound exactly encouraging or forgiving here, Jesus sounds really … “hardcore.”

Because when Jesus says “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” it sounds like he’s saying that his disciples will have to keep following all the commandments and decrees and ordinances of “The Law,” which probably sounds to us like a lot of rules and regulations, if they want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

And we think people do want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. That sounds like something we should want to do; Jesus talks about it like it’s a good thing …

And the way we Christians have come to think about “entering the Kingdom of Heaven,” mostly we assume that means going to Heaven, when we die. Having eternal life. Salvation.

So what we just heard easily gives us the idea that whether or not we will go to heaven when we die somehow depends on our righteousness, and our righteousness somehow depends on following all the rules, even the tiniest ones, down to the letter of the law, or the stroke of a letter.

But that idea really seems to run right in to another story we surely know from church, that we are saved by grace, not by works of the law, not by all the things we do or don’t do, not by how many ethical brownie points we collect or how many moral merit badges we earn in the course of our lives. Not that we want our lives to be bad ones – it’s not that we’re trying to live un-ethical or im-moral lives, but … we are all very aware of our recurrent failures in this area, too. We just got done confessing our sin before God and one another; and we do that every week, because we are aware of how bad we are at being good, and because we have a very insistent Biblical and theological story that tells us that the condition of our lives is not where we locate our eternal hope, in the end, thank God, but that our eternal hope is in God, in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and in our trust, our faith, in that grace.

We think the good news of the gospel really is that in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.

And I was not going to suggest we’re all mistaken about that, either.

But then … how are we supposed to understand what Jesus is saying here? These two messages don’t seem to match up.

This has been a big problem for Christians down through the centuries. I’m reading a book right now, by Clarence Bauman, called The Sermon on the Mount: the Modern Quest for its Meaning, and 18 chapters of that book, almost the whole book, describes how one theologian after another figured out how to explain why Jesus did not mean what it sounds like he means in the Sermon on the Mount. Seriously. Including Nazi theologians who explained that what Jesus was really saying authorized the National Socialist way of thinking.

And then, he has one chapter that collects the views of several other modern theologians who say, no, actually, Jesus does mean what he’s saying here …

And something these theologians seem to have in common, and that Bauman, if I understand him says may also help us, modern Christians, understand what this is all supposed to mean for us, is that they remember that Jesus is a Jew, speaking to other Jews, in Roman-occupied Palestine in the first century of the common era.

Which is to say, those crowds and those disciples to whom Jesus is speaking would have had distinctly different experiences from ours, and would have made distinctly different assumptions about what Jesus was saying than we do. If we can hear what Jesus is saying through their ears a little bit better, it may not eliminate our problem, but may make it easier to solve.

So what does it mean that Jesus is a Jew talking to other Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine in the first century of the Common Era?

Well one thing it means is that he is speaking as a person who is outside the mainstream of what’s “acceptable” and “respectable” from the perspective of the Greco-Roman world; certainly those who were better off, maybe we have to call them the “elite;” but even the “common sense” of the non-elite gentile world. He’s outside that, and he’s speaking to other people who are also outside that, and who are looked down on or thought of as not … entirely normal.

Because … the Romans seem to have thought the Jews were … problem people. They didn’t “fit in.” They wouldn’t make sacrifices to the Roman gods, because they didn’t think those gods were gods. They wouldn’t eat normal food. They wouldn’t just do their jobs on the sabbath, their shabbat, just like every other normal person, so the Romans had to make exceptions for them. And … beyond that … they had ideas about how people ought to treat one another … as if the rich owed something to the poor, or the powerful owed something to the weak and vulnerable, like widows and orphans and strangers … irritating ideas about the nature of justice and uprightness that frankly were not in the interest of the Roman empire to accept.

These problem people are the people Jesus is talking to: people at odds with the rest of the world, who are not powerful and who don’t “make the rules”. And who suffer for that difference and that powerlessness in all kinds of ways. Who are the victims of injustice and who hunger and thirst for justice to be done; who suffer losses and are mourning those losses; who do their best not to cause trouble and not to pick fights and to de-escalate tense situations and back down when tempers run high, who let things go … we might call those people “peacemakers,” but the Romans don’t think too highly of people like that …

In fact, Jesus has just gotten done telling these folks that, in all those ways, as put down and insignificant as it seems they are, they’re blessed – because they are very near the kingdom of the heavens … they are nearer to God, to the presence of God, than they know …

And now Jesus tells these people that “you-all, you people, are the salt of the earth.” “You-all, you people, are the light of the world.”

We wonder sometimes about what that comment about salt means. But one thing we know about salt: it doesn’t taste like anything else. It is distinct, and distinctive; that’s what makes it valuable and useful. It makes food taste different – salty.

If salt tasted just like everything else … if it weren’t different, distinctive … it wouldn’t be salt any more. And then, what good would it be?

Same with light. The main thing about light is that … it’s not darkness. The city on a hill stands out, and can be seen, because it’s different from the darkness all around it. If it blended in to the darkness … well, it wouldn’t be light, for one thing, but if it did … if it lost its distinctive character, if it stopped being different, or if its difference were hidden or covered up, everything would just be darkness. There’d be no seeing anything, then.

In other words, both of those images, the image of salt, and the image of light, tell people – look – what’s different about you is a good thing, not a bad thing; what’s different about you is needed in the world, something to value, not something to try to dissolve or dilute or hide. It’s vitally necessary.

And what makes the people Jesus is talking to different, distinctive, separate, what makes them stand out, is precisely that they have … “the law and the prophets.”

When we hear that phrase, we are likely to hear “all our religious rules.”

But “the law and the prophets” to those people in that context would mean … the Torah, God’s teaching, along with all the prophets – the “former prophets” like Joshua and Samuel and the book of Kings, as well as the latter prophets. Basically, the Bible …

And we know the Bible is far more than just a list of rules and regulations.

It’s the story of God and of the people of God. It’s the story of God building the heavens and the earth, and creating humankind in God’s image. It’s the story of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah and Rachel and God calling them into covenant relationship. It’s the story of God liberating the people from Egypt, and of Passover and the rescue through the Sea, and of God leading them to the mountain of Sinai and revealing the commandments, and then keeping on leading them through the wilderness even when they were faithless, and making clear who God is, “slow to anger and plenteous in mercy, showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those that fear God” … a God who insists on our loving the neighbor as ourselves, and caring for the widow and the orphan and the stranger … it’s the story of David the great king … and of all the other terrible kings … and of the heroic prophets who kept calling people back to God … and of exile … and of redemption, of God’s never giving up on the people … it’s all that.

Those commandments we think of as “the law” – including the commandment to “immerse ourselves in words of Torah,” which is still invoked at the beginning of Torah study – the commandments don’t just float there like some arbitrary code of conduct. They’re embedded in this relationship that people have with God, or anyhow are supposed to have with God. Keeping them is good for us, because they are the way to live a free and full human life, and also is way of showing people’s love for God. Just as, if we love our parents, we listen to them; if we love our husbands and our wives, we try to make them happy by doing what we know they like and want us to do. When we love God, we listen to God, we try to do what God asks …

If we hear “the law and the prophets” like that, we can see why people might get anxious if they thought some preacher like Jesus was going to suggest doing away with it, act like it didn’t matter. Especially if we had learned the lesson from our history that ignoring God doesn’t work out well for us …

And we can see why Jesus might have wanted to make clear to his disciples, his students, that he wasn’t trying to tear things up and start from scratch … but was trying to bring the law and the prophets to life, was trying to encourage people to live that way of life of covenant relationship with God and loving God with all our heart and soul and might and listening to God … really walking the walk … as Jesus says, fulfilling that … and calling and leading his people into that way of life of the kingdom of the heavens …

As the scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, this sounds like a pep talk, a motivational speech, to a struggling team … who, if they keep this up, are going to continue to look very separate from the Greco-Roman world around them, are going to continue to be as different from the mainstream as salt is from vegetables, as light is from darkness.

That difference isn’t simply superficial, either, by the way – it goes to the core of who and what these people are, or should. Which is where, as we’ll see if we keep reading, into the next verses, Jesus is going. Jesus will give some examples of what it means to be really different “from the heart,” not just following some rules applied to the outside.

But the point here is, what Jesus is probably not doing is printing out a long picky to-do list and saying you-all are going to have to check off all these boxes before you can join my club.

Instead, he’s saying something more like: you-all, I know, there are days when being the people of God feels like a hardship, and it looks like it would be nicer and easier not to be so different – and I’m telling you, for real, it’s good to be different this way, as different as salt, as different light, as different as people who live with and for this God, from this story, into this kingdom, the kingdom of the heavens …

And the good news there for us – good news that Christians have been proclaiming ever since there have been Christians – is that through the grace of Jesus Christ, we too are invited into this difference, into the people of God, invited to the table, to live with and for this God, from this story, into this kingdom of the heavens … and yes, that will make us, too, stand out from the world around us … which will not always feel comfortable, or even safe … but Jesus is saying, trust me, this is where the real life is, in this different way of life, this way of life of God’s torah, God’s teaching, this kingdom of the heavens way of life, as different as salt, as different as light, that shows people the way to come home.

Romantic painting of Jesus preaching to a European crowd

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Sermon on the Mount” (detail), Károly Ferenczy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

4 responses to ““Vital Separations””

  1. I have been feeling like I was missing something important—overlooking something important—as I have been preparing my sermons on the Sermon. You, my dear friend, just nailed it. The vital center of all this is that Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews in a Greco-Roman world. The kingdom he was proclaiming is the fulfillment of their long relationship with God with all its ups and downs, and it has always been that. I feel particularly dense because I’ve read Amy-Jill Levine with more than a little “ah-hah” enlightenment, but the way you spell it out here just parted the clouds for me. Or the brain fog. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

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