Pastor Rich Knight
Central Congregational Church
Feb. 5, 2017
Matthew 5 – Selected Verses
We’re in a series entitled, “Ancient Faith, Modern World.” Today I’d like to talk about how to read ancient stories and passages that offend our modern sensibilities. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not one of these passages! If you’ve heard the Sermon on the Mount for years, Jesus’ words are quite comforting like the voice and presence of an old friend. But many of Jesus’ first listeners would have had the exact opposite reaction. They probably would have been upset and nervous. The Gospels reveal that the opposition to Jesus started very early in his ministry. It’s partly because of what he did here in Matthew 5.
Matthew 5: 17-22, 27-28, 38-44
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Cosimo Roselli, 1482. Sistine Chapel
Let’s jump right in.
You’ve heard it said, “Thou shalt not kill,” but I say to you . . . don’t hurl insults at another.”
You’ve heard it said, “Thou shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, lust is a form of unfaithfulness.”
You’ve heard it said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you . . . turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your coat and your cloak, too.”
You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus is doing something radical here and it would have been surprising and unsettling for his listeners. He’s reinterpreting sacred scripture. He’s saying, “Moses didn’t go far enough. The Torah, the Old Testament Law, didn’t go far enough.
It was fine for the people back then, but it was written centuries ago., but God is doing a new thing.” We’re evolving (my word, not his!). “Let me tell you God’s intent. Moses gave you these commands in the Ten Commandments, but I’m going to take them a step further.”
In reinterpreting these teachings he’s making himself equal to or greater than Moses – and Moses got his teachings straight from God – so what is this carpenter from Nazareth up to? (Do you see how he was getting himself in trouble right from the very start?)
To be fair, the last part I read was not from the Hebrew Scriptures – the part about “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” is not found in the Old Testament.
Christian scholars believe the part about “hate your enemy” was taught by some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and he’s telling them they’re wrong.
But the point I want to make is that Jesus reinterprets sacred scripture. He says, “I know this was literally written in stone, but God is doing something new. God is still speaking.”
The Early Church did this as well. They gave up the rite of circumcision, commanded in the Old Testament, in favor of baptism, as the initiation rite into the faith. (thank goodness for that!)
They gave up eating restrictions clearly taught in the Old Testament.
Eventually they worshipped, not on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday, but on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the Day of Resurrection.
The Early Church reinterpreted the Old Testament in light of the revelation of Christ.
They looked at their own tradition in a different way because of what Jesus had revealed about the character and nature of God. We need to be free to do the same, especially when it comes to some of the difficult passages in the Old & New Testaments.
Dr. Tom Gillespie was the president of Princeton Theological Seminary during my second and third years there. My friends and I were very excited when he came because he came to the seminary from the pastorate, not from another seminary. And he was first and foremost a pastor and a preacher.
Dr. Gillespie knew that seminary students often have many struggles, especially when it comes to the Bible. This is partly because they make us actually read it all, and there are many challenging passages that we encounter for the first time in our lives. There are stories of violence in the Old Testament, told as if God commanded the slaughters that took place. There are passages filled with hatred that we had to come to grips with, verses that tolerate slavery and passages where women are treated as far less than equal.
One day Dr. Gillespie tackled this subject during a sermon, and he said these words:
“We must view every passage in the Bible through the lens of Christ.”
That one sentence changed everything. It meant that we don’t have to try to explain and justify every troubling passage. We don’t have to come up with absurd theories to rationalize passages and stories with unchristian elements.
Let me give you 2 examples:
- Holy Wars in the Old Testament.
I Samuel 15:1-3 – Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites (“ah-mal-ah-kites”) for what they did . . . . . Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
What do we do with this passage and others like it? Would God really give a command like that? Would Jesus Christ? Of course not.
As Christians we’re to view every passage through the lens of Christ. We evaluate and even critique passages in the Bible based on what we know about God from the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Would the One who taught his disciples to “put down the sword” and “love one’s enemies” ever give the command Samuel did on behalf of God? Absolutely not. So we have to say that this passage doesn’t measure up to what we know about God, as seen in Jesus.
Are you familiar with a “red letter” Bible? It’s a bible where the words of Christ are written in red. These Bibles teach us a very important principle: not all Bible verses are created equal. Some are more important than others. The love poems of Song of Solomon are not as important as the accounts of Holy Week. The instructions for animal sacrifices in Leviticus are obviously not as important as Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. All people are created equal, but all Bible verses are not! And for Christ-followers, the words of Jesus are preeminent. We read the rest of the Bible through the lens of Christ.
There’s one other thing to remember when it comes to these “Holy War” passages. It’s this:
Ancient people wrote history differently than we do.
They believed that if something happened it must have been the will of God, or the will of the gods. So, if Joshua, when he fought the Battle of Jericho, killed every man, woman & child, ancient historians would record it by saying that God must have told Joshua to kill every man, woman & child (cf. Joshua 6 & Joshua 8). If it happened it must have been God’s Will. That’s just the way they wrote history. It’s not of course the way we look at it today. “Ancient Faith, Modern World.”
This is why I’m not a Fundamentalist, one who takes all the Bible literally. If you take these troubling passages literally and equal to all other scripture you then have to come up with all sorts of theories of why God would command the Israelites to slaughter the innocents (“God needed the Holy Land to be ethnically & religiously pure for his people.”). I find such explanations an offense to logic and to God. We take the Bible seriously, but we don’t have to take it all literally and we don’t view every passage of equal value.
- Hatred in the Psalms.
Another thing that jumps out to folks who read the Bible is the hatred found in some of the psalms. Some say these psalms teach us to pray about our hatred so we’re less likely to act upon it. That’s a great point, but either way it’s startling to come across these psalms.
Ex. Psalm 139 is one of the most beautiful pieces of sacred poetry in the Bible. Here is part of it:
7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the place of the dead, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast . . . .
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made . .
19O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me . . . .
21Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
Let me suggest that if Jesus of Nazareth were standing in the room when that psalm was written he probably would have leaned over and said, “You might want to rethink that one section.” And in the Sermon on the Mount he did just that.
We view every passage through the lens of Christ.
I’ll close with this thought: What if we applied that technique to life? What if we tried to view life through the lens of Christ?
What if we viewed other people as God sees them?
- Beloved children of God – warts & all
- Sinners saved by grace
- Fellow Sisters and Brothers in the Family of God
What if we viewed people of other religions as fellow spiritual pilgrims?
Jesus once said, “I have other sheep who are not of this fold.”
What if we viewed our struggles as God’s training ground for discipleship and Christian character?
What if we viewed death through the lens of “today you will be with me in paradise”?
I want this message to be helpful in understanding the challenging parts of the Bible. But this principle of looking through the lens of Christ has many applications.
Let’s be about that this week, as his followers.
Lord Jesus, help us to interpret the Bible as if you were looking over our shoulders as we read it. And help us to interpret life as if you were walking by our side, with us every step of the way – for indeed you are. And now feed us for the journey through the sacred meal of Holy Communion. Amen.