Sermon: Frank Moritz-Jauk
Concern Matthew 5:21-37
Dear congregation, today I would like to refer to the text from the Sermon on the Mount, which we have heard from the Gospel of Matthew. First of all, we may note that it is quite a long text. But it can be structured quite easily, because in terms of content Jesus talks about the handling of the commandment “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery and you shall not bear false witness.” Also very noticeable is the way Jesus talks, how we perceive him as a teacher in this situation.
Today, I would like to go into this setting, which we find throughout Matthew’s entire Sermon on the Mount, so that I can then also go into the messages of Jesus. Always with the question in mind: What do you want to tell us, Jesus? How can we understand you today?
Since lay people and pastors will meet in Linz next Saturday to again reflect on the topic of the previous Annual Conference “What to teach” in Graz, I think today’s text is also suitable for going into the topic of the next Annual Conference “How to teach” in Salzburg. What to teach and how to teach, these are the two questions that fit in very well with today’s text.
When we listen to texts from the Gospel of Matthew, it is always advisable to remember who Matthew was, or what his concern was. More than any other evangelist, the evangelist Matthew was interested in building bridges between the Jew Jesus and his people. Matthew thus takes up a very special position within the New Testament: for him, the Torah itself appears with Jesus in the midst of Israel.
Crucial here is the sentence we heard last Sunday, immediately before our reading today. Jesus said that he did not come to annul the law, but to fulfil it.
This is a completely different position from that of Paul, for example. For Paul it is more that Jesus redefines the law in such a way that after Jesus’ resurrection it is about faith in Jesus. According to Paul, the law shows that people cannot be justified by their deeds, but that they need redemption through the crucified and risen Jesus.
But for Matthew, Jesus is the fulfilment of the law and on this background the language of Jesus because more understandable. It becomes more understandable why Jesus works with thesis and antithesis. “You have heard that it was said” as the thesis on the one hand and “but I tell you” as antithesis on the other hand.
Jesus, as he speaks in Matthew, has the authority to interpret the law. That Jesus acted with great authority, and that this was also accepted at the time, is made clear in the concluding sentence of the Sermon on the Mount at the end of chapter 7:
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
And how do we feel about them today, about the interpretations, the tightening, that Jesus made regarding the commandments?
Anyone who insults a brother is answerable to the court and anyone who says to a brother: “You fool”, or translated differently “You godless person”, belongs in the fire of hell.
Or anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart and it would be better if he gouged out his right eye and threw it away, because it is better to lose one part of the body than for the whole body to be thrown into hell.
It’s pretty extreme what we are hearing here, isn’t it?
At this point, I would like to admit that this biblical passage has become my favourite one to point out the difficulties of a literal interpretation of Scripture. That is, to meet the criticism of brothers and sisters who think that everything is written in the Bible anyway, we just have to read it and act accordingly. In that case I like to ask why, with their literal understanding, they still have both eyes and both hands? Do you really want to tell me that you have never been lured by any temptation?
Admittedly, it is a little mean or cynical, but for me it really touches on the question “How to teach?”.
And when thought through to the end, every sinful action, whether carried out by the eye or by the hand, would then result in immediate suicide, since the control centre is located somewhere else. The brain tells the hand to act. And without the commanding organ, which is the brain, life is simply difficult. Tear out your brain – something we humans only do once.
Consequently, this means for me that Jesus must mean something else in his speeches. What could that be?
I think Jesus wants to point out to his listeners that the law was originally intended as a life-giving foundation for the people. This is also what we have heard today in the first reading. “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” Keep my commandments and you will live; if you do not keep them, you will not stay in the land for long. So this special connection between the chosen people and the Torah is mentioned here. A very understandable concern of Matthew.
But even for us today, for us who are not Jews, the interpretations of Jesus could be understood to mean that we are concerned and that we cannot cleanse ourselves as easily as the aforementioned commandments might suggest.
It’s simply not enough to say, I’ve never murdered anyone. I’m fulfilling the commandment. By referring to the insult and humiliation of others, of our fellow brothers and sisters, we violate the double commandment of love: “‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” or the golden rule “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat 7:12)
Besides, for me personally this statement is not so clear and simple anymore: “I have never murdered anyone”.
That may be true if I mean death caused solely by my own hands, but what about the structural sin I live with?
How many people die, because I do not advocate for justice among the people?
How many people live in destitution, because my clothing is so cheap? Am I, as a rich European, really not responsible for the famine in Africa?
Of course this is a broad area and it is difficult to work on or change, but structural sin is definitely something I am aware of.
The thought is unpleasant for me, but that does not mean that it is not true.
Apart from that, the double commandment of love is completely sufficient to recognise in us our need of God. To recognise that we are concerned by the statements of Jesus. That every day we are concerned by the fact that we do not love God with all our senses, that we do not love our neighbours as ourselves.
When we recognise this, then only the way to Jesus remains for us.
This is perhaps one of the deepest mysteries or testimonies of Christian faith, when people realise that they cannot redeem themselves.
So I see my way in the light of resurrection, however unmasking today’s text may be, which makes it clear to me that I am a sinful person.
Hell or no hell, we would have to think about that again separately, but in my opinion, the realisation that I need Jesus is enough to be able to stand before God.
And so I am confident in the hope that for the people who trust Jesus, which in concrete terms means for me and for you, it applies what Jesus himself says in the Gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live.”