When people find out that I came to the ELCA from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, there are usually two reactions that I observe. Sometimes it’s either one reaction or the other, and sometimes it’s a combination of both. If the person has had experience going to an LCMS congregation, the story that I hear is one of how, when the pastor found out that the person was from the ELCA, he told the person that he or she could not receive communion there. I hear how the person was hurt by that prohibition, and sometimes how the person became angry, too. The other reaction I get is when the person has heard of the Missouri Synod Lutherans, but doesn’t really know what the difference between them and the ELCA Lutherans are. When this happens, I usually point out the most visible differences: the rules on who can receive communion in the LCMS vs. the ELCA, and the fact that the Missouri Synod does not ordain women to be pastors. The times when I get a combination of those reactions is when the person has been hurt by being forbidden to receive communion in a congregation of Lutherans, and doesn’t understand why this happened. And it is then that I realize that all of the visible differences between these two Lutheran church bodies boil down to one thing: people interpreting Holy Scripture differently, in order to make it relevant for the society we live in.
In today’s Gospel lesson, a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus interpreting Scripture in a new way for the community of disciples who were forming around him. As good Jewish people, Jesus’ disciples would have known the Torah: the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, what we Christians call the Old Testament. And they would have known the Ten Commandments. They would have known God’s command not to murder; they would have known the commandment to not commit adultery; they would have known their society’s laws, drawn from the book of Deuteronomy, regarding divorce, and they would have known the laws regarding oath-taking. These laws are not news to them. But those commandments were given by God on Mount Sinai many hundreds of years before Jesus and his disciples were living in Palestine. Jewish society had changed over those many centuries: the people had gone from being a nomadic people of twelve tribes loosely bound together, to a united people under one king, then to two kingdoms, and then dispersed when empires came in and conquered them. In Jesus’ time, there were many Jewish people living together in Palestine once more, but they were now under Roman occupation. And many Jewish rabbis besides Jesus were helping their people to interpret God’s Law for that day and that time, so that they might live faithful lives with God. Like these other rabbis, Jesus was interpreting Holy Scripture so that it would be relevant to how the disciples interacted, not only with others in their community, but also with those outside of the Jesus-following community.
So, let’s take the first part of today’s Gospel, where Jesus interprets the command not to murder. Jesus tightens this up: for those in the community that claim to follow Jesus, the command not to murder goes much further than the actual taking of another person’s life. It means that you are not to be angry with another person; it means that you are not to insult another person; and it means that you are not even to call another person a fool. Wow. I know in my lifetime I haven’t followed that rule very well. How about all of you? By the way, I think that Jesus knew that spontaneous anger is a natural, human emotion. That’s really not something that we can help, and in some cases, anger is good; for example, when we become angry at some injustice that we see. In this case, our anger can motivate us to work for change. What Jesus is talking about here, and we see it when he talks about leaving our gift on the altar and being reconciled to our brothers and sisters, is letting that anger take root inside us: in other words, holding a grudge. But that still doesn’t get us off the hook, does it? I know that I have held grudges against people in my lifetime.
Why does Jesus interpret the commandment not to murder in such a strict way? Well, let’s hear from a modern-day interpreter of the law: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” So says Yoda in the Star Wars movie franchise. Well, Jesus doesn’t start with fear, like Yoda does. But I think he would agree that anger—an unresolved grudge—leads to hate, and hate would lead to murder. In other words, our thoughts matter, because our thoughts are what lead us to violate the commandments. In the community that follows Jesus, loving one another and treating one another with respect begins with our thoughts.
Jesus is interpreting the next commandment, not to commit adultery, in the same way: the act of adultery begins with one look, and then the evil desire takes root in our thoughts. Someone made a comment recently that, no matter how literally a community of Christians reads Scripture, this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is where even that community would have to draw the line. Otherwise we would see many men without right eyes and without right hands. But Jesus’ exaggeration here shows how seriously he thinks his followers should be taking this commandment. Love and respect for one another includes having love and respect for women, which is also included in Jesus’ teaching on divorce. In the community that follows Jesus, loving one another and treating one another with respect begins with our thoughts, and it includes men not treating women as objects to satisfy their whims.
From anger, adultery, and divorce, we move on to oath-taking, which seems like it has little relationship to what has gone before. But again, Jesus is interpreting Scripture as to how the community of believers who follow him should behave towards one another. In 1st century Jewish culture, where only a small percentage of the population could read or write, giving one’s word was extremely important and, when you gave a verbal promise, you were expected to keep it. If the two people involved were not familiar with one another, then an oath was taken in order to make the promise binding even before God. Unfortunately, this practice had gotten out of hand, and oaths were taken for the littlest things, and then may or may not have been kept. Jesus is saying here that a community of believers who love and respect one another not only will have control over their thoughts, but will communicate with one another simply, and will trust one another to keep their word without need of an oath.
So, then, if Jesus were present physically here in 21st century America, how would he interpret the teachings of the Torah to be relevant to our time? Well, I would like to make some suggestions. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you hold a grudge against a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister on social media because of his or her differing opinion, then you will be liable to judgment, and if you bully a brother or sister, either in person or on social media, then you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And the next one, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who views pornography, or who says that the woman was ‘asking for it because of what she was wearing,’ or who thinks that he has a right to use a woman as an object, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And the same thing goes for women thinking these things about men.” And finally, when Jesus speaks about taking oaths, he might speak of fulfilling contracts that we have signed our names to. When we promise to do something, we should do our utmost to fulfill that promise. All of these things that he teaches are simply about loving one another and treating one another with respect.
As I was preparing this sermon today and thinking about these teachings of Jesus, all of my sinfulness flashed before my eyes. I thought about specific instances when I had fallen short of these instructions, and I remembered them with shame. And here’s the thing: I think Jesus knows that we are human. Jesus knows that we are unable to live up to these instructions all of the time, and he knows that our thoughts are hard for us to control. Martin Luther calls this the second use of the law: the law holds a mirror to us, so that we see how sinful we are, and how we have fallen short, and how much we have need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And through Jesus, who gave us these teachings, and who died for us on the cross, we have that forgiveness that we so desperately need. Martin Luther writes, in his explanation of baptism, that our baptism “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever”. Sin is a daily struggle for us, but we know that, because we have been baptized into Christ, we can always repent of our sins and be assured of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus.
The teachings that Jesus gives us will always need to be interpreted anew to apply for new situations and new realities that we find ourselves living in. The people of first century Palestine could not imagine what 21st century America would look like, and what situations we would find ourselves in today. And yet, Jesus’ teachings still ring true throughout the centuries, and give us a vision of what the community of those who follow him should look like. Societies may change, but the command to love and respect one another never goes away. May God give us the grace to recognize our sinfulness, to repent of it, and newly forgiven, keep growing into those teachings. Amen.