The Sermon on the Mount: Teachings of a Jewish Mystic (Part 2)


Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year A):

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on February 12, 2017.

There is a wonderful collection of wisdom sayings from Jewish rabbis who lived from 200 BC to 200 AD. The collection is called the Mishnah Avot or Pirke Avot, which means “Sayings of the Fathers.” It is full of excellent little nuggets of wisdom such as Rabbi Hillel’s famous saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (1:14) And also a beloved saying of Rabbi Tarfon, who said, “You are not obligated to complete the task but nor are you free to abandon it” (2:21). And one of my favorites is Rabbi Gamliel who says, “I was raised on the talk of sages, and yet I find nothing more true than silence” (1:17). The rabbis in Pirke Avot generally sound very much like Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, which is why many scholars say that Jesus in Matthew sounds most like the Jewish rabbis of his day.

The first verse in Pirke Avot reads, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, who transmitted it to the elders, who transmitted it to the prophets, who transmitted to the sages of the Great Assembly, who taught three things: Be careful in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Torah.” Now what does it mean to “make a fence around the Torah”? It means that in order to make sure they do not break any of God’s commandments, they thought it would be wise to make more commandments so that they do not even come close to breaking God’s commandments. For instance, in order to make sure that they never break the third of the ten commandments (“Do not take the LORD’s name in vain”), the Jewish people decided to never use God’s name at all, lest it be used in vain. That was their way of creating a fence around that commandment. So as a result, we actually don’t know how to pronounce the name of God in Hebrew. When Jewish people read the tetragrammaton, they say “Adonai” or “Ha Shem” or even “Heaven.” We actually see this same strategy being employed by the author of Matthew in the first Beatitude, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3) while in Luke’s version, Jesus says “the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Matthew is more careful when it comes to using the name of God. Matthew is making a fence around the Torah.

I share this idea of “making a fence around the Torah” because many suggest that this is exactly what Jesus is doing in this morning’s section on the Sermon on the Mount. They suggest that Jesus is, in a sense, adding to the commandments so as to make sure we don’t even come close to breaking them. If we don’t even get angry with someone, then we won’t come close to murdering them. If we don’t lust, we won’t come close to committing adultery. And we won’t break our oaths, if we don’t make any oaths at all in the first place. This understanding of Jesus’s teachings makes sense to me, and yet again I think it is barely scratching the surface of the profound meaning of his words.

Jesus seems to be describing a kind of people—God’s people—who cultivate their inner lives in such a way that following the commandments requires almost no effort. If we were to cultivate an inner life that was not plagued by anger or lust, then it would be natural and easy for us to avoid murder and adultery. In this way, Jesus again sounds like the rabbis who say that if we can follow the tenth of the ten commandments, then we will have no problem following the rest of the commandments. The tenth commandment being: “Thou shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). If we are fully content with what God has given us in the present moment, we will have no reason to steal, lie, cheat, destroy and dishonor others. Jesus and the rabbis invite us to cultivate an inner life of peace and contentment, which is ultimately what the Torah invites us to do.

Let us turn our attention to the text, to verse 5:21. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Woah there, Jesus! Hell fire? That’s not very Episcopalian! This is where it is helpful to look at the original language. The Greek word here for “fool” is more, which is actually where we get the word “moron.” Some scholars suggest, however, that more is the transliteration of the Hebrew word “more” which means “rebel” or “apostate.”[1] As a result, New Testament scholar R. V. G. Tasker thinks Jesus is saying that “the man who tells his brother he is doomed to hell is in danger of hell himself.”[2] In other words, when we point one finger at someone else, we are always pointing three fingers back at ourselves. This understanding makes sense in light of Jesus’s later command to not judge lest ye be judged.

Verse 23: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” You may be surprised to know that part of our liturgy this morning and every Sunday morning is shaped by this very teaching. What do we do before we collect our offerings? We share the peace with one another. We share a sign of affection and reconciliation with each other. If we are holding a grudge against someone or believe someone is holding a grudge against us, we are called to forgive and be forgiven and reconcile. The point is that reconciliation, for Jesus, is more urgent than financial stewardship; a healthy community is more important than a wealthy community.

Verse 27: “You have heart that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” It is clear that Jesus is speaking here in hyperbole, as rabbis are wont to do. (Unfortunately, some have taken Jesus literally, including an early Christian theologian from the third century named Origen, who apparently did actually mutilate himself. Ironically, this same theologian later became the leading proponent of allegorical [non-literal] interpretations of Scripture in early Christianity, after having learned the hard way not to take the Bible au pied de la lettre. Jesus’s strong language and his reference (yet again) to hell actually makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the context of addiction. In the 12 step meetings I have attended, I have heard the saying that “religion is for people who are trying avoid hell while spirituality is for those who have already been to hell.” And 12 step spirituality offers ways to help people from falling back into that hell, ways that require hard work and serious sacrifice. As someone addicted to nicotine who could not really imagine life without smoking, I have had to remove major parts of my life that felt essential (almost like body parts) in order to avoid falling back into the hell of addiction. I had to cut off certain relationships and activities that had become very important to me and yet had made me highly susceptible to smoking. Jesus calls us to make serious sacrifices in order to avoid falling into the hell of addiction, which comes in many different forms: alcohol, drugs, pornography, and others that might be less conspicuous but just as pernicious.

Verse 31: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Now this needs to be understood in the context of Jesus’s other teachings on divorce as well as the debates among the rabbis at the time. There were two major schools of thought on divorce at the time: the school of Rabbi Hillel and the school of Rabbi Shammai. Rabbi Shammai’s school taught that the only ground for divorce was sexual infidelity while Hillel was much more lenient, allowing men to divorce their wives “for any cause whatsoever.”[3] Now in this time, wives generally could not divorce their husbands, but if a man could divorce his wife for whatever reason he wanted (be it overcooking dinner or just losing interest in her), then the woman would constantly be under the threat of being divorced, which would lead to social ostracism and economic destitution. Although upon first read, it seems like Jesus is being harsh and even misogynistic, a closer look at his teachings on divorce (including in Matthew 19:1-10) shows that he is actually siding with the school of thought that protected women from simply being tossed aside by fickle and selfish men. (Often when Jesus comments on the Torah, he emphasizes the parts of the Torah that are intended to protect the vulnerable, in this case women.)

Finally, verse 33: “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make your hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees made a fence around the command to not break vows made to the Lord by simply never making vows to the Lord at all, never swearing to God; instead, they would swear on everything but God: heaven, earth, Jerusalem, their own head. However, like a true Jewish mystic, Jesus explains that God is in everything and that’s God’s name has been sealed on all of creation so whatever you choose to swear by you are still swearing by God’s name. So we are brought full circle back to the Name of God: the Name that we ought not say in vain and indeed cannot say at all because we don’t know how to pronounce it and yet it is this same Name that infuses all created things with life and meaning and divine potential. We all have been stamped and sealed with this holy and ineffable Name of God; and in his teachings this morning, Jesus calls us to act accordingly and to treat one another and all of creation with honor and reverence, since everything that has been created has been signed and autographed with love by its Creator. If we let this truth seep into the deepest ground of our being, perhaps we can learn to let go of our anger, lust, rejection, and deceit, perhaps we can see ourselves and one another as beautiful expressions of the inexpressible Name of God. Amen.

[1] Psalm 78:8; Jeremiah 5:23

[2] R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (Tyndale New Testament Commentary IVP, 1961), 69.

[3] Josephus, Antiquities, IV. Viii. 23

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 8.18.15 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s