Today, in the third part of our sermon series #blessed, we’re talking about what the kingdom of God doesn’t look like, and we’re framing it within what the true blessings in our life are.
So far, we’ve talked about who and what God blesses, and how we live out God’s blessings in our lives and for the world.
All of the lessons that we’re basing this series on come from the Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5.-7.28.
Today, we’re still on this mount in Galilee, about 100 miles north of Jerusalem, and we join the first disciples, brothers Peter and Andrew and brothers James and John, as well as a crowd of people who want to hear more about what Jesus has to say early in his ministry.
We cannot talk about the Sermon on the Mount without talking about the social situation — the culture — of the day.
While Jesus’s teaching stand firm today and eternally, we have to understand what was going on at the time — probably around the Year 30 AD — and understand the clash of cultures that was happening.
All of Judah was occupied by the Roman Empire, there was early prosecution, heavy taxes, a strong military presence from Rome and a whole new way of life and social order than what the Jews were used to.
New culture, new gods, new orders, new laws, new religions, new philosophy, new teaching, new languages and new values.
Now, the current leaders of Judah had to subscribe to the new way of life, and so they assimilated into it and upheld, as supporters, the Roman law and culture.
This was in direct defiance of God’s law — namely the 10 commandments, but all the Old Testament teachings.
Last week, we saw Jesus teaching that he didn’t come to change the commandments, but to uphold them
Matthew 5.17…“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
In today’s reading, Matthew 5. 21-37, Jesus gives them — and us — some pertinent examples.
OK, maybe they’re even uncomfortable examples: Anger, marriage and relationships and dishonesty.
Let’s face it, this is uncomfortable stuff. Not just for those listening to Jesus’s teaching, but to us today.
If we (red) read these verses today without any knowledge of the context in which Jesus was teaching them, we would be left with a very one-dimensional picture.
And quite honestly, the church has suffered greatly from this one-dimensional reading, and many churches still do.
Anger. Divorce. Lust. Dishonesty…
But let’s first look at who Jesus was teaching 2,000 years ago, and we will unpack these verses a little bit.
The first thing we need to understand is that Jesus is teaching in opposed sets of terms: “You’ve been taught that, but I’m telling you this…”
We get a lot of that coming up, and it’s not very comfortable.
It wasn’t comfortable for these folks gathered to hear Jesus’s teaching, either.
What does he say? You’ve heard to not commit adultery. But any man “who looks at a woman with lust already has committed adultery in his heart.”
And he goes on to tell us it’s better to not have eyes than to sin.
Why is Jesus telling them and us this? Is it merely because guys were running around ogling women all the time?
Well, that’s a part of it, just as it is now.
It’s just that without understanding the context of Jesus’s day and what was happening, we get that one-dimensional reading.
Note here first that I’m not telling you in any way that adultery or even lusting at a woman — or a man — is acceptable; it’s not. It’s demeaning.
At the same time, I’m not telling you to poke out your eye or cut off your hand; this is a metaphor. Jesus knows very well that it’s not the eye or the hand that sins…
But consider this:
In the Old Testament, women had a much higher place in their culture. Man and women were created equally, and despite their societal roles in the ancient world, there is nothing biblical about male dominance.
Even in the early church, we see multiple examples of women serving as the leaders in churches. And the apostle Paul, who many misunderstand as being sexist, appointing and tasking women to these prominent positions.
So why did that change?
Or maybe the question is when did that change?
Enter the Roman Empire and the Greco-Roman society.
This culture made it a national pastime to elevate men and in doing so repress and oppress women.
And that Hellenistic culture was being thrust upon an unwilling nation of Jews who didn’t practice this.
But the Jewish leaders who were forced to ally with the Roman Empire — or lose their positions of power … if not their lives — began following suit and putting in to practice the Roman way of life.
Jesus upends that.
Again, theologian Warren Carter, who writes the commentary for the New Interpreters Study Bible, writes “Jesus interprets the Decalogue’s (10 commandments) prohibition of adultery to condemn predatory behaviors and structures of a patriarchal society, to curb male power, and to establish different male-female interaction.”
Again, I’ve quoted Dr. Warren a few times in my sermons simply because it cannot be said any more clear or more effective than that.
In this new Roman society, men were allowed more freedoms to engage in adultery with whomever they wanted.
And the culture was changing.
Jesus upholds the Law here — the very cornerstones of what it means to be God’s children.
He wants to fortify that foundation, and he does so by addressing it head-on.
Don’t become like a Roman!
Treat women with respect!
You men are not entitled!
You see, Jesus talks about lust here, and, obviously, women can lust, too. But he singles out men. Why?
Exactly, because the culture at the time elevated men.
That was a lot of influence right there in the Roman Empire, where the early church and its hierarchies were shaped.
Think about that… It wasn’t until 1956 that the Methodist Church began ordaining women with full clergy rights (even though John Wesley ordained a woman in 1761…).
Many churches still don't allow women pastors.
Women in this country couldn’t even vote until 1920. Not even 100 years ago!
So right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, he comes right out with this statement about how men should treat women.
Not in a predatory sense, as the Roman Empire believed. But as equals.
Breaking up is hard to do…
And Jesus continues this theme of male-female interaction and equality when he talks about divorce.
The Law, which we can find in Deuteronomy 24.1-4, neither justifies nor forbids divorce, but in this same lens, Jesus is commenting directly against the practice of male dominance.
A man does not have unlimited power to dismiss or divorce a wife at his own whim, Jesus is telling them and us.
Bible-thumping fundamentalists throw these passages around “Thou shalt not commit adultery or divorce!” in that very one-dimensional sense…
But if you really think about it, most of those fundamental churches don’t allow women in the pulpit, in high administrative positions or even managing the family’s finances.
Just sayin’… Take that for whatever it’s worth to you or not…
Divorce is not OK, but in this section, Jesus is using some degree of hyperbole to accentuate the point. If the Law gives special circumstances where divorce is acceptable, then what Jesus is talking about when he says “do not marry a divorced woman” upholds that majority who were divorcing outside of those special circumstances. In the Roman culture, divorce was arbitrary; one could divorce at their will for virtually no reason. Jesus sets out to stop this sin.
Jesus talks about oaths beginning in Verse 33…
This is an easy one, unlike the former passages we just discussed.
Your word is your word. It’s your final answer.
There is no need. If someone asks you for your word, you give it, and you keep it. That’s good enough.
There’s no need for vows or swearing upon a stack of Bibles, or God or yourself.
Why is that?
The simple answer is this, and I’ll ask it in a question:
What makes a reliable person reliable?
Do you know someone, a friend or a family member, who always does what she or he says they're going to do (barring an emergency…)?
When you need help moving a heavy item on a Saturday morning, you begin to go through a list of the people you know, right?
And one by one, you begin to cross their names off that imaginary list because you are looking for that ONE person who you KNOW will show up and won’t have excuses…
And you pick up the phone and call her or him.
Why that person? Because time and time again, they have proven reliable. Honest. Right?
That’s all we need to remember here: If you give your word, honor your word. If you do, there’s no need for a vow, a contract, an agreement, or a court judge…
“Let your word be Yes, Yes or No No…” Jesus tells us in verse 37.
That stands on its own very nicely, but, again, what is going on that Jesus even needs to address this?
Dishonesty. Lying. Cheating. It’s not just to not be dishonest — as the Law says — but to always act in honesty with one another — as Jesus is compelled to tell us now.
Let’s just take that one more step deeper.
Maybe we don’t tell lies. Maybe we’re 100 percent truthful.
But we accept dishonesty, don’t we?
Do we call out a lie when it’s a lie?
Do we simply accept these half-truths as political “spin?”
Do we just say, “Oh, well, that’s just the way of the world?”
Jesus is speaking to us here: By accepting these half-lies as the cultural norm, we are sinning.
Jesus tells us in the very last words of Verse 37, “…anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
When we accept lies, people are hurt. Not just their integrity. People can die when we accept lies as the cultural norm.
We went to war with Iraq because of a lie that said Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. We discovered the lie. And we STILL occupy Iraq today — even after discovering the lie!
How many lives, American or otherwise, have been lost over this lie?
Think about that cost.
This is where we are called to the justice that Jesus commands us.
We don’t want to be a part of those evils. We will be held accountable for them.
Oh, the accountability….
I seemed to have glossed over the accountability parts.
Speaking of adultery and lust, Jesus tells us what? Verse 30: The consequence is hell.
And concerning divorce in Verse 31, the sin is adultery, and, as we just said above, the consequence is hell.
Remember, again: These are addressing the male power structures. Let’s be careful about that, OK?
And finally, oaths, acting dishonestly comes from the evil one.
What does all this mean?
Again, think about this all in terms of the corruption Jesus is addressing. The abusive power dynamics and relationships that they faced then, and we certainly face now.
Know, too, that even the Law addresses the gray space between the binaries AND, because Jesus wasn’t all about fire and brimstone, there is forgiveness as well.
It’s among the very reasons he allowed himself to be nailed to the cross. It was for us all.
So it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and Jesus is telling us not to treat it as such. But to live into the fullness of the truth.
The blessing, the kingdom
And living into the fullness of the truth? Well, that is the blessing.
You see, we have such a wonderful opportunity to write new chapters in our lives, but we can only do so when we allow Jesus to turn the page on our sinful stories and give us a new blank page on which to write.
By giving your life to Christ, asking Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, by accepting Jesus Christ as your savior and lord.
Jesus gives us roadmap after roadmap in this Sermon on the Mount and throughout all the teachings that are found in the Gospel.
Each one of those Gospels climaxes on Golgotha, where Jesus is mounted onto the cross, and three days later, in an empty tomb, where the promise is fulfilled.
Just for you…
I think we need to look at those lessons, those roadmaps often, and remind ourselves why those instructions were written for us today, in the Living Word.
You see, they aren’t given as a list of consequences; they are given so that we may have a more abundant life.
Isn’t that the blessing?
Imagine if we put these teachings into devout practice.
Think of how the world would change without power structures and deceit. If people stepped up for their bothers and sisters to say “No, that’s dishonest, it’s untrue, and I do not accept it!”
What God’s kingdom doesn’t look like is this image of the Roman Empire. And it doesn’t look like today’s civilization, either. In fact, we would be lying if we said America well represents God’s kingdom.
What evil do we tolerate here with our passiveness? What evil do we condone with our silence?
That is NOT what the kingdom of God looks like.
This is where we see a kingdom that is both here and not yet come, as we like to say in our Christian doctrine.
Yes, the kingdom is where we aspire to be at the end of our earthly lives, but also that the kingdom is within us here on earth because we are filled with God in the form of the Holy Spirit.
We are one with the Trinity because God is one with everything good.
The kingdom of God looks like Good.
Jesus is showing us how, then and now, to be a part of that Good.
Do you feel blessed by that?
God gives us this amazing possibility.
The Holy Spirit — our advocate — is within us to make it so.
And Christ gave his blood for us so that we can be connected to this kingdom.
Isn’t that beautiful?
That is the blessing.
To be a part of the kingdom here and later.
That is the blessing.
We simply just need to go out and live into it.