The Sermon on the Mount: An Anabaptist Understanding.

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2014-02-16 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
16th February 2014
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37,
Deuteronomy 30:19 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.
16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,
18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,
20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Matthew 5:21-37

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.”
22 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.

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.
26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.”
28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 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.
30 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.

31 It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”
32 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.

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.”
34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

When I looked at the church schedule on Thursday to see if I was responsible for anything, I noticed that the slot for preaching simply said ‘Guest’. Needless to say, neither Will nor I had actually done anything about inviting someone – though I think it was probably my job. So that’s why you’ve got me today, with a sermon written in haste and maybe a bit incoherent. Guilt doesn’t necessarily make for good preaching. However, here goes, and I hope there’s something valuable in it.

We’re continuing with the Sermon on the Mount, which is where the lectionary readings for the current few weeks have placed us. It’s a key text for Anabaptists, so it’s a bit daunting to preach on to a Mennonite congregation. It’s also a text where what we have generally been taught that it means, may not chime with an Anabaptist understanding. So I’m going to try to feel my way towards a more Anabaptist approach, though I’m sure Bible scholars have done this much better – I just didn’t have time to look them up.

A stock Protestant reading, as Christ pointed out last week, is that Jesus is setting up an impossible standard, simply to make us realise that we can’t possibly follow these commands in our own strength. After all, what real man can avoid looking at a woman lustfully? Because of course all real men are heterosexual bundles of uncontrollable hormones and all real women are young, sexy and available. Not. And who can be at peace with everyone and never fall out with irritating people? No, these commands are too idealistic, and we just have to accept God’s forgiveness for our failure to keep them.

Under this reading, the Deuteronomy passage we heard is also just a demonstration that the Jewish law is oppressive and only serves to show us what sinners we are. Jesus’ sacrifice liberates us from all attempts to appease God, and brings us into the freedom of those under grace.

Now I don’t wholly disagree with these interpretations. Jesus is setting what feels like an impossible standard. How can I control my thoughts about men I fancy? How can we live harmoniously even with the people who drive us nuts? I certainly can’t do this without the help of the Holy Spirit. Yet from an Anabaptist viewpoint, this isn’t the whole picture. If it were, the Sermon on the Mount would not actually be a real sermon with real teaching and commands, but just a trick to give us the bad news that we’re all bound for hell unless we believe the right things.

A major Anabaptist distinctive is that the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ genuine guidance on how we are to live. So let’s look a bit more closely at these verses and examine what they’re saying to us about following Jesus.

First, verses 21- 26, about violence and conflict. It seems to me that the standard interpretation here is something like ‘If you get angry with someone, suppress your anger or it might lead to an embarrassing incident’. We British are especially good at this. Of course we can always manage to express our anger some way, either by turning it inwards and getting depressed, or by sneakily undermining the person we’re angry with. Which shows that we are still nursing the anger in our hearts, and it’s still doing harm.

I think what Jesus is really saying here is, it’s not enough to just refrain from physical violence against other people (though that’s hard enough for one who used to hit her husband in the first year of marriage, till I discovered he would hit back!). No, we are not just to refrain from whupping others upside the head; we are to treat other people with consideration and respect, however stupid or wrong-headed we think they are.

On a less personal note, if all we do is campaign against arms dealing, or call for an end to war, our peace witness is pretty negative and weak. After all, none of us, at the moment, is going to be called to join up as the men of World War I were. But we all have the opportunity to be peacemakers in everyday life, stopping ourselves from swearing at the hospital receptionist because the hospital was so hard to find, or ranting about what a bastard David Cameron is or what an idiot George Osborne is. And yes, these are all things I’ve done since New Year.

What I, and we, need is what Alan Kreider calls ‘re-reflexing’ – training ourselves and each other in having a mindset that turns first to forgiveness and reconciliation, not to fury and retaliation. This is different from suppressing anger, because it opens the door for us to explain peacefully what our problem or our viewpoint is, without slating the other person. This is not about pacifying and placating, but rather about hearing the other person and letting them hear us. Which is exactly what Bridgebuilders exists to enable and to train people in. Can we in this church also train each other to respond to conflict this way? I hope so. I need help here.

Second, verses 26-32 on adultery and divorce. Again, this has often been intepreted as meaning, as one friend of mine said, ‘No one has a body till they’re married’. In other words, we should suppress all sexual feelings for anyone but our future or present partner. In fact in some eras, it has been taken to mean we should suppress sexual feelings even towards our partner, and the Catholic church still teaches that sex is only permissible if it is orientated towards having children. Not just Catholics – some Anabaptist groups also think contraception is against God’s will. Is this teaching all about pretending we don’t ever have sexual feelings towards anyone? Did Jesus never get an erection?

To me, the one thing that is striking about these verses is that they’re addressed to men – in fact, heterosexual men. I don’t think Jesus is saying that women don’t have sexual temptations or commit unfaithfulness. Rather, he’s addressing men because at that time, and it’s still true in many parts of the world, and in many relationships, it was men who had all the power. A wife was a possession, and if you had sex with someone else’s wife, you were offending, not against your own wife, but against her husband, the man who owned her. Likewise, divorce was only available to men – it was a way of getting rid of a woman you didn’t want.

In this teaching, Jesus seems to be saying; ‘A woman is not an object for men’s pleasure, who can be used or disposed of at a whim’. A bit of background: at the time there were two schools of rabbinic thinking about divorce. One held that you could only divorce your wife for unfaithfulness; the other that you could divorce her for any cause, including if she burned the dinner. By saying what he does, Jesus is aligning himself with one of these schools, the one that gives more protection to women from an unreasonable husband. But I think he’s saying more: that women are people who have their own rights, not a commodity that can be accumulated or swapped.

Most of all, with his dramatic images of tearing out your eye or chopping off your hand, I think he’s saying, ‘It’s not just about whether you sleep with someone you shouldn’t. It’s about how you look, how you touch. It’s about not looking at women – or men – as sex objects, about not ‘harmlessly’ patting your female colleague on the bottom or implying that she might get promoted if she sleeps with you. It’s about what’s in your heart, mind and imagination, and whether you respect people, male or female, straight or gay.

Finally, verses 33-37, about swearing. The conventional interpretation of this part is basically, ‘Don’t use naughty words, especially ones with a ‘u’ in the middle’. Yet this isn’t actually about cursing at all – it’s about truth-telling. It’s a command that many Christians disobey every day in court. Where the Old Testament law told us not to commit perjury, Jesus is telling us that we are to say what we mean, and mean what we say, all the time, not just in court.

This is why Mennonites and Quakers have traditionally refused to swear the oath in court, and instead just affirmed that they will tell the truth – as they always do, because their redeemed nature is to be truth-telling. Again, this is a matter of re-reflexing, of becoming people who are habitual truth-tellers – not people who tear someone apart and then add, “I’m only telling you this in love’, but people who consider the effect their words have on others.

Ultimately, all these teachings are about our inner attitude and how it expresses itself in outward action. You could say the first is about how we relate, the second about how we think and look, and the third about how we speak. This doesn’t mean, as some appear to say, that it doesn’t matter what we do so long as our motivation is right. Far from it – it’s saying that it matters hugely what we do, but what we do will issue from what we believe, our inner world view.

If we approach the Sermon on the Mount from the assumption that we are actually meant to follow these commands, it goes perfectly with the Deuteronomy passage we heard. Because Deuteronomy, if you noticed, starts with the inner attitude: ‘If your heart turns away and you do not hear… I declare to you today that you shall perish.’ Deuteronomy makes it quite clear that right action starts with right attitude, which means an orientation towards God and not to our own advantage. It also makes it clear that this attitude is life-giving, and that self-centredness is death-dealing; these commands are not about limiting the fun we have in life, but about giving us abundant life, beyond anything we might get from serving our own interests.

So maybe I should end this sermon with a quotation from Deuteronomy, which is incidentally one of Jesus’ favourite Bible books – he quotes from it repeatedly, including in the Sermon on the Mount. This is what Deuteronomy 30:19 says:

Deuteronomy 30:19

19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”

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