What began on the 4th Sunday continues here on the 6th Sunday: the Sermon on the Mount. The gospel for this Sunday is long and contains five connected, but different thoughts, suggesting five teachings presented by Jesus (Matthew 5:17-37)
Teaching About the Law: 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.18 Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Teaching About the Anger: 21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you,24 leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.25 Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.26 Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.
Teaching About the Adultery: 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I say to you, 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 to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.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 to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
Teaching About the Divorce: 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’32 But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Teaching About the Oaths: 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’34 But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.37 Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.
Here in the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, our gospel reading continues the “Sermon on the Mount” begun on the 4th Sunday. As mentioned elsewhere, the “Sermon” is the first of the Matthean discourses and perhaps the best known. Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins) has these introductory comments about the entire sermon:
The focus of Jesus’ teaching concerns the “good news of God’s empire/reign” (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). The sermon is not, though, a comprehensive manual or rule book not a step-by-step “how to” book. Rather it offers a series of illustrations, or “for examples,” or “case studies” of life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign. (p.128)
For those who belong to the minority and marginal community of disciples of Jesus, the sermon continues the gospel’s formational and envisioning work. It shapes and strengthens the community’s identity and lifestyle as a small community in a dominant culture that does not share that culture’s fundamental convictions. The community is reminded that the interactions with God, with one another, and with the surrounding society are important aspects of their existence which embraces all of life, present and future. Mission to, love for, and tension with the surrounding society mark their participation in this society. Integrity or wholeness defines their relationships with one another. Prayer, accountability, and the active doing of God’s will are features of their relationship with God and experience of God’s empire. (p.129)
Carter’s insights about the “relationship” language and images present in the Sermon are so far present in the Beatitudes (5:1-12) and metaphors of salt and light (5:14-16) – in describing not the “terms and conditions” of the relationship with God and God’s people, or a halakah (rule of life) – but rather is meant to stimulate the imagination and personal responsibility of freely entering into the covenant relationship with God. What does it mean to truly be God’s people?
As we noted last week, at a broad stroke, Matthew 5-7 are an expose of Jesus’ authoritative teaching; Chapters 8-9 are pericopes of his authoritative deeds.
Within the chapters dealing with authoritative teaching, there are four primary themes that emerge:
- 5:3-16 distinctiveness of Christian discipleship
- 5:17-48 disciples: fulfilling the Law – the 6th Sunday Gospel is from this section vv.17-37
- 6:1-18 disciples: true and false piety
- 6:19-34 disciples: trust in God over material security
Introduction to Covenants. Too often the Sermon (and similar texts in Luke and Mark) are read as though it was a halakah without considering the idea of fulfillment in the Gospel according to Matthew. “Fulfillment” in Matthew’s use means that he has looked back into the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and seen – not predictions – but patterns of the way in which God has related to his people. All of the patterns of history are completed in the person of Jesus – He possesses in himself the fullness of the promises of the covenants. Yes, plural – covenants!
Covenantal theologians identify four primary covenants: (a) Noahic, (b) Abrahamic, (c) Mosaic, and the (d) Davidic. Some scholars also argue for a fifth, earlier covenant, the Adamic – but that it not key for our purposes. How do the four covenant point to fulfillment in Jesus? R.E. Friedman put it ever so clearly when he wrote that with “the Noahic covenant promising the stability of the cosmic structure, the Abrahamic covenant promising people and land, the Davidic covenant promising sovereignty, and the Mosaic covenant promising life, security, and prosperity” we have a framework to understand all the stories in between. In other words, it you removed these four passages, you would have an anthology of stories, but no meta-narrative by which to understand them. As it is, we have the promise of God – much of which is unconditional – that our right relationship with Him, provides a wholeness for life by which we can freely enter into a full relationship with God.
It is God building for Himself a people. From family (Adam), clan (Noah), tribe (Abraham), federation of tribes (Moses), a nation (David), the covenants point in line and in pattern to the whole of the world as the people of God in and through the Covenant in Jesus. If one loses sight of this, then one forever asks “what do I have to do” instead of “what am I becoming.”
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 120-50