Response Ability

Deuteronomy 30:11-20, Matthew 5:21-42 – February 16, 2020

I have to say that this morning’s passage would not be my first choice for a “two days after Valentine’s Day Sermon.  A sermon on murder, anger, adultery, lust, divorce, and swearing is not what I would call perfect timing for Valentines. Last week we read that Jesus said he didn’t’ come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  In today’s passage in each case he refuses to stay at the level of outward keeping of the law but goes a layer deeper to the inward emotions and intentions that motivate our outward actions. How we do that depends on our ability to respond to what comes at us. It depends on our Response Ability.

Jesus begins with “You have heard that it was said to the men of old do not murder. But I say everyone who is angry shall be liable to the judgment.” The word anger here is in the Greek present tense here means habitually or continually angry.  Anger, when not dealt with quickly and constructively, has an amazingly negative effect. It goes deeper. It burrows into the soul and corrupts everything it touches. It is not enough to avoid murdering someone; underneath outward violence is an inward anger with which Jesus wants us to deal.  

Have you noticed how angry people seem these days? We have road rage, grocery store rage, little league parent rage, texting during the movie previews rage, and even reclining your seat on the airplane rage.  We might be able to avoid killing someone, but the underlying anger can lead us to kill their reputations, kill their spirit, or allow our anger to kill something within us.  Anger can not only affect our relationships with each other, it can affect our relationship with God.  Jesus says it’s not enough to give offerings.  If we are not holding on to our money but holding on to a grudge or bitterness between us and another person Jesus says we are to go and make right our relationship before we give to God. In an angry world, we have a wonderful opportunity to offer an alternative. But if we are just as short-tempered as the world around us; if we are as quick to take offense, or to get mad over the smallest personal issues, what good are we in a world that is looking for answers and finding few? (1)

Next, Jesus moves from murder and anger to adultery. There’s an old joke about Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and he said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.   The good news is I got it down to 10.  The bad news is, “do not commit adultery is still in there.” 

It is not enough to avoid adultery; we must avoid what is underneath the act– is the attitude and habit of lust. Lust takes what God intended to be a permanent bond of soul-to-soul and makes it into a temporary contact of skin-to-skin. In the taking from another person, something is taken from them as well.  He is saying that adultery is not only a sin in the bed; it is a sin in the head. It cannot only take place behind the curtains of a bedroom; it can take place behind the shades of one’s soul.

The Greek word for “sin” here as in “causes you to sin” is a word that gives us the English word “scandal”. It was used as a bait stick that would spring a trap whenever an animal would touch it. In other words, anything that morally would trap you or cause you to fall into sexual sin, should be eliminated.  Don’t undress a man or a woman in your mind as you look at them. Don’t linger at the magazine rack or rent x-rated videos, or bring things into your home on television or through your computer that would cause you to fall into sexual sin.

When Jesus talks about cutting off a hand and plucking out an eye I don’t think Jesus meant this literally. If he did, the world would be filled with left-handed pirates. (place left hand over right eye) In Jewish culture the right eye represented the person’s best eye. The right hand represented the person’s strongest hand. What Jesus was saying was, “You better give up anything you have to give up to protect your heart, your body, your soul, your purity, and, if married, your marriage.”

Martin Luther once said, “You may not keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” The Lord is not telling us to cripple ourselves, but to control ourselves.  Shall I preach on?

Jesus next saying closely follows his warnings about adultery.  You have heard it said of old, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.  But I say…..  Jesus wants his hearers to go beyond the provisional excuse of a certificate that Moses allowed because of their hardness of heart to fight against the inward emotions and attitudes that would move people to not honor their marriage vows.  Those who pledge marriage vows pledge more than forsaking all others…they pledge to be there for each other for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in the days of youth and in the days of old age.   There are more ways to be unfaithful to vows taken than adultery.  I believe Jesus is arguing for compassionate, ethical treatment should a relationship come to the point of a divorce.

Jesus goes on to say that the same goes for all those other oaths and promises you make.  You make vows in the name of Jerusalem, or in the name of Israel, or in the name of Abraham. No more! Don’t swear by these.” Everyone knew very well that any vow made in one of these names could be broken. They were promises that were kept unless something else, more favorable, came up. (or in the case of divorce unless someone else more favorable came along)  Jesus is saying we should forget all this making and breaking of vows and promises, whether it is in business, or in marriage. We need to let our ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and our ‘No’ be ‘No.” It’s not enough to avoid making promises you can’t keep.  If you commit to do something say yes and do it.  If you can’t commit to do it, say no and find something you can commit to do. The issue here is not only marriage, but your “word.” In a marriage relationship, or in business, or in living day-to-day with the people around you, your “word” must stand. (2)

Now here is where today’s lectionary ends.  Because next Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday and the following Wednesday will be Ash Wednesday and we start running headlong into lent, I will not have the opportunity to finish this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Shall I preach on?  (Preach On) Hear verses  38-39.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (vv. 38-39)  Most people are right handed, and backhanded slap with a right hand would naturally go to someone’s right cheek. Jesus was saying if someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and let him do the same on your left.  It’s only an insult.  If you insult him back he’ll insult you back and on and on and on.  Let me emphasize that Jesus was not dealing with passivism. He was talking about personal revenge, not social justice. In other words, you never get even by trying to get even. I think it is also worth noting that Jesus suggested two cheeks, not dozens of them.

“If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” (v.40) The situation that Jesus describes was very common in Jesus’ day. If one person took another person to court, and the person did not have the money to pay the judgment, the court could order payment of the lawsuit in clothing. You could take the man’s tunic; you could take the man’s shirt, but you could not take his coat. The shirt was a type of tunic that was worn as an undergarment. The coat was an outer garment that served as a blanket at night. Jesus goes beyond both the law of the land and the Mosaic Law. In a situation like this when you give more than you are asked, you are showing that you regret any wrongdoing on your part; you are showing that you have no bitterness toward the other person, and you are showing that you want to make things right. There are times when you should not see how little you can give, but how much you can give.  Jesus suggests giving one’s ONLY coat if it will be a positive witness.                  

“And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” (v.41) Remember that Israel was occupied territory. By law a Roman soldier could compel a Jew to carry his weapons, or his knapsack, or any burden that he had, one mile. It didn’t matter whether the Jewish person was working in his field or on his way to the synagogue to worship, the Roman soldier had the right to conscript this man and force him to carry his burden. Every Jewish boy had marked off one mile from his house and had memorized the exact distance. Whenever a Jewish boy or man was compelled to go that mile, he would walk that mile down to the very foot, put that burden down, and with a bitter look on his face make the point “not one foot more.” But Jesus said, “Don’t go just the first mile that you have to go, go the second mile that you don’t have to go.” The first mile is the lone mile; the second mile is the love mile. The first mile is the slave mile; the second mile is the smile mile. There is something more important than quitting time. There is something more important than getting every little second out of your lunch hour. There is something wonderful about someone who goes beyond and above what is asked for, or required, or expected, just as a habit of life.

“Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” (v.42) A man came by the church on Thursday and asked if we had a coat. He was on foot and was wanting to go to College Station.  I told him we didn’t have any coats and I didn’t have mine that day. I explained that I was new and that SOS might have something and told him where I thought it was.  He asked me to pray for him and I did.  Then he went on his way.  I got to thinking about him and decided to see if I could catch up with him. I got in my car and he hadn’t gotten far.  I invited him in the car and headed for the Giving Center which I had heard about from the SOS director.  On the way I called SOS but only got an answering machine.  I decided to go to the Thrift Store that SOS runs.  Maybe they could tell me where the Giving Center was.  When we got there they said the Giving Center was only open on Friday and Saturday.  So we looked and found a coat for him there. Well I had come this far so I decided to take him to 290 and so at 2920 and 290 I dropped him off at …wait for it…Loves’ Truck Stop.  I got to give an extra coat, drive some extra miles and say goodbye at Loves.

”You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (v.43-44) There are people we have hurt. There are people around us, often close to us, who have hurt us.  There are bullies lurking at every school. There are parents who abuse their children. There are children who make life miserable for their parents. There are spouses who break their marriage vows. The workplace can be a hostile environment. Some of us can still hear those jeers and remember our tears.  But Jesus calls us to go beyond loving only those who loves us back. The best way to destroy your enemies is to make them your friends.

Loving our enemies is not becoming a doormat to violence and force. In fact it is quite the opposite. Martin Luther King Jr., in Loving Your Enemies, said, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.” (3)

This section ends with Jesus’ challenge for us to be perfect. These words of Jesus set a high bar to clear.  But the word for perfect here is teleos: meaning completeness, wholeness, maturity. The whole point Jesus is making in these challenges is that none of us can ever be without sin. Jesus taking the law one step farther and one layer deeper makes that point.  But we can be complete, whole and mature by seeking God’s grace and forgiveness for when we fall short … and get up and try again.

Now that I think about it, these words of Jesus are a great first choice for a sermon delivered two days after Valentine’s Day.  These words tell us how to love.  These words tell us who to love.  These words tell us to not murder AND to guard against the anger that lies beneath such drastic actions.  They tell us to make things right with others who might have something against us BEFORE we make our offering.  They tell us to remain faithful in all our vows.  They tell us to our job and fulfill our vows to the best of our ability. They tell us if we make a pledge, to honor it.  They tell us to turn the other cheek, give an extra coat, go the extra mile, meet an extra need, extend a hand of love to an enemy and you might just wind up making an extra friend.  Friends, know that when these challenges come, through God’s power we have the Response Ability.

Let us pray.  O God, you are just and you treat your people with fairness.  We have heard and learned your commandments; how you desire us to love our neighbors; how you called for justice and mercy rather than mere rites and rituals; how in our search for your justice we should show kindness, not a spirit of reprisal.  We still have a way to go in our quest of commitment and growth.  Help us to learn from children what it means to have faith.  May we not be afraid of dependence when it comes to trusting in you.  Let us learn from our enemies what it means to forgive.  May we not be so sure of ourselves that we condemn others whom you also save.  Let us learn form the foreigner what it means to dwell in a strange land, and offer hospitality to the rootless, the homeless and the estranged of this world.

Continue to nourish and sustain us so that we may mature according to your desiring for our lives.  We are your agents in bringing others to faith.  May our lives be for them an example of the confidence and endurance that come from the assurance of Jesus’ love.  May our care of and compassion toward them be a constant reminder of your abiding presence, and may our ministry to them be evidence of the fruit of an obedient life.

  1. Sondi Wright, “He Was Full Spectrum,” Rolling Stone, March 2005, 52.
  2. TIME’S UP!, JOHN B. JAMISON, C.S.S. Publishing Company,
  3. Loving Your Enemies  Martin Luther King Jr.

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