Sermon Seeds: Be Reconciled
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20 • Psalm 119:1-8 • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 • Matthew 5:21-37
Thrill and Rejoice (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Schoolhouse Rock! celebrates 50 years since those brief but impactful educational programming using short films on television. They aired most often during the Saturday morning block on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) geared toward children. I am aging myself in stating that I grew up listening and learning from these animations that relied on interesting characters and catchy music. The means of the message helped to cement the lesson in the viewers consciousness. I learned about the three branches of government, how a bill becomes a law, and the function of conjunctions.
Forgive me if you have the earworm of “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?” now playing in your memory. It’s an important question that our focus texts invites us to consider. There are a series of dualistic statements that Jesus makes. This passage is situated within the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus presents the reality, lived and hoped, of the kindom of God on earth. He has just introduced his sermon with the Beatitudes, a series of statements reimagining what it means to be blessed. He continues with these dualistic statements with a particular pattern. The first clause begins with “You have heard that it was said…”, and the second clause begins with” But I say to you….” It’s the but (a conjunction!) that plays an essential role in our understanding of what Jesus means during this discourse.
“But” brings together two independent, and equal, clauses. They stand on their own; they have a relationship. It’s not mutual, affirming, or complementary because in that case they would be connected with the conjunction “and.” The word “and” holds the two clauses together as equals that are both true. “But” serves a different function that, at least in part, negates what precedes it by the truth of what follows it. The first statement stands on its own, but it does not enjoy equal status with the second one. The clause that follows maintains a higher position and exerts itself on the words that come before the “but.”
Isn’t that what happens when the Word enters into the world? There was revelation from God before the incarnation but even the Pharisees and other religious authorities marveled at the authority that Jesus brought to his teaching. There was always a means of grace to overcome the sting of sin with redemption, repair, and restoration, but Jesus embodied grace and demonstrated miraculous acts of restoration, healing, and wholeness. The Holy One had been in documented pursuit of their people for generations upon generations, but in Jesus, God enters into the human condition. The law had been a guide for maintaining right relationship with God, neighbor, and self, but Jesus reinterprets what had merely become, at times, ritual, routine, and rudimentary.
Accordingly, the six scenes in 5:21–48 are not antitheses, where Jesus quotes from the biblical tradition and then abolishes it. Rather, he quotes the passage and interprets it. He instructs disciples to be a reconciled community (5:21–26), to curb male lust and power concerning adultery and divorce in a patriarchal society (5:27–32), to speak trustworthy words (5:33–37), to employ active, nonviolent resistance to evil (5:38–42; Wink), and to love neighbors and enemies (5:43–48).
The law served as the means of grace of reconciliation long before Jesus. The pattern of Levitical law describes the offense, recognizes the real damage caused by the offense, and prescribes a remedy toward repair and restoration. When we characterize the biblical narrative as primarily a rulebook, rather than a storybook or extended testimonial, we can overlook the relational nature of the Law.
The Law was introduced to serve relationship rather than the other way around. To the extent that they provide a moral or ethical framework, it is foremost in the acknowledgement that when we break communal commitments, harm occurs, and harm demands repair. God’s laws are just and for the benefit of humanity that does well when boundaries and expectations are clear. Human designed laws may create boundaries and expectations but fail to meet the standard of God’s justice when those restrictions are designed for division, privilege the powerful, and perpetuate harm of the marginalized.
God’s law had become distorted by human interpretation or lack thereof. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, exposes the limitation of taking the Law on face value alone without reasoning about its deeper and broader application and meaning. Faithful adherence to the law does not presume perfections, but does foster personal and communal introspection on what it means to be a people called to live in relationship with the Sovereign One:
The Sermon on the Mount, in its clarion call to a radically different way of life, does unmask the sinfulness of the life we now live—turned in on ourselves as we are. Indeed, it makes our need for God’s grace very clear, but the message also moves and motivates us toward the higher righteousness to which Jesus calls us. It does so not by giving a set of prescriptions to be followed in a legalistic manner but rather examples of life oriented by the love of God and neighbor. The living of the law of love is illumined by its application to a few “focal instances.” In every case, the disciple is urged to follow in God’s way by doing as God does: loving without limits (5:44–45), doing justice, and being merciful (5:7) and forgiving (6:12).
Jesus invites us to live the righteousness of God, to be a holy people. It often seems that holiness and righteousness are impossible and inaccessible standards. That’s when we take the legalistic approach that makes what is intended to be a way of living into a checklist for life–an either/or proposition rather than a commitment to becoming. Just as faith is not measured by a set of beliefs but a manner of trust, righteousness isn’t attained by reducing our sin tally to zero bur rather through our connection to the Righteous One. We are holy because we are claimed companions of a Holy God.
The higher righteousness demonstrated in these vignettes does not constitute a set of prescriptions (legalism) on the one hand nor does it imply an abrogation of the law (antinomianism) on the other. For Jesus, as for the Pharisees, the law is God’s good gift and guide for living. What Jesus offers here might be termed an “interpretive key” for understanding what the law, at its heart, requires. “It is a radical gift of self to God and neighbor in both inner thought and outward action. It pursues the Law to its ultimate intention … ”
The Sermon on the Mount was given to a crowd by a Person with a message, but, most importantly, the Person was the message. Reconciliation is a way of living…a way of being. When we center the relationship, the law is fulfilled. We can heal and be healed. We can repair and be repaired. We can restore and be restored. We can reconcile and be reconciled.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“I knew that to really minister to Rwanda’s needs meant working toward reconciliation in the prisons, in the churches, and in the cities and villages throughout the country. It meant feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the young, but it also meant healing the wounded and forgiving the unforgivable.
I knew I had to be committed to preaching a transforming message to the people of Rwanda. Jesus did not die for people to be religious. He died so that we might believe in Him and be transformed. I’m engaged in a purpose and strategy that Jesus came to Earth for. My life is set for that divine purpose in Jesus Christ. I was called to that–proclaiming the message of transformation through Jesus Christ.”
― John Rucyahana, The Bishop of Rwanda: Finding Forgiveness Amidst a Pile of Bones
For further reflection
“Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later.” ― Alice Munro
“The church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.” – Stanley Hauerwas,
“Redemption beyond history is a basis for hope within history, affecting what is possible within history.” – Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered assembly to consider what reconciliation needs to occur within your community and make a commitment to addressing it.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20 • Psalm 119:1-8 • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 • Matthew 5:21-37
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=18