Sermon Seeds: From the Heart/Heart of the Matter

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Year A

Lectionary citations
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 5:21-37

Weekly Theme:
From the Heart/Heart of the Matter

by Karen Georgia Thompson

This week’s text brings a major challenge: Where does one start on any of the topics raised here in Jesus’ teaching to the disciples? The beginning of Matthew 5 yields the familiarity of the Beatitudes – a seemingly gentle place compared to where we find ourselves in this week’s text. Anger, adultery, divorce, and taking oaths are the topics presented in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, with the additional two topics, retaliation and loving one’s enemies, not included in this week’s reading. Where does one begin preaching on any one of these? Moreover, what does one do with this group of four, a part of six which are introduced in vv. 21-48?

These teachings are not just a challenge for preaching this week but have challenged scholars who seek to examine these teachings of Jesus in the context of Hebrew Law. Fred Craddock points to the antithetical nature of the text as Jesus names and reinterprets the law. They name these teachings as “antitheses,” stating that each one is followed by “one or more elaborations on Jesus’ teachings representing Matthew’s or the early church’s attempts to apply Jesus’ teachings to new and very real situations. This means that the teaching on each of the six subjects will consist of the work of the law, the word of Jesus, and the interpretation and application of the teaching to a particular circumstance” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). This pattern is consistent. The teachings taken in their first-century setting point to challenges in the church that were being addressed by the author.

Other scholars disagree with naming the teachings as antitheses, citing that there is no opposition in the text between the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teachings. In addressing the issues and reinterpreting the law, Ronald Allen says that Jesus is not declaring Hebrew tradition to be dead, but is operating within the pluralism of first-century Judaism: “Jesus interprets Torah much like a rabbi with an apocalyptic world view. First-century Judaism was not a monolith but was pluralistic. Different schools of Judaism interpreted Jewish tradition in different ways” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). This leaves room for understanding and owning sacred text in new ways based on contemporary issues.

The discourse on anger begins with the condemnation of murder in the law. It seems extreme to provide teaching on anger from that place in the Torah. The people know the law, and what the law has to say about murder, but there is no specific teaching in the law about anger. The comparison is clear. Murder is serious and so is anger. There is a need in this first-century church to look at relationships and how individuals treat each other. There is a value to life and how we value the lives of others. This perhaps is the heart of the matter in the text. Thomas Long expounds on the issue of relationships and how they are being redefined in the text: “The Old Testament Law condemned murder (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:18), but at the heart of this law lies a respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). The text goes as far as encouraging those who are not treated well to reach out and foster places of reconciliation.

If relationship – and more specifically right relationship – is the issue being addressed, then what follows in the other three is perhaps more of the same. The problems cited are divisive and destructive for the life of the church. The issues themselves are not the problem; instead it is how members of the church are engaged with each other and allowing for unity to be present among them.

The teaching on lust starts with the law on adultery. The teaching on adultery is clear. A man should not desire the wife of another. The woman here has no agency, but is an object to be taken, possessed and fought over. Like the first section which moves into drastic consequences (hell of fire), so does this portion which prescribes self-mutilation for lusting after a woman. Here too, the text is reinterpreted around what relationship should be like based on the law, but redefined for the contemporary setting. In its newness the words of Jesus value the role and person of women, according to Craddock: “The point is, a woman is not a thing, a property to be coveted so as to possess, but a person to whom one relates with care and respect” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Looking at the treatment of the law throughout and then at the interpretation of the law based on the challenges of the first-century church, says there is room for us to look at the challenges facing our twenty-first century locations in a similar light. Regardless of how the content of the text is interpreted based on the issues, Craddock says that the common thread persists: “all four can be embraced in one message if one remembers that not only these four but all six antitheses focus on a common theme – the primary importance of personal relationships” (Preaching Through the Christian Year A). Right relationship is still a major goal for the church and one that is still struggling against the veiled injustice of our day.

The teachings come from the heart in that they are a cry for this “higher righteousness” and better way of living in community stated in Matthew 5:19-20 and translated by Eugene Peterson: “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom” (The Message). Relationships are not to be taken lightly. The command to love God and to love others as self is unstated but is also central to reading the text. Mutuality and respect come when individuals honor neighbor as self. It is only then that right relationship is realized. Right relationship comes from the heart!

The writer of Matthew’s Gospel starts with the known – the law. From there what is known is reframed in what is less known and is not addressed explicitly in the sacred text. The known for us lies perhaps in our understanding of the love of God freely given to all and the knowledge that all are created equally in the image of the Divine. Yet, there is much that divides our worship communities, the church, and our world. What are the 21st-century manifestations of the anger, lust, divorce, and swearing that plagued the first-century church and motivated the writer to name and address these problems? What is our response to the inequities present in our society which are fueled by lack of caring for each other?

There is a laundry list of justice issues that demand our energies and time to addressing from the pulpit and the pews. These issues require that we engage in critical self-examination before we can lend ourselves to the task of bringing about equality. It is hard to overlook the many who have no place to sleep or food to eat and are left begging in the streets. Our nightly newscasts are filled with story after story of individuals who are dehumanized and rendered victims of a society that no longer values relationships and has ceased loving neighbor as self.

The primary importance of human relationships seems to be lost as individuals are rendered less-than because of race, gender, and sexual orientation. In the first-century church, would anyone dare admit that they were contributing to the problems Matthew wrote to address? It is easy to look at the problems and name them as the fault of others but the bigger challenge comes when we dare to find ourselves in the midst and ask how am I contributing to the problem? Or, how can I bring difference to what I observe around me?

The text challenges us to see the world in a new way. “In each of the scenarios Jesus is calling for an entirely new way of viewing human relationships,” Charles Cousar writes. “Behind the prohibitions lies the vision of a restored humanity” (Texts for Preaching Year A). What is our view of humanity? Do we have a vision for justice that will bring about racial healing and equality? Do we have a vision for reconciliation that will provide a hope and a future for those who are marginalized and ostracized by society? The text takes us to hard places which involve looking at our hearts and creating newness within.

For further reflection:

Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

William James, 19th century
“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”

Will Smith, 21st century
“Throughout life people will make you mad, disrespect you and treat you bad. Let God deal with the things they do, cause hate in your heart will consume you too.”

Steve Bruce, 20th century
“When people get to invent their own gods, they invent easy gods that demand very little.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”

Michael Novak, 20th century
“The more common vices today are likely to be spiritual: preoccupation, hyperactivity, a failure even to heed the natural rhythms of the body and the sense, distractedness, an instrumentalizing of people and time and activity.” 

The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves on the national staff of the United Church of Christ as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

Lectionary texts

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 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. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 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. 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, 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.

Psalm 119:1-8

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
   who walk in the law of God.
Happy are those who keep God’s decrees,
   who seek God with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
   but walk in God’s ways.
You have commanded your precepts
   to be kept diligently.
that my ways may be steadfast
   in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame,
   having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart,
   when I learn your righteous ordinances.
I will observe your statutes;
   do not utterly forsake me.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.

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

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.