Our cycle of readings continues working through the Sermon on the Mount. So before I get involved with today's gospel, who can tell me what last week's sermon was about? And saying, “The gospel” is not a valid answer.
Last week I discussed Jesus' statements, “You are the salt of the earth,” and, “You are the light of the world.” These were both statements about the corporate body of believers and were an indication of function, not status. You are the habeneros of the world, and by your actions you will add flavor to God's banquet. Taste and see that the Lord is good. You are the light of the world, providing shelter and safety to those walking in darkness, broken down, and stumbling through their own life storms.
Our function is to be spicy and shiny.
Today we get a glimpse of what that function looks like.
Today we hear from the next section of the sermon on the mount – a section that has been called “the six opposites,” or “the six antitheses.” They are called this because they are presented in a, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” format. Of those six we are given four of them. And of those four, I want to look at three of them: you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not swear falsely.
It would be easy to look at any of these and see them pointing to individual moral imperatives. Don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't utter false oaths. Those are all good things; and things that, if we refrain from doing, will allow us to live moral and upright lives. As good as that is, it may not be what Jesus was getting at. I'm not so sure that what Jesus was addressing wasn't so much personal morality as he was addressing corporate behavior. Again, function not status.
Just like last week when Jesus discussed the corporate You of salt and light, it seems he's doing the same thing here.
Don't murder because that's bad. But neither are you to be angry with, or insult, or denigrate your brother or sister. By doing these things you harm the community of believers and, in our case, the body of Christ.
Anger is a sort of given. We will all be angry with someone at one point or another. But Jesus is asking us to recognize that relationships can't be fueled by anger, that anger is more apt to tear apart, and that we should work toward reconciliation. Likewise insulting and denigrating others have no place within the corporate body because they act like a cancer that, if left unchecked, will grow to the point of causing a fatal system failure.
Don't commit adultery. We can all agree that that is a bad thing. But neither are we to entertain those thoughts, because by doing so we devalue the people around us to simple objects. We also elevate our own desires to a position of primacy that cares not for how others are affected.
Part of living within a community such as ours is being able to hold others accountable and expect a level of trust within the group. If we can't trust each other, if we elevate our desires over and above all else, if we devalue the personhood of others, then how exactly are we to be the light that shines in the darkness? How can this place be a place of safety for others when we ourselves are not safe?
You shall not make false oaths. But neither shall you make any oath at all. Why? We are all familiar with how people used to be sworn in at trials – “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Or people who say, “I swear on my mother's grave.” Or people who say, “As God as my witness . . .” One reason people do this is to add depth or seriousness to whatever it is they are talking about. But there are at least two problems with this.
First, it can be seen as a form of deflection. If a person invokes a higher authority in their oath, it can create the illusion that they are beyond reproach. How dare anyone question the sincerity of said oath when I back it up with the power of God. There are plenty of examples of people trying to get out of some pickle who do this, only to be found guilty later on.
Second, and more importantly, it reverses the relationship between us and God. Properly speaking, we are here to serve God and work for the spread of the kingdom of heaven. Our baptismal covenant lays this out for us. Do you turn to Jesus? Do you put your whole trust in him? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? When we make an oath invoking the name of God, we reverse that role. We put God in a subservient position, and we assume that we have power over God, calling him into service and making him our beast of burden.
What Jesus is asking us to do is to remember the proper relationship we have with God. What Jesus is asking us to do is to remember that we should act honorably, truthfully, and with dignity at all times so that our Yes or No will be sufficient answers.
I'm reminded of Inigo Montoya who, in his lifelong pursuit of the six-fingered man, didn't swear upon his father's grave, or by God, but only upon his own personal abilities.
As we move through the Sermon on the Mount we get a glimpse of what Jesus is calling us to be as a community. He is not giving us a moral code to live by. He is not laying down a code of personal morality and behaviors that we are expected to live up to or else be tossed into the outer darkness.
What he's doing is showing us how to live in community, together, as believers. Avoid anger and insults. Don't view people as possessions or things to be conquered. Keep your answers truthful and straightforward.
It will be in doing these things that this community of believers, this part of the body of Christ, will be well on the way to shining its light onto the world. And it just might be that this corporate way of living will find its way into our everyday personal lives.