Matthew 5:17-48 October 20, 2013
I worked in a grocery store in high school, and one of the main managers there was a bit unique (as all of us are).
Being in Iowa, one of the things we would do in this grocery store, was we would get a truckload of sweet corn when it was in season, and we’d stand in the back and package it on those styrofoam trays covered in celophane so people could see what it looked like, and buy 3 or 4 if they didn’t want a dozen.
So we’d husk half of each ear, clean it up a little, and then put it out for people to buy.
Well, we were doing this one day, and my manager was helping, and he had this unique sense of humor, and he came up with a joke, or more of a riddle.
He said ‘you take off my outside, you throw it away.
You eat the inside, then you throw the inside away.
What am I?’
Obviously, the answer is ‘corn on the cob’. 🙂 (every now and then you need a little Iowa humor on a Sunday morning, right?)
The humor, at least in my boss’s mind, was that the edible part of the corn is sandwiched between the outer husk, and the inner cob.
It’s there, in that space between the inner and the outer…it’s in that space where the sweetness can be found. That’s where the kernels, or the fruit of the corn plant reside; there, between the inner and the outer parts that create the whole.
I thought about that interaction this week, because I think it’s not just true of corn.
It’s just as true of people!
The fruit of our lives, the “good stuff” that we’re all looking for…it’s found in that space between our inner lives, our soul, our spirit…it’s in the tension between that inner life and the outer husk, or the actions that people see us performing.
See, we all have this inner life, don’t we? We all have an inner ‘cob’ that supports or gives shape to the rest of our lives. Without it, we’re just like empty husks, or shells of what we were meant to be.
We all have this inner stuff that’s going on when we see certain people, or we have judgments that we jump to, or attitudes that we carry…and most of us also have the benefit of some kind of filter that allows us to separate that inner monologue from being expressed outwardly.
That’s why I didn’t tell my boss I thought his joke was corny!
The husk…it serves as protection on a healthy ear of corn. Just like my outward actions serve to protect the growth that’s happening in my life.
…Well, In the Exodus story, we read about an interaction where Moses and the Israelites are gathered around the base of a mountain. We’re told the mountain was a pretty terrifying place to be…it was covered in thick smoke, and there was thunder and lightning…but the result of this story is that Moses comes down from the mountain, and he’s received a word from God.
Ten words, actually.
Ten commandments, and most of them concerned the outer life.
You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your Father and Mother. Keep the Sabbath Holy. Do not misuse the name of the Lord. Don’t have idols. Don’t covet.
These 10 commandments are kind of like the bedrock of an ethical society, right?
In the Jewish story, and later in the Christian story, the 10 commandments are kind of like basic rules that make life somewhat safer, or at least more predictable, than it otherwise could be.
It’s like a social contract, or we can call it a covenant…like a first covenant.
But most of the first covenant can be talked about in terms of the outer life, right?
You shall not murder. That’s all it says. It doesn’t really get at why you shouldn’t murder, at least not in that particular verse. It just says “don’t do it.”
Jesus, on the other hand, takes that simple verse dealing with the outer life, and he expands it, to get at the heart of the issue.
In other words, it’s ok if society has a rule against killing people.
But here in this sermon, where Jesus is laying out the terms of this second covenant, he teaches that simply not killing someone isn’t enough.
The Christian shouldn’t even be having the inner dialogue that leads to murder.
He actually says “if you say “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire”.
I kind of like the extreme language that Jesus uses sometimes, because it makes me remember that he took this stuff seriously.
I don’t say “You fool” that often.
But I do say other things.
And sometimes I think even worse things.
I need to be reminded that that’s not OK for a follower of Christ. Murder starts in the heart, doesn’t it. Adultery starts with our thoughts, Divorce starts in our attitudes…and if we need to make an oath to be trusted, then what’s our word really worth, anyway?
Our inner lives give shape to the rest, don’t they…
Jesus uses the phrase “hell of fire”, that’s an interesting choice of words.
If you have a good study Bible, or a Bible that has footnotes, you might notice a little letter by that phrase in verse 22, and if you look down at the bottom somewhere, you might see that the Greek behind the term “hell” there is “Gehenna”.
Gehenna was a deep, narrow valley to the south of Jerusalem. It’s known as Gehenna in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament it’s known as the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.
It’s mentioned different places in the Old Testament, but one place in particular, one reason I think it has the history that it does, and one reason Jesus uses this imagery in the sermon on the mount, is found in 2 Chronicles 28 verse 3.
It’s in a short passage describing the Reign of Ahaz, and it says (about Ahaz) that he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD…it goes on to say “He made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.”
What’s that mean…”abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before them”?
Sure, it means it was a valley where they worshipped other gods…so it’s a location where pagan gods were worshipped and where pagan rituals were carried out since at least the time of Ahaz, and maybe even before that.
But what’s this about making his sons to pass through the fire there?
That’s an Old Testament way of talking about child sacrifice using fire. The pagan god Molech was especially fond of this type of sacrifice.
So this Gehenna, or this Hell of Fire, it was a place of pagan worship and pagan ritual, a place that was known for child sacrifice, specifically through the use of fire.
You know, I had to stop reading some of this stuff this week.
I have a pretty good imagination, and it’s hard to imagine a more genuinely hellish scene than what went on in this ‘gehenna’.
So does Jesus really mean that if I say “you fool” to someone, that I’m in danger of the fires of Gehenna, or the fires of hell?
Well, here’s the thing.
I think he did mean exactly what he said.
That’s one thing that separates us Mennonites from a lot of other Christians, that we think Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, having said that, let me say I don’t think Jesus is using this as a threat.
The Jesus that lived and healed and taught and saved people, the very expression of the Living, Creative, Active God who called forth creation and spoke even light into its place…he’s not using the fires of hell as a threat to snap his followers into line. The Jesus I know doesn’t threaten anyone.
What he does do, is hold people responsible for the choices they make.
In other words, we have a choice.
Our inner and outer lives…the cobs and the husks, so to speak…the cobs are always going to give shape to the husk. That’s just how it works.
If I allow myself to get to the point where I’m calling someone a fool, or “Raca”, it means two things.
For one, I’ve lost my filter, and for two, I’m moving away from God, not closer to Him.
In other words, I’m withering.
The word translated as “you fool” here…Raca…it’s actually an Aramaic word that means something more like “empty” or “Worthless”.
The outward action of intentionally killing someone…it starts with an inner attitude, doesn’t it?
In order to kill someone, you have to somehow believe within you that this ‘other’ person who’s created in the image of God…you have to believe that they are Raca on some level…that they are empty, that they are worthless.
and those beliefs…those inner attitudes towards other people…they have nothing to do with the way of Christ or those who would follow him.
So it’s not even that saying “Raca” to someone puts you in danger of the fires of hell…it’s more that saying that, disrespecting another person’s humanity or god-given place as a bearer of the divine image…when you do that, you are aligning yourself with pagan ways, and therefore becoming ‘liable’ (that’s the word Jesus uses) to the pagan systems of judgment, justice, and idol-worship.
You are aligning yourself with a different kingdom, and it’s not the kingdom of God.
In other words, it doesn’t matter what you say you believe…at the end of the day, if you’re able to look at another person, another person who has been created in the image of God and has infinite value and infinite worth in the eyes of God…if you can look at them and only see “Raca”…a fool, somebody who is worthless,…then that’s a sign that you’ve aligned yourself with the wrong kingdom, and repentance is needed.
If you want to follow the teaching of Jesus, if you want to embrace and live fully into the kingdom of God in all its richness and all its mystery…then for you, even daring to disrespect the worth of another human being is prohibited!
I need to admit, I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew in planning to fly through the entire sermon on the mount in only 5 Sundays.
So, if you were hoping to hear about adultery, or divorce, or taking oaths, or nonviolent resistance to evil, or any of the other radical teachings that Jesus offers in today’s reading, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
The good news is, you are no longer subject to Gehenna, the pagan rites of worship, or that hellish way of being in the world that is not the kingdom of God!
You have been set free! You have been redeemed!
You already possess and inhabit the kingdom of God upon your confession that Christ alone is sufficient, that Christ alone is the ruler and the only king who has your allegiance! May God be praised among us!