6 Sunday A - Spirit of the Law


Thomas O’Loughlin
Introduction to the Celebration

The word ‘religion’ conjures up for most people, and indeed us Christians also, two great images. The first is that system of moral ‘do-s and don’t-s’ — and that we have image is true whether one thinks such rules are a good thing. The second is that there are various religious that have to be followed: like the rule that we have to go on Sundays. But the message of Jesus, brought out in gospel, is that we must go beyond these appearances: our actions must be following but must be inspired love; our religious observances cannot be merely formal must open us to mystery of love that is greater that the univ yet which enters every detail of the creation.

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Textual comments
The passage can be divided as follows:
- Verse 20 is the centre peice of the passage; it explains the verses which precede and follow it.
- Verses 17 to 19 are an emotional celebration of “the Law” (here, the term can be taken to mean any noble cause we feel committed to) and of those who uphold it.
- Verses 21 to 26: a first series of implications, concerning those with whom we have quarrels.
- Verses 27 to 32: a second series of implications, concerning marriage relationships.
- Verses 33 to 37: a third series of implications, concerning the taking of oaths.
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Michel de Verteuil
General comments
This Sunday we have the third of the extracts from the Sermon on the Mount. I would advise that you stay with the full passage for this Sunday, even though a “shorter form” is allowed; we never know which section of a passage will touch us or the people with whom we are sharing.
The passage lends itself to moralising reading: “Jesus is telling us to…”. We must therefore make a special effort to start from our experience, as always in lectio divina. We ask ourselves the question: when did I experience Jesus telling me these things? The reading then becomes a celebration of moments of grace, teaching through experience. As  always, you can remain with one section of the passage, or try to discover – with the heart, not the head – a thread running through the entire passage.
Like the whole Sermon on the Mount, this passage describes a conversion experience, “going deeper than the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees”. We need therefore to retrace our spiritual journey, from a “scribe and Pharisee” attitude to one that is “deep” – from a “single-issue” approach to one that is radical and holistic.
The rest of the passage celebrates the kinds of implications we become aware of when we experience radical conversion. Our spiritual journey will
affect our commitment to Jesus and the church, but also our other commitments – to our families, neighbourhoods, social or political movements we may be involved in.
A recent statement by Pope John Paul II is an example of the church’s conversion in its pro-life stance: “To choose life involves rejecting every form of violence, the violence of poverty and hunger, the violence of armed conflict, the violence of criminal trafficking in drugs and arms, the violence of mindless damage to the natural environment.”
By giving a broad interpretation to the text, we experience it as wisdom teaching, as Jesus intended it to be.
As always in Jesus’ teaching, the language is metaphorical, inviting us to enter it from experiences which we remember with emotion.
The sequence of thought may seem haphazard to our Western way of reasoning, but it has its own inner logic.
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John Litteton
Gospel Reflection
People frequently refer to the Sermon on the Mount as being the New Law, replacing the Old Law, and the impression given is that, with Jesus, the rules have been somewhat loosened. Now it can be said that it is love that counts and that the rules take second place. But the error of this opinion is quickly evident when we check the eight Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon. Far from making life easier, the Sermon is even more demanding than the Old Law.
As God gradually revealed himself to the Chosen People, they began to understand that he loved them and wanted them to enjoy life in the land that he had given to them. In order for this to happen, they were to heed the warnings of the prophets and be faithful to God’s commandments.
Therefore, they must not kill. They must not steal. They must be faithful to their spouses and they must not envy their neighbour. Contrary to what some people suggest nowadays, the Chosen People understood that God wanted them to keep his laws because he loved them, and not because he wanted to make them wretched and unhappy.
We know this from God’s revelation of his loving nature in biblical texts such as the beautiful story of Hosea, whose love for his prostitute wife was analogous to the love that God had for his headstrong and sinful people. Through the prophets, God continually reminded them of his love, even as he pulled them back from the brink of destruction on many occasions. Indeed, in chapter 5 of the Book of Deuteronomy, we read that it was from God’s love that the Ten Commandments sprang. Before listing the commands, God reminded them: ‘I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ (Deut 5:6).
During the Sermon on the Mount itself, Jesus told his listeners that he had not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets: ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved’ (Mt 5:17-18).
To understand the implication of this key statement of Jesus, we might reflect that he sought not the end of the Law, not its destruction, but its perfection. Hence in the Sermon, Jesus taught that it is no longer sufficient not to kill one’s neighbour. In future, his disciples would be required to control their anger so that their thoughts were purified and perfected. One by one, this extension of the Ten Commandments to thoughts and motives as well as actions, is found throughout this unique Sermon.
Jesus reinforced the idea of Christian perfection by linking it to the worship of God. If his followers desired to approach the altar and, while there, remembered friction with another person or people, they would be expected to leave their gifts at the altar and go to be reconciled first. The lesson for us is clear. This is how seriously God views our human relationships. We cannot hate our neighbour and purport to love God. That is not possible.
A much overlooked exhortation in the Sermon concerns prevarication in speech: ‘All you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one’ (Mt 5:37).
The Sermon on the Mount, then, especially each of the Beatitudes, provides us with a rich mine of spiritual treasures that give us much food for meditation.

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Homily notes

1. We tend to think of the contents of today’s gospel as a series of little pieces: a rule on this, a rule on that, a bit of theology on some other point. Apart from the fact that this ‘chop ut into sentences’ approach to the gospels is not good exegesis but a variant type of fundamentalism, this approach misses the whole point of the sermon by Jesus. The central point is that the message of the gospel is greater than the sum of its parts. It is not a new rule about this, a change in the rules about something else, and so forth; rather, the message is that God’s love is greater than all, and we are called to respond that love in a complete loving way, not simply by a formalistic fulfilment of regulations. Love always must go beyond ‘box ticking’ or it is not love.
2. This has an effect on how we preach: if we turn the gospel into a series of new regulations, and preach them as such, oUI preaching is reversing the very point of today’s gospel. Thi~ is also the fundamental reason why the shorter form oj today’s gospel supplied in the lectionary is so inappropriate.
So how can we reflect on the message that love and faith arE more than ‘box ticking’?
3. The first point is to state just that: love and faith are more than ‘box ticking.’ We can keep all the rules, but if our lives have not got that spark of love and laughter, then we are not fol­lowing the God of love but the’ great policeman in the sky’.
4. That sparkle of love is what makes the difference between the saint and the intense rule-keeping boor. That sparkle is the ability to see beyond the rules, to glimpse a mystery that is greater than the universe, to glimpse the love of God beck­oning.
5. But while attention to detail and discipline can train us in keeping the rules, we can only discover how to love through forgiving those who have hurt us irrespective of whether they ask for forgiveness or not, or are repentant or not. WE can only discover how to love by helping those in need, whether they ‘deserve’ help or not. We can only discover how to love by standing with those who are oppressed ever if it is dangerous for us. We can only discover how to love by asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds with wisdom.
6. Love is the sparkle of the good news, the joy of being a disci­ple, but it is never the easy option.
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Scriptural Prayer
Lord, we thank you for those wonderful moment
when something we believed in half-heartedly and from the surface of ourselves
suddenly touches us deeply.
We move from head to heart conviction, feel passionately committed,
see the implications for every aspect of life.
Sometimes it is a teaching of Jesus:
- we must forgive seventy times seven times
- our neighbours and ourselves are linked in a common destiny
- the gentle will inherit the earth
- only those who mourn will be comforted.
At other times it is traditional wisdom:
- the importance of family and friendship
- love is more powerful than selfishness
- we can trust the future.
At other times we recognise the full implications
of a cause we had given ourselves to:
- democracy, feminism, ecology, human rights, non-violence.
It is a conversion experience, sudden, unexpected.
We are touched, as Jesus was when, in a burst of emotion,
he celebrated the greatness of the Law of Moses,
exclaiming that not one dot, not one little stroke,
would disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.
Like him, we feel tremendous gratitude for the great people
who kept the vision alive and taught it;
we feel sad that anyone could think of infringing
one of the least of these commandments and teach others to do so.
How sad it is, Lord, to see a noble, idealistic enterprise
fall into the hands of scribes and Pharisees
who follow the letter of the law but go no deeper,
so that the enterprise loses its savour,
is no longer a city built on a hilltop, ushering in your kingdom.
The sign of this happening is that people start being content with the minimum,
playing it safe, avoiding evil rather than doing good,
concerned mainly with being respectable and making a good impression.
In Jesus’ day is was not killing, not committing adultery, not breaking oaths;
but Moses’ law, like all authentic renewal movements, intended to do away with
- anger and contempt in any form whatsoever,
   calling one another fool or renegade,
- looking at other lustfully, seeing them as objects of conquest
   who will satisfy our ambition, or compensate for our insecurities,
- acting because we feel bound by an external force,
   in heaven, on earth, in some holy city, even in ourselves,
   rather than from our inner conviction, our own yes or no.
We remember when our virtue too went no deeper
than that of the scribes and Pharisees.
We thank you that we experienced a conversion,
and our priorities are now quite different from what they were.
We realise how much we used to be concerned with external rituals.
Now, if brothers or sisters have something against us,
we leave our offering on the altar,
go and be reconciled with our brothers and sisters first,
and then come back and present our offering.
We feel a new urgency about living according to our beliefs,
it becomes a matter of life or death.
We are like litigants who come to terms with their opponents in good time
when they are still on the way to the court,
for fear that they will be handed over to the judge
and be thrown into prison until they have paid the last penny.
We thank you that we feel fulfilled and have no problems giving up
things we had thought we could not do without:
- being popular or surrounded by a group of friends,
- making a lot of money,
- having our name in the newspapers.
We had thought it would be painful to give up these goals,
almost like tearing out our right eye or cutting off our right hand.
We thank you for the grace of seeing
that they were causing us to betray  our integrity,
that we are better off without them than having them and living empty lives,
like people having their bodies intact and being thrown into hell.
Lord, we thank you for that person you sent into our lives,
that Jesus who brought us to conversion.
We pray that we in our turn may bring his message of conversion
to those we live and work with – our church communities,
the great renewal movements of our time,
our families, neighbourhoods and schools. 

Homilies

1.     Andrew Greeley:

Background:
The trouble with ridiculing and attacking other people, whether it be a referee at a basketball game (they zebras are patently blind!) or a rival or a public official is that the very bitterness of our attacks makes us hate the other person even more.

 If one considers, let us say, Northern Ireland and Israel, one understands that the bitter rhetoric of attack in both places is often more the cause of conflict than merely its effect.

The advise Jesus is giving is not merely sound spirituality, it is also wise psychology.

Story:
Juliette Binoche, the wondrous French actress, was being interviewed on the Jay Leno show about her film “Chocolat” – a marvelously Catholic film in which chocolate is a sacrament of the goodness and love which animates the universe.

Mr. Leno, as is his custom, was making fun of President Clinton. Ms. Binoche was not amused. You Americans, she informed Leno, do not have enough respect for your leaders. You should respect them more. Leno was nonplussed.

None of his guests had ever said anything like that. He tried to laugh it off. Ms. Binoche would have none of it. I am serious she said, if you don’t respect your leaders, then you wont respect your country. Leno tried to change the subject. The woman was trying to deprive him of his comedy stick.
Yet which of the two was following more closely the description of Christian behavior in today’s Gospel?

2.     Connections:

THE WORD:
Today’s Gospel is the first indication of trouble between Jesus and the leaders of the Jews.  The role of the scribes evolved from that of recorders and codifiers of the Torah into that of interpreters of the specific rules and regulations of the Torah.  The Pharisees, the “separated brethren,” removed themselves from everyday activity in order to keep the Law assiduously, thereby serving as a model to the Jewish people who held them in great esteem.
  
While the scribes and Pharisees were extreme legalists in their interpretation of the Law, Jesus is the ultimate supra-legalist.  He takes their legalities a step further: The Spirit of God, which gives life and meaning to the Law, transcends the letter of the Law.  Jesus preaches that we cannot be satisfied with merely avoiding the act of murder but must also curb the insults and anger that lead to murder; we cannot be satisfied with justifying separation and estrangement but must actively seek reconciliation and forgiveness; we cannot be satisfied with just fulfilling contracts in order to avoid being sued but must seek to become honest and trustworthy persons in all our dealings.  Jesus comes to teach an approach to life that is motivated neither by edict nor fear but by the recognition and celebration of the humanity we share with all men and women.
  
For Jesus, the human heart is decisive.  It is the “new” Law's emphasis on the attitude of the heart that perfects and fulfills the principles and rituals of the "old."

HOMILY POINTS:
By our compassion and caring for others, by our ethical and moral convictions, by our sense of awareness and gratitude for all that God has done for us, we do the great work of passing on the Gospel of reconciliation and justice — and God is with us as we struggle to figure out and explain the complexities and struggles of life for the benefit of ourselves and our children and those who overwhelmed by it all who come to us for help.
     
The truth is not contained in laws, oaths, statistics or rituals.  It is found in the Spirit of God that prompts us to make the decisions we make, the wisdom that leads us to the enactment of just laws and the celebrations of rituals that meaningfully remember and celebrate God's great love for us. 
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks us to consider the weight and meaning of what we say — and to realize the chasm that often exists between our words and our actions.   

How come . . . ?
You might think of parenthood as a series of questions, often beginning with the words How come . . . ?
How come Bobby gets to play hockey and I can’t?  Mom and Dad’s challenge is to make their younger son understand that Bobby is older and has worked hard and assure the younger son that his day will come.  
How come I have to take out the trash?  Because you’re part of this family and we all have to work together to make our home a safe, clean place.
How come I have to practice?
How come we have so much homework?
How come I only get $5 a week allowance?
How come Susan gets to stay up later?
With patience, those How come’s are easy to answer.  But what about:
How come that kid keeps hitting me at school?
How come we have to move?
How come we’re having soup for dinner again?
While your own world is falling apart, you find a way to help your son or daughter negotiate the harsh realities of the world.
All these How come’s are prelude to the treacherous How come’s of adulthood:
How come he doesn’t love me anymore?
How come Dad isn’t getting better?
How come we have to die?

As parents and teachers, we are entrusted with our children’s how come’s and why’s and what if’s.  Their questions are not easy to answer — especially when we’re asking those same questions ourselves.  But Jesus reminds us that the answers are centered in the eternal verities of God: the love of God for all his sons and daughters, the hope of transforming the darkness and bitterness of our world into the kingdom of God, the peace that enables all men and women to live as brothers and sisters in God’s Christ.  By our compassion and caring for others, by our ethical and moral convictions, by our sense of awareness and gratitude for all that God has done for us, we do the great work of passing on the Gospel of reconciliation and justice — and God is with us as we struggle to figure out and explain the how come’s of life to inquiring little minds.  

ILLUSTRATIONS:

From Fr. Tony Kadavil’s Collection:

1.     "I've got good news and bad news."

A cartoon in a national magazine showed Moses with two tablets under his arm coming down a mountain. "I've got good news and bad news," he said. "the good news is I got Him down to ten. The bad news is adultery is still in there." Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard once said: "Most people believe that the Christian Commandments are intentionally a little too severe, like setting a clock half an hour ahead to make sure of not being late in the morning." Cable TV wizard, Ted Turner said that the Ten Commandments are out of date. I wonder which ones he would scrap. "Thou shalt not kill?" Absurd. Or "Thou shalt not steal?" Try stealing CNN's signal without paying for it. Probably he had in mind, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Turner has been wrong before. The Ten Commandments will never be obsolete. Adultery is just as serious now as then. And Jesus did not intentionally make his teachings a little too severe. He knew that happiness comes from living according to God's laws. Breaking those laws, or sinning, brings unhappiness and even death. The life of integrity, or righteousness, is the life God intends for us to live. So, according to the Sermon on the Mount integrity is a big deal.

2.      "Never curse the umpire:  

Angelo Bartlett Giamatti was the President of Yale University, and later, the seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Giamatti loved baseball. He felt that the structure of the game was a paradigm of the human journey in which all of us seek to break from the box, make a wide turn and get home safely. At his memorial service, Giamatti's son recalled endless hours in which his father (clad in a vest, a tie and a Red Sox cap) pitched them in to him. His son also recalled a word of advice, forcefully delivered after a Little League argument at first base (with father admonishing son): "Never curse the umpire. He's the only one who knows the rules." It was Giamatti's contention, you see, that the beauty of the game ... indeed, the very ballet of the game ... required someone who could define the difference between ball and strike, fair and foul, safe and out, and who could also articulate the rules that give the game its structure. For the rules are to baseball as the law is to life. They are not the game. But without them, the game has no meaning. Or, as a character exclaims in Woody Allen's excellent film Crimes and Misdemeanors: "Without the law, all is darkness." In today’s Gospel, Jesus reinterprets the Mosaic laws giving them a new meaning. 
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From Sermon Illustrations:

LAW
What then?  Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  By no means!
 Romans 6:15.


Some years ago, I had a little school for young Indian men and women, who came to my home in Oakland, California, from the various tribes in northern Arizona. One of these was a Navajo young man of unusually keen intelligence. One Sunday evening, he went with me to our young people's meeting. They were talking about the epistle to the Galatians, and the special subject was law and grace. They were not very clear about it, and finally one turned to the Indian and said, "I wonder whether our Indian friend has anything to say about this."
He rose to his feet and said, "Well, my friends, I have been listening very carefully, because I am here to learn all I can in order to take it back to my people. I do not understand all that you are talking about, and I do not think you do yourselves. But concerning this law and grace business, let me see if I can make it clear. I think it is like this. When Mr. Ironside brought me from my home we took the longest railroad journey I ever took. We got out at Barstow, and there I saw the most beautiful railroad station and hotel I have ever seen. I walked all around and saw at one end a sign, 'Do not spit here.' I looked at that sign and then looked down at the ground and saw many had spitted there, and before I think what I am doing I have spitted myself. Isn't that strange when the sign say, 'Do not spit here'?
"I come to Oakland and go to the home of the lady who invited me to dinner today and I am in the nicest home I have been in. Such beautiful furniture and carpets, I hate to step on them. I sank into a comfortable chair, and the lady said, 'Now, John, you sit there while I go out and see whether the maid has dinner ready.' I look around at the beautiful pictures, at the grand piano, and I walk all around those rooms. I am looking for a sign; and the sign I am looking for is, 'Do not spit here,' but I look around those two beautiful drawing rooms, and cannot find a sign like this. I think 'What a pity when this is such a beautiful home to have people spitting all over it -- too bad they don't put up a sign!' So I look all over that carpet, but cannot find that anybody have spitted there. What a queer thing! Where the sign says, 'Do not spit,' a lot of people spitted. Where there was no sign at all, in that beautiful home, nobody spitted. Now I understand! That sign is law, but inside the home it is grace. They love their beautiful home, and they want to keep it clean. They do not need a sign to tell them so. I think that explains the law and grace business."
As he sat down, a murmur of approval went round the room and the leader exclaimed, "I think that is the best illustration of law and grace I have ever heard."
H. A. Ironside, Illustrations of Bible Truth, Moody Press, 1945, pp. 40-42.


The law is the light that reveals how dirty the room is, not the broom that sweeps it clean. 
Dr. Phil Williams, DTS, 1976.


A duck hunter was with a friend in the wide-open land of southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear crackling as the wind shifted. He realized the terrible truth; a brush-fire was advancing, so fast they couldn't outrun it. Rifling through his pockets, he soon found what he was looking for--a book of matches. He lit a small fire around the two of them. Soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the fire to come. They didn't have to wait long. They covered their mouths with handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near--and swept over them. But they were completely unhurt, untouched. Fire would not pass where fire already had passed.
The law is like a brush fire. I cannot escape it. But if I stand in the burned-over place, not a hair of my head will be singed. Christ's death has disarmed it. 
Adapted from Who Will Deliver Us? by Paul F. M. Zahl.


According to a 3rd century rabbi, Moses gave 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. David reduced them to 11 in Psalm 15. Isaiah made them 6 (Isaiah 33:14, 15). Micah 6:8 binds them into 3 commands. Habbakuk reduces them all to one great statement: The just shall live by faith.
Source Unknown.

LAW, PURPOSE OF
Evangelist Fred Brown used three images to describe the purpose of the law. First he likened it to a dentist's little mirror, which he sticks into the patient's mouth. With the mirror he can detect any cavities. But he doesn't drill with it or use it to pull teeth. It can show him the decayed area or other abnormality, but it can't provide the solution. Brown then drew another analogy. He said that the law is also like a flashlight. If suddenly at night the lights go out, you use it to guide you down the darkened basement stairs to the electrical box. When you point it toward the fuses, it helps you see the one that is burned out. But after you've removed the bad fuse, you don't try to insert the flashlight in its place. You put in a new fuse to restore the electricity. In his third image, Brown likened the law to a plumb line. When a builder wants to check his work, he uses a weighted string to see if it's true to the vertical. But if he finds that he has made a mistake, he doesn't use the plumbing to correct it. He gets out his hammer and saw. The law points out the problem of sin; it doesn't provide a solution.
Fred Brown.


LAW, fulfilled in Christ
A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers 'the Little Flower' because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. 
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor." the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson." LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail." 
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
Brennan Manning, The Ragmuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2.
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It was my most embarrassing moment in the sixth grade. At recess my friend Johnny had done something I did not like. After returning to class I decided to send a message to him. As Mrs. Ferguson wrote on the blackboard I scribbled a message on a piece of paper, folded it into a type of glider that would sail, then tossed it in the direction of Johnny. That aerial production must have been flawed. It made a left turn and headed toward the teacher's desk just as she turned away from the blackboard. Then with horror I remembered that I had signed the note. She retrieved it and read it out loud. After all these years the memory of what I wrote is still clear: "Johnny, you are a fool. (signed) Billy."

Mrs. Ferguson, a staunch Calvinist Presbyterian, took her well-worn Bible from her desk. In those days we had scripture and prayer each morning. She turned quickly to Matthew, chapter 5, and read verse 22: "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." I felt lower than a whale's belly. She launched into a fervent sermon that would have made even the vilest sinner repent. She capped it off by saying, "And you, Billy, should be particularly ashamed for writing such words since your father is a minister." That was hitting below the belt, don't you think?

I could not attempt a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount without devoting one sermon to Jesus' words about the forbidden anger. I dedicate it to Mrs. Ferguson.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, given in chapters five through seven of Matthew's Gospel, could be called "Lifestyle in the Kingdom of God." Here we have the party platform of the Kingdom. It contains exalted expectations, the most radical ethical standards ever articulated. Notice that in verse 21 Jesus said, "You have heard it said of old...but I say unto you." That one who spoke of old was Moses. Jesus was placing himself on the same level as Moses or higher. Some regarded that as the height of presumption...
 
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Some of us are born with green thumbs - able to water and plant barren landscapes into lush gardens.

Some of us are born with gangrene thumbs - unable even to grow a "Chia Pet."

Some people are born with the ability to take things apart and put things back together. They are handy-dandy, fixer-uppers from the get go.

But in the most shallow part of the wading area of that "fixer-upper" gene pool, there are those of us who should never be allowed to handle hammers, screwdrivers, or saws. There are those (like me) who find "Plumbing for Dummies" more challenging than a dissertation on quantum mechanics.

All of us have our special gifts; all of us have our special limitations for those things fixable or tweak-able. But, as we so often fail to realize, not everything in life can be "fixed." Nor was everything meant to be.

Cars and plumbing are areas of expertise some of us can "fix." But soul growth or church growth, the bringing forth of new life, the conceiving of new blooms of vitality and vigor, is something none of us can bring about by "fixing" the body of Christ. New life in the Spirit only comes from one source. That source is God. Dr. Alex Abraham, a well-known neurosurgeon in northern India who is an expert in India's 4000 people groups, 400 languages, and 600,000 villages in a nation of 1.2 billion people, echoes Paul's words for today when he says this: "We cannot grow God's church. Anyone can build a church building, but only God can grow a church. None of us can grow a tree or even vegetables."

That's why the language of "church growth" is problematic... 
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Anger: Kilkenny Cats

Jesus warns us against anger, and reminds us to find a better way to resolve our conflicts. It is impossible to avoid confrontations and conflict, but we should never let anger poison our relationships or lead to damage that is impossible to undo. It reminds me of a traditional Irish poem:

There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many;
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails,
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats there weren't any.

When anger takes over, irrational actions can lead to self-destruction and harm to others. While the cats of Kilkenny might not be unable to control their animal nature, Jesus reminds us we certainly can.

Traditional
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The Skeleton at the Feast

Of the 7 deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking Transformed by Thorns, p. 117.
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 Anger: I Told You Not to Bite

We are told that a rattlesnake, if cornered, will bite itself.  Anger and resentment are like that.  They are destructive and not only to others, but to ourselves as well. And so we ask, "How do we deal with anger in a constructive way?  What are some guidelines?"

 In the first place, we need to see that there are times when people ought to express their anger.  That is something that a lot of good, sweet, nice, decent people need to realize. When Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, he did not mean for us to become doormats for everyone to walk on.  Certainly he was no doormat.  Remember how he drove the tax collectors out of the temple (Mt. 21:12-17; John 2:13-22)? He was angry with those who criticized him for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5 even uses the word "anger"). And in Matthew 23:17 he called the Pharisees "blind fools."
 
So we conclude that there is a place for anger. We are wrong if we take these words to mean that all anger is sin. Paul tells us, "Be angry and do not sin" (Eph 4:26). There are times when expressing our anger is the proper thing to do.
 
There is an old story of a Swami at a village temple in Bengal, who claimed to have mastered anger.  When his ability to control his anger was challenged, he told the story of a cobra who used to sit by the path and bite people on their way to the temple.
 
The Swami went to visit with the snake to end the problem.  Using a mantra, he called the snake to him and brought it into submission.  Telling the snake that it was wrong to bite people, the Swami persuaded it to promise never to do it again. And when the people saw that the snake now made no move to bite them, they grew unafraid. 
 
Unfortunately, before long the village boys were tormenting the poor snake by dragging it through the village.  Later the Swami again visited the snake to see if he had kept his promise.  He found the snake miserable and hurting.  The Swami, on seeing this, exclaimed, "You are bleeding.  Tell me how this has come to be." 
 
The snake was in anguish and blurted out that he had been abused ever since the Swami had made him promise to stop biting people. To which the swami said, "I told you not to bite, but I did not tell you not to hiss."

King Duncan, Collected Sermons, adapted from Carol Tavris, The Misunderstood Emotion
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Truth Tellers

For generations, the Quakers refused to follow our legal system's requirement that witnesses in court must place their hand upon a bible and "swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." They were criticized, and ridiculed and in some cases, incarcerated for their refusal to take an oath. But because they have gained the reputation of being honest people, they are, in some courts, no longer required to swear on the bible. They are known as truth-tellers.

Perhaps the old joke that we have told for generations is not just funny but also true. Lena says to her husband "Ole, why don't you tell me you love me anymore?" And Ole replies "I told you fifty years ago that I loved you, and if that ever changes, I'll let you know." Even Ole was a truth-teller.

Steve Molin, The Power of a Promise
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Destructive Anger

In the Spring of 1894, the Baltimore Orioles came to Boston to play a routine baseball game. But what happened that day was anything but routine.
The Orioles' John McGraw got into a fight with the Boston third baseman. Within minutes all the players from both teams had joined in the brawl. The warfare quickly spread to the grandstands. Among the fans the conflict went from bad to worse. Someone set fire to the stands and the entire ballpark burned to the ground. Not only that, but the fire spread to 107 other Boston buildings as well.

Anger, my brothers and sisters, is destructive. It poisons relationships. It often brings violence.

Adrian Dieleman, Be First to Seek Reconciliation

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The Effects of Insults

Obviously, murder is not the only outcome of anger. Other harm can be done as well. Angry words can wound with insult. Have you ever been hurt...REALLY hurt...by what someone said to you? It has happened to most of us.

Let me tell you about an elderly lady, a shy and sensitive lady who lived to be just three weeks shy of her 100th birthday. When she was a young girl, about ten years old or so, somebody told her that she had a terrible singing voice. Now, most of us, I guess, would not let that remark bother us particularly, but it DID bother this lady. Ten years old is a tender age. It bothered her so much that, for the remaining 90 years of her life, she never sang another note. No one had any idea whether she had a good voice or a bad voice; she would never take the chance of letting anyone find out, and all because of one person's careless and unfeeling insult.

David E. Leininger, Make it Right!
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 As Forgiving As Children

Many people today struggle with forgiveness, and yet we cannot become the people Jesus intends us to become until we are able to forgive the wrongs of others and seek reconciliation.

The goal, then, is for us to love other people in the same way that God loves us. Leo Buscalgia writes of observing two children having an argument. The children were quarreling over some insignificant things. "You're stupid!" one said to the other. "Well, so are you!" the other replied. "Not as stupid as you!" the first one said. "Oh, yeah?" the other one said. "That's what you think."

When Buscalgia passed by the playground not more than ten minutes later, these two children were playing together again, having forgotten the whole thing. "No brooding, no wounded egos, no blame, no dredging up the past, no recriminations," Buscalgia writes. There it was, a brief and honest exchange of angry feelings, an even briefer cooling off period, and all was forgiven. "Children are certainly much more forgiving than adults," Buscalgia concludes. "Somewhere in the process of growing up we seem to have become experts at holding grudges, cradling fragile egos and unforgiving natures."

Leo F. Buscalgia, Born for Love (New York: Slack, Inc., 1992), p. 202.
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 Get Rid of Your Anger

Don't let your anger fester and grow. Act quickly. Get rid of it. It will do you no good.
 Author Kent Crockett tells about Sam and Jacqueline Pritchard, a British couple, who started receiving mysterious phone calls to their home in the middle of the night. The person on the other end never said anything. After a long pause, he would hang up.

The Pritchards changed their phone number to stop the harassing night calls. The stalker changed his tactic. He started sending them obscene and threatening anonymous letters in the mail. Then the problems escalated. The couple discovered their house had been daubed with paint, and their tires were slashed. The Pritchards became prisoners in their own home and spent a small fortune on a security system. Here's what was puzzling they had no idea what they had done to deserve such cruel treatment.

After four months of unexplained terrorism, they finally met the perpetrator. Mr. Pritchard caught James McGhee, a 53-year-old man, while he was damaging their car. As they looked at each other, Pritchard asked him, “Why are you doing this to us?”
The vandal responded, “Oh, no—I’ve got the wrong man!” McGhee thought he was terrorizing a different man, who had been spreading rumours about him. He had looked up Pritchard’s name and address in the telephone directory and assumed he was the person responsible for slandering him. He got the wrong Pritchard.
Assumptions make us jump to the wrong conclusions, and others suffer as a result.
(Kent Crockett, I Once Was Blind But Now I Squint, Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2004, 71)