Isaiah 58.1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20
A prayer from the Ambrosian Sacramentary: We ask you, O Lord, give strength to the weary, aid to the sufferers, comfort to the sad, help to those in tribulation. Amen.
I would like you briefly, to imagine you are in Jerusalem, in the later years of the 6th century BCE. This is after the devastating destruction by the Babylonians in the early part of that century, and the subsequent exile to Babylon for many from Israel. Many years later the return from exile under the Persians, allows large numbers to return to Judah and Jerusalem. The temple and the walls of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Babylonians, and whilst they were eventually rebuilt, that was going to be some time away for you in those latter years of the 6th century. However, you could worship the Lord, and you could practice your faith even amidst that devastation.
It is into this setting that the passage we have heard from the book of Isaiah seems to speak. The prophet initially seems to be encouraging: Shout out, do not hold back! Lift you your voice like a trumpet (probably a ram’s horn)! This would seem to be suggest something good was about to be said, but then he says: Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
It is clear as he goes on that the people are, apparently, trying to worship God, even delighting to draw near to God. They think they are doing it right. They seek God’s will, they fast. But the prophet then pulls no punches, ‘you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers… you fast only to quarrel and fight.’
This is being said to those wealthy enough to have workers, who probably now have their own homes and are comfortable, despite the ruins of the city around them. It’s not being said to those who are the workers.
And what does God want? ‘Is not this the fast I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…
This is a call to social justice, its not to say they shouldn’t worship God, shouldn’t practice their faith, but when it is done in the hollow way they are doing it, the insincere way, with false piety, that is what is wrong. This is a call that echoes through many of the prophetic books in the Hebrew bible, and its very clear.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…
Which brings me to the passage we had read from the Gospel of Matthew. This is about six centuries later, the writer, traditionally called Matthew, may well be writing to a community within Israel, after the destruction of the temple again, this time in 70 CE and by the Romans. It’s left the people living in Israel without a focus for their faith. And the Pharisees have established the Jewish faith in the synagogues, with a strong faith based on the Jewish Law and the observance of that Law. It’s possible that the comparatively young Christian community in Israel is in some way in competition with the Pharisees. It is in this context that Matthew writes and the Gospel was probably first read.
Just before the passage we had read, Matthew introduces what later came to be called the Sermon on the Mount. It starts with the Beatitudes, Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, etc and those lead to our passage today.
In the beginning of this Sermon Jesus saw the crowds, and then… went straight up a mountain, where he sits down – the mode of the teacher – and his disciples came to him. So, Matthew seems to set it as the disciples listening to this lengthy piece of teaching. Not unlike the first listeners to this Gospel. (also a possible connection to Moses going up the mountain in Exodus to meet with God and receive the commandments)
Now, in Matthew’s gospel its John the Baptist only a couple of chapters earlier, and Jesus who launch an attack on the Pharisees, John with his a blistering verbal assault, where he starts by calling them a brood of vipers, and goes up from there; and Jesus with his call in this passage for the righteousness of those early Christians to exceed the scribes and Pharisees. And, Jesus and John aren’t making an anti-Jewish polemic, after all for Jesus’ statement to make any sense the Pharisees have to have righteousness for the Christians to exceed it. Jesus says he has come to fulfil the law and the prophets, not abolish them.
So, in the late first century the Christians and Pharisees may well have been arguing over the legitimacy of their points of view. But that‘s a contrast to the anti-Semitic way this has often been taken by the church over the centuries. Matthew wants to claim that the young church has a rightful inheritance of Israel’s law and prophets, Jesus isn’t seen as abandoning the law, but rather fulfilling it.
The word ‘fulfill’ is used several times in the early part of Matthew’s gospel, in the passive sense when it’s about fulfilling a passage of the Hebrew bible, but in the baptism narrative and here, its an active voice – Jesus speaks of himself as intentionally fulfilling all righteousness, and the law and the prophets. This active intention on Jesus’ part is a model for those early Christians and for us – how ethically do we fulfil the scripture without needing to take it in a literalistic sense, but rather to let it challenge and confront us now.
Jesus wants to offer the fullest way of living the law. And the passages which follow in the Sermon on the Mount are like case studies of how he interprets it, not nullifies it. He lays down a challenge as to how to study the Law and fulfil it, not necessarily in a literal way, or in an ‘anything goes way’, but in a challenging way that brings us up short. So often, Jesus seems to want to make us question how we should behave, how we might think. Even when our behaviour is not necessarily what we want.
Theologian Richard Lischer says: “Our only hope of living as the community of the Sermon is to acknowledge that we do not retaliate, hate, curse, lust, divorce, swear, brag, preen, worry, or backbite because it is not in the nature of our God or our destination that we should be such a people. (but) When we as individuals fail in these instances, we do not snatch up cheap forgiveness, but we do remember that the ecclesial (the church) is larger than the sum of our individual failures and that it is pointed in a direction that will carry us away from them.”
Which takes me back to the two examples Jesus offers us of how to be, salt and light.
These images are a call for the community of Jesus’ disciples to do good works, that show God in action.
Salt preserves food, it transforms the taste of food, and contributed so much more in the first century, but the word translated ‘taste’ in the NRSV, is literally that it ‘has become foolish’. Jesus’ word play is richer than the English, and it connects to the end of the Sermon on the Mount where there’s the story of the wise and foolish, who build a house on the rock, or on the sand. Christians are called to be salty and not to be foolish, to be light and not to be hidden.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
“… the followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision. The only decision possible for them has already been made. Now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus. The followers are the visible community of faith; their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship. And discipleship is as visible as light in the night, as a mountain in the flatland.
To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him.”
We are to be a visible community.
So, it is not that we don’t get angry, don’t lust, don’t curse, don’t backbite, don’t retaliate, we’re human after all, but it is as a community Jesus is calling us, as a community he is addressing us. He is talking to the disciples, and to the early Christians in Matthews’ community, and then to us.
None of us in ourselves could live this fully out by ourselves, but something like the night shelter is a team effort, part of our community, and so is the work of our members within Extinction Rebellion, Belarus, Palestine, and others. All ways of living out the saltiness of Jesus, being that light on the hill, or the light in the house. And what else might we do?
We are called to work out how to be ourselves… in community, coming from our very different backgrounds, our different positions, theological, political, ethical, and somehow checking back to the stories in the bible, to seeing them as an interpretive challenge to us and how we live, and to the world, and how it is. To see them freshly speaking to our situation in this city and this time.
As a community we are called to attempt to follow Jesus, we are like the city of Jerusalem visible on its mountain, that light on the hill. And we are to be salt, not flavourless foolishness.
This is Jesus encouraging the disciples, and us, to be his radical followers. The Sermon on the Mount is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.
Like Isaiah, loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free. A righteousness in community. Salt and light.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says of the Sermon on the Mount, it “is not addressed to individuals but to the community that Jesus begins and portends through the calling of the disciples. The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people. You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another.” Amen.