Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37 But I say to you... There are of course all sorts of things that can be said about the Gospel of Matthew: Among other things, that it quotes Hebrew Scripture more than any of the other Gospels, according to some experts more than do the other three Gospels combined; that it emphasises the Messiahship of Jesus more than the other Gospel accounts; and that, unlike any of the other three Gospels, it presents us with five great Discourses of our Lord, the longest extended speeches or sermons of Jesus found anywhere in the New Testament. Our Gospel account this morning is taken from the first and most famous of these five Discourses of Matthew, called the Sermon on the Mount, the source of the beautiful Beatitudes and the beloved Lord’s Prayer. Today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount is however called, among Scripture scholars at least, Matthew’s Great Antitheses; although I do not think I have ever heard a parishioner refer to them as such. Or perhaps refer to them at all. The Great Antitheses. Not much of a ring to it, I am afraid. Yet, they are important to our understanding of our Lord’s mission and ministry as proclaimed by the Evangelist Matthew. The Great Antitheses appear only in Matthew, by the way, not in any of the other Gospels. And three of our four antitheses under consideration this morning refer back to the Ten Commandments; refer back in other words to the Law. Also keep in mind that we have this morning only heard four of the six full Antitheses of Matthew; but do not ask me why that is so. Perhaps the compilers of the Sunday Lectionary felt that four of the Great Antitheses would be quite enough for the average parish priest and congregation to contemplate on an average Sunday morning. And they may be right. In any case, we shall have to save the last two of Matthew’s Antitheses, both of them presenting challenges of their own, for another occasion. Or read them for yourselves this afternoon, if you like, beginning at Matthew Chapter Five, Verse Thirty-Eight, and continuing through to the end of that Chapter. Call it your Sunday homework. And do let me know what you think. An antithesis is of course a kind of opposite. We might, for instance, say that love is the antithesis, or opposite, of hate; or perhaps of selfishness or even indifference, as George Bernard Shaw apparently once proposed. In Hegelian philosophy, the basis of much modern thought including Marxism, an antithesis is a kind of negation of some thesis or opening statement. Again, an opposite. But an opposite which leads in turn to a resolution and perhaps a new thesis. And new antithesis. Not surprisingly, it is such negation or opposition, antithesis, which we seem to have before us in today’s Gospel reading. We find Jesus beginning each of his points or theses
with the words, “You have heard that it was said,” followed by his own antithesis or interpretation: “But I say to you.” Scholars tell us that this approach or method was common among rabbis of Jesus’ time, perhaps a kind of rhetorical device used for emphasis and contrast. And to me, it also sounds suspiciously close to the Socratic Method as well, though I cannot prove it. Yet, it is at some level a bit difficult to say just exactly what it is that constitutes the thesis or antithesis of Jesus’ examples. Is our Lord suggesting a change in the Law...? Is he offering a new Law? A new set of Commandments perhaps...? Unlikely, I should think. In the verse just before the Great Antitheses are introduced, for instance, Jesus specifically says just the, well, antithesis: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law.” Apparently, no new thesis and antithesis for him. In fact, Jesus’ words are hardly antitheses to the Law at all. One scholar calls them not antitheses but rather culminations. Hmm... Matthew’s Great Culminations... Also unlikely to catch the popular imagination. In any case, Jesus himself tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law. So, it is safe to say that our Lord objects, not to the Law, but to its faulty interpretation. And so, he takes each Law or Commandment in question not at the level of its literal meaning or interpretation; rather, he takes it to what we might call its logical extreme. He takes the law to its limit and beyond. For, the Law for Jesus is not a set of limits, demanding that we act within certain restraints; the Law is rather a challenge to live beyond the word-for-word constraints of the letter of the Law. “You shall not murder” becomes rather in a sense, “Be reconciled.” “Do not commit adultery” becomes, essentially, value the very integrity and sacredness of the other, most especially the one you love and to whom you are committed. “You shall not swear falsely,” is transformed into radical truth-telling. And truth-living. Jesus’ ethic, as expressed in Matthew’s Great Antitheses, is clearly as relevant today as it ever was and as profoundly person-centred and relational, as we daily try to wrap our minds around nation invading nation; the homeless left homeless; and corruption in high places and low. No amount of legal fine-tuning or bureaucratic regulations can make the wrongs of society right. No explanations can excuse our own indifference to the needs of others around us; or for that matter our too-frequent callousness towards our neighbour and even family members. Respect the sacredness of the other, Jesus seems to be telling us, and you respect not only yourself and the other but God as well. For, no moral code is truly rational or even possible without God. And, it is perhaps for this purpose that the Law so cherished by the ancient Jews, and our Lord, is there in the first place. To lead us back to God. The Great Antitheses of Matthew’s Gospel take us well beyond the simple demand or dictum that we should do no harm. Of us, they demand the divine. Jesus of course does not seriously expect his disciples to pluck out their eyeballs or lop off their hands. And, he surely understands that marriages sometimes fail. But he exaggerates to make a deeper point. To borrow a bit of American slang, Jesus kicks it up a notch. He is not interested in what little we can do; how little we can get away with. He challenges us to challenge ourselves to live out the ethic behind the law. He challenges us to cherish the other as we cherish ourselves; and in so doing to find the divine within ourselves and others.
“Choose life,” is Jesus’ message, as our Reading from Deuteronomy this morning also instructs us, “Choose life, so that you...may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” When Jesus says, “But I say to you,” that is what he is saying to you. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs