Randy Harris: Fully Human

Those verses I just read may be 17 of the most uncomfortable verses in all of the New Testament. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount here are, well, a little indelicate, don’t you think? Anger, murder, hell, lawsuits, adultery, lust, divorce, swearing – I almost feel the need to apologize. There’s part of me that wants to say, “Jesus, don’t you know we don’t talk about things like this – especially in church?!” I remember being in church a few years ago with a family member who was in the middle of divorce when this was the text read in worship. Afterwards, he laughed a little and said, “Did anyone else notice that the preacher kept looking at me?!” Frankly, most of us probably think that Jesus is looking at us as he says these words. We should, because he is.

Even with the discomfort, I think there’s something here, strangely enough, that may be helpful for us. But that doesn’t mean that this is not a tough text. As Jesus comes to this part of the Sermon on the Mount, he has quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’. And he is meddling. Intentionally so. Then as now, there is not one of us who has not been touched by nearly everything that Jesus names here. We may not be murderers, but we’ve certainly been angry, especially in these fraught times of ours – and that anger, left unreconciled, can eat away at us until there is nothing left. Many have experienced the bitter pain that comes in the wake of adultery or divorce – I’d guess that none of our families or close friends have been immune. That’s not to mention the lust that Jesus names, which between our biology and our culture doesn’t give anyone a chance. Who hasn’t heard a politician or leader say words to the effect of “As God is my witness, I promise that I will…,” only to see that promise broken or ignored? We can sure mess things up in a hurry! Yes, Jesus is meddling alright – and denying the possibility of a reading of the Torah that would let us let ourselves off the hook.

Let’s be honest: We really wish he had said something different. We want him to say, “Sometimes divorce happens, and it’s okay.” Or, “If you’re angry with a brother or sister, they probably deserve it. And as long as your anger is of the ‘righteous indignation’ sort, carry on.” Or, “Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No, unless you need to nuance things to get out of an awkward situation, in which case, go for it.” But that’s not what he does. Jesus sets a high bar here for the sake of life together.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine published a wonderful book on the Sermon on the Mount in which she helps us see the way that Jesus here is teaching like a traditional first-century Rabbi. Echoing the practice encouraged in the Mishnah, that earliest collection of Jewish oral tradition, Levine says that Jesus here is “building a fence around the Torah.” [Amy-Jill Levine, Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven (Abingdon, 2020), 28.] Those ancient Rabbis, in order to help people avoid breaking commandments in the Torah, would often extend the implications of a commandment as a way to make the original commandment more difficult to break.

To that end, Levine refers to this section of the Sermon on the Mount not as the “antitheses,” as many scholars do, but as the “extensions.” So, what’s the best way not to murder someone? Deal with your anger before it escalates to murder. Extend the idea that wanton killing is bad to include the idea that untended anger can turn murderous. How to avoid adultery? Find a way to make it harder to indulge your lust. Break the cycle that leads to these escalations that disrupt our relationships or ruin lives. Find a way to say something, or do something, that disrupts the cycle that can lead to something much worse.

Not long ago, I saw a story in the news about a seventh grader in Buffalo, New York, named Romello Early, who watched with distress as one of his classmates, Melvin Anderson, was picked on at school because of the shoes he was wearing. As one of their teachers noted, “You go to school, and people look at your shoes before they even look at your face,” the reality being that those with more expensive shoes have a higher social status. No, it should not be that way, but too often it is. Melvin was being teased for wearing worn-out shoes, and as he lamented, “It feels bad.”

How many times have we heard stories about the effects of this sort of teasing, bullying behavior? How often does such teasing lead to something much worse? But not on Romello’s watch! Deeply bothered by seeing Melvin being bullied this way, Romello came home and told his mother, “Mom, you can take away anything you’re getting me for Christmas, or you could take my allowance, I just want to get [Melvin] some shoes.”

So, Romello worked with his mother to pull together $135, including his life savings, so they could get Melvin some new shoes. With the wisdom of an ancient sage or maybe a rabbi, Romello said, “Nobody deserves to get put down based on a pair of shoes that he’s going to eventually grow out of.” He went on to say that his next goal is to convince his fellow classmates that shoes were made for walking, not dividing and diminishing.

One pair of shoes to break the cycle of bullying that so often escalates to something much worse. One pair of shoes that lifted Melvin from that place of teasing to a place of fuller humanity among his peers, through the care of a young man who valued those relationships more than he did his own Christmas gifts or any money he had saved. I share his teacher’s hope that Mello’s actions become contagious among his peers, and beyond. [“12-year-old boy buys bullied classmate brand new sneakers,” online at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/12-year-old-boy-buys-bullied-classmate-brand-new-sneakers-buffalo-new-york/]

So, to what end is Jesus’ teaching here? With his lifting up of the Torah and his addition of these extensions to build a fence around it, what is Jesus’ ultimate goal? What does he want for his followers?

There’s a common theme in these verses: time and again, Jesus is pointing out the painful reality of broken relationships and the things that can undermine relationships. The anger that distances us from one another; the divorce that rends families; the lust that leads us to turn others into objects, not people; the vows and promises we make which, when broken, make it impossible for us to trust one another. Time and again, Jesus is getting at the ways that our relationships can go wrong. But why? What’s his point? Perhaps he’s helping us see how our anger and lust and our broken trust undermine not just our relationships, but our very humanity itself.

In his masterful book Called to Be Human, Michael Jinkins, former president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, writes about faith through a series of letters to his adult children. In the very first paragraph, he says to them, “I’m plunging in where you are by responding to a question that you both have raised. As Christians, what’s the point of our faith? … There are dozens of ways that I could respond,” Jinkins says, “but I think the best would be to come straight to the point: The purpose of Christian faith is for us to become human. I’ll put it even more bluntly [he says]. Christians believe that God became flesh and dwelt among us. And I do not for a moment think that God went to all the trouble of incarnation - let alone the trouble of being crucified, just to make us religious. God became human to make human beings out of us.” [Michael Jinkins, Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009), 9.]

Jesus does not come to help us escape this world in its brokenness, sin, and suffering. He comes to help us live more fully in it. He comes to make us more fully human. The fence he builds around the Torah with his teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount is not just about keeping the Law; it’s about protecting the relationships that make us more fully human.

If that’s the case, then perhaps Jesus’ words here in the Sermon on the Mount might take on a slightly different meaning for us. It may just be that the anger and lust and other forces that undermine our relationships are also the very things that are keeping us from being the fully human beings that God has made us to be. Tending to the health of our friendships, our marriages, our relationships with our children or our parents, our neighbors - even our enemies, to whom Jesus turns in the very next section of his Sermon on the Mount - is a way for us to live more fully into our humanity. With that, I take Jesus’ difficult words here to be nothing less than a call for us to be the fully human beings that God has created us to be.

When he sums up the message of Torah later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that it all comes down to love: love for God, and love for our neighbors, even as we love ourselves. In Jesus we know that life, that full humanity, has everything to do with relationships; and we’ve all seen the way that life is diminished or deflated when our relationships are broken.

The good news of the gospel is that we belong to a God who values relationships! God with us, us with God, us with each other, and at peace with ourselves. Frankly, Jesus reminds us that ours is a meddlesome God who is not content to leave us as we are, but who is forever at work to draw us together and to heal not only the brokenness within us, but also the brokenness between us.

May the church ever be a place where our relationships are nurtured and our humanity is restored, that we may know the blessings of God, and be a means by which such blessings of wholeness and humanity are shared with others near and far. Surely such a fully human life is the one to which Jesus calls us. Amen.

Let us pray.

Loving God, renew our humanity as we seek to follow in Christ’s way. Stir up within us a desire to tend to our relationships that we may live and share and serve in such a way that we give honor to the bonds of love and fellowship in which our lives are held. May our living be a means of grace and blessing and a witness to the new life you offer us in Christ.