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Sunday, February 12, 2017

You Fool – You Rebel! (A Sermon)

Matthew 5: 21 – 37
Psalm 119: 1 – 8

“I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus told his disciples. “I have come not to abolish, but to complete them.” (Matthew 5: 17) If Jesus was a radical, revolutionary prophet, he was not so in this regard; he followed the tenets of the Jewish faith and accepted the authority of the torah. (Evans 223)

How blessed are those
whose way is blameless,
who walk in the Law of Yahweh!
Blessed are those who observe his instructions,
who seek him with all their hearts,
and, doing no evil,
who walk in his ways.
You lay down your precepts
to be carefully kept.
May my ways be steady
in doing your will.
Then I shall not be shamed,
if my gaze is fixed on your commandments.
I thank you with a sincere heart
for teaching me your upright judgments.
I shall do your will;
do not ever abandon me wholly.
(Psalm 119: 1 – 8 New Jerusalem Bible)

But Jesus, in his “Sermon on the Mount” gives a series of antitheses, not this-but that statements. In this he does not contradict the law or abrogate it; he goes beyond and further than the law. The law spoke to a man’s outward actions, to a woman’s behavior. Jesus’ words speak to his inward thoughts, to the attitude of her heart.

The physical act of murder in the old law is punishable by death, but Jesus extends this judgment to inward anger – the murderous, malicious anger burning inside a person.  Jesus told his disciples that calling someone a “fool” or “raca” = liable to judgment

But Jesus himself called people fools. Later, in this same gospel – the gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees fools. “You blind fools!” (Matthew 23: 17) So either Jesus was inconsistent, didn’t heed his own instruction, or Matthew wasn’t accurate in recording either one or the other of these passages. Or it could be that we need to seek a different explanation for this text.

There are two terms to understand in this verse. The first is the word “raca” and is not easily explained. It seems to be an Aramaic word – a contemptuous form of address, “good for nothing” or “wretch” (Exegesis 295). This is more than a “fool;” this is the description of a heretic. (Schaff 61) The second is usually understood as the Greek word Morē meaning “fool.” But some scholars have suggested that it may be the homophonic Hebrew word Môrê which means “rebel” – that is, a rebel against God or Apostate. (Albright 61, Stott 84)

We can read these two phrases as roughly parallel – the first contempt for his mind – his “empty head”, the second contempt for his scoundrel’s black heart. (Stott 84) Jesus’ instruction is then: Whoever despises a brother or sister in the faith as a heretic, or as a rebel against God will be liable to the Gehenna of Fire.

Religious debate is often divisive; along with politics it is a topic to be avoid in polite company. It tends to leave people polarized, raging in a state of fury. Sectarian violence is plague on the faith – on all faiths: Catholic Christians murdered Orthodox Christians during the Crusades, Protestants and Catholics killed each other during the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants killed each other in Ireland from the 16th century up through 20th century.

Early in the history of Christianity, when Christians were still by and large Jewish and members of the Jewish communities, there was division between the traditional Jews and the Christian “followers of the way.” This internecine conflict led to a split in the two groups; the Christians were expelled from their synagogues and cut off from their community.

The rabbis eventually developed 18 Benedictions to be read as part of the liturgy. The twelfth of these blessings was the “blessing” on the heretics:

“For the apostates let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom be uprooted speedily in our days and may the Nazarenes (notzrim) and the heretics (mînîm) perish as in a moment and be blotted out of the Book of Life, and not be inscribed with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.” (Encyclopedia Judaica)

But this cursing wasn’t one sided; there is a virulent strain of anti-Semitism that has run through the Christian church since the beginning.

It’s hard to come back from that. It’s hard to come back from that anger, from that hatred. It becomes an impenetrable wall between us.

I have been called a fool. I have been called an idiot. A blasphemer, a false prophet, a son of the whore heretic. And this by my fellow Christians, my fellow Salvationists. I have been, I am hated by some. Recently a friend of mine told me of a Salvation Army officer that she knows who has expressed a hatred of me, despite the fact that I don’t think we’ve ever actually met. This officer ‘hates’ me because I support LGBTQI people, and believe they should be welcomed and included into our churches. Hate is the word the officer used. And it’s sometimes difficult to believe that I am a part of this community – because of the animosity that is expressed.

This kind of hate is murderous. It kills. It destroys the bonds of fellowship, destroys the bands of brotherhood /sisterhood.

The one who keeps and follows the law of God, the torah, the divine rule of faith and practice was considered to be blessed. And to this we say amen, so say we all. We might all agree that we worship only one God, and that Jesus has saved us from our sins and that the scriptures of the old and new testaments are to be the foundations of our faith and practice, but problems and conflicts arise when we get right down to how that scripture should be interpreted and put into practice in our ordinary, everyday life. We cannot allow those differences in interpretation cause us to break the Christian fellowship of faith.

All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.  (1 John 3:15)

This is not to say that doctrine is unimportant, or of no concern. This is not to say that we should have a freewheeling, anything-goes approach to doctrine. We are called to study and to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). But we cannot let our disagreements – even in the matters of religious doctrine – become so inflammatory that we begin to hate and to despise our brothers and sisters.

If we call them “Racca,” empty headed, good for nothing worthless, reprobates, if we call them “fools,” black-hearted rebels and wretched apostates, then we have put ourselves in the place of God and judged them – and in doing so we make ourselves liable to the judgment of Gehenna Fire.

Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1979. Print.

Buttrick, George A. “Matthew: Exposition.” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

Encyclopedia Judaica. 2008 The Gale Group.

Evans, Graig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2006. Print.

Schaff, Phillip. Ed.  A Popular Commentary on the New Testament by English and American Scholars. Edinburgh, Scotland. T & T Clark. 1879. Print.

Stott, John. Christian Counter Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1978. Print.

Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive - Rosamond E. Herklots, 1905-87,

"Forgive our sins as we forgive,"
You taught us, Lord, to pray,
But you alone can grant us grace
To live the words we say.

How can your pardon reach and bless
The unforgiving heart
That broods on wrongs and will not let
Old bitterness depart?

In blazing light your cross reveals
The truth we dimly knew:
What trivial debts are owed to us;
How great our debt to you!

Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls
And bid resentment cease;
Then, bound to all in bonds of love
Our lives will spread your peace.

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