“Midrash #1: Murder and Insult”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 1, 2017
University Baptist Church
The Babylonian Talmud dates back almost 2000 years and it is a wonderful collection of arguments about scripture. In Jewish understanding, you have not fully engaged scripture until you have argued about it. In the Talmud, you have the scripture in the center, with a commentary by Rabbi Shammai on one side, Rabbi Hillel on another. They contradict each other and they tell stories that enhance certain scriptural passages. They call this commentary midrash.
There’s a famous midrash on the song of triumph that Aaron and Miriam sing as the Egyptians are drowning in the Red Sea. One of the rabbis has God speak through Moses and say, “do not dance and sing and celebrate, rather mourn. For the Egyptians were my people, too.”
The writer of Matthew has the story of Jesus continue in that vein. More than any other gospel writer, Matthew cites Hebrew Scripture. He goes to great lengths to explain that this happened to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah said. Or this happened to fulfill the proverb…Matthew’s Gospel is a midrash on the Messianic work of God. Jesus is clearly the messianic priest who argues and unlocks the keys to the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5-7), we find Jesus’ central teaching. He positions himself as the priest who holds court in a synagogue. Only his synagogue is not within the walls, but out on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
As he speaks to the gathered masses, he does a midrash on scripture. He quotes favorite truisms and gives his own take on them. You have heard it said….But I say to you.
Today’s scripture is the first of five statements made by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Each takes a common sense statement and then reverses it—or at least refuses to take this statement as the whole of the story. We’ll look at these reversals throughout the month of Ocotber. The statements begin, You have heard it said…but I say to you. Each time, Jesus takes a truism that no one can argue about, like, “You have heard it said, You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not swear falsely; you shall love your friends and hate you enemies.” We can all agree on that. But Jesus pushes us deeper.
“You have heard it said, you shall not murder, but I say to you don’t even be angry. Don’t insult anyone or even call them names.” Now he’s being fussy. Let’s stick with the murder thing. That’s so much easier. But anger and insult? Methings you have gone too far! If your anger leads to insult, you will be liable to the same judgment as a murderer.
Jesus was interested in getting to the root of the problem. Murder is an extreme manifestation of a problem that starts much earlier. And the only way to stop murder is to get to its roots.
The Buddha gives us some wisdom here:
“The thought manifests as the word.
The word manifests as the deed.
The deed develops into habit.
Habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care.
Let it spring from love born out of concern for all living things.”
It takes a lot to make someone want to murder. You first need to dehumanize the object. Then you need to believe that they are evil or at least believe that you are better than them.
You have heard it said that you shall not commit murder, but I say to you don’t be angry with your brother or sister. You’ll be liable to judgment (Judgement here refers to a local trial). But he doesn’t just end there. He goes on to say, “if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.”(the council is the Sanhedrin—the supreme court) That escalates it doesn’t it? Then he says, “If you say, “you fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”(this is literally the flaming garbage dump outside of Jerusalem called Gahenna) So we can see how it builds upon each other.
The spiral goes like this: First anger, then insult of the actions of the person,
and finally insults on the character of the person. This is how unabated anger escalates. It’s how it becomes toxic. It’s how we become irreconcilable.
Our President loves to insult people who disagree with him: Crooked Hillary; that nasty woman; Rocket Man, NFL S.O.B.’s. But it’s bait. He seems to be wanting to insult and rile up anger. But Jesus calls us to fight back, but fight with better tools, better methods. Reverse yourself. Breathe. And respond on your own terms with a still more excellent way. Don’t take the hate bait.
‘45’ has a chapter in one of his books entitled, “Revenge.” He writes, “When someone crosses you, my advice is ‘Get even’. If you don’t get even, you are just a schmuck!” I suggest he read the Sermon on the Mount. For this name-calling and insulting will land you in a hell of fire. That’s not my words. Those are the words of Jesus.
Frederic Buechner said,
“Of the Seven 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.”
This week, our Jewish friends celebrated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—taking account of their sins and fasting in reflection and repentance. In ancient days, people gave gifts at the altar to atone for sins and to make peace with God. It wasn’t the like passing the offering place these days. People ritually made gifts of food or meat in order to make amends to God. But Jesus says that you can only give these gifts when no one has anything against you. Not when you feel self-righteous, that you have done no wrong. The burden is upon us to think about how others might be feeling about us.
If anyone has anything against any of us, then we are to make amends to that person before we are seen as righteous before God. Do you see how this is harder than violence?
Here’s the advice Jesus gives: when you are offering a gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled with your sister or brother.”
It doesn’t say, if you have a beef with someone, have it out.
It doesn’t say, if you have been wronged, get revenge.
It doesn’t say, if you have been mistreated, just forget about it or stuff it off into some out of the way place (where it will re-emerge at the most inopportune times)
It doesn’t even say, if you have forgiven you can forget and move on.
It says, If you remember that someone else has a beef with you, “Something against you!” Go be reconciled. That sets the bar higher doesn’t it? Community is that important that you need to find a way to be on good terms with people. Otherwise the community is fractured and as such it is unhealthy.
How do we do that? Good question. It starts with knowing yourself very well. It comes from caring about others within the community. It starts with working like heck to repair the breaches of relationships. Because everything we do best, we do because we are in relationship with someone else.
If we are to succeed in a sport, we need our teammates.
The best quarterback is only as good as his offensive line.
If we are to succeed in our studies, we need supportive family and friends and faculty and staff who will help us out when we get stuck and push us to reach better heights of excellence.
If we are to succeed in work, we need co-workers and colleagues who make the work environment pleasant, just, and allow our best selves to shine forth.
If we are to succeed in our relationships, we need friends to celebrate with us when things go well and support us when they don’t go well, no matter how hard we have tried.
Jesus says that we are to come to terms quickly with our accusers, before you get to court. Even Jesus says it’s best to settle out of court. How’s that for a reversal?
Jesus calls us to radical relationships—to be better than the rest of the world out there. Are we up for that?
Think about the ways our brothers and sisters feel about the US throughout the world? Before we say and sing “God Bless America”, we might need to ask ourselves if any of our brothers and sisters throughout the world might have a beef with us. We can go through a long laundry list of reasons people have for being angry with us. Maybe it’s time for us to take a knee and ask for forgiveness when we have not lived up to the highest ideals of our nation.
Jesus told us that we need to stop saying insulting things to each other. We are to curb our anger. We are not to call each other names. We are to seek reconciliation with our sisters and brothers. If we don’t, then the alternative is dehumanizing our opponents which is a form of violence, which can lead to seemingly justified violence, which can lead to more violence, which can lead to murder.
And you know what, in the short term, it can be harder to address the problems we have with each other than it can be to act with violence and insult. Violence and insult are popular and acceptable ways to deal with or avoid conflict. It takes more courage to seek reconciliation with your sister or brother. It takes more work. It takes looking at our own places where we are blinded by our privilege, by our life experience, by our prejudice, by our own narrow worldview.
Jesus said, “when you are offering a gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, (not that you have something against your sister or brother, but that they have something against you) leave your gift there and first be reconciled with your sister or your brother.” (Matthew 5:23,24)
My friends, we have heard it said that the world is a big place and we each need to have our own little corner of it. But on this World Communion Sunday, we remember that we are all united by this table, this meal. We follow one who challenged the easy answers and called us to look deeper. To argue. To disagree, but to never do so in a violent way. To reverse ourselves in favor of a Gospel lifestyle.
This table is a symbol of unity, of faithfulness, of hope for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways. May it be so with all of us.
As the hymn writer Ernest T. Campbell said:
O Thou whose will we can resist, but cannot overcome
Forgive our harsh and strident ways, the harm that we have done.
Like Babel’s builder long ago we raise our lofty towers,
And like them, too, our words divide and pride lays waste our powers.
Grant us, O God, who labor here within this throbbing maze,
A forward-looking, saving hope to galvanize our days.
Let Christ, who loved Jerusalem, and wept its sins to mourn,
Make just our laws and pure our hearts; so shall we be reborn.