Sermon Matthew 5:21-37; 6th Sunday after the Epiphany – February 12th, 2017


Most of us probably have been in a situation, when we needed to give someone some critical feedback or even correct someone – just because whatever they did wasn’t quite right. Anybody who’s ever been a parent or a teacher or a supervisor knows that this is necessary to help someone else become the best they can be. But then I think we all know that sometimes, it is hard to take criticism. After all, we do our best, and sometimes we think we’ve done quite well and deserve acknowledgment. To hear that we could have done better, or to be told what could have been done better, sometimes just doesn’t sit well with us.


Currently a generation is being raised in this part of the world that has extreme problems dealing with criticism. Partly this is due to the fact that children nowadays are praised for almost anything they do, no matter, if they actually tried their best or not. There is affirmation everywhere – everyone gets an award. But then real life happens, and young people figure out that just showing up isn’t enough. As many encounter criticism, it’s very hard for them to hear and accept it. In fact, many kids tune out when they are criticized – they see it as a rejection, but not as a tool for them to get better at something. Aren’t they great to begin with? Why would they need to improve? But, just as an aside, I think it’s not just the young generation now that shows signs of not taking criticism too well.


And recently, I heard about the so-called ‘sandwich method’ for giving people criticism. You start with a praise – something a person does well -, then insert the criticism, and finish again with an affirmation. An example for that would be: ‘I really appreciate all the hard work you have put into your history report. But there are some important dates and events still missing or unclear, and it would be good if you could do more research. But this has the potential of being a really good report!’ The theory is that, if criticism is framed by affirmation, it is easier to accept because people don’t feel rejected.


Right now we are right in the midst of hearing lessons from the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus’ great inaugural speech as he begins his ministry. And it seems he already knew about the ‘sandwich method’ 2,000 years ago. Two weeks ago, we heard the beautiful words of the beatitudes, which open the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are they, blessed are you. Last week, we heard, ‘You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’. Beautiful, affirming words. And, spoiler alert, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms the listeners again: Everyone then who hears these words and acts on them will be like a man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. Boy, this image hits home with us right now, doesn’t it?


But then already last week, we also heard some challenging words, critical words, sandwiched in between those words of affirmation –salt can lose its flavor, and sometimes we put our light under a bushel basket. So let your light so shine before others!  I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it!


So right now I want you to remember Jesus’ affirming words – blessed are you, you are the light of the world -, because today, we are confronted with some critical words, words that challenge us to do and be better. Words that are important, words we need to hear and take to heart.


In today’s gospel, Jesus gives us a revised version of some of the commandments of the Old Testament: you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely, and the law concerning divorce, a law that can be summarized as ‘You shall give your wife a letter of divorce if you find fault with her’ – and, just to mention it, that law was interpreted very broadly. A woman basically was at the total mercy of her husband and had no rights whatsoever. She could even be dismissed if she only burned the food.


Jesus takes these commandments and expands them, that is, makes them even harder. Indeed, you shall not kill, but don’t even be angry at your brother or sister. Reconcile with them. Indeed, don’t commit adultery, but don’t even fantasize about dallying with someone who’s not your spouse. Concerning divorce: don’t (unless she cheated on you. And, just as an aside, this indeed is progress: an adulteress could be stoned to death. Jesus ‘allowing’ men to divorce an unfaithful wife is much more merciful). And as for swearing or making an oath, don’t do it at all. Be clear and forward in your speech. If you don’t follow these expanded commandments, you will get into trouble.


That’s hard to hear, because it’s very hard to follow. Not even be angry with a brother or sister? We are not to complain about them behind their backs, but seek reconciliation with them? That alone is a big challenge. And as someone who went through a divorce, of course I have a very personal reaction to Jesus’ commandment about divorce, his words hit a very sore spot. But then, as someone who went through a divorce, I also know exactly that it is hell and causes so much pain and damage, especially when children are involved. I am not proud of this failed relationship, of tearing a family apart, even though it seemed to be the best solution under the circumstances.  God doesn’t just have moral standards and expectations for us, but wants to keep us from hurt – and hurting others.


God gives us rules to live by, not to somehow make it hard on us and to control us, but for our own sake. Rules, laws, commandments are given for the sake of the community. Rules, commandments and laws are given to help us get along with each other. To overcome our selfish desires and give them up for the sake of the greater good. Which in the end benefits us again. Because a community that functions well, a community where people look out for each other, a community I look out for my neighbor, there I am taken care of as well. There we find love and acceptance. There we find a glimpse of the kingdom of God.


And all Jesus wants to instill in his listeners if a mercy and compassion as they – as we – live with each other. And don’t we need that badly in today’s world?


I just read this great quote, ‘Live for yourself, and you will live in vain; live for others, and you will live again.’ And this in a sense summarizes the purpose of God’s laws and rules – they enable us to live with each other and for each other and offer us a way to live life to its fullest and to partake in life eternal. And, by the way, this is a quote by Bob Marley, and he used these words in his song ‘Pass it on’.


But back to Jesus’ challenge for us to do better and be better. We may not want to take this criticism. We may think we do our best already. We crave to be accepted and affirmed. We may think that God rejects us when God expects something more from us. Or, on the flipside, if we feel righteous about ourselves and our lives, and think God’s laws don’t apply to us, we may resort to reject someone else who fails to fulfill God’s commandments instead of regarding them as fellow pilgrims on the road of life and part of the human family, the community God loves and cares deeply about.


In all that, it is good and important and right and salutary to remember that God’s words of judgment and challenge, and especially Christ’s words as we heard them as part of the Sermon on the Mount today, are embedded in the promise of love and life. That laws and commandments come within God’s affirmation: I care deeply about you – and about all. That’s why God gives us commandments, after all, as sign of God’s caring love for everything and everybody created. And because we are loved, we can feel safe and courageous – courageous enough to live up to the potential God sees in all of us. Courageous enough to live God’s dream of a community where no one hurts someone else or gets hurt – a community where people are not curved into themselves, but reach out to the neighbor – a community that reflects the eternal heavenly kingdom of life for all creation.


This is God’s promise. This becomes our call.


This post is also available in: German