Sermon: Can We Skip This Part?

A picture of a single man speaking to a crowd of people. The view is from behind the speaker's shoulder, and it is simply penned with bold lines. The figures are colored yellow.

February 16, 2020
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

by Eric Anderson

Can we skip this part?

I gave that title to the sermon without quite realizing that it was an invitation to, well, to skip the sermon. Friends who heard the story got quite a few giggles out of it this past week.

And no, I’m not going to take a poll.

“Can we skip this part?” is, I think, a reasonable reaction to this part of the Sermon on the Mount. In this section, Jesus embarks on a series of six propositions that start with what we think we know and end where we do not want to go. He started with the most obvious of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder,” and turned that into a directive not to get angry, not to insult, not to call somebody a fool. The consequences, Jesus said, are as bad as the punishments for murder.

What happened to proportionate justice, Jesus?

I’ll pause for a moment for a little informal poll. I would guess that nobody here has said, “Raca” to anyone – that’s the actual insult Jesus mentioned in verse 22 that our Bible translation renders as “insult a brother or sister” because nobody knows what the insult meant. I would guess that very few people have called anyone a fool to their face. I rarely hear people say that.


Raise your hand if you’ve called anybody an idiot in the last week. In the last month. In the last year.

It makes you want to skip this part, doesn’t it?

Today’s reading only covers four of the six propositions. Each of them stretched the laws and ethical traditions of Israel.

The prohibition against adultery became, for Jesus, a prohibition against treating someone as a lust object.

The permissibility of divorce became, for Jesus, a cause to oppose divorce.

The prohibition against breaking a promise that’s been formally sworn became, for Jesus, a summons to keep all promises, not just those sealed by an oath.

The requirement for a measured response to harm (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) became, for Jesus, a command not to demand compensation for harm.

The directive to love your neighbor became, for Jesus, a cry to love your enemy as well, and just as well.

Wouldn’t you just like to skip this part?

Wouldn’t everybody just like to skip this part?

How often do we, do others, do Christians of every tradition do just that? How often do we skip this part?

Well, pretty often.

There is a legal difference between false statements made in day-to-day circumstances and false statements made in a court setting, that is, under oath. That doesn’t affect most of us most of the time. It’s a funny thing, though. People keep re-inventing the ancient custom of making vows. Once somebody would have said, “I swear by heaven that I will do this thing” – that’s what Jesus criticized – but now somebody says, “I pinky promise you that I will do this thing.” Somehow that’s different from a simple statement: “I will do this thing.”

The difference is that the simple statement is more likely to be broken. That, said Jesus, is why more than a yes or a no is straight from the evil one.

We don’t think we do it, but we keep skipping this part.

The statistics on American marriages and American divorces are too depressing to quote. In some instances, I have to say, the breaking of the marriage is the best thing for at least one of the parties. When a relationship is abusive, the abuse must end, and sometimes that has to be done by breaking the relationship.

Jesus may well have had a particular marriage and divorce in mind. The ruler of Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime was named Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and half-brother to Herod II (I apologize that all these people are named Herod, but I can’t do anything about it). Herod Antipas married the daughter of the King of Nabatea, but during a visit to Rome he fell in love with his brother Herod II’s wife named Herodias (really, I’m not making this up). Herod Antipas divorced his wife, Herodias divorced her husband, and the couple married.

(I got this idea from Gregory C. Jenks)

These actions resulted in significant criticism. John the Baptist condemned the king publicly, and was arrested and later executed for it. A few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the King of Nabatea went to war with Herod Antipas over the insult to his daughter, and Herod Antipas lost.

All four of Jesus’ propositions are there in this one real-life example of his time: The failure to keep promises, the use of divorce, the pursuit of lust, even the insult that exploded into violence.

Herod Antipas skipped this part of the Sermon on the Mount. He shouldn’t have. If he had, he could have skipped a war.

These directives, though, are far far more. As Eric Barreto writes at Working Preacher, “In the end, to what are these commandments calling us? Not to a checklist of morality but to a flourishing of life. Not to a baseline of decency but to an embodied, relational, transformative encounter with all whom we meet. Not to a sufficient set of hurdles for righteousness but to a path of wholeness with creature and creator alike.”

If we skip this part, we reject the possibility of a wholeness we have not known but have only imagined. If we skip this part, we accept limits on our righteousness that we simply do not have to accept. If we skip this part, we put our friends and neighbors at greater risk of our insults, our objectification, our breaking of relationships, our breaking of promises.

Do we want to do that?

Then let’s not skip this part.

Karen Georgia Thompson writes at, “The writer of Matthew’s Gospel starts with the known – the law. From there what is known is reframed in what is less known and is not addressed explicitly in the sacred text. The known for us lies perhaps in our understanding of the love of God freely given to all and the knowledge that all are created equally in the image of the Divine. Yet, there is much that divides our worship communities, the church, and our world.

“What are the 21st-century manifestations of the anger, lust, divorce, and swearing that plagued the first-century church and motivated the writer to name and address these problems? What is our response to the inequities present in our society which are fueled by lack of caring for each other?”

What are the manifestations of anger, lust, divorce, and swearing that plague Hawai’i? The island, and the state? How does anger, lust, divorce, and swearing cause pain for the citizens of the United States? For our neighbor nations? How does anger, lust, divorce, and swearing cause harm to the natural processes of the world?

Oh, yes.

We’d best not skip this part.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote in a letter to a friend, “If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see.”

(Letter from Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake, 27 March 1848)

Let them see that we have not skipped this part. Let them see that we can live better than we have, better than we believe. Let them see that relationships can be whole. Let them see that we will not be governed by our angers or our lusts. Let them see that our yes will be yes, and our no will be no, and nothing more will come through us from the evil one.

We won’t skip this part.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

We’d like to skip the disclaimer that the prepared text and the recorded sermon don’t match – but we can’t. They don’t match.

The image is Bergpredigt (the Sermon on the Mount) by Christian Rohlfs – Osthaus Museum Hagenn, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on February 16, 2020

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