Sunday Morning Greek Blog

February 23, 2023

Confronting the Evil Within (Matthew 5:21–37)

Click the “Play” button above to hear the message.

Sermon preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, February 12, 2023, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany in the Revised Common Lectionary.

We’ve seen it before, right? Maybe in a soap opera or in an edgier Hallmark movie, if there is such a thing. It starts with a misstep, maybe innocent, maybe not so innocent. Someone forgets a birthday; the other makes that purchase that there’s no room in the budget for or that sets back the hope of a special trip. The husband is spending too much time in his “cave” watching sports or the news while the wife is struggling in the kitchen or with the kids. Then there’s the “not tonight, honey,” which may come from genuine exhaustion, or worse, maybe that’s the first expression of a spark of anger.

In a marriage, if such anger is left unchecked, or there’s not an immediate recognition that something may be going wrong, things start to happen in our head, and perhaps in our soul. Seeds of doubt may begin to creep in. You think a coworker may be noticing you more; that innocent conversation with someone of the opposite sex in the line at the Starbuck’s or grocery store touches you in such a way that it latches on to one of those seeds of anger or doubt, and the inappropriate desire starts taking root. Now you’re not just thinking that coworker is noticing you more; you’re actively seeking their attention. The woman in line slips you a business card or note with her personal “digits” (that’s phone number for those of us over 40) on the back.

And again, if left unchecked, eventually the ugly truth will come out. At some point, one or both get triggered by something the other does, and there’s an ugly fight. “You don’t pay attention to me anymore!” “You don’t love me anymore!” With each little stumble down the slippery slope, it becomes more and more critical that some kind of intervention is needed. One of two things may happen at this point: the couple realizes their need to turn things around. They make the attempt, oftentimes successful, to reconfirm their oaths or vows to each other, reconcile, and get back on the right track. But unfortunately, sometimes things progress so badly, or the reconciliation gets derailed because of a lack of commitment to it, the “D” word rears its ugly head, and the opportunity for any reconciliation fades into the sunset.

Jesus’s teaching in this part of the Sermon on the Mount really is about setting some boundaries for ourselves.

Now I set up this little scenario not because I want to talk about marriage in my message, but because I thought it might be a fairly concise way to show that the passage we just read from the Sermon on the Mount is not as disjointed as it may seem. I could have just as easily crafted the scenario to fit a friendship or a business relationship. What Jesus says in today’s gospel passage naturally flows from the claim he made in last week’s Lectionary gospel passage:

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[1]

The apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans 10:4:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.[2]

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.[3]

Another way to put this is that the life Jesus lived while he dwelt with us on Earth was the embodiment of the law. He showed people what it meant to live a righteous life in God’s eyes. It wasn’t just about keeping the letter of the law; Jesus here is confronting the lax attitude about the law that seems to have taken hold in his day, perhaps enhanced by the strict legalism of the pharisees. Let’s take a closer look.

Now these passages have some difficult words for us to hear and may bring up some painful memories or even some feelings of guilt, especially for those of us who have been divorced when we get to that passage, but I want to emphasize this: If you are in Christ, who has accomplished everything the Law set out to do, then you share in that accomplishment. You have a share in that righteousness. Your sins have been forgiven and you have the absolute guarantee of eternal life. The old has gone, and the new has come. So take heart in that assurance of new and abundant life as we work our way through this difficult passage.

We’re looking at four of the last six sections of Matthew 5 this morning. You probably noticed that Jesus had a little formula he used to introduce each section: “You have heard people tell you X, but I’m going to tell you Y, and why X is shortsighted.” In the four sections we’re looking at today, Jesus is encountering an attitude that many people still have today about how good they think they are: “I’ve never killed anyone; I’ve never cheated on my wife; I’ve never stolen anything; so I don’t know why God wouldn’t let me into heaven.” What Jesus is saying in these passages is that these “big-time” sins are really just the ultimate expression of the attitude of our hearts.

Jesus first deals with the command, “Thou shalt not murder.” Murder is a technical, legal term that refers to an intentional, illegal or unethical act of taking someone’s life. It doesn’t refer to the defense of one’s self, family, or country; it doesn’t refer to the death penalty justly applied; and it doesn’t refer to accidents. Jesus makes that clear by how he interprets that command: it’s not so much about actually killing someone, although that’s definitely forbidden: it’s about the attitude or disposition of your heart toward a person. Jesus equates getting angry with someone to murder, especially if that anger degrades into some pretty nasty name calling. “Raca” was probably the equivalent in the Hebrew language of a certain word describing a body part people use today. “You fool” comes from the Greek word from which we get the English word “moron.”

Murder is a technical, legal term that refers to an intentional, illegal or unethical act of taking someone’s life. It doesn’t refer to the defense of one’s self, family, or country; it doesn’t refer to the death penalty justly applied; and it doesn’t refer to accidents.

Anger is a natural reaction we have to situations that upset us, but because it’s dangerous to dwell on that anger too much, Jesus exhorts his listeners to deal with that anger quickly by going straight to the person who angered you and work it out, peacefully. Paul recognizes this principle from Psalm 4:4 as well when he says in Ephesians: “Get angry, but don’t sin. Don’t let the sun go down while you’re still angry, and don’t give the devil a foothold.” That’s why anger is just as dangerous as murder, because it allows the devil to get in and wreak havoc on our own lives.

The first paper I did in my first year of seminary was on this next section on adultery. I entitled it “Lusting, Lopping, and Living.” My instructor was so impressed with the title when I proposed it that he said he’d give me an A based on the title! Like murder, the physical act of adultery, having sex with another person in a marriage covenant relationship in violation of your own marriage covenant, was the ultimate expression of despising your covenant. This was not unique to the Jews; many cultures of the day had moral or legal sanctions against adultery.

Jesus again stresses the seriousness of any disposition we might have to take a misstep in the direction of adultery. He uses hyperbole here. He’s not really talking about cutting off body parts or gouging out our eyes. He’s saying cut out of our lives those things that might foster such an attitude. Job said, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.”[4] Martin Luther advised that you can’t keep the birds from flying overhead, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair. Proverbs warns about being seduced by a “wayward” or “adulterous” woman. Many Christians have adopted the principle of never being alone in a room or other confined space with someone of the opposite sex to guard against even the accusation of adultery or impropriety. Maintaining an unimpeachable integrity in this regard requires establishing some pretty strict boundaries.

This brings us to the passage on divorce. Again, having been there myself, I know that those who are divorced go through some pretty serious soul searching. Feelings of failure, guilt, anger, grief, and a host of others are common, but as I said earlier, it’s important to realize that, in Christ, we have all that forgiven and covered by the blood of Jesus. That doesn’t mean all those feelings go away, necessarily, but they begin to pale in comparison in the light of our Savior’s love and healing.

What Jesus is addressing in verses 31 and 32 is not so much the consequences of divorce as he is the seriousness of it. We know from Matthew 19:8 that Moses had permitted writing a notice of divorce because of the hardness of Israel’s hearts. That’s never what God intended. Jesus is saying here that divorce carries several social and perhaps religious consequences with it that could stigmatize both parties permanently, negatively impacting their standing in the community, so be careful about such an “easy out” as writing out a bill of divorce.

Jesus is saying here that divorce carries several social and perhaps religious consequences with it that could stigmatize both parties permanently, negatively impacting their standing in the community.

We do have the writings of the rabbis in Jesus’s day about bills of divorce. One school of rabbis argued that if a wife “spoiled a dish,” that was a legitimate ground for divorce. Other schools were not quite so lenient. It would take some act of marital infidelity or perhaps even abuse or abandonment to justify divorce. In one passage from these writings, there’s a scenario about if a husband writes a bill of divorce and sends it to her by another person, but then changes his mind and gets back to her before the bill of divorce gets to her, he can tell her he’s nullifying the bill of divorce he sent her that she presumably knows nothing about. Yeah, that would go over well. Of course, if he gets there after the bill of divorce arrives, it’s too late to nullify it. These are just some of the examples about how flippantly at times the Jews acted about divorce.

If you know someone who is struggling with divorce, some congregations sponsor an excellent program called Divorce Care. I went through it myself, and it helped me immensely in dealing with all the feelings and emotions I was experiencing. If you need help finding such a group, just let me know. I’d be glad to put you in touch with them, or you can check out

Finally, we come to the passage on oaths. I think it’s significant that this passage comes after the divorce section that deals with violating a covenant promise. An oath is different from a covenant in that it typically invoked the name of God, heaven, or some other sacred place or object. Violating an oath thus given would bring shame on the oath maker and insult the reputation of God or other sacred places or article sworn on. Jesus warns it’s better not to make any oath at all and just do what you say you’re going to do, or not do what you say you won’t do. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.[5]” Here, we can call upon the profound wisdom of Pastor Yoda, I mean, Master Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

I’m not sure if my youngest daughter had this passage in mind when she and her husband got married a couple years ago. Everything was set up and beautifully decorated in the fairgrounds building where they got married. All the guests were seated, including the ceremonial seating of the parents and grandparents. I gave my permission when the officiant asked (or did he ask me?) and took my seat. He started the ceremony by asking Tim if he took Emma to be his wife, and he said yes. Then he asked Emma if she took Tim to be her husband. She responded yes as well. And without any further ado, the officiant announced that they were husband and wife, and that was the end of the ceremony! It took longer to walk everyone down the aisle than it did to go through the ceremony. No set of vows, no “until death do you part,” or anything like that. Short, simple, sweet. Everyone had the rest of the night to celebrate.

So to sum up here: Jesus’s teaching in this part of the Sermon on the Mount really is about setting some boundaries for ourselves so we can do our part to “deliver ourselves from the evil” around us, to guard against and defend ourselves from dangers within and without that would try to separate us from God. Jesus is fulfilling the promise that God gave in Jeremiah 31:33:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God, and they will be my people.”[6]

Jesus calls us to not only give God first place in our hearts, but in our minds also, that we might know the heart and mind of God through him and see a lost world through eyes of the Savior who came to redeem his creation. Grace and peace to you all. Amen.

Scott Stocking

My opinions are my own conclusions based on my study of this passage.

[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Tyndale House Publishers. 2015. Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[4] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

February 5, 2023

Living in the Beatitudes Beat

Message preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, Omaha, NE, January 29, 2023. Text is lightly edited for publication.

Click above to play audio recording of the message.

David Letterman used to do his “Top 10” list every night on his late-night show. Often it was done tongue-in-cheek, usually with some sort of biting sarcasm or political slam on the issues of the day. But I want to ask you about a serious “Top 10” list. If you had to list out your top 10 favorite Bible verses or passages, what would they be? We’ll make this audience participation this morning: I’ll name a few passages here, and if you want to raise your hand and acknowledge the passage I mention, that would be great.

How about John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.

Psalm 23:1: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you are saved, through faithfulness, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.

Romans 8:1: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:38–39: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

How many of you would have today’s passage, Matthew 5:1–12, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, on your list? I know I would.

As we come to look at this passage today, I want to spend just a few minutes putting it into context. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get super technical here; I just want to make a couple connections to the Old Testament so that we can understand where some of the terminology comes from and what the words mean.

One of the first things we notice here is Jesus’s use of the word “blessed” at the beginning of each line of the Beatitudes. This is an important word to understand and not mistranslate lest we diminish its meaning. Let’s look at what the word doesn’t mean.

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, tells the story of how he wanted to translate this passage. He mentioned that after preaching one Sunday, a woman came up to him afterwards and mentioned how “lucky” she felt to have found his congregation.

Peterson ruminated on that a bit, as he was in the process of writing the paraphrase at the time and thought “lucky” might be a more contemporary word that could be used in place “blessed.” However, when he floated that idea with his publishers, they shot it down pretty quickly, because there’s a large segment of Christianity that associates the word “luck” with “Lucifer.” That might be a buzz kill for someone wanting to publish a Bible translation.

Whether that connection is true is not relevant to understanding the word (makarios), however. The word “blessed” implies that something is coming from someone who has the power to give you something special or grant you a special permission in his kingdom. “Luck” has nothing to do with that. Peterson eventually accepted the word “blessed” here, because he recognized the word best represented the meaning of the text.

The same can be said for the Good News paraphrase treatment of the passage. That was the one that had a paperback cover that looked like a newspaper. They tried using the word “happy” to translate “blessed,” but again, it didn’t quite fit the intention of the biblical author. “Happiness” is circumstantial; it depends on what “happens” in our life. “Blessed” refers to a permanent state we have in God’s eyes, which is in fact what Jesus, through Matthew’s account, is trying to communicate to us here. The source of God’s blessings are neither “luck” nor “happenstance.” The blessing comes from God himself.

The first word of the first psalm in the collection of Psalms in the OT is “blessed.” “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord….” It’s quite possible in our Matthew passage, then, that he’s organized Jesus’s teaching in such a way that the Beatitudes are sort of an “introductory psalm” to his Gospel and to the teaching of Jesus.

In fact, the first 12 verses here have many characteristics of a certain type of psalm: The lines begin with the same word throughout; there are several key words that begin primarily with one of three consonant sounds: the p, k, or l. I have no idea if there’s any significance to those letters, but it seems intentional that Matthew did this, or that Jesus chose his words as such, to establish some sort of “beat” or “rhythm” to the opening passage, much like a psalm would have had. So with that in mind, I’ve created my own “Beatitudes Beat” that adds some real-life allusions to situations many of us have faced or will face in our lives in order to help us understand what Jesus may have been thinking when he preached these words to a large crowd outside Galilee. I hope you’ll find it both enjoyable and memorable.

Before I get into the beat, though, there’s one more term I want to provide some biblical context for. The English word “meek” (Greek πραΰς pra-us; Hebrew עָנָו ʿānāw) is often misunderstood, because it sounds so much like its opposite. “Meekness” is NOT the same thing as and is in fact contrary to “weakness.” Meekness implies a sort of restrained or harnessed strength, like that of a bridled horse. Psalm 37:8–11 gives us a pretty solid picture of what meekness means:

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;

do not fret—it leads only to evil.

For those who are evil will be destroyed,

but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;

though you look for them, they will not be found.

11 But the meek will inherit the land

and enjoy peace and prosperity. [1]

Notice the tone of the verses. The psalmist gives us hope that God will deal with evil and wicked people in his own time. We can have hope in his righteous judgment on the wicked. Look at the parallel wording in verses 9 & 11. Who inherits the land? Those who hope in the Lord are made equal to the meek when it comes to inheriting the land and enjoying peace and prosperity.

Regardless of what you may think of the politics of the situation, I think a perfect example of meekness we saw this week would be the mother whose son was beaten by the Memphis police. She called for calm and to not repeat the violent and destructive protests of a few years ago. That shows incredible restraint and strength of character in the face of a truly tragic situation. That’s what meekness is: keeping calm and carrying on while leaving the big stuff to God. Having made those two clarifications, let’s jump into the “Beatitudes Beat” and see what God wants us to see.

When doubt creeps in

Because you see so much sin:

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

When your vision gets blurred

And you can’t see God’s word:

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

When life drains you

But God’s hope sustains you

And His people maintain you:

Blessed are the poor in Spirit,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

When your loved ones sleep

Awaiting God’s keep:

Blessed are those who mourn.

When your loss is profound

And you’re on shaky ground:

Blessed are those who mourn.

When you can’t see your way

At the end of the day

And all you can do is pray:

Blessed are those who mourn,

For they will be comforted.

When your anger is strong

But you hold your tongue:

Blessed are the meek.

When you know evil’s fate

And remember God is great

Blessed are the meek

When your hope’s in the Lord

Standing firm on his word

Wielding the Spirit’s sword

Blessed are the meek,

For they will inherit the earth.[2]

When your soul has been stirred

And you long for God’s word:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

When you know hope is true

And God’s carried you through:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

When you know God’s healing,

Faith is more than a feeling

And with joy you are reeling:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

For they will be filled.

When your love is displayed

To those dismayed:

Blessed are the merciful.

When you’re good to those

Who would bloody your nose,

Blessed are the merciful.

When you see the pain of a mother

Or the hurt of a brother

And with God’s love you do cover:

Blessed are the merciful,

For they will be shown mercy.

When you know you’ve done right

‘Cuz you’re a child of the Light

Blessed are the pure in heart.

When you stand for the truth

And your life is its proof:

Blessed are the pure in heart.

When you speak by the Spirit

So that all flesh may hear it

And no one will fear it:

Blessed are the pure in heart

For they will see God.

When the hurt you’ve received

Needs to be relieved

Blessed are the peacemakers

When the hurt that you’ve given

Needs to be forgiven:

Blessed are the peacemakers.

When you see the strife

Of husband and wife

And offer them new life:

Blessed are the peacemakers,

For they will be called children of God.

When you stand for what’s right

And the world picks a fight:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.

When you defend the innocent

The world treats with malevolence;

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.

When you take a stand

For God and land

Upheld by His right hand:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

© Scott Stocking, February 4, 2023

And that is the Beatitudes Beat.

Jesus closes out the first section of his Sermon on the Mount with these words in vv. 11–12:

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.[3]

The overall message of the Beatitudes reminds me of the section of the scroll of Isaiah Jesus read in Luke 4:18–19. The fuller context of that passage from Isaiah 61:1–3 has some strong parallels to the Beatitudes, as you’ll hear:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

because the Lord has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

3     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

a planting of the Lord

for the display of his splendor.[4]

Jesus says in the Beatitudes that in spite of the ups and downs of the life of faithful followers of Christ, we can always be glad, whatever we face, because we know we have a great reward in heaven, and a great cloud of witnesses around us who have gone through the same cycles of the faith that you and I go through. Take heart then: be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Know that the perfect love reflected in the Beatitudes can cast out all fear when we live in the Beatitudes Beat.

[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] See Psalm 37:8–11

[3] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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