But I Say to You

Women laying hands on woman wearing green shirt.
Photo by Rosie Sun on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

“You have heard it said … but I say to you” is a homiletic all its own. Not to be confrontational or argumentative. Not to stir up trouble or stir the proverbial pot. And certainly not to discard the old in favor of the new, especially if the old means then eschewing Jesus’ own traditions. Jesus says so himself, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). “You have heard it said … but I say to you” is a call to fulfill righteousness—God’s righteousness. Fulfill is an important word here and for Matthew’s Jesus in general. Synonyms include “bring to completion or reality.” “Achieve or realize.” “Bring to fruition.” “Follow through.” “Bring about.” “Make happen.” “Live up to.” “You have heard it said … but I say to you” then poses the question we need to ask ourselves and those whom we accompany in ministry—are we fulfilling all righteousness? All justice? Or does our doing of faith stop short, accepting adequacy all too quickly? Does our discipleship tend to defer to the norm because the norm is easier and expedient? Jesus’ antitheses might sound antagonistic or like a “do better” moral motivational mantra. But that’s the easy way out of his true ask—to hunger for righteousness, to thirst for justice, and then to exceed the norm (5:20). Remember Jesus’ opening words in Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). Yet how many of us live as if the kingdom’s potential is just not possible here and now? That the way things are is sufficient? That the status quo is all that’s really feasible? That whelming and mediocre are enough? That our “better” is the same as God’s betterment?

“You have heard it said … but I say to you” is a homiletic all its own because sometimes preaching needs to be just that—casting a vision for what could be when most are satisfied with what is.

Dear Working Preachers, I have shared with you the passing of my father this past September. He was not a perfect man—none of us are. But he had a hunger for righteousness and a thirst for justice. One of the most meaningful moments in his last eight months of life happened in June 2022, when he received the Clarence Anderson Award for Peace and Justice from SoCal Lutherans, the L.A. chapter of ReconcilingWorks in the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA. He was honored with this award for his ministry with AIDS patients during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a founding member the AIDS Project Los Angeles Spiritual Advisory Committee, my dad offered compassion and care, spiritual accompaniment, assisted with funeral arrangements, and conducted memorial services when the world and the church were in denial about the AIDS crisis. As I was thinking about, “You have heard it said … but I say to you,” and its embedded homiletic, here’s how I started to hear Jesus’ words to us this week: “When few clergy would volunteer,” my dad said, “but I say to you.” “When the church abandons you,” my dad said, “but I say to you.” “When the world tells you you’re going to hell,” my dad said, “but I say to you.”

What does this homiletic not mean? It does not mean a new run at resolutions since those New Year’s commitments are likely a few weeks in the past. It does not mean shaming and blaming—come on, really? Is that the Jesus in whom we believe?—to do better or be better according to the world’s standards. And it does not mean our penchant for turning Jesus’ invitation into ecclesial self-righteous “the church knows what’s best” blather.

And, let me be clear. It does not mean some sort of ministerial guilt trip, that somehow you are not enough, not doing enough, and need to try harder. It’s all of these “you have heard it said” traps that stop us short of hearing and believing God’s “but I say to you” promise of compassion and love; of opportunity and potential. We might want to equate potential with capacity or capability, but that’s not the only way to think of potential. Potential can mean budding, prospective, imaginable, possibility, and promise.

“But I say to you” casts the net of God’s love wider than we would typically allow. “But I say to you” presses us to extend the arc of righteousness beyond the reasonable. “But I say to you” names the truths of the injustices all around us but yet invites us to hope nonetheless.

Preachers, what might be your paraphrase of Jesus’ homiletic—for you, for you congregation? Because “but I say to you” might just be the promise you and your people need to hear.