Jesus, in Matthew, preaches "the sermon" during his time in Capernaeum...the Sermon on the Mount. I have read the sermon through hundreds of times. I once got to see an actor friend perform the sermon for a large church group. I have attended Bible studies, and taught a few myself, on the different parts and portions of the sermon during my ordained ministry. I never cease to be astounded in how the sermon never fails to hit me hard in the gut, heart and mind with its powerful relevance to the how God both models and challenges us to a life that is centered in the kingdom of God, versus one that is lived out piecemeal from our own cobbled-together bits of personal and self-interested connivance. What that means for me as an individual follower of the Christ is that I can never consider my journey of growth into Christ's full stature complete. I am always going to be "on the way" and I need to get comfortable with the fact that the only true end to the journey and the repose and rest that come from that completion will only be found when I face God as my earthly life ends and my heavenly one begins. Only then will the poor be comforted, the meek inherit the earth, etc., etc.
So, taking that deep and abiding respect for this sermon to heart-let's take a look at how instead of being the keystone to a successful opening of an earthly ministry for Jesus in Capernaeum it instead turns out to be the first movement of a symphony of conspiracies and controversies that lead to his "undoing" at the hands of the religio-political authorities of the day.
When it comes to context, Jesus in Matthew has just called the first of his followers to walk along with him. They are fishermen who are invited to cast down the nets and trade of their "before" lives and follow Jesus, taking up spiritual nets that will instead collect human beings for the kingdom. He, with them, travels around the countryside between the communities clustered on the Northern shore and in the highlands above the Sea of Galilee. This sermon is part and portion of a semi-wilderness mission that draws people from the security of their towns, villages and settlements to places in-between...anthropologically speaking, this mission is taking people into a liminal state, and from that place Jesus begins to quite literally reorder the human experience in light of God's intent for creation.
It would be easy enough, as it happened in the age of Josiah, to simply just ask for the Law of Moses to be read again in the hearing of the people. I don't think that would work, though. Jesus presence in our midst in Matthew is meant to embody the fulfillment of the Law, not its repetition and reaffirmation. This is to be a new way built upon the foundations of the previous understandings. Jesus is actually going to amplify the original commandments of Torah. The amplification is not going to occur in the same manner as the Pharisaic ideal intends, the building of a "hedge" of practice around the tenets of the Law in order to avoid transgression (washing hands, basins, clothes, etc. instead of just the simple of washing of hands before a meal). This amplification makes the Law applicable to those outside the fellowship and culture of obedience that Israel at present expresses. It makes the will of God for us to be in accord with God and with each other a universal enjoinder. When Jesus says, "You have heard that is was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement..." Jesus is not cutting back on the Law....he is expanding it. Anger kills us and other in relationship to us, implies Jesus, as much and in the same manner as if you were to take a sword and strike the life of that other from their body.
These are not easy teachings to absorb. If the Law is expanded in such a way, then how are we to live?
Mindfully. Aware that when we think, when we intend in ways that are not of God-then we are broken and apart from God. Aware that without God in our lives and working through us we can achieve no righteous thing. Aware that without relationship to others, a life in God is impossible...and finally, the most difficult teaching of all-that it is in those most different from our selves that we will find Christ revealed.
On the heels of this great expansion, Jesus returns to the precincts of the Capernaeum and encounters the leper. That first action/encounter is a cleansing. The leper is made whole and told to go and show himself to the priest and offer the gifts the law of Moses commands of Israel when that healing occurs. The second action/encounter is with an outsider. A centurion comes to him and appeals on behalf of his servant. Jesus welcomes this bizarre occurrence and offers healing action. The dominant, coercive power of the Roman state, embodied in the person of the centurion, submits to his authority and in fact makes intercession on behalf of the lesser, the servant, the subordinate.
I can think of no more powerful prelude to a controversial ministry that for Jesus to offer up that the previous experience of the community is only preparation for what is to come-an amplification of their former lives in faith. They will have more asked of them in this kingdom than had ever been expected of them in the past. And, on top of that, the Good News is not something that has come as an exclusive "I will set you apart" revelation...it is to be offered to all without reservation-even to the unclean, unacceptable and the ones we would choose to avoid altogether. This messiah comes to teach and lead not just Israel, but the whole world into fellowship with one another and with God.
That is a big pill to swallow, and a challenge to every church that presumes to assume it is in a place and formed of people in order to be apart, above or removed from what is happening curbside and beyond.