But I say to you...
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on February 13, 2011
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Well, for all of you who have just been waiting on a good hell-fire and brimstone sermon, this would be my chance, wouldn’t it?! You might be sitting there holding your breath, waiting to see what we’re going to do with all of this here this morning: murder; anger; adultery; lust; divorce; swearing falsely. And if you came expecting a Valentine’s Day sermon today, our gospel reading just might have put a big damper on all those lovely feelings you came to find.
But let me just begin by saying that in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, as in all the other parts – and in the life and all the teachings of Jesus generally – we are being pointed always toward the deep well of love that is at the heart of God – and this passage is no different.
But before I get to that, let’s think about our reactions to hearing these words today. "You have heard that it 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 judgment… and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And then, "You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And then, "It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery…” And finally, "…you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God…”
I can just imagine that we had many different feelings hearing those words. Some are happy to hear these words because you think we need to lay the law down more than we do and tell people how to behave. That’s probably a minority here today. Others have been hurt by this passage when churches have used a strict literal interpretation (and I’m thinking here especially of the part about divorce, because seldom if ever have the other parts been taken literally – as in the part about poking out eyes or cutting off hands). Others still, like so many people in our society who have already given up on the church, may feel the church is too judgmental, and too focused on do’s and don’ts – and that a passage like this from the Bible just proves it. And we really don’t like to be told what to do or not to do.
Perhaps most of us, however, fall in another category, like the New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, wanting very much to take the Bible seriously, but not to take it literally. In fact, people like Borg would say that to read the Bible literally amounts to a failure to take it seriously, because you miss out on the really interesting stuff when you do – things like the humor, the irony, the hyperbole, and the subtle nuances that are so often found in scripture. Yes, even that “hell of fire” – gehenna in the original text – refers to a smoldering pit of refuse outside the walls of Jerusalem!
You might miss, for example, a particular nuance in the prohibition on divorce, which, after all, was allowed in the law of Moses. Jesus now apparently changes that. But he does so in response to some very particular social norms of his time. What is not stated here first of all is that divorce was something that only men could initiate. And in a patriarchal society where women were dependent on men for their welfare, if a man divorced his wife, he was committing her to a life of destitution – and most likely prostitution. This prohibition on divorce was a response to that harsh reality, and therefore a way of protecting women, by challenging men to think about something deeper than whether it was legal or not, and to care about the social and human consequences of their actions, to respect the dignity of every human being as we say in the baptismal covenant.
And so, if we are to take these words seriously (even if not literally) we would be reminded of the importance of caring about the moral and human consequences of all our actions (not just in the case of divorce, but of all our actions), even when they might be perfectly legal, and might serve our own needs very well, thank you. That, Jesus is saying, is not enough.
Not if we are truly to know the heart of God.
And that is what Jesus really wants us to hear and to know – the very heart of God. The law, after all, can be a blunt instrument for teaching what is truly right. As Paul said in his epistle to the Galatians, the law is “our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24 – KJV) – or, as another translation puts it “our disciplinarian until Christ came.” (NRSV) In other words, the law is not an end in itself, but a guide to help point us in the right direction, which ultimately is to know the heart of God. And Jesus knew that the point was never simply that we should keep a set of decrees for their own sake, but so that our hearts might be aligned with God’s, and so that we might love as God loves.
In speaking of the commandments (and here I quote Amy Richter)
"…Jesus goes on to breathe new life, new relevancy into these commandments by explaining what they mean in their fullness – by going to the heart of the matter. He explains what they mean if we are to love as God loves, because the law tells us what is in God’s heart. Law exposes God’s fondest desires [for] how we would live with one another…
"… God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep the commandment not to kill one another, we [might] still hate and despise others. We are willing to kill relationship with others, to treat others as if they are as good as dead to us.
"God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep a commandment not to commit adultery, we still can disrespect others by treating them as [objects of our own desire, and therefore] less than fully human.
"God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we are still willing to manipulate others with our words, to lead others astray by what we say, to let our words be meaningless rather than let our yes mean yes and our no mean no."
In just the last few weeks, I’ve listened to the painful stories of a number of upstanding people who have had to confront the reality of hearts gone astray. A lawyer had rationalized to himself that taking funds from a petty cash account at his firm was okay – until it was discovered and destroyed his career. A man who, though outwardly faithful to his wife, developed an addiction to internet pornography, is dealing not only with the humiliation of being discovered, but with the deep spiritual work of examining and reordering his desires. A woman who was never outwardly violent, but holding deep anger toward another person, is now seeking reconciliation and coming to terms with the emotional and spiritual violence she has done to herself.
In upping the ante, as it were, on the commandments, by looking not only at actions, but also at intentions and motivations – by looking not just at the letter of the law, but at the inner orientation of the heart,
"Jesus offers a more radical ethic, a reign of God ethic, one already hinted at in the list of beatitudes [earlier in the Sermon on the Mount]. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart--all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart. The righteousness of this newly inaugurated kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor."
In the first of these radicalized commandments, the one on murder and anger, Jesus ends by saying “so when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The earliest Christian communities, including the one in which Matthew penned this gospel, were taking this radical new ethic very seriously. They believed that the church was called to live it out in the world, and that their worship should model what it was that they sought to be when they left and went out into their daily lives. And so before they offered their gifts at the Eucharist, there was to be a time of reconciliation – a time of sharing in God’s Peace – when all things were made right among all the brothers and sisters in Christ gathered together around the table.
We continue this practice two thousand years later in the sharing of the Peace. It’s not, as some think, the half-time break in the service or a mini coffee hour before the coffee hour where we greet and chat up the people around us. It’s actually a deeply significant moment spiritually during our liturgy when we go, not just to the people we know and like, but especially to anyone with whom we are not “in love and charity” – and we offer them God’s Peace, and we are reconciled to our brother or sister. Then, we come and offer our gift at the altar.
That is the spiritual requirement for a world in which there is no murder, no violence, no disrespect – and we seek to live it out here and now, both in this worship and as we go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord. We seek nothing less than the transformation of our hearts, to reflect the love at the heart of God.
So yes, this sort of is a Valentine’s Day sermon! And those words from Jesus – hard as they are to hear – really are meant to help us live, not merely according to the law, but with hearts examined, and turned toward that deepest kind of love right from the heart of God.