When I first realized a few weeks back what this morning’s gospel would be, I’ll admit that my heart sank. You have faithfully shown up here this morning, in spite of the cold, in spite of the holiday weekend. Thank you for showing up. And here you are as Jesus serves up some incredibly difficult words for us.
At this point in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is reaching the end of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always wondered why he turns in this direction so close to the end of the sermon. Why not end with that part where he told us who is blessed? You remember – the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers. That would have been such a brief and beautiful message. Or what about that part about how we are the light of the world? That’s a nice image with which to conclude.
But no. He goes for it. Conflict, adultery, divorce, swearing. Every time this text rolls around in our weekly line-up of readings, I spend a lot of my sermon preparation time avoiding what Jesus says. I see these teachings, and I want to run in the opposite direction. But avoidance won’t get us very far. So let’s dive in together.
Scholars often refer to this section of the Sermon on the Mount as the antitheses, based on the pattern Jesus uses here: “You have heard this one thing, but I’m telling you this other thing.” It’s tempting to hear that pattern as if Jesus is saying, “That law that you have learned your whole life is wrong, and I am replacing it with something else.” But that’s not exactly what he’s doing. Remember he told us earlier in this sermon that he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. When we look closely, we see that he’s actually raising the expectations. He’s refining what it means truly to follow the law of God as fully as possible.
Let’s take each one in turn. Jesus begins with “You shall not murder.” If we take that at face value, I’m guessing most of us breathe a sigh of relief and think, “I’ve got that one handled. I have not killed anyone this week.” But then Jesus keeps going. He focuses on the ways that we often kill each other’s spirits – when we are in situations of conflict, when we are angry at someone else, when we have felt wounded by someone we love – a friend or a family member especially. Don’t even make your offering to the Lord here in worship, Jesus says, until you have taken steps to repair that relationship. Deal with it, even if you don’t want to. So much for thinking that it’s easy to obey the law about murder.
Jesus moves on to adultery. He knows most people will understand adultery primarily in terms of faithfulness in marriage. But once again Jesus raises the bar. He pushes us to consider our longings and attractions to other people. What choices do we make when we are drawn to other people, as we all inevitably will be because we are human? He wants us to navigate those attractions in ways that honor the commitments we have made. Jesus gets a little melodramatic when he starts talking about chopping off body parts, but I think that’s his way of reminding us that it is difficult to be responsible caretakers of all that we feel as the complex people that we are.
Notice that when he addresses adultery and divorce, Jesus seems to be speaking to men. That makes sense in his context in which only men had the power to issue a decree of divorce – a decision for which they could just make up a reason, whether or not it was true, thereby leaving former spouses economically devastated and without the financial means to stay alive. Jesus is tackling head on a power imbalance that existed in the ancient world. And he is reminding us in our own time that just because we have the legal power to do something doesn’t mean we should do it, especially if using our power in that way is going to hurt someone else.
Sometimes relationships become so broken that they must end. But in those situations, Jesus calls us to turn away from punishing the other person and to pursue peace instead. Even when it comes to swearing an oath, he warns us about making it too dramatic or too complicated: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’.” Be a trustworthy person whose word counts for something.
By now most of you know that I am an unapologetic eavesdropper in public places. Recently I was sitting beside a dad and his young daughter at Penn Station. The little girl looked like she was about five. They were watching a video from last year when she was first learning how to ski. At one point her dad said, “Look, that’s when I had to help you stop.” The girl said, “Why?” Her dad responded, “That’s what mommies and daddies do sometimes. We help you stop before you get hurt. Or before you hurt somebody else.” We eventually struck up a conversation about skiing and how little kids learn how to do it, and then they left to catch their train (or perhaps to get away from me). But his comment stayed with me in light of today’s gospel. That’s what mommies and daddies do sometimes. They help you stop before you hurt yourself or somebody else.
That’s part of the reason that God gives us these laws. The law comes from a place of deep love and a desire for us to live in healthy relationship with one another. God wants to keep us from hurting ourselves and each other. At the same time God gives us the freedom to make decisions about what we do and how we live. The challenge is to reject the vindictive nature of the world around us and embrace the love and wholeness that God wants for us. We live in a time (and I am not making this up) when the San Antonio Zoo will name a cockroach after your ex and feed it to an animal while you watch via livestream. Meanwhile God tells us to find peace with that person.
Remember that later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives us the two greatest commandments. The first is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40). These laws point to how we love our neighbor – even when we don’t like our neighbor very much. Our neighbor, our friend, our ex, our difficult co-worker, our family member.
When we read the first part of Psalm 118 a few minutes ago, we said: “Happy are those who keep [God’s] decrees, who seek God with their whole heart” (verse 2). We think of the heart as the place of our emotions, but here in the original Hebrew it was understood as the seat of the will. So the Psalm calls us to seek God with our whole will. It’s telling us to direct our entire being – all that we hope for and long for and work for – so that the relationships in our lives and our treatment of other people reflect God’s most sacred imagination.
I don’t want you to leave this morning feeling condemned by this gospel. And for heaven’s sake, don’t carve out your eyeball because of it. But I do hope we all leave this morning feeling challenged by this gospel. Because each and every one of us has some relationship that is broken and in need of healing. Each time we talk about reconciliation, it’s important for me to say that God does not desire for us to remain in abusive relationships. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Sometimes we have to hold a boundary for our own safety. We’re talking about those relationships that could be restored to greater health and wholeness if only we would take the next hard steps of reaching out, of letting go of the past, of finding a new way forward.
It is not necessary for us to follow God’s law in order to gain eternal life. Jesus has already given his life for that. It is necessary to follow God’s law in order to live this earthly life in a way that reflects the love and mercy that God has first shown us. To bear witness to a way of living and loving that defies the expectations of the culture around us. To build communities in which we take care of each other.
Whenever I ponder what God’s law truly means, I try to turn to my Jewish colleagues. My colleague Rabbi Jesse Olitsky has been tweeting a daily reflection about something called Daf Yomi (dahf YOH-mee). Daf Yomi is an international program to read the entire Babylonian Talmud (the main text of rabbinic Judaism) in seven and a half years at the rate of one page per day. The new seven and half year cycle started in January of this year. Thousands of people do this around the world, and modern technology allows for an entire network of global conversations about each day’s portion of the Talmud.
I want to leave you with one of Rabbi Jesse’s recent reflections. He writes: “There is power in numbers. When we are together, we are unafraid, not because that which we fear goes away, but rather, because we know that we do not need to walk into the unknown alone. We are there to light up one another’s darknesses.”
Jesus calls us to do some hard work this morning, work that I honestly find scary and intimidating. But my colleague is right – When we tackle hard work together, our fear will still be there, but we will be able to do things that we could never do alone. We can light up one another’s darknesses. We can build families and congregations and communities that reflect the kingdom of God in all its beauty.
We do this in the name of the God who has created us and saved us. The God through whom all things are possible. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ