Matthew 5:21-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Concerning Anger “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 insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Concerning Adultery “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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Concerning Divorce “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, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Concerning Oaths “Again, 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, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Well, here we are – still sitting on that hillside, listening to what seems to be one very long sermon Jesus is preaching to the multitudes. Unlike most preachers, I think Jesus may have felt he had one shot to getting most of his learnings shared with those around him. Most preachers, on the other hand, feel if we don’t hit the mark this time, maybe it will happen next week or the week after. Jesus, I think, didn’t have that luxury.
Two weeks ago we were exposed to the poetic words of the beatitudes. Last week we heard words of encouragement and hope as Jesus revealed how God relies on us – ordinary people – to be light and salt to the world. Today, we hear more difficult words that Jesus preached to that crowd. As difficult as these words are I believe they were given in love that is meant to surpass law.
In her book, Why Religion?, Elaine Pagels notes that many of our scriptural stories “still work as a cultural Rorschach test, to which countless people, religious or not, reflexively turn when they encounter something that makes them uncomfortable. How for thousands of years, various people have read [the creation story] that explains so little and suggests so much.” Pagels came to realize that whether we believe them or not, these stories are transmitted in our cultural DNA, powerfully shaping our attitudes toward work, gender, sexuality, and death.”
These stories were handed down primarily through oral tradition prior to being written on scrolls and later in time bound together, as if they were one true story from beginning to end written in God’s hand. Jesus heard these oral Hebrew stories in his formative years, and like us, Jesus is not immune to the culture and beliefs of his time in history.
Jesus’ presentation to this particular crowd gathered is almost like a traditional three or four point sermon: anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. Of course, as a person who has been married twice and divorced twice – my own DNA beliefs I learned early on about divorce had been a challenge. During my growing up years and especially in my late teens in the 50s & 60s – most divorced women were seen as “fallen women” and were always seen as the cause of the breakup of the marriage. I had a hard time reconciling that belief with a young, funny divorced woman I became friendly with at work in my late teens and later through my first divorce. It is within that historic cultural DNA framework of Jesus’ time that I approach these various aspects this morning.
When I read these four topics that Jesus raises I feel that what he says about anger and about oaths are timely words that cross all cultural times and lines. When Jesus preaches about adultery and divorce, however, I believe they reflect the culture of his place and time in history – his cultural DNA framework.
“In addressing the issues and reinterpreting the law, Ronald Allen says that Jesus is not declaring Hebrew tradition to be dead, but is operating within the pluralism of first-century Judaism: ‘Jesus interprets Torah much like a rabbi with an apocalyptic world view. First-century Judaism was not a monolith but was pluralistic. Different schools of Judaism interpreted Jewish tradition in different ways.’ “This leaves room for understanding and owning sacred text in new ways based on contemporary issues.” (uccsermonseeds.org; Ronald Allen, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels)
The author of Matthew’s gospel recognizes there was difficulty and conflict in this newly emerging and developing church when these words were included in this gospel. Karen Thompson notes that: “There is a need in this first-century church to look at relationships and how individuals treat each other. There is a value to life and how we value the lives of others.” (Karen Thompson; uccsermonseeds.org) This is the heart of the matter no matter what cultural context and time in history we find ourselves. It truly is a challenging text in any age.
On the topic of adultery and lust, Jesus is reinterpreting the text “around what relationship should be like based on the law, but redefined for the contemporary setting [of his time]. In its newness the words of Jesus value the role and person of women. That was not a common theme, but a breaking forth of something new. According to theologian Fred Craddock: ‘The point is, a woman is not a thing, a property to be coveted so as to possess, but a person to whom one relates with care and respect.’” (uccsermonseeds.org, Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A). And this theme of caring and respect is also carried forward in Jesus’ reinterpretation regarding divorce. In his day men could just decide they no longer wanted to be married and present a wife with a certificate of divorce which, in effect, left her without any means of support or care. Divorce was often done at the whimsy of the husband with no say from the wife who was seen often as property, not person. These words of Jesus lead us to understand his “focus on a common theme – the primary importance of personal relationships.” And care and respect for all people.
On the topic of anger – we know the opposite of love is not hate – but fear. And it is often fear that can lead to anger and hate. In our world today there is a level of anger and anxiety that I have never quite felt as in this current time. Politics and the upcoming presidential election really tend to make us take sides – a house divided – so to speak. As clergy I try to be very careful when I speak of politics because many may take a view other than my own and cannot understand why I cannot see things their way. And this leads, sadly, to more division and more fear, and more anger and hatred. So, I feel called to speak to all of us about that anger that is feeding us today and some of the ways it is exhibited.
I was driving home from a Dine with 10 group this past week. Good food. Good laughs. Good feelings. I was feeling the pleasantness of our time together. I noticed a truck quickly approaching . I wasn’t going particularly slow – around 38-40 mph in a 35 mph zone following the speed of the traffic in front of me. But I was obviously going much too slow for that truck driver. I heard its engine rev, and in the rearview mirror I saw the truck veer to the right, speed up in the space left by the car that had turned right, and then it gunned into a small space in front of me. As my heartrate increased I was really thankful that no one was hurt because that driver was putting all of us in danger.
Then it dawned on me, that so many people are angry in this world who are sitting in cars behind, in front of, by the side of all of us. And, of course, I could easily contribute to that anger by swearing, giving an undignified salute, or yelling at that idiot. But we know name calling just tends to light the fuse to deepen the anger.
There is fear and anger from so many sides and exhibited in so many ways, and I am concerned we are not taking care of ourselves when we feel furious every day. One of my suggestions is that maybe for Lent we take a media Sabbath – limiting our exposure to news to maybe 30 to 60 minutes a day – or even less. Maybe take time out for a gratitude check. Or take time to pray more or maybe let go of a grudge. Maybe volunteer where extra hands would be appreciated. During this Lenten time we find what we can do to counteract that fear and anger we may be experiencing.
I know this is not the first time we have had such a split or division within our country. But what I don’t feel we’ve experienced in the past is such a lack of respect and care of the other in this great divide.
This anger that is spilling everywhere scares me for obvious reasons. No one wants to be targeted by someone else’s anger. I also know this anger that we harbor can do great damage to our phyche, our physical being, our emotional being, and our spiritual being. When we were kids at the playground and angry with one another our parents might have given us a time out – either in separate corners of the sandbox, or in our room. No one is taking that role with countries angry with one another; leaders angry with one another; with friends and family angry with one another.
Karen Thompson (uccsermonseeds.org) reflects that: “It is easy to look at the problems and name them as the fault of others but the bigger challenge comes when we dare to find ourselves in the midst and ask how am I contributing to the problems? Or, how can I bring difference to what I observe around me? These are good and important questions.
We may not believe it but, “In a world torn apart by anger, hatred and conflict, we have the privilege of being living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.” (Clergy Coaching Network)
As I reflected on this text this week I was aware that each of these points Jesus raises can also be viewed through the lens of self-care and healthy boundaries. It is God calling us to healthy relationships with God, with others and with ourselves because God loves us to the moon and back.
According to Michael Renninger: “If we pay attention to what God means, we will see that everything God asks of us is for our good, for the good of others, and leads all to freedom. When God says, ‘Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lust, don’t lie, don’t cheat, let go of your anger….’ What God means is, ‘I love you. I love you – so let me change your heart as well as your hands, let me change your feelings as well as your behavior, let me change your attitude as well as your action.’ This is not easy. That is why [God] calls us together in the community of the church, so that we can learn together, and encourage each other, and prayerfully focus on Jesus. God’s message leads to life.” Michael Renninger (© 2020; sermonforeverysunday)
Martin Luther said: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” (uccsermonseed.org)
May God bless us this day and all the days to come, to be the light and salt and love so needed in this hurting world. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2020