Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But 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. 33“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.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It feels like hyperbole. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “You can’t get there from here.” He takes the commandments, the easy ones, the ones we can feel pretty good about keeping, and makes them impossible! “You shall not murder,” yeah, I can do that. Then Jesus says that being angry with someone is just as bad, and I’m not sure about you but I can’t really imagine any reality that includes no anger… Then Jesus talks about adultery, and I believe it’s true that most of us are pretty good about not dilly-dallying with people who are married to someone else. But Jesus seems to vilify even the impulses that spring up when some beautiful body presents itself before us, going so far as to suggest we tear out our eyes rather than be guilty of such sin. I’m going to skip the next one for a moment, but I promise to return to it. At the end of this section, Jesus says that we are not to swear, at all, and he’s not talking about cursing. He’s talking about speaking vows, about promising that you tell the truth, or that you will be faithful, averring that such oath-making comes from the evil one. If we followed that not one of us could become a member of most professions: pastors could not make the promises we speak during ordination ceremonies or installations; we could not testify in court; none of us could marry; and the rites of baptism would be against Jesus’ law—because in these things we make promises, we speak vows, we swear something.
Now to the one I skipped, Jesus isn’t any easier on divorce than he is on murder, adultery, or swearing, and it feels rather damning, doesn’t it? However, he’s also no more harsh on divorce than the other things. Which of us who grew up with siblings has never been angry with them? And which of us has never experienced lust for anyone? Which of us has never sworn to be truthful, faithful, or responsible?
Why is it that people want to be more judgmental on divorce than on any of the other things Jesus addresses in this passage? Is it because in this one thing SOME can feel righteous?
Spoiler alert: The ability to avoid divorce does not make one righteous. Divorce does not make one any more sinful than swearing an oath to be faithful.
Jesus takes these pieces of the law, the pieces that seem to be so straightforward, and makes them impossible. He says even when you follow all the rules, tying everything up in a nice legal bow, you don’t come out as worthy of recognition for being perfect and righteous. I’m not sure how it could be any worse than that. It all seems rather hopeless, does it not?
If today’s passage from Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount were all there is, we’d be hard-pressed to find any real good news, other than that none of these hyperbolic sins is any worse than the others. Lust is no worse than anger which is no worse than divorce which is no worse than backing a promise with an oath. Any of these (if not each of these) may be part of a faithful Christian’s experience. Thankfully, we do not depend upon our own righteousness for salvation. If we did, not one of us could be saved.
Instead, we depend upon Jesus for that.
This doesn’t mean that we despise the law, or that we consider it useless. As we mentioned with the children a few moments ago, In the law God gives us advice on how to live well in community.
So let me talk a bit about that. Let me lift up community, and the fights that are rampant in our country today.
We have two major political parties, and both have faithful Christians fighting for the ways they believe things ought to be done. We have variances within each of these political parties, and some additional parties that roughly approximate parts of the two without wholeheartedly agreeing with either of them.
Lately, each of the two major political parties has been vilifying the extremes of the other. One rails about separating families and caging children while the other rants about the murder of babies and violations of personal rights. We fight over how to provide the best medical care and how fairly to compensate those who provide that care. We might try to define how others live their lives so that they most closely match the ideals we hold sacred in our own. We have differing ideas on how best to protect the vulnerable, and even how to determine who is most vulnerable, and who should have the responsibility over what kinds of weaponry.
There are people of faith in each of these political parties. There are people who believe loving our neighbors is paramount in each of these political parties. However, we differ vastly on how best to love our neighbors. Some believe this love is best expressed through the pooled efforts of our government, and some believe it’s best to leave such neighborly love up to individuals. Each often points to the ways the other party’s ideals fail to work. Some governmental programs receive bipartisan support, such as fire departments, ambulances, and police departments, while others less easily fit within the desires of multiple parties. Sometimes people become intently focused on one specific issue, and believe only one party takes that issue seriously, blinding them to any good that may be accomplished by those in a different party—and also blinding them to any bad that might occur in their own.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus lifts up things that the people believed they understood—easy things—and reveals they are actually impossible. He tells us that it’s worse than we thought. On our own, we are lost.
But we are not on our own. We are carried by the love of God in a world loved by God. We are inspired to live God’s love for other people and for all of creation, even though we may argue about the best ways to do that. We are called to be salt and light because God is good, even when we are not. We are called to let go of depending upon our own self-righteousness, in order to trust in God’s righteousness and mercy for us, and for all of creation. We are called to love, to life in Jesus’ name. Amen