The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
“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.
“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.
“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 sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“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.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
I had someone from a Baptist background explain to me once about a “Flower Service,” an old tradition still carried on in some small mountain churches.
At the flower service, everyone brings a bouquet of flowers and places them on a table in front of the pulpit. These are not arranged bouquets; they are a large fistful of blooms from the garden or wild flowers from the fields and woods. First, the minister preaches a sermon on Matthew 5:23-24, stressing the need for harmony and peace in the congregation and reminding people of the Lord’s proclamation to make peace with our neighbor before kneeling at the altar to pray to God. After the sermon, a genuinely amazing “passing of the peace,” takes place as everyone in the congregation comes to the table and retrieves their bouquet and then begins to go to every other person in the church to begin the process of reconciliation, apologizing for any hurt feelings, or harsh words, or lingering misunderstandings.
From the oldest to the youngest, everyone talks to everyone else, not caring how long it takes. After apologies and words of forgiveness and reconciliation have been spoken and heard, people then exchange flowers with one another, sealing the restoration of their relationship before moving on to make peace with another sister or brother in Christ.
I remember thinking to myself… wow, what an amazing and powerful way to experience reconciliation! Our readings tell us a lot about reconciliation also. Let’s take a deeper look.
Deuteronomy is pretty clear about the “two ways” set before us as free-will gifted people. This is not so much about personal judgment or effort, but about choice, it seems. You can go this way, or you can go that way. Depends on what you choose as to what the result will be. Jesus in the Sermon On Mount is pretty consistent with that; his series of “you have heard…but I say” statements are intensifiers, or amplifiers of what the listeners of his time were familiar with in the way of moral precepts. He just takes them a good bit further, into the “heart” of the matter.
In today’s text from Corinthians; Paul says outright, “I can’t talk to you as ‘spiritual’ (read ‘mature’) disciples–you’re still on milk, not meat!” This dynamic stretches across each of the readings today. Both Moses and Jesus are essentially asking their listeners to dig deeper, look farther.
When we hear the Word of God we need to ask: what do we learn about God, and God’s relationship to God’s people? Well, consistent with our readings throughout Epiphany, these texts emphasize-among other things–the desire of God to bless, or to give happiness, to God’s people.
I see this as what I like to call original goodness, as seen in Genesis 1-2 (“…..and God saw that it was good.”) God is not poised to fling lightning bolts every time the children are rambunctious and misbehaving.
I think it’s important for us to understand that Jesus is augmenting the law, rather than contradicting it, is a good lesson. But it’s not the only lesson today’s reading offers us. That’s not what Jesus is getting at. Banishing us to the fiery pits of hell really isn’t Jesus’ style. Fire and brimstone preaching was developed much later by preachers with a very different agenda.
Jesus’ overarching message is one of grace and peace, love and hope, forgiveness and redemption. If any of his words today seem particularly harsh, perhaps it’s best to consider that it is because he wants our attention.
- Perhaps it’s because he wants us to understand that it is possible for us to live in right relationship with God and our neighbors.
- Perhaps it’s because he wants us to understand that anger and insults too often keep us from doing just that.
- Perhaps it’s because he wants us to understand that unbridled lust can lead us to depression and malcontent.
- Perhaps it’s because he wants us to understand that the sacred bond of marriage should not be dissolved at a man’s whim.
- Perhaps it’s because he wants us to understand that there is no honor in making fancy promises that we cannot keep.
It could be any of those things. Or, perhaps most of all, it could be because he wants us to understand that our previous sins do not prohibit us from standing now and evermore secure in the grace of God.
When discussing murder, anger, and insult, Jesus offers the following advice. “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.”
These words may also seem a tad extreme, but we can rest assured that if Jesus isn’t in the business of scrapping ancient Hebrew law, then he certainly isn’t in the business of chasing anyone out of church. Jesus does not require each and every person who momentarily recalls some interpersonal conflict to get up and head for the nearest exit. But, by offering the image of someone leaving a house of worship to go and be reconciled to their sibling in the faith, Jesus does seem to be making an urgent case for us to hone our habits of reconciliation.
Whenever we are reminded of a transgression that needs forgiving or a relationship that needs restoring even if it is during a time as important as worship–Jesus expects us to take it seriously. Whoever we are, wherever we are, and whenever it is that we remember such a thing, Jesus calls us to the important work of reconciliation–right then!
This advice is pretty pastoral. If ever we remember a fault of our own or the error of another, Jesus doesn’t want one more second to go by without us orienting our minds toward the healing power of reconciliation. It is a reminder that such things are not the end of the world; there is wholeness yet to come.
In keeping with that same pastoral spirit, it is important to note that there are circumstances in life, such as in the aftermath of certain broken marriages, when personal reconciliation may not be appropriate, healthy, or safe. Of this we can be sure: Jesus understands and honors our individual contexts and personal choices.
As for times when reconciliation is appropriate, Jesus believes that it is what is best. That’s why he says to get up and go. As far as he’s concerned, the sooner that we experience the peace of reconciliation, the better. So, if any one of us decides to get up, walk out, and tend to something right now, that would be just fine. But we always have the option to stick around and soak up even more Jesus. That certainly can’t hurt.
Back to this “flower service” practice in these small mountain churches is spiritually a very wise thing. It comes out of a deep understanding of what Jesus is about in this entire lesson. Jesus is digging beneath the surface of outward observance to get at both the difficulty and the serious importance of being genuine and transparent in God’s new community of the church. For the writer of Matthew’s gospel–it is unimaginable that people who profess to be followers of Jesus should be Christians on the surface only.
So, there is to be no walking about with deep resentments against others festering inside while on the surface we act as if nothing is wrong. We are not only not to murder; we are to deal with our anger appropriately and honestly.
There is to be no secret lust driving your life, if you have a problem with that sort of thing, Jesus says, acknowledge it, deal with it, get help.
All throughout this text, Jesus’ words are about dropping pretense and dealing with the real problems of being in relationship and community with others by being honest, straight-forward, and humble with each other.
That is the call of today’s text to all of us. Do it now. Live by kingdom values now. Straighten out our lives now. Make peace with others now. The kingdom of God is here, now. The spirit of God is giving you strength for whatever changes you need to make, now. The love of Christ is forgiving you and inviting you to forgive others,