Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said to hid disciples] “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 unchastity, 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.

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)

What do you think of when you think of God? What picture comes to mind when you imagine what God is like? It’s a tricky question, I realize, as Scripture regularly describes the impossibility of seeing, let alone fully understanding, God. When Moses wants to see God, for instance, the most God offers is facing Moses toward the cleft of a rock so he can see the “trail of God’s glory” as God passes by for, as God says, “no one can see me and live” (Ex. 33:20-23). Similarly, St. John, in the prologue to his Gospel, says that “no one has seen God” (Jn. 1:18a).

Despite these biblical affirmations, however, I suspect that most of us carry around a picture of God, some sense of what God is like that profoundly shapes what we expect from God, how we think about our faith, and perhaps even how we think about each other. To go further, I would guess that if you engage the typical person on the street, or in our churches, that picture would be that God makes
and enforces rules. God as law-giver. God as one sitting in heaven with a perpetual finger pointe dat us in warning and perhaps accusation.

As a teenager & young adult I, more than once, rolled my eyes to my mother about Dad’s double standard on speeding. When my father was a passenger and noticed that I’d crept over the speed limit, he’d loudly clear his throat as a warning. That guttural noise was often followed with, “Have you looked at your speedometer?” Okay, fine, Dad caught me speeding.

But what about those times he ignored the limits? Since before I could drive, I’d been an occupant in cars he steered. Dad often exceeded the posted limits!
If we were on the highway he was pretty good, but put that man on a gravel back road and he turned into an off-road wizard. And don’t get me started about him not making complete stops at stop signs! When we asked mom she would reply, “Your father’s a very law-abiding citizen . . . except when he doesn’t think the laws apply to him.”

Wasn’t Hector Barbossa’s quote in the original Pirates of the Caribbean about pirate codes equally funny and true: “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

What about God’s commandments? Aren’t those familiar 10 Commandments easy to learn, easy to understand, and (at least theoretically) easy to accomplish? Well, even simplicity has baggage.

  • How are you doing with Sabbath, actually resting from work and worry on one day a week? I’m personally lousy with that.
  • And honoring parents is anything but “easy,” especially when we are talking end of life decisions. As an irksome kid, you may rebel a bit from honoring a parent’s wishes, but you (mostly) know Mom and Dad are large and in charge. And yet as a sixty-year old “child,” with a dying eighty-something parent who wants you to make his or her end-of-life decisions, honoring those wishes can be breathtakingly complex.

But what do our texts say? Having announced the good news and the kingdom of heaven having broken in (4:23-24), Jesus proclaims the guiding precepts of that kingdom in the Beatitudes (5:1-12), and announces that his followers are to be “salt” and “light” in the world.

Then follow instances in which Jesus announces new interpretations of the law–indeed, some would say, changes the law.
He will teach in regard to anger, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and hatred of enemies. Our gospel text this week includes the first four of these examples.

As he works his way through this agenda, in some cases, Jesus will deepen or expand the law. This would be the case when he says “not only this, but more” which he does in regard to anger and adultery. In some cases, Jesus’ teaching is more “not this, but that,” as in divorce, for example, or in the swearing of oaths.

At first glance, this week’s readings from Deuteronomy and Matthew may seem to reinforce this finger-waving picture, as they each offer a heavy dose of the law and, indeed, name some of the penalties for disobeying the law. By looking at these readings more closely, though, I think we may see a more graceful sense of God’s law through Jesus and, indeed, a clearer picture of the God we worship.

First, the law is given always as a gift. The law, particularly as captured in the Ten Commandments that Jesus’ references, are life’s little instruction book, God’s gift to help us get more from this life. Speaking of the Commandments, notice that they are given after God has already declared that Israel is God’s people. This means the law is not the means by which to become God’s people or to earn God’s love, but rather a gift given to God’s people because God loves them.

Second, the law is given to strengthen community. The “you” in both Deuteronomy and Matthew is always plural. The law isn’t about meeting our individual needs but about creating and sustaining a community in which all of God’s children can find nurture, health, safety, and blessing. The logic behind the biblical focus on community is simple. When you’re looking out for yourself, it’s you against the world.
When you look out for the others in your community, and they in turn look out for you, it’s the community together that faces the challenges, setbacks, and opportunities the world offers.

Third, the law comes as a gift to strengthen community by orienting us to the needs of our neighbor. The law, let’s be very clear, isn’t meant to remove the
neighbor and his or her needs from our view or concern but rather draws us to our neighbor more closely. I think, Jesus intensifies the law in today’s reading—to help us avoid seeing the law as merely drawing moral boundaries and instead alert us to our responsibility to care for those around us. One can too easily discriminate, injure, neglect, or speak poorly of a neighbor all the while saying, “I have kept the commandment because I have not murdered.” And so Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being. For by caring for our neighbor we strengthen a community that can best serve as a blessing to the world, God’s constant command and expectation of God’s people.

Those who say that scripture is inerrant Word of God usually skip over this passage, not because it is harsh, but because Jesus does something that very few seem to acknowledge: he changes the scriptures.

The Hebrew scriptures which Jesus alludes to today get a remake in Matthew, so either they weren’t inerrant, or there’s something more Gospel-oriented going on.
Which leads me to this question: Which commandments are easier to follow, the “thou shalts” or the “thou shalt nots?” If we’re honest, and actually take the time to reflect on it, I think the “thou shalt nots” are easier commandments to follow. If you know where the electric fence is, it is easy to avoid.
But what about the “thou shalts?” They are much more difficult to keep because, well, how do you know for certain you’ve kept them?

You have to wonder if the people of Jesus’ day were looking for loopholes by following the letter of the law. Perhaps they could hate, as long as they didn’t murder. Perhaps they could be lustful, as long as they didn’t act on it. We love our loopholes, don’t we? But Jesus doesn’t offer any loopholes here. He takes the examples and pushes them “to eleven,” as the saying goes. But why would he do this? Who could keep such strict commandments?! No one.

Which is why the passage ends with a note on forgiveness. Because to truly rely on God we must begin to realize that there is no loophole to righteousness, no alternative to grace. In other words: we cannot be perfect, and so we must be saved by God’s love and grace. There is no avoiding it, just as you can’t avoid messing up.

Author and self-proclaimed cranky theologian Anne Lamott quotes Ram Dass in her article 12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing, noting, “In the end, we are all just walking each other home.” Or, another way of putting it might be: there is no loophole, we’re all in the same hand basket, which means we had better become accustomed to forgiving one another, ourselves, and accepting forgiveness, by God.

Some years ago, a scholar shared a story that captures for me how the law— including the laws contained in today’s readings—reveal the parental heart of a God who wants nothing more than the health and happiness of God’s children.

Frank was about eight years old at the time, when he started arguing with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. In response, Frank—as he described—reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!”

That’s the law: God’s gift to protect and care for God’s children. I know we at times feel the negative impact or threat of the law, but it is because God cares so deeply about God’s children…all of God’s children. “No you can’t hoard everything. No you can’t discriminate and exclude. No you can’t violate and exploit. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.”

So what is your picture of God? Students lodging with Martin Luther once asked him that very question, and he responded, “When I think of God, I think of a man hanging on a tree.” Because in the cross of Christ we see God’s loved poured out for the whole world and are reminded that God will go to any and all lengths to communicate just how much God loves us so that we, in turn, may better love one another.


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