Sixth Sunday after Epiphany; February 12, 2017, Year A
Deu. 30.15-20; Psalm 119.1-8; 1 Cor. 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you fro, God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This Gospel reading could be classified in the “nightmare” category for anyone who might dare to preach on it. It’s one of those times that at the end of the reading I hesitantly say, “The Word of the Lord.” And you all reluctantly respond, “Thanks be to God.”
What Jesus says to us today is tough. Our first reaction might be: “He can’t be serious.” We try and scoot around what seems to be impossible instructions for life. Does Jesus really mean what he is saying?
I wish I could tell you otherwise, but Jesus is absolutely serious and he does mean what he says, although, maybe not in the way you think.
It is important for us to think about who Jesus is talking to, what it was like 2,000 years ago around Jerusalem, and the deeper meaning behind what Jesus is saying. Perhaps then we can leave here today hearing some Good News.
First of all Jesus is speaking to the 12 people he chose to follow him in his three years of public ministry. We are to always hear what Jesus says for us here today, yet it’s also vital that we recognize he is originally speaking to the ones who will first model and live out what it means to live differently in the world, to be part of the Kingdom of God here on earth, to be part of the body of Christ. Jesus sets a higher standard for those who call themselves a Christian.
So Jesus puts what people struggle with right out on the table: anger, sexuality, broken relationships, and honesty. Jesus would probably be classified as a terrible dinner guest. He talks religion and politics and goes right to uncomfortable subjects that are matters of the heart.
He first addresses anger. Notice the language he uses: “If you are angry with a brother or sister … “ He is saying, “If you are angry with someone else who is in this tight-knit faith community who claims to follow me, deal with your anger constructively and don’t let it turn into smoldering hate, that may lead to name calling, long-time grudges, maybe even court, and God-forbid, murder.”
Jesus is not saying that the anger we may feel for whatever reason is wrong. Jesus himself got angry. He walked into the temple one day and saw that instead of the worship of God the temple was turned into what he calls, “a den of thieves.” The poor were being taken advantage of and the people forgot what it meant to worship God. So he over-turned tables and yelled at everyone to get out. That is what we call, righteous anger.
There are and should be times in which we get angry because we are wronged or we see incredible injustice. What Jesus is telling us to do is to turn that anger into doing something constructive, and not to let it fester in us. He makes it clear what will happen if anger is not dealt with properly.
When anger takes root in us and stays and grows he says we will be liable to the hell of fire. Again, context is important. Hell, in the New Testament comes from the word, “Gehenna,” which was a place. It was a smoldering garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Jesus was telling his disciples that if you don’t deal with your anger, your life will become like a smoldering garbage dump (literally a living hell), and most likely, so will the people’s lives around you.
We all know what it looks like to those outside the church when Christians can’t even get along. It looks terrible and Jesus knows it. We are the people in the world who are supposed to model what it means to live in community and to have the courage to practice and live out reconciliation. Reconciliation means restoration of relationship, or to make amends. Christian people should be able to settle our differences and reconcile. It’s as important as not murdering someone.
So Jesus tells us what to do. If we come to the altar and remember that we are angry with someone or if another has something against us, we are to leave the altar and go and be reconciled with that person. How amazing that God desires reconciliation among people more than God desires worship.
This is exactly why we share the peace before communion. It’s not just to be nice and say hello to people. It is in order that if you need to be reconciled to someone, that you take the time to do it before coming up to take communion. Kind of amazing isn’t it?
A seminary professor of mine, James Bailey, writes in his book, Contrast Community, “Jesus words do not deny that we frequently become angry and upset with one another in community. Rather, these words are calling us to find responsible and respectful ways to handle such angry feelings so that contempt and caustic comments find no lasting home within the life of the Christian community (p. 39).”
So on to sexuality. I want to be gentle on this because over 40% of marriages in the US end in divorce. I know that divorce has been an extremely painful reality in so many of your lives. I pray that you do not hear Jesus’ words to you this morning as condemning. He goes to extremes to make a point: God’s original design and plan for marriage was never to be broken.
He addresses lust because that is what often leads to what breaks up marriages. Jesus speaks about committing adultery in one’s heart. The heart in Scripture is not just something that pumps blood through our body, but it is the seat of our intention. It has to do with what we desire and it drives all of our action.
So Jesus says, “If your eye causes you to sin, or to lust to the point that it breaks up someone’s marriage or even your own, it’s better to cut it out than to come between two people and cause incredible pain within a community of faith.”
Please do not think Jesus is being literal here. If you cut out or off body parts, like your eye or your hand, you will eventually have no body parts left. He is being extreme using the shock factor to emphasize the point: don’t be sexually immoral, and don’t break up people’s marriages.
Theologian N.T. Wright writes: “Don’t suppose that Jesus means you must never feel the impulse of lust when you look at someone attractive. That would be impossible … What he commands us to avoid is the gaze, and the lustful imagination, that follow the initial impulse (N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 48).”
It was because of human sin that God adjusted the law to even allow for divorce. We know that God desires wholeness, mutuality, and love in all of our relationships. No one when they get married hopes their marriage will end in divorce.
I need you to hear this and hear it clearly: Marriage and divorce are not matters of salvation. If marriage is not a mutual life-giving relationship, it is not what God intends for marriage. This doesn’t mean we don’t try hard to work things out, but it does mean that if divorce happens, God is still faithful in God’s love and design for creation and human beings. God continues to be in the painful parts of our lives, and also in the joy of remarriage.
Just a quick word here about why Jesus only addresses the man when it comes to divorce. In Jesus’ time, women had no rights when it came to marriage. Marriages were often arranged and the woman became the property of the man. The man could then divorce his wife for any reason and put her on the street.
Maybe she burned one of his dinners, or she couldn’t produce children. Either way, she would be homeless and vulnerable to all of life’s atrocities.
It doesn’t sound like it in this Gospel reading to our modern day ear, but Jesus is challenging the patriarchy of the day, and trying to protect women who could often be disregarded.
So, on to swearing. When Jesus says “swearing,” it is not what we think of as four letter expletives we say when we slam our finger in the car door. Swearing means taking oaths, or making promises, following through with what you say you are going to do.
In Jesus’ time, 90% of people could not read or write, so what was spoken, like giving one’s word, was really important. “The highest value was placed on the trustworthiness of one’s word (Bailey, p. 54).” Oaths meant survival for many people. To make an oath is to swear before God is to say that you are telling the truth.
So, Jesus tells his disciples and us: There is no need to swear at all. Just be honest, truth-telling people. Don’t deceive others with your words. “Such honesty helps relationships to flourish and community to be built up (Bailey, p. 59).”
Everything Jesus teaches us today is about the good of the whole community. He uses extremes to emphasize a point: Be people of reconciliation; Don’t come between a person’s marriage; And have integrity in your life by being honest with yourself and with others. We are to be a people who live differently in the world.
Shortly we will be welcoming Roland through baptism into this imperfect and beautiful community called, the body of Christ. Sorry, Roland, but there are some pretty high expectations for you moving forward, and for all of us. But we will help you and pray for you and love you.
Roland is given the Spirit of God, as are we. We are not to think we are in this alone. Yes, this Gospel reading convicts us all, and yet we can say: “What is impossible for me, Jesus, is possible with you and with my brothers and sisters around me.”
If we think our sin has greater power than the cross, we are mistaken. We must read all Scripture in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who loves you and gave up his life for you. Jesus went to an extreme himself and we give thanks to God that he did.