The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A - February 12, 2017

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Year A

February 12, 2017

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus said, "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. (Matthew 5:21-37)

 

--------------------------

 

Earlier this week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the presentation made by Barbara Brown Taylor at St. Stephen’s in Richmond.  You all know how much I admire her work, and as usual, she said a number of things that have remained with me. She talked about how our images of God tell us a lot more about who we are than who God is.  The same thing is true about the passages we tend to choose from Scripture.  We pick a few of our favorites, and use them as the lens through which we interpret everything else in the bible, instead of using the whole of scripture to interpret the single verses or passages that we happen to select.

I found this to be really helpful when I began to wrestle with today’s passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew.  As you might remember from last week, our lectionary has been walking us through this sermon, and we’re hearing the parts that we don’t always get to hear beyond the “beatitudes.”  Last week, we heard Jesus saying that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  This week, he gets into the specifics; and it doesn’t sound like he is abolishing anything. In fact, it seems that he’s making the law even more exacting, more difficult to follow, and in some fairly radical ways.

Jesus does radical things. Based upon my reading of scripture, from my preferred lens, I’m convinced Jesus was a radical.  He offered radical hospitality, radical forgiveness; he was radically inclusive. And in today’s gospel, it seems he’s offering a radical interpretation of Hebrew Law.

But not in the way I want him to!  If you’re like me, Jesus’s words here don’t fit your image of him, at all.  They make us uncomfortable, since there’s no way we could ever live up to these standards. We want that other radical stuff, forgiveness, acceptance, inclusion.  But what Jesus is saying here sounds more like radical extremism than a radical message of love. And if we need less, not more, of anything right now, it is extremism.

But, perhaps we’re missing something. Perhaps we’re missing just how radical Jesus is being.  Maybe we need to try on some different lenses.

There have been, of course, many attempts to figure out just exactly what Jesus is saying in this passage.  Some scholars claim that he’s being radical by initiating a new law that both intensifies and replaces the law of his forebears. Interpreters in this school of thought refer to Jesus’ repeated contrasts to make their point: "You've heard it said..., but I say..."[1]

This way of understanding Jesus’ words takes the ethical and moral demands of the Christian faith very seriously, but it reduces the Christian life almost entirely to a matter of rules and codes of behavior. Do we really believe Jesus suffered on a cross so that we could have a ramped up version of the Ten Commandments?

Other interpreters go in the opposite direction: Jesus is radically taking the law to extremes precisely to show us that we are utterly helpless to follow the law. Understood this way, the law's chief value isn’t to guide the Christian way of life but instead to show us how incapable we are of following the law on our own, and how in need we are of God’s mercy and grace.   

This interpretation emphasizes our dependence on God alone for forgiveness, but it tends to empty the law of any meaningful content, any force or accountability. Even worse, it makes it sound like Jesus didn't really mean what he says. That is, do we really think that the Jesus who said “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill the law,” is saying that really he couldn't care less about obeying the laws of God?

Which makes me wonder if Jesus' main concern is with the law at all. I tend to think Jesus is talking more about relationships, something you’ve heard me say a lot about this year. So much of the time we think the law is about being legal - about doing the right thing, staying within the lines, avoiding penalty. But, at its foundation, the law is really concerned with relationships.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example: the first four deal with our relationship with God – love God with all your heart, remember the Sabbath, keep it holy; and the second six deal with our relationships with each other - honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not envy.  The function of these laws is to point us toward ways to honor those with whom we are in relationship – God and neighbor. But somehow we forget that, and get all caught up in keeping the law for the law's sake.

Which is why, I think, Jesus intensifies the law - not to force us to take it more or less seriously, but to interiorize it, to push us to imagine what it would be like to live in a world where we do honor each other as people who are truly loved by God. To shift our focus from the external requirements of the law to the internal dispositions of our hearts that give rise to reconciliation, to forgiveness, to healthy and whole relationships.

It's not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder; you also have to treat each other with respect, not letting yourself fly off the handle in anger because that, too, demeans and diminishes our humanity. It is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery.  We should also not objectify other people by seeing them as objects to satisfy our physical desires by lusting after them.  It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce.  We shouldn’t treat anyone as if he or she were disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable are provided for – and in Jesus’ day, that meant women and children. 

It is not enough, Jesus says, to keep ourselves from swearing falsely or lying under oath.  We should speak and act truthfully in all our dealings so that we don’t need to make oaths at all.  Let your yes be yes…and your no be no.

Law understood primarily in legal terms ends up being a moral and often self-justifying check list: No murder today; check that! And yet our harsh words might be killing a person’s spirit; No lying; check it off! But our gossip can infect a community.  Jesus, it seems, wants more from us. Actually, he wants more for us. He wants us to regard each other as God regards us and to treat each other the same way. His approach to the law is radical because he calls us to look beyond the law to see its goal and end: the life and health of our neighbor! What Jesus is telling us is that the kingdom of God isn’t simply a set of laws to obey, but a way of holding the well-being of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting they are doing the same for us.

During this season of Epiphany, we celebrate the central, most radical message of our faith - God came down here. And it wasn't because God was angry or sick and tired of our misbehavior.  It was because "God so loved the world."  [Use that as your lens through which you view all scripture!] God does not look at the world and see a bunch of unruly brats who need to be punished.  Instead, I believe God looks at the world, looks at you and me, and sees people of enormous potential whom God created and believes in and loves deeply. God isn’t really interested in our keeping the law for the law’s sake, but rather for our sake.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”  That is one of the vows that we will ask the parents and godparents of little Juno D’Adamo-Damery to make in a few minutes before we welcome her into the household of God though the waters of baptism.  That is a vow we will renew ourselves, one of the five that form the heart of our faith.  The law of love we strive to fulfill, with God’s help.

When we integrate that law into our very being; when we, in a word, make it incarnate, we discover a new, radical reality in our lives.  It becomes our turn, our joy, to honor each other in the way Jesus did, so that we can, with each other's help, truly become the people God created us to be. 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] See the commentary by David Lose, in http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1521

Go to top