Epiphany 6a, February 12, 2017

February 14, 2017

The Underlying Good News

Matthew 5:21-37


5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly 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.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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. 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.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


I’m guessing this isn’t anyone’s favorite passage of scripture. It’s not mine – not because I don’t think there’s something good for us to hear, but because I always have this fear that someone is going to walk out of the sanctuary while it’s being read. Without doing a little probing in to what this actually means for us it’s sort of a terrifying passage. I mean we’re inclined to think that Jesus was more forgiving of people’s failures than we understand the Jewish authorities to have been, and I don’t think that’s an improper understanding, but this passage makes him sound like a member of the Taliban.


I don’t think it’s wrong to think of Jesus as expecting us to hold ourselves to high standards of living, but I don’t think the point of this passage is to beat ourselves up for falling short of those expectations. In fact at the same time that Jesus is very clearly directing us to live our lives with the highest levels of integrity, I think he’s also telling us to let go of our usual standards of judgement.


I mean there may be someone in the room who has never been angry with anyone, but if you’ve got a pulse, you have probably stepped in to that territory that Jesus very clearly identifies as a bad place to be. And I don’t want a show of hands of people who have violated Jesus’ definition of adultery, but he expands the definition in a way that is beyond anything you will find in a dictionary.


People who have personally experienced divorce don’t need any more scrutiny than what they’ve already undergone, so we don’t need to further highlight that unfortunate turn of events, but these words aren’t intended to heap a blanket of judgment upon the divorced among us. Jesus was addressing a culture where men were totally in control of the divorce proceedings, and he was pointing his finger at those men who took advantage of a loophole in the religious law to serve their selfish pusuits. And there’s a larger principle here that we all are capable of violating – it’s probably not so hard for any of us to serve ourselves at the expense of someone else in a socially acceptable manner.


I’m not exactly sure what to say about this business of making oaths other than to say that Jesus saw something going on that was disturbing. I think he must have witnessed the way people sometimes used a flurry of words to obscure what they were actually saying. I’m thinking Jesus would have a lot to say about the way in which we try to manage our images regardless of how we behave or what we actually do. Jesus valued honesty over image. He considered it to be essential for there to be no room between what we say and what we do, and I’m not sure who has a perfect record in that regard.


So while it sounds like Jesus was taking a page from John the Baptist’s playbook when he spoke these words, I don’t think the message we are to take away is that we’re all doomed. I think Jesus would say that we are all doomed if our hope is built on our ability to live up to all the standards of the law, but I don’t think our relationship with God depends upon our ability to meet every expectation. I think Jesus spoke these words because he was wanting us to see ourselves more clearly than we are often inclined to do. And by recognizing our internal blemishes he wants us to become less judgemental of others and more open to the new life that can come to us when we let go of who we think we are.


I think Jesus actually wanted us to experience some despair when we heard these words. This isn’t anyone’s favorite passage of scripture because he wasn’t trying to make anyone feel good when he spoke these words. He was wanting us to let go of any illusion we may have about our religious righteousness in order for us to experience a more authentic relationship with God.


Now the truth is, we United Methodists aren’t so legalistic when it comes to many things. We actually greet one another in the liquor store, we own up to not knowing everything about human sexuality, and we don’t ostracize people for getting a divorce. In fact these are some of our best recruiting tools. I know a good number of United Methodists who were former members of other denominations until they got a divorce or came out of the closet. I’m glad we’re less judgemental about these things than are some other denominations, but this doesn’t really help me to be a less judgemental person. I can feel overly judgemental about those other denominations who are so legalistic. This issue of judgementalism is an insidious problem. Intolerance can take on many different forms.


We don’t experience religious shaming in the way that the first generation disciples would have known it to be practiced. Our culture wars are different from theirs, but there aren’t any of us who are unfamiliar with the feeling of being shamed. Some of us may have had parents who were experts in the field of shaming. Some of us may continue to hone our own expertise in that field. Of course you don’t have to be a parent or a religious authority in order to do some powerful shaming. Facebook and twitter have made it possible to shower some righteous indignation upon the heads of so-called friends, aquaintances and perfect strangers. Social media shaming has become a new art form for some people.


We don’t experience the same sort of legalism that those first generation disciples experienced, but I don’t think any of us are unfamiliar with either end of this problem. And Jesus was serious about our need to overcome this problem. In fact he was pretty graphic about it. He said that when we identify the perpetrator of this problem we should eliminate it, and he wasn’t talking about eliminating flawed individuals from our community. He was talking about eliminating the obstacles that exist within ourselves. If it’s your eye that offends you pluck it out. If it’s your hand – cut it off.


Clearly I think we’ve got some hyperbole going on here, but you may remember the story from a few years ago of the rock-climber who’s hand was trapped by a boulder when he and the boulder slipped down into a tight canyon, and he literally saved his life by cutting his hand off. His name is Aron Ralston and he wrote a book about the event entitled: Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The story has been made into a movie called “127 Hours”. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, but I saw a special about him one evening so I’m almost an expert on the matter.


It’s an incredible story, and I was struck by the degree of clarity he experienced in regard to what he needed to do in order to live. It’s an epic story, and while it’s an extraordinary case of a person having to do an unfathomable thing, I think it points to the way in which our priorities become very clear when we recognize what’s keeping us stuck. We all get caught between a rock and a hard place every now and then, and that’s often where we are when we recognize what we need to do. The situation that unfortunate rock-climber found himself in is more gruesome than our usual painful place, but I think the common experience that we may all understand is that heightened sense of clarity that comes to us when we allow the illusions of ourselves to evaporate.


It’s sort of a terrible thing to realize we aren’t as capable, or righteous, or generous, or honest, or forgiving, or faithful that we would prefer to think of ourselves as being, but such moments of clarity can be powerfully humanizing. And it’s probably when we profoundly let ourselves down that we are most capable of seeing how God seeks to lift us up.


On one level, it seems like Jesus was being even more legalistic than the Pharisees when he equated anger with murder and lust with adultery, but what he was really doing was revealing the opportunity for transformation that comes to us when we let go of our illusions of righteousness.


Of course Jesus was concerned about all the ways in which we harm our relationships with one another and with God, but he wasn’t focused on the rules because he knew that the rules are much more complex than they are generally portrayed. Certainly it’s a bad thing to engage in murder or adultery, but it’s also hurtful to be angry or lustful. It’s also hurtful to be overly righteous. The good news is that it’s by coming to grips with such things that we open ourselves to richer relationships with ourselves, with other people, and with God.


The wording in this passage is harsh, and frankly it leaves me feeling like a damaged good because it brings focus to my inability to be as loving, faithful, honest, and kind as I understand God wills for me to be, but these words also keep me from being as judgemental toward other people as I am sometimes inclined to be. Jesus was exercising some judgement, but Jesus didn’t just want us to live our lives with false understanding of ourselves or of God. He didn’t just want us to be righteous, he w wanted us to experience the power of God’s resurrecting love. Such redeeming love would be more fully revealed after he was crucified, but I believe this transforming love is something that we can experience in small ways throughout our lives.


I don’t want to diminish the pain that we experience when we find ourselves in terrible places, but it’s only when we recognize where we are that we see what we need to do. We aren’t redeemed by our ability to be righteous. We are redeemed when we encounter the grace of God at those moments when our needs overshadow our capabilities. It’s not that God is waiting for us to grovel, but it’s hard for God to touch a heart that’s full of self-satisfaction.


The good news is that there’s nothing that disqualifies us from growing in our relationship with God, but what Jesus has to say isn’t all good news. It is possible for us to behave in ways that get in the way of our relationship with God and one another. In fact there is no end to the ways we can get in the way, but thanks be to God there’s always a way back. Our relationship with God is always a work in progress – as it is with everyone else. May God’s grace abound as we seek to find our way through the canyons of life and into the light of God’s eternal kingdom.


Thanks be to God.



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