NRSV MATTHEW 5:21-37
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.”
It’s been a while since it was on TV, and I wasn’t a regular fan, but many years ago the show Ally McBeal seemed to rule the screen. Many of my colleagues saw in it a window into our culture. And sometimes what that revealed was not a pretty picture.
The theme of the show was that of a young lady right out of law school trying to make her way in the corporate world. She sought to make her mark both professionally and personally, and at times that wicked balance with all of its sacrifices of what had been previously thought important drove her to seek solace wherever she could find it. On one particular episode it landed her in a minister’s office to get some counseling about her troubled love life.
The minister listened to her dilemmas and as she went on Ally brought up this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – that lusting after someone in your head was every bit as harmful as the overt act of adultery. Rather than using that as a segue into a deeper conversation, the minister casually dismissed her concerns by saying, “Oh, nobody pays attention to that stuff anymore; everybody does it.”
That once very popular show has come and gone but the dilemma continues. I haven’t heard too many sermons lately on this part of Jesus’ teachings because, well, you know, we ministers, if we were really honest, would have to do a lot of confessing. And we don’t mind doing that about some things, but about this?
Maybe it was Jimmy Carter’s fault. You might remember the former President made a confession in a magazine about how he found himself lusting in his heart over certain women. That got a lot more publicity than the fact that his track record for faithfulness was and is a lot better than some who have held that office – and for many of us, I might add.
As I thought about this teaching I couldn’t help but consider two very old and very questionable ways of approaching it. One would be to take the old fashioned route and do the fire and brimstone thing, and point fingers and tell everyone that they were doomed for eternity because of their lustfulness. Such an outburst would not only be pastorally irresponsible but also a plunge to the depths of hypocrisy. But the other one would be just as bad – to take that of the minister from Ally McBeal and say things like: ‘…Oh, don’t worry your little heads about it, that is just first century talk; just go ahead and live in your fantasies, who’s going to know the difference?’
Well, as to that last one, God will know the difference; and frankly, you will, too. What goes into our heads eventually comes out some way into our lives, for good or ill. I think that is pretty much what Jesus was talking about. But you have to know something right off the bat: Jesus is not talking about a purely sexual ethic here. It touches that, sure – but it is not the whole thing. Jesus is not running around in a Pilgrim outfit yelling at people about chastity and purity.
Keep in mind where he is: with his disciples, and that means more than the 12 he called to be the inner circle. That comes later in Matthew’s Gospel. Up to this point his birth has been proclaimed in a dream to Joseph, he has been visited by Wise Men, baptized by cousin John, endured temptations in the wilderness and has proclaimed that “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” But that life and that statement begs the question: What does that kingdom look like? That’s what the Sermon on the Mount, chapters five through seven in Matthew, is all about.
Also remember how the chapter started. It starts off with Jesus on the mount with his disciples, and he began to teach them. So this is really the “Lesson on the Mount.” After the Beatitudes and the part about being salt and light that we read and reflected upon last week, we might remember Jesus’ words that ended that part: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of God.”
Can you imagine how that must have blown the minds of those who first heard it? Unless your conduct, unless the way you live your religious life, is better than the most holy person you know of, you are not getting anywhere. Right away Jesus lifts up the difficulty of living in the kingdom. But that goes with his teaching about his role in fulfilling the law rather than abolishing it. Jesus comes to teach them and us that fulfilling the law is more than following every section, paragraph and “Thou Shalt Not” you can find. It is about a way of life directed, ordered and blessed by God.
That way of life is one that lifts up our relationships to the highest level. Our connections with other human beings are important. They are not to be treated casually or carelessly. Other people are not figures to use, objects to manipulate to get our needs met. They are brother and sister human beings, a part of creation every bit as valuable as we are, and the ways we live together matter very much to the One who created us, and who gave us those relationships in which to express God’s love.
To get the message across we have four scenarios that are very easy to look at superficially and see a God with puritanical instincts. But a closer examination reveals broader and more sweeping demands of what life in the Kingdom of God looks like.
The first one: the part where we are reminded about not murdering anyone. Sounds okay, at least I don’t think anyone has done that, though it may have been tempting with certain people on occasion. But then Jesus draws the circle wider – if you are angry with, throw insults at, call someone a name, then the consequences get more and more drastic.
Jesus is calling his disciples to pay attention to the effects of unresolved anger. That is especially true in faith communities. If you are giving a gift, he says, and you remember something that a special person in your life has against you, leave it there, go and be reconciled. At previous churches I have served we had “The Passing of the Peace” – you know, the time when after the Prayer of Confession and the Assurance of Pardon for folks to go around and say to each other, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” It was also intended that people would make a special effort to seek out those with whom they had a serious issue. Of course, usually what happened was that people would get up and roam around the sanctuary and talk with their friends. They didn’t want anyone to think they had a fight with so and so, so they just kept it safe. What Jesus is calling for is not for us to play it safe; but to actively and intentionally reach out to those with whom we have put some pretty high walls. To start taking down those walls, brick by brick, word by word, act by act.
Then there is the part about adultery that gets so much attention. And certainly it does say that the ways we approach other people with our minds is every bit as important as the handshakes and the hugs we give. Our thoughts need to be in line with what God wants. But there is something else. Did you happen to notice it warns men about looking at a woman with lust in their hearts, but it doesn’t say anything about women doing the same thing. Does that mean that ladies get a free pass?
Hardly. Remember in those days women were little more than pieces of property of their fathers or their husbands. If a man was caught in adultery, the penalty was much less severe than if a woman was caught. But here Jesus lifts up women as persons of equal worth. They are to be respected, cherished, treasured for the people they are, not because of who they are connected with. In any and every time, women – and men for that matter – are to be looked at with respect as befitting all those made in the image of God.
Something like that is going on with his words about divorce. That particular society had made it a little too easy for a man to walk away from his wife, a move that could have had dire consequences for the woman. It was more than having a man to protect her; but with the man by her side she kept her place in that community. And if that was broken it would marginalize her from that community, that source of support, that source of place.
In our days, the consequences are not so dire. But I have heard of too many cases in which couples – some of whom have been married for 30 or 40 years – have gone through a split because one of the persons got tired of being married. We still have issues with taking care of our marriages, with getting people to treasure each other before and after the empty nest, and treating our married partners with respect and openness.
The final part is about the prohibition of oaths. We don’t hear too many people making statements and backing them up by appealing to Jerusalem. Of course, that doesn’t stop anyone from appealing to the Lord above or by using salty language to back up their statements. Jesus is calling for us to be honest in all our human discourse, so we don’t have to feel a need to appeal to anything or anyone for verification. It’s a little like someone coming to you and saying, “To be truly honest,…” Wouldn’t you love to say to them, “You mean you’re not always honest with me?” Our Lord is calling on us to be honest in all of our conversations, in all of our dealings with each other.
What all of this says is that Jesus reveals a God who cares about relationships. Jesus shows that by the formula, “You have heard it said … But I say unto you…” Jesus takes all of this to a deeper level. It is the level of genuine concern and care for how we treat one another. Not for how it looks. Not for what we can get out of it. But it is the level of concern and care that has no end, no bottom. It is because the love God gives is too important and too special to be trashed by recklessness.
We live in a time when relationships, like speaking the truth, like caring in a deep way for others, are pretty much trashed. What matters most, it seems, is how it makes me look. Jesus says continually, in every moment, and in every relationship, “But I say unto you…”
The demands of Jesus here are real. They get at the heart of where we live. They are important. They are not to be taken lightly. But the wonderful Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who gave up a life filled with privilege and adulation as a theologian, doctor and musician to serve the poorest of the poor in Africa, said: “The demands of Jesus are difficult because they require us to do and live something extraordinary. Yet, at the same time, He asks us to regard these extraordinary acts of goodness as something ordinary and usual.”
God cares about all of the relationships in your life. And God, through the words of Jesus, invites you to care deeply about them, too. Amen.