The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Good grief! It’s that Gospel passage again: Murder, slander, divorce, adultery, swearing oaths; lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Note to self: When this passage comes up again in three years . . . schedule a guest preacher.
Well, here goes.
How do you think the crowds received Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount pretty tough message? Did it motivate them to metanoia; a change in one's way of life? Of did they just say, nope, can’t do this, it’s too hard, and then just wander off to brunch?
What’s your response? Taken literally Jesus’ interpretation of the Law is an amazingly high bar that he sets for human behavior. If just being angry, or insulting someone and calling them a fool results in your burning in hell, then the occupancy rate there is going to be SRO!
What is Jesus actually saying here?
Some Biblical commentators refer to these pronouncements on the Law by Jesus as being antitheses – or oppositions - of the Law. They believe that Jesus is modeling a greater righteousness over and above the Torah.
But that defies Jesus’ statement preceding today’s Gospel passage where he states, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17) By his own witness Jesus’ teaching is not opposed to the Law or the Prophets, rather his teaching is their very fulfillment.
The reality then is that these sayings we have heard on murder, slander, adultery, divorce and swearing an oath are not antithetical to the Law at all, they are intensifications of it.
And, boy, they are intense. When we hear these commands on this standard for human behavior we get very uncomfortable with them. Is Jesus serious? And if so, what does it mean if I have not been able to meet the standard he sets? Am I liable to the hell of fire?
Are these intensifications to be taken literally? Are we literally to gouge out our eye, or cut off our right hand rather than commit an infraction? And if so, then what about the whole issue of divorce (and re-marriage) which we Episcopalians allow? Are we being defiant toward Jesus’ instructions to us? Are we cherry picking the scripture?
There is a lot of material packed into this text. And there are numerous historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary considerations to examine if we are to unpack and truly get to the heart of what Jesus is saying. It entails a lot of work. The alternative to doing that work is to respond to our discomfort by attempting to water the scripture down, make it palatable, or simply ignore it. There is no shortage of people who have taken those routes, but that’s being disingenuous. If we are serious about our faith, we are to work toward comprehending what is going on in this difficult text.
These commands of Jesus must be taken with the utmost seriousness, but any attempt to take them literally leads to absurdity. This is true, as well, of the Beatitudes that precede today’s text.
No one who lives their life with their eyes open can honestly say that murder, libel, slander, adultery, divorce and false vows do not happen all the time, or that the poor are blessed in their poverty, or that those who hunger and thirst have a leg up on the well-fed. To believe that would be at the very least, to engage in flights of fantasy, if not downright delusion.
The reality is that to actually live life by the standards that these intensifications of the law establish, is impossible for we humans.
What these sayings do express is the intrinsic rule of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God; a Kingdom that is a place we know as the already, not yet; a Reign whose beginnings are inaugurated in Jesus Christ and whose fulfillment will only occur when He comes again.
What these intensifications are, then, is a vision of the eschatological Reign of God that is yet to come.
They are a revelation of what will definitely be possible in God’s Reign, versus a snapshot of the realty of our current human circumstances. When Jesus delivers these, “you have heard it is said” sayings, there is no understanding or expectation on his part for our literal adherence to these Kingdom laws. That is simply not possible for humans to do in our fallen state. They are, on the other hand, goals to strive toward as we continuously amend our lives, and look to the day when all Creation is restored to how God intended it to be.
Let’s examine one of the sayings to see how we might apply it to our life in this already, not yet phase of the Kingdom.
“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.”
I don’t know about you, but while I have not literally murdered anyone, I certainly have been angry with people at various points in my life. And in my anger, I have said – and certainly thought – things that are insulting to another person. And frankly, I seem to have little or no control over those actions and thoughts. I am like St. Paul, who said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19)
Jesus understands that we humans often do what we know is not right. But he also says that anger and hostility are outside the bounds of God’s Reign; Jesus equates those things with murder.
That would be a Catch-22 we could not get out of were it not for God’s grace.
Jesus doesn’t leave us stuck in this conundrum of understanding our brokenness, but then leaving us to suffer the consequences of hell fire. Rather he tells us how we are to reconcile our broken relationships. “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.” So, even though following the intensification of the Law is an impossible standard to adhere to 24/7, Jesus encourages our attempts toward its fulfillment. He does this knowing each time we strive to be reconciled to those people we are at enmity with, even when we do so imperfectly, we draw incrementally closer to living the ways of God’s Reign.
This is invaluable guidance to those of us in America today. We are a nation that has made a blood sport out of anger and insult toward others. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was recently awarded to someone who thrives on this murderous behavior. Degradation of people different from us - who we don’t like - is the norm on cable, talk radio, Internet blogs and tweets, never mind plain old every day gossip. It’s murder by a thousand tweets; a thousand posts; a thousand slandering tongues.
We followers of Jesus are not helpless in the face of this moral degradation. As I said last week, we have something critical to proclaim and work toward in the midst of such brokenness.
While recognizing our own proclivity to these behaviors, we know that with God’s help each of us can live our life differently. And by so doing, we bear witness to our citizenship in God’s realm. This is true and possible for every human being, regardless. Metanoia happens.
Regardless of the topic – enmity, divorce, adultery, violence, evil – Jesus leads us away from the behaviors that are not of God, guiding us into the ways to those that are of God. We just need to choose that as our way of life.
In our reading from Deuteronomy today Moses says to the Hebrew people that God has, “set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . choose life so that you and your descendants may live."
May the way of life given to us by our Savior, be our choice as well, so that we – and all people - may truly live.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.