The Rev. Teri Daily
Matthew 5:21-37 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.”
(New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA.)
Some books have titles that just jump out at you, so much so that you have to buy the book for the title alone. Here’s two: Knitting with Dog Hair: Better a Sweater from a Dog You Know and Love than from a Sheep You’ll Never Meet by Kendall Crolius, and Toilet Paper Origami by Linda Wright (because you should be able to experience art no matter where you are). I confess that I’ve succumbed to the temptation of buying a book for its title before. The book that sits on my bookshelf because of a title I couldn’t resist is this one: When Bad Christians Happen to Good People by Dave Burchett.
Now I’m not recommending that you go out and read this book—frankly, I’m not so sure the writer and I agree on exactly how some Christians hurt the people with whom they come into contact. But we do agree on this—sometimes the most well-meaning people of faith can cause pain to those around them or to those who walk through the doors of the church. And I believe one of the ways this happens is by taking snippets of scripture out of context and using them like a sharp weapon. That has happened at times with today’s gospel reading.
It’s not surprising that this passage from the gospel of Matthew can cause some friction—anger, murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths are not always simple, clear-cut issues. More often than not they and the relationships in which they take place are complicated and messy affairs. And to take these verses at face value would be downright irresponsible. Who would say that murder and anger are on the same level when it comes to offences? One is irreparable, unable to be undone; the other even Jesus himself exhibited when he drove the moneychangers from the temple. Truly we don’t believe a marital affair and a lustful glance are exactly the same thing either; we tend to believe that those sins that involve actions that hurt another person are more egregious than those sins that silently infect our own hearts. And who believes Jesus is speaking literally when he suggests that we tear out our eyes and cut off our limbs if they play a role in our sins? If that were the case, very few of us would be sitting here with two eyes and four limbs. And who among us doesn’t sign contracts, make promises as to the truth of the things we say, or testify to the accuracy of our statements when we sign a credit application?
And then there’s the whole issue of divorce. Half of all marriages today end in divorce. Now I want to say a few words about divorce in the time of Moses, as well as in Jesus’ own day. We’re not talking here about a mutual agreement, about a couple deciding to each go their own way. This was in many ways a man’s world. The book of Deuteronomy speaks of a man writing and giving his wife a certificate of divorce when he finds “something objectionable” about her. That a man had to, according to Jewish law, give a woman a certificate of divorce at all before sending her away may have been a progressive step compared with some cultures of that day; at least it meant she was free to marry again. But what isn’t clear is what is meant in Deuteronomy by “something objectionable”. Would that be infidelity, or merely burnt toast? And there was quite a bit of debate about this is Jesus’ day. So when Jesus speaks here of divorce as justifiable only in cases of infidelity, he’s actually saying that a man cannot just cast away his wife for insignificant reasons—it actually gives women a measure of protection and care that may have not been the standard in that day and age. As we see over and over again in Jesus’ ministry, this injunction against divorce except on the grounds of unchastity is really an expression of concern for the most vulnerable and weakest members of society.
Divorce may be different in today’s culture, but what remains the same is that it is usually a complicated, painful event. I believe that in some circumstances the way to be most faithful to a relationship is to allow it to end. Unfortunately, I suspect many people who’ve experienced divorce (maybe some of us sitting here in this room) have found themselves confronted with these verses from Matthew, usually at the hands of well-meaning Christians.
But to take these verses out of context and to quote them to people experiencing pain and the loss of a relationship is, I believe, to miss Jesus’ point completely. Because what we see in today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount is that every single one of us participates in broken relationships—not just those who murder, or who commit adultery—but all of us. Anyone who has been separated from another person by anger. Anyone who has been unfaithful to a relationship by placing other things ahead of it—be that “other thing” work, money, fame, or another person. Anyone who has participated in any kind of deception. All of us know the pain of broken relationships. Let’s be honest: if only those among us who were completely at peace with everyone we knew, those of us who were totally reconciled with the world, if only those people could come to the altar for communion, then the Altar Guild may never have to order another box of communion wafers.
If that’s the case, then what is Jesus doing in this passage? Well, what he does throughout the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is holding up the brokenness of our world and showing us that a different world is possible—a world in which barriers that divide one another are broken down, a world in which we treat one another with respect and dignity, a world in which our outward actions of kindness are at one with the attitudes of our heart, a world in which a life of truth and integrity makes oaths unnecessary, a world in which the deepest intention of the Jewish law becomes a reality. This different world is nothing less than the kingdom of heaven; it’s the world we see in Jesus’ own life. And it is a world that is possible for us through the grace of God.
In response to our gospel reading for today, I invite you to reflect on the broken relationships in your own life. Where in your life do you find evidence of that brokenness? What underlies it? And then don’t turn around and leave the altar, but come to it—offering yourself up to God, brokenness and all. Because it’s here at the altar that the grace of God meets us. It’s here that we see what true reconciliation looks like; it’s here that we experience healing and wholeness in our own heart; it’s here that we find the strength to work for reconciliation and peace. It’s here that we begin to “choose life.”