Last week we heard difficult words from Jesus – but reading them without understanding the world in which he lives (i.e., reading them literally) can be really confusing.
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.”
Dear beloved of God, grace and peace be yours this day from our gracious God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
I wonder if you, like me, tend to react to this particular gospel with tension.
You can feel it, right? Your muscles tighten, you feel your eyes narrowing to “glare” position. Maybe your fists even clench.
Because this is the type of language that, on the surface, can push us to a “fight or flight” reaction.
And that is why it is an excellent example of the problem of reading Scripture literally. You’re gonna get into trouble.
The contexts in both the gospel lesson and the lesson from Deuteronomy are vastly different from the one in which we live today, and so if we simply react to it through our 21st-century eyes and lenses, we will miss the underlying concern that God has for God’s people.
That is really the essence of how to engage with God’s Word in a way that opens our minds: ask yourself, “what is God’s underlying concern here?”
Not God as detached, profit-driven CEO who is obsessed with rules; but God as our loving Creator. Our compassionate Parent.
The phrase that sticks with us from Deuteronomy is “choose life.” Let’s remove that from any kind of culture-wars association, and look at what the text says.
Life and prosperity, say Moses. Death and adversity. Walking in God’s ways, or turning to other idols.
So many times we have heard this in a very legalistic way, as if God is demanding slavish devotion to a set of rules “or else.” Almost like a behavior trap. But I don’t think that’s God’s underlying concern at all. God’s not threatening the Hebrew people any more than I might be threatening my son when I tell him to stop teasing the cat. I’m not going to punish him if he doesn’t obey me; no, the cat will take care of that! I say something because I don’t want my son to get hurt by continuing to tease the cat.
This is what we call “the Law.” Let’s think about this separate from our system of secular statutes and codes, the lower-case l law. What is the purpose of God’s Law, anyway?
There are three distinct reasons for God’s Law:
First, the Law is intended for our own good. Second, the Law draws us into community. And third, the Law orients us toward our neighbor.
To say that the Law is intended for our own good is to say that God’s underlying concern is for our best spiritual, physical, and mental health. God uses the law to point out destructive behaviors, ways of being that ultimately destroy us.
The Law draws us into community by reminding us that it’s God’s intent that we work together and share with one another. Thus the whole community is impacted by the destructive behavior of even one person.
But the third aspect of the Law bounces off that second aspect when it orients us towards our neighbor. We are all in this together. If we have never even acknowledged the person who is now messing up – if we have allowed them to slip through the cracks and get to a place where they are desperate – then it would be well for us to check the log in our own eye.
When Jesus brings up the fifth commandment “you shall not murder” he takes us beyond the literal meaning of the words. He reminds us of the ways we can act that “kill” in ways that have nothing to do with a weapon. And then Jesus takes this even further: be reconciled to the one with whom you have a disagreement before bringing your offering.
Which is to say: God is ultimately more concerned with right relationship, and that God’s people are becoming the beloved community. That is also a part of stewardship – solid relationships as well as solid financial support.
Jesus’ words about adultery are likewise not meant to be taken literally, but to help us think broader. It’s about being oriented to the community and to the neighbor. Notice how Jesus doesn’t blame the woman for the man’s behavior, but wants him to take responsibility for his actions.
His words about divorce have been the source of much pain visited on folks over the years by control-freak religious leaders – but what Jesus is saying here is highly contextual. Women had no standing in that society. If a husband divorced his wife for no apparent reason, she would be destitute. That’s not the way the beloved community behaves. But notice as well that Jesus makes the exception for unchastity: in other words, everyone is responsible for the consequences of their choices, and needs to consider how their actions will impact others. The beloved community, says Jesus, rises above the minimum-standard level of statutory law to do the right thing by one another and within the community.
At verse 33, Jesus talks not about particular types of “bad” language, but about swearing an oath to guarantee your own word. Again, he reminds us that we are called as disciples of the Prince of Peace to go beyond, to be utterly trustworthy. We shouldn’t need to swear any oath if our word is good.
My dad impressed on me at a young age that your word is like gold. If you keep your word, if you do what you say you’re going to do, you become trustworthy. And once trust has been broken, it’s incredibly difficult to earn it back again.
Jesus says “if you are going to do something, then so state – and then DO IT. If it’s not for you to do, again so state. But don’t waffle, and whatever you do, DON’T LIE.”
Or to put it another way: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t traffic in hyperbole.
And that is a foundation made of rock. I’m always reminded in these lessons of that great film, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” where they bring back an assortment of historical figures via time travel for their history final, and Abraham Lincoln’s parting words to the classes at San Dimas High School are “be excellent to each other.”
Because God’s underlying concern is not merely a concern – it is that side of God’s crazy love for us that wants us to know that we are God’s good creation, beloved and set free. God desires that the entirety of creation would be drawn into the beloved community.
Eco-theologian Michael Dowd speaks of how the Law in the peaceable realm of God is what is meant to help keep us in right relationship, and is also an accountability to the future. We are the first generation, he says, for whom “choose life” is a decision that reaches far wider than merely our own personal or even community existence.
To choose life – may be to impact not only our lives, but the viability of the planet.
To choose life might be as simple as making choices that encourage ecosystems that allow bees to thrive.
To choose life might be as complex as working on reconciliation between people who are deeply divided.
“Choose life” is the gospel distilled down to two words. Because those two words encompass everything else we would say the gospel proclaims: love God, love neighbor, do justice, love kindness, and all the rest.
And none of these words are meant so that we have a handy checklist with which to judge others harshly, but rather so we might look to OUR words and deeds – particularly in light of the needs of those around us, both human and otherwise.
And I don’t know about you, but when I take that look, I find myself wanting. There’s always so much more in the “should do” column. And that’s when I need to remind myself that “choose life” is what God through Jesus does for me.
God chose me and continues to choose me, and all of humanity; to walk with us and carry us in the hard times, laugh with us in the good times, and open our eyes to the need that is all around us. And through it all God continues to forgive my many shortcomings and encourage me to try again.
God chooses life for us. Let us choose life for all of God’s good creation.