6th Sunday after Epiphany
February 16, 2014
Matthew 5: 21-37
My mother was an only child and the only thing she ever truly longed for were brothers and sisters. So she could never understand why my bother and I fought constantly. We picked on each other, and got even in horrible ways. Ask me about the day he threw the cat at my back. Her fervent prayer was that such strife in our childhood meant that we would love each other when we grew up. It’s turned out to be mostly true. However, she had one rule that prevailed; no name-calling. However mad you were, or however insulted, you could not call your sister “Stupid,” or worse.
This piece of Jesus’s teaching from Matthew, a part of the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” reminds me of that rule for a few reasons. First of all, it recognizes that people will always look out for themselves first and arrange the world in such a way that they get what they want. Secondly, rules keep us from doing damage that is beyond what we ever intended and from which we will never be able to recover.
Jesus sounds more like the mean guy that people think of when they think of God giving the Commandments so that no one will ever have any fun. If you’ve ever thought that Jesus was just some wishy-washy good guy, going around blessing the least likely and healing all kinds of people who probably didn’t deserve it, you might be pretty surprised by how harsh he sounds in this part of his sermon.
But Jesus isn’t really either of those things. Jesus is telling his listeners, and us, that God’s rules are a blessing, meant to make life sweet. You can see from the pairing of todays’ Gospel lesson with the reading from the Hebrew Bible, that Matthew is summoning up a particular picture for the people who are gathered around Jesus as he sits on the mountain to teach God’s Law. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments….the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess…Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” The book of Deuteronomy is Moses final sermon to the Children of Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. He will not be going with them, and he wants them to remember everything they have learned about being God’s people while they wandered in the Desert. Matthew summons that image of Jesus as Moses, God’s appointed Lawgiver, when Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” So righteousness is not just keeping the minimum requirements of the Commandments, it is about seeing people as God’s beloved. It is about understanding that relationship is built on respect and the dignity of all people, simply because God loves people and wants them to live in peace.
In a male-dominated culture, Jesus demands that women be treated not as objects to be lusted after or dismissed at a whim, but respected as human beings and cared for with devotion. For all the love lyrics we’ve just heard about Valentine’s Day, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that love is really about how you treat people, not about passing feelings or emotions. Let yourself be so committed to making your promises real, that you never need to swear about anything, he says. People will just trust your yes and no because they know you do what you say.
“I say to you, if you are angry with your brother, you are liable to murder.” How’s that for extreme. But think about it, when you let your anger kill a relationship, you have ruined a whole family, and maybe even a whole community. The reason we stop everything in our worship before we gather our offering and come to God’s table is that we take Jesus’ teaching seriously. Every week, we seek to make peace between ourselves and our brothers and sisters, so that our hearts have a chance to be healed and our relationships can be reconciled before we go forward.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said in the beginning of this sermon. Here, he’s telling us what that righteousness can look like. It can mean giving up feeling insulted in order to accept reconciliation, or it can mean being willing to see the humanity of someone who is unlike you and doesn’t see things your way.
Last week we listened to Jesus tell us that we were salt and light in the world, that it was up to us to spread the love of God so that the whole world could enjoy the zest of life and be illuminated by the amazing love of God for all God’s creation. We asked you to write down some of the wonderful things that touched you, either the things you did for others or the things others did for you. I hope you kept your eyes and ears open for Salt and Light happening in the world around you in the last week. You can still add your Salt and Light sightings to our collection in the back of the church, as you use the scraps intended for your stories.
Respecting women, staying reconciled with your brothers and sisters, being true to your word is not going to save you, make no mistake. Contrary to popular opinion, being good at following God’s rules is not about your salvation. That’s already been done for you wholly and completely by God’s love and grace through Jesus. But following God’s rules is about Eternal Life, that life of zest and illumination that starts immediately when you realize that you have been saved from your selfishness and arrogance and need to be right all the time. Choose Life, says Moses, and Jesus wants us to see that this is what love and life really looks like. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.