Theme: Jesus’ laws of harmony
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, we are broken people, inspired by the teachings of your son; so that we may one day be what you want us to be – in harmony with each other and in creation, made possible through the one to whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Jesus warns us against anger, and reminds us to find a better way to resolve our conflicts. It is impossible to avoid confrontations and conflict, but we should never let anger poison our relationships or lead to damage that is impossible to undo. It reminds me of a traditional Irish poem:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many;
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails,
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats there weren't any.
When anger takes over, irrational actions can lead to self-destruction and harm to others. While the cats of Kilkenny might not be unable to control their animal nature, Jesus reminds us we certainly can.
We continue to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this Sunday. The whole sermon takes up several chapters of Matthew. Jesus is not rewriting the Law of Moses, but he is certainly redefining the Law of Moses. Jesus sees Jewish law as too harsh in some places and to lenient in other places and we see this in today’s gospel reading.
Jesus continues his assault on Jewish law by talking about anger. You may have heard that we had a public murder in Placerville a week and a half ago. A janitor had an argument with his friend and principal at Schnell School. The principal, Sam LaCara took his keys and told him to go home and cool off. John Luebbers went home, got a gun, and went back to the school, into Sam’s office, and shot him twice in the chest. John was arrested at his home. John has demons. His anger over who should be hired as the night janitor would not be resolved by killing his friend. Anger allows sin to enter us.
Jesus quotes one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not murder.” Jesus expands on the commandment to include everything that the law says about murder and applies that to anger. If you are angry or insulting, you are eligible to be tried. Imagine going to court every time you’re angry. We would need a lot more judges – and worse, more lawyers! If you call someone a fool, you will go to hell. I’m surprised I make it to the place I drive to making comments about other drivers, because according to Jesus, I should be in hell.
Just a note, what is translated as hell here is Gehenna. Gehenna is the Jerusalem town dump. It is a place where the garbage is so dense that it spontaneously ignites and perpetually burns.
There are two assumptions going on here: 1) anger destroys relationships that is akin to murder, and 2) regardless of who caused the problem in the relationship, the person who becomes aware of the difficulty is responsible for taking steps toward reconciliation. We are not to insult others or call them fools. When we engage in such behavior, we lower the realm of possibilities of the moment.
Then Jesus tells us how we connect our anger and worship. First, some context needs to be added here to really know what Jesus is saying. Ancient cultures used sacrifices in their worship. That is what the Jewish temple is for – sacrifices. The thing to be sacrificed maybe from the harvest or an animal or animals. These are burned as an offering to God. Other cultures did the same thing. The priests kept 90% of the sacrificial offerings. The other 10% was tithed to God by burning them to ashes.
So when Jesus talks about leaving a gift at the altar, he is talking about something to be sacrificed. When we leave our gift, we are to remember anyone we are angry with. Leave the gift at the altar and go reconcile with the one where there is an outstanding disagreement, grievance, issue, or some source of anger. Jesus says that you may not return until this problem is resolved and reconciliation happens. So, leave your anger at the altar and move on.
This is why we have The Peace in the liturgy. We are not to catch up with our friends, we are to reconcile with anyone we have a problem with, because we may not go to the altar until reconciliation happens.
Now, it is hard to predict that anyone you need to reconcile with will be in church on any given Sunday. And the person you need to deal with may not be an Episcopalian or a member of St. John’s. In this case, you can’t wait for Sunday. You need to reach out to that person before Sunday. Then you may come and receive communion. All of this is your responsibility and no one can do it for you.
Jesus adds that debts need to be settled, also. Jesus’ sound advice may prevent a lawsuit.
Jesus next gets personal. If you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you are committing adultery. Jesus is expanding on the commandment about coveting your neighbor’s wife and combining that with the adultery commandment. Ladies, you seem to be off the hook here. Jesus is likely dealing with hyperbole here.
What are the consequences of leering? Pluck your eye out. If you’re familiar with the movie, “A Christmas Story”, then a BB gun could do the same job. After all, it’s better to be a Cyclops then to go to hell. Then if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. (Now I have no idea why Jesus is adding this advice to his admonition about adultery.) Would you rather be in hell with two hands or in heaven with one?
Next, Jesus tackles divorce. First, some background. The Law of Moses says that a man may divorce his wife by writing, “I divorce you” on paper or papyrus or something and give it to her. Then the divorce is final. No fuss, no muss.
Jesus sees this as way too harsh on women. Only if the wife commits sexual immorality or adultery may a husband find grounds for divorce. Matthew is modifying what Mark reports Jesus saying that divorce is never appropriate. Matthew reports a loophole. Jesus continues that if a man marries a divorced woman, then that man is guilty of adultery. In Jesus’ mind, the woman is still married to her previous husband.
Having talked about what Jesus says about divorce, we know that in some cases divorce is necessary. These are cases where there is abuse and the abuser and the partner refuse to change. In a marriage, just like a divorce, it takes two to tango. All other divorces are preventable. We have way too many divorces in this country, putting way too many children at risk for many negative outcomes. Divorce hurts children in profound ways, even if the children are adults.
Next, Jesus takes on the commandment about swearing. We often misinterpret the commandment as using some vulgar Anglo-Saxon words. What it means is that an oath cannot be made in God’s name. Jews, later, expanded this commandment to not say God’s name at all, just in case someone accidently makes an oath using God’s name. We tend to ignore the expanded Jewish law and some Bibles actually print God’s name. In a few psalms, God’s name is in the Book of Common Prayer. Our best guess at the pronunciation is Yahweh.
So Jesus expands the commandment only so far as not to use God’s name when a promise or an oath is made. So when we would swear on a Bible in an American court of law, we were violating the commandment and what Jesus says about the commandment. Jesus then expands the commandment to avoid all oaths and promises by anything that is part of God’s creation, even your own head. Jesus may be saying that since all of creation is of God and is God’s, then it is all sacred and to avoided in all promises and oaths. So in a courtroom, we should promise to tell the truth and leave it at that. Just say “yes” or “no” and never elaborate on anything that may seal the oath. If you do, then it is the devil you are speaking for.
Jesus is talking about these issues, because Jesus wants people to know what is necessary to live in harmony, which is the kingdom of heaven. Broken relationships are not part of God’s plan for us. We are to live with mutual support.
Text: Matthew 5:21–37 (NRSV)
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,e you will be liable to judgment; and if you insultf a brother or sister,g you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hellh of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sisteri has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,j and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to courtk 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.l 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.m
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.n