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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.”
Growing up, I was lucky to know a man by the name of Peter Stavish. He was one of the Assistant Scoutmasters in my Boy Scout troop, a member of my church, and was the type of person that left a strong impression. Peter could get into very hot arguments with other adult leaders on issues of politics, but those deep disagreements never interfered with his friendships with those same people. Years later he admitted to me that he could never get to sleep after such an argument and did his best to seek reconciliation as quickly as possible. In fact, it was Peter who taught me at a young age that it was possible to respect and be in deep relationship with people who think, believe, and hold values that are very different from your own. Though that seems like it should be a basic assumption, today in our society’s hot rhetoric and deep divisions, it is all too rare.
Peter and I did not see eye-to-eye on many issues, and I counted him as a close friend and mentor. I was even blessed to be the recipient of his commitment to relationship and reconciliation when he and I sat down together to talk about my sexuality. It was a difficult subject for Peter, but it was even more difficult for him to imagine us not being able to talk about it. I can’t say whether our discussion changed his outlook, but I can say that we remained in close relationship. I can’t help but to think about Peter as I read today’s gospel lesson from Matthew.
We pick up this week right where we left off last week. We are still in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus has just finished announcing that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. True to this proclamation, he immediately turns his attention to the religious laws of his day and makes them even more stringent than they already were; Jesus does not lower the bar, but raises it to new heights.
To be honest, it makes us feel uncomfortable. We can get behind rules like, “don’t murder people and don’t cheat on your spouse,” but that is not enough for Jesus. “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say, ‘you shall not hold anger against another.’ You have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that if you have looked at another person with lust, then you have already committed adultery.” Those are much harder rules to swallow. I suspect that most of us have never had the urge to murder, but we’ve all been angry, perhaps even holding grudges.
So what’s going on here? First, I think that Jesus is saying to those who have gathered to hear him teach, “If you are going to be my disciple, it is not going to be easy—you’ve got to be serious!” Second, I think that Jesus is pointing to something that is underneath the letter of the law; Jesus is pointing to something that is deeper than the law first appears to be.
“You must do more than avoiding murder,” Jesus tells us, “you must also seek reconciliation!” He goes on, “It is not enough to refrain from adultery; you must also refrain from lusting and treating other people as objects for your pleasure. What’s more,” Jesus continues, “society may allow you to divorce your wife for no reason, but I say to you that you must not treat your wife as property that can be cast aside when your interests wander elsewhere—let your vows mean something!”
While all these laws seem to be about maintaining social order and the common good on the surface—after all, the world would be chaotic if there were no rules to create order—Jesus pulls out their deeper goals. Jesus raises the stakes, and in so doing, shows what these laws all have in common—they are about living a life in right relationship with each other. What’s more, in doing this, Jesus invites us to do the same and seek the heart of the commandments that lead to deeper relationship.
We might imagine Jesus continuing this section of his sermon, “You have heard it said, ‘you shall care for the poor,’ but I say to you that you must also remove those economic systems that exploit the poor and the powerless for the benefit of the rich.” Or, “You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor,’ but I say to you that you must seek to see God in your sister or your brother.” I can even imagine Jesus saying, “You have heard it said, ‘you shall feed the hungry,’ but I say to you that you must sit and break bread with those who hunger and give thanks with your sisters and brothers to God above for the food that you have received together.”
Jesus sets these laws before us, not to trip us up, but to lead us into a life of deeper relationship with each other. Our lives are short and death becomes us all. As our reading from Deuteronomy notes, the short time we have is filled with adversity and hardships; the laws were given to us not as a burden, but as a way to live that leads to life. God calls to us from the scripture, “Choose life!” Choose the way that leads to greater integrity and identity!
I think that is why I found myself thinking of Peter as I read these texts. He was a man of integrity and identity, and in his pursuit of relationship and reconciliation with those who were blessed to know him, he was building the kingdom of heaven. My sisters and my brothers, we are all called to seek and build the kingdom of heaven, and we do not seek the kingdom of heaven in our dying, but through our living. So let us heed Jesus’ call to pursue the path that leads to greater relationship with all of God’s children.
Preached by Adam Yates