Matthew 5: 21-37
Preached Feb. 13, 2011 in the Center Moreland Charge
This week’s gospel lesson, continuing in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, is a text than many preachers like to avoid. There are many reasons for this—they don’t want to be seen as making themselves out to be morally superior, because maybe they’ve made some of the mistakes mentioned in this portion. Maybe they have had a divorce themselves, and don’t have the emotional energy to try to explain why. Rather than be seen as a hypocrite, they avoid it all together. Maybe they don’t want to have someone come to them and complain that they were embarrassed to have to explain to their children what adultery was.
The problem with that is, then, that the only time these texts are talked about are when used as a weapon. In divorces, especially in contentious ones, the accusation of adultery is the nuclear bomb of the legal world, in some ways more powerful than abuse.
Well, I do not feel that scripture is to ever be used as a weapon. I just don’t believe that a proper use of Scripture is to cause division, dissention, and hurt. Jesus may have come to bring not peace but a sword in some areas, but I sincerely do not believe he came to cause pain to people who are already hurting.
So I took this text on this week more than anything to find out what is said about these texts, by people wiser than I am. I wanted to find the Jesus I know and love in these hard passages.
Think about the three instances we read of the phrase “You have Heard it said”: Don’t be angry; Don’t commit adultery; don’t swear. He speaks more in depth about each case, but we can use these as three areas of discussion.
“You have heard that it was said”, Don’t be angry-and under that, don’t insult your brother and sister, don’t call anyone a fool, leave your offering at the altar until you have reconciled with them, and settle out of court.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible not to be angry sometimes. You see on TV or read in the paper about another shooting death, and you realize that it happened in the next township over. It’s reported that there was an argument between lovers, and both died because of it. Anger was the root cause of the actions that one person took, and he (allegedly) chose an action that was irreversible. So you can see that anger is dangerous, and you might think that Jesus is right to say that you should never be angry.
But what else are you to feel when the phone bill is almost double for the same amount of calls you made last month? How else are you to feel when the doctors can’t find what’s wrong, and this is your third time in the hospital? How else are you to feel when someone scratches the paint on your car with their shopping cart?
If Jesus was fully human, as we claim as a church, then Jesus knew what anger felt like. I can even point to a story from the Bible—when he cleared the temple of the corrupt moneychangers.
So, Is Jesus really saying here that we are not to ever be angry? That seems to be a little impossible, doesn’t it? What then are we to do?
“You have heard that it was said that you shall not commit adultery.” Then Jesus goes and describes adultery as something that far above and beyond what we’ve always known as adultery. In our world, his definition meddles in most of pop culture. So much of what we experience in our daily lives, from music to TV shows to commercials, (especially commercials) uses this very concept, the physical attractiveness of half the human species for the other half. And Jesus says essentially the first time you say that Katie Couric is kinda cute, you need to take your eyes out. The first time you say that Tim McGraw has a nice smile, pluck out your eyes.
We understand what adultery is. It is the breaking of a marriage vow in a very specific way by one partner or the other. When we pledge to be married, we pledge that we will forsake all others, and adultery is saying I forsake most others. I don’t think I pledged to Donna when we were married that I wouldn’t think occasionally that one of the women on Friends had a nice smile.
Scripture is silent on whether Jesus ever felt someone was cute, but what we do know is that he saw value for the Kingdom in both men and women, and saw them both as Children of God. We do know that Paul knew strong women who were witnesses to the faith. They seem to have been able to operate among all of the children of God, seeing the spark of God within each, and seeing their utility to God’s purpose. It was not adulterous for Paul to praise Priscilla and Eunice.
Divorce is a hard thing. Verse 32 is where most people grab hold of this text and swings it like a sword. But in this world, don’t you believe it to be true that as on commentator puts it: “the dynamics of some marriages are realm resistant, and that the purposes of the realm may be better served by freeing the couple to live into other relationships?”
Every marriage has issues. There are always negotiations, there are always compromises, each partner in the marriage changes a lot over a period of time. Not every partner is as flexible as God intends for the living of a good life together, and perhaps some marriages were agreed to under the wrong assumptions. Some marriages just need to end. I’m not saying that marriage needs to be a fluid, temporary institution at all. I am saying that we all know people who are probably better off without each other, and to stay together is to cause themselves and their children greater damage.
“You have heard that it was said that you should not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” What does it mean to swear? Apparently Jesus is not talking about cussing here. What he’s talking about is the concept of saying,” I swear that I will get this job done.”, or “I swear that I will never go into this town.” The key here is verse 36, when Jesus says that you cannot change the color of the hair on your head by swearing-it’s just not in your power. It is God’s alone. He is saying here that trying to exercise power, even when you are trying to be a person of integrity by doing so, promising to do something, by swearing to do it, oversteps the boundaries between humans and God. He says that you should only say yes, or no, and then let it be. Let your actions, with God’s help, be the evidence of your integrity. If you were to swear, say, on something of God, like the temple, or earth, or heaven, then fail, then what witness is that?
Jesus, in speaking of these passages, is making one point three different ways. We are, to the best of our abilities, never to take actions that destroy, invalidate, or damage the vows and relationships we have with our fellow human beings. Some of those vows and pledges are serious and deep, like marriage; others are the day to day workings of living a human life, like feelings of anger, or the need to keep a sense of integrity in your life. He goes over the top to make the point, sometimes, but the point is still made. You have, as a follower of Jesus Christ, a certain responsibility to manage and marshal the ordinary feelings of human life in a way that gives glory to God. Don’t make vows you can’t keep. If you have made vows, do what is necessary to either fulfill them, or withdraw from them honorably. Express anger and other human feelings in Godly ways-neither tamp them down, nor express them uncontrollably.
This is what I think Jesus is saying, because I read Jesus as the proclaimer of God’s grace and love, and God is a loving God. Jesus speaks with great exaggeration to make a simple, sober point-honor relationships in all ways, because in honoring your relationships, you give honor and witness to God.