Matthew 5: 21-37
For almost 15 years now I have been able to successfully dodge this piece of scripture that we will hear in a minute. I could have actually dodged it today by simply not using it but I’ve committed to following the lectionary; sticking with it even when I would rather do otherwise. It’s kind of like starting a book that you find completely dull and oh so very tedious but you stick with it, you give it the old college try.
The Revised Common Lectionary has some great passages for reflections, many of which we learned and loved as kids. But sometimes the lectionary has us look at passages that are unpleasant or hard to understand and this is a hidden beauty. It’s a hidden beauty because sometimes it leads you places where you’d rather not go, you know those creepy corridors that put you on edge? But you keep with it because you just don’t know what you’ll find in those frightening places. Often you find grace.
Another reason to not to skip this passage is that the lectionary readings are followed by other Christians around the world, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists so we are all reflecting on the same passage on any given Sunday. That gives me some comfort to know that other preachers and congregants will wrestle today seeking understanding. I had a text frenzy on Friday night with two of my closet and dearest colleagues in ministry, one in West Falmouth and the other in Vermont reflecting on this passage and sharing our thoughts and unique interpretations. They each will get up on Sunday morning and faithfully preach the Gospel as God and their hearts have moved them. We nurture one another in seeking God’s path and God’s truth.
Year A of the three year lectionary is devoted to the Gospel of Matthew so that is where we will find ourselves for most of this liturgical year. Matthew writes for the early church and the issues that plagued it.
So, after that long and apologetic beginning, are your seatbelts fastened? Here we go! Hear the word of the Lord from the Gospel of Matthew.
“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.
So there, I said it. These words are not easy to hear nor are the easy to read aloud to you this morning. Surprisingly, we find this passage in the beloved Sermon on the Mount right after the scripture read last week about salt, light and Jesus saying he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it. You see the Sermon on the Mount has some beautiful parts to it like the Beatitudes and lilies of the field but really the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preaches is a counter cultural message to the pervading culture of first century Palestine.
Jesus reinterprets the law; he addresses some of the more contentious issues of his day and with quite the hyperbole. I mean how are we to live without our appendages?[i] In essence he is saying, no, I’m not contradicting Torah, but I AM challenging the interpretations of law. I’m going beyond the law and making it relevant to peoples lives today. He sets the bar higher than what was expected and acceptable in his day.
What were contentious issues in his day were murder and anger, adultery, divorce and the taking of oaths. These issues were dividing the early community of Jesus’ followers. Now we could do a full contextual study on each of the four issues Jesus dares to bring up. But that would be a bit dry and tedious for most. Let’s just say that in each of the four scenarios Jesus calls for a new way of viewing and being in relationship. There were many more strict ramifications for breaking any of these laws than there are today. Behind these prohibitions lies restoration. Jesus looks at broken relationships within the realm of God and the awesome possibilities for healing.
When briefly looked at, in the words of Steve Godfrey from Church in the World, “Our real problem is not ultimately murder, but the anger that lies at its core. Our real problem he says is not ultimately adultery but the lust in our hearts. Our real problem he says is not when to allow divorce, but the brokenness of relationships.”
Or in the words of another scholar: ‘Underneath the prohibition of murder is respect for another. Underneath adultery is how we organize our biological selves. Underneath divorce lies human hard-heartedness. Underneath swearing Jesus expects full commitment to every utterance, ‘say what you mean and mean what you say.’[ii]
Jesus challenges us to see our preconceived notions of the law in a much different way, a way that recognizes and celebrates the value of each man and each woman and each child. He envisions ways of healthy, living, vibrant relationships that are not broken or shattered. And that takes some work.
Heaven knows there’s plenty brokenness in this world, especially now. Broken trust, broken confidence, broken hearts, broken systems. Our first tendency when something is broken is to toss it out. My computer crashed, time to get a new one. This old set of broken and mismatched dishes are unsightly, give them to Goodwill and get new ones. Right? So we just want to get rid of the unsightly, the shattered or cracked. Why keep brokenness around when we can get a new computer or and new set of dishes? That’s the easy way out. Where is the growth? Where is the healing? But Jesus sets the bar higher.
I am reminded of crafters on Pinterest who make beautiful jewelry out of broken glass and pottery shards. Nothing is wasted, nothing is beyond the eye and heart of an artist who creates beauty out of bedlam. Restoration can happen if you are open to the newness that Christ brings.
Relationships might be broken right now but its no reason to toss them out. Our country and congress might be broken right now but it’s no time to give up on it. Remembering that each human being on this planet is a beloved child of God we seek beauty and restoration in brokenness.
What Jesus is saying in these teachings is that there can be beauty and blessing in brokenness when you are attuned to the realm of God, which resides within our hearts. Remember that Christ’s body was broken for us and in that brokenness we are healed.
There is blessing in brokenness because we know that God draws near to those who are broken, whose lives seem beyond repair, God is right there creating anew. When people and systems are broken new life can be released, remember ‘We are the clay, you are the potter, we are the work of your hands.’[iii] God fashions us for goodness. Brokenness can bring a new and greater capacity to and for love.
And of course, brokenness can bring about fruitfulness. Remember the little boy with only five loaves of bread. Once broken those loaves of bread brought abundance and fed 5,000 people that day on the side of the mount. Life given. Life restored.
That Jesus! Always reinterpreting law so that the broken can become whole, so that our lives and our relationships may experience reconciliation and restoration in ways that goes way beyond our human capacity for understanding.
Thanks be to God!
[i] Either Feasting on the Word, Weekly Seeds, or Steve Godfry.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Edwin Chr. Van Driel.
[ii] Isaiah 64:8
Gracious God, Sweet Jesus, help us to bring back the sweetness into this world that has been carved with cruelty and destruction. Help us to mend the wounds we have inflicted on others and ourselves. Call us with compassion to see others as Your children, as our kindred, and that all have the possibility of repentance, redemption, forgiveness and healing, for nothing is impossible for you Lord Jesus, help us to mend the broken hearted even as we are broken ourselves. We are hurt, we are angry, and we are tired. Help us to find Your goodness in others and in the world, and help us to make the world sweet again as you so created it.
We pray for the indigent, the homeless, those who are starving and the oppressed; set free from those bonds which keep them from living fully and we pray for those also who hold them down. Let justice in this world prevail so that the work of all people who lived and died in the name of freedom and equality may be carried on. Oh Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for those people, known and unknown who are sick in body, mind or spirit, for those live with mental illness, with cancer, with the uncertainty of knowing ‘just what’s wrong’, for the addicted and recovering, and for those who lives will not be long upon this earth. Grant your healing and restoration upon them, give them peace and strength for their journey’s ahead. Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for our country and our leaders, for all who are in a position of authority over others; grant to them integrity, morality and ethical decision making, clear sight and vision for a future filled with hope and freedom for all. Lord, hear our prayer.
We lift up the women and men who serve in the armed forces so that we can remain free. Kristin, Michael _________________________________________________________________ Give to them strength and stamina for what we have called them to do, keep them from harm’s way. Send peace to this world O Lord because we could really use it. O Lord, hear our prayer.
For our children and for the world’s children we give you thanks. May they grow into their fullest potential imbued with your spirit with a thirst for justice and peace.
Lord, hear our prayers and grant to us healing in the process.
[iii] Isaiah 64:8