February 12, 2023
12A Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
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.” Matthew 5:21-37
“Today that I have set before you life and death, blessings, and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. Choose the blessing so that you and your descendants may be blessed.”
Choose life. Choose the blessing. The advice would appear to be easy to give, but certainly harder to follow. And yet do we not regularly find ourselves at a crossroads that speaks to this most basic and important decision to choose life rather than death and to choose the blessing rather than the curse?
Choosing life and blessing seem to me to have much to do with whether our psycho/spiritual development has nurtured more the facer and embracer in us, as opposed to the fleer and escaper in us. Part of the work of our growing up psychologically and our developing spiritually is moving, and more importantly allowing God to move, the needle away from the flight and escape side of the meter, always more in the direction of facing and embracing. Yes, growth and transformation are about allowing God to draw us ever more out of fear and immerse us ever more deeply in faith.
This morning scriptures invite us to look at ourselves, in these important terms. And yes, they are important. Do we really want to die, never having lived? Do we really want to have passed our days, whatever their length, swimming in a sea of curses rather than breaching in an ocean of blessings?
Standing still is not really an option. After all we Christians are pilgrims. It is in our spiritual DNA to identify as people on the move. Our story began with an Exodus. And we are followers of the One who said of Him Self, “I am the Way”. And if Jesus is the Way, His disciples simply cannot stand still. Where are you and I in this regard? Do we generally find ourselves fleeing or embracing life and its blessings?
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul, questions whether the believing community in Corinth is ready for solid food. He discerns their spiritual childishness in the jealous and quarrelsome nature of their relationships with each other. He observes in them those behaviors that speak of their making choices for death and the curse rather than for life and the blessing. So much like our own congress.
Paul sees the Corinthians as running away from the opportunity of that abundant life that Christ has made possible for them, preferring their own smallness and niggardliness rather than the largeness and largess of God. But although they often fall short of Gods’ desires for them in their response to the choices given them, Paul never gave up hope for them, as God never abandons His hope for us.
In last Sunday’s gospel, in response to accusations coming from the religious authorities that He was a lawbreaker who encouraged His followers to break the law, and that He was disrespectful of the teaching of those who had preceded Him in setting the boundaries and contours of Israel’s religious practice, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus uses a few examples, presented in a very dramatic fashion, to help His audience understand what He means when He speaks about fulfilling both the Law and the teaching of the Prophets. The law and the prophets are fulfilled not in people making choices to keep the letter of the law and to live within the confines of the religious traditions. The law and the traditions are not ends in themselves. For Jesus they are but a springboard into a deeper response and experience.
He uses the formula, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.” And He then, in this morning’s gospel, highlighting four examples, restates them to make a very important distinction.
You have heard the commandment, “Do not murder.”
You have heard the commandment, “Do not commit adultery.”
You know the traditional strictures concerning divorce.
You have heard the commandment, “Do not bear false witness.”
This teach concludes with two additional examples, namely, you have been schooled in a tradition of justice that says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
And lastly, “You have been taught to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
Yes, you have heard all these commandments and you have been schooled in all these traditions. But these are not fulfilled in their merely being kept, or even in their continuing to be affirmed and honored as stated. They are fulfilled in their bringing us to a place of risking reflection and action beyond their narrow and limited definition. And in all cases even rejecting their obvious and limited intent and strictures in favor of a higher standard.
And with each of these six examples Jesus begins to spell out what is means to live into and beyond the laws and the traditions toward their fulfillment.
We do this as we journey as pilgrims on that road which is always to be recognized as the Way of the Cross. On that journey, when we come to those defining crossroads Jesus invites us to understand that the choice is not simply: to murder or not to murder; to commit adultery or not to commit adultery; to divorce or not to divorce; to lie or not to lie; to choose which eye to blind or which tooth to knock out; or lastly to determine who it is you should love and who it is you should hate. At each of these choice points, there is always the third option to be discerned, faced, and embraced. It is the Jesus way.
Let’s consider each of the first four of them in turn.
It is easy for most of us not to murder someone – most days – but it is much harder not to hold a grudge or do the hard work of offering forgiveness. It is harder to face the truth that anger already brings death and the curse to the one who carries anger in their heart. Jesus defines His Way as the way of those who choose to be “pure of heart” and who proactively engage reconciliation in every relationship as the need presents itself. To choose this is to truly choose life and a blessing.
As to adultery the choice is not merely to commit or not to commit it, but to recognize that fidelity in a relationship goes well beyond sexual fidelity and that an act of adultery is generally preceded by so many other withdraws from intimacy in a relationship, by so many other expressions of not being faithful to those promises that were made to become one. The way of Jesus is to not simply to speak the words of love but to do the work of love, that is, to do the work of deepening intimacy especially on those days and in those moments that you may have lost those loving feelings, rather than seeking an escape into something like internet porn.
In the time of Jesus to divorce a woman was yet another expression of male dominance. Only the man could divorce, only the woman could commit adultery. And when she was divorced, either for just cause or more commonly for some frivolous reason, she became as a piece of discarded trash, losing her personhood and all rights in the process.
In the day of Jesus to divorce a woman was to effectively kill her. The way of Jesus challenged those time-honored traditions. Jesus instead insisted that women be honored and ratcheted up the requirements for men to face the murderous effects of patriarchy in the marital relationship. To choose in this new way would bring to fulfillment the prophetic demand to cease every form of oppression.
Lastly, the Jesus choice with regards to truth telling or lying is not simply a matter of the words we speak, but a matter of the integrity of the lives we live. It was His commitment to truth that brought Him to the cross. Do we stand behind and under or fail to stand behind and under whatever we affirm or deny? Do we put our money where our mouth is? The higher standard of Jesus as regards to truth telling has become ever more urgent at a time, such as the present when public oaths to public service and safety that have been taken, are daily being exposed for the lies they were.
The oath to protect has deceitfully morphed into a license to terrorize and assault the innocent. We see this in criminal policing actions and in the inhumane system that has been imposed upon migrants seeking integration into this nation. Those huddled masses yearling to breathe free. And with this gross failure in any semblance of integrity comes the invitation for the rest of us to live the lie and nurture its advance by living and acting from a place of fear rather than faith.
Jesus has raised the bar and at every turn invites us to choose a higher standard. May we be found worthy of that calling and making every effort to offer a more fulfilled response to the law and the prophets.
February 12, 2023