The Rev. Gwendolyn Tobias
Frequently a preacher, myself included, starts a sermon with what they think is a story so interesting, an anecdote so compelling, the hope is that they will grasp the attention of the listeners from the get go. I have a hunch, however, that today’s gospel has already done just that.
Hearing Scripture like today’s brings to mind a statement reported to have been made by famed comedian W.C. Fields. When he was very ill in a hospital bed, he started leafing through a Bible. Everyone knew it was rare and unlikely for W.C. to be doing such a thing, but he explained himself, saying, dryly, “I’m looking for the loopholes!”
So where might we find some loopholes here? There are none, my sisters and brothers. However, a little truth telling is in order. And, oh, a disclaimer, too, such as we hear on television before a particularly difficult news story. Fair warning: the message you are about to hear may contain offensive or upsetting material, may even sound a little preachy. Be so warned. I’m gonna dive right into this.
Since Christmas we have been retracing the ministry of Jesus Christ in our gospel lessons. We celebrated his birth, witnessed his baptism, heard proclamation of the Messiah coming into the world. And then we followed Jesus as he formed a community of disciples knowing he couldn’t do his work alone. And for the past two Sundays, the collection of sermons known as the Sermon on the Mount has held sway. It began with Jesus proclaiming what blessedness looks like: the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn for what could be in the world, and those who stand for righteousness in the face of persecution. And then last week Jesus focuses in on his disciples and all who listened and told them what they are, what we are, as followers of Christ. “You are salt of the earth, the light of the world,” the spark that will light up the darkness. And as that light, Jesus says, “You are to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (who were the keepers of the law in that day). Finally, in our gospel today, it’s as if Jesus is saying, “Now, I am going to teach you how to be my disciples, how to become what you are.”
So startling were his teachings, I can’t imagine how those who sat at his feet must have felt. To hear, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Listen to me. I am the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.” This Jesus then takes that law and transcends the Scripture they had been hearing in the synagogues for years, opened it up, showed them the core of it, the root of the commandments. They must have been just astonished and enthralled. And today he goes to the heart of things—instructions about four of the most difficult issues concerning human behavior and relationships: murder, adultery, divorce, and lying. We’ll now explore each one and then a word about hell and hell of fire we heard not once but three times. He’s not messing around here.
Jesus begins each of the four teachings the same way. He says,
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say…”
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say…”
“You have heard it said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ but I say…”
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord,’ but I say…”
Murder? Of course, you shall not murder, but Jesus is saying, to begin with, watch your anger and check it before it gets out of hand or even comes close to rage. It’s not that anger is sinful per se, it’s what we do with our anger that can be sinful. Once insults are out of the mouth, the damage is done, and, if not further curtailed, can quickly escalate to rage and, yes, even to murder. We can, however, harness that energy and use it for good. The people in Tahrir Square and all across Egypt know this. Although furious with Mubarek they stood their ground in non-violent revolt even in the face of the brutal thugs…even in the face of three hundred who would be murdered. And now the world witnesses an amazing outcome of their patient determination.
Jesus then continues, saying, if you come to the altar, that is, seeking God, if you will, and know you have a difficulty with someone, settle it, deal with it as best you can. Make amends. Be that peacemaker I just taught you about and be blessed. Jesus is trying to help us before things get out of hand…trying to help us see the miracle about restoring relationships and offering and receiving forgiveness.
Adultery? Of course you know it’s forbidden, says Jesus, but he speaks of what leads up to it as sinful, too: observe your thoughts, the intention of your heart. Is there lusting for another’s spouse? Is there lusting period? Now to be honest, we all know it’s natural to appreciate someone’s outer beauty, handsome features, grace, form, personality, charisma, even chemistry, to be attracted to another, but if the intention is of a predatory nature, if the intention is looking upon another as a sex object, we are crossing a line and if uncontrolled and acted upon…lives are shattered. Jesus is saying, “Stop it before it begins.” And in order to really make his point here, Jesus uses a verbal tactic common in Middle Eastern culture: exaggeration and hyperbole. He says, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, too, and throw it away.” It’s better to correct these actions than for your whole body to submit and be thrown into hell. This is obviously not literal, or else we’d all be blind and armless, I’m afraid. The awareness of lust, of the intention of the heart ultimately, is a great opportunity to look at our own need, our longing, for sacred, healthy, relationship with another.
Divorce? In this matter, Jesus is clarifying what constitutes adultery. In first-century Palestine there was no command against divorce in Torah and it was strictly the prerogative of the husband. He didn’t even have to go to court if he wanted a divorce. He just had to decide himself, in the presence of witnesses, and obtain a certificate and out she went. And this was especially abusive in a day when women had no power of their own, no rights really. She had to be protected by a man. There were two schools of thought: that of Rabbi Shammai and that of Rabbi Hillel. Shammai said divorce should be asked only for sexual sins or gross indecency. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, said a husband could divorce his wife for anything that displeased him…burning his dinner is the example given in the literature. Jesus was saying no. Marriage is nothing about which to be lax. This is why the Episcopal Church and most other main line denominations take pre-marital counseling so seriously…why we embrace marriage as a sacrament and one to be supported by a worshiping community. Now clearly, the Jesus of the New Testament is not saying one must stay in a marriage no matter what, nor is he saying that anyone who divorces is committing adultery. To interpret ethical decisions based only on the law and not on love and discernment is always a mistake. While we hold up reconciliation in the union of two persons in Christ, weep with, and help those who are going through the bitter pain of discord, sometimes, as we know too well, there is dissolution of a marriage…but it should always be as a very last resort and after trying everything possible to resolve differences.
Testifying falsely? This one is simple, short, and to the point. In the first century, just as today, of course one is forbidden to lie after swearing an oath to tell the truth in the name of God. But Jesus takes it further. He says, speak the truth in all things, not just when under oath. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. There should be no need for any oath. Tell the truth.
And now a word about the threat of hell and hell fire. We hear of it three times in today’s gospel. The Greek here is Gehenna. It is derived from the area to the southwest of Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom. It was in Gehenna that rubbish and the bodies of plague victims were burned. Many scholars believe Jesus used this term to indicate horrible agony, mental anguish, corrosive despair. This inner, psychological torture is a result of making grave errors in thought, word, and deed. Practicing certain habits at the least leads one to utter torment and destruction. At most that torment continues after death. A dear friend and former rector in a parish I once attended used to say, “Hell is a place lovingly provided by God if that’s where you choose to go.”
Jesus is trying to stop trouble before it begins. He tells us, not so gently, that our discipleship is about both action and intent.
We can’t pussyfoot around today’s gospel, can’t whitewash it. If we can challenge ourselves to go with Jesus to the next step of right living, we find the freedom and peace of the Good News. And when we don’t, because sometimes we won’t, to turn around, seek reconciliation in Christ, and we will find it.
It’s not always easy to practice what Jesus is preaching. We listen to and follow the teachings of Christ today, not out of fear of punishment by Jesus for disobeying, but because his words convey practical wisdom, sound advice for being human (Matthew Myer Boulton, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 433).
Our actions affect one another in more ways than we know. In closing, I offer a brief personal story. When I was in the third grade I wanted to learn how to light a match. One early evening after dinner, I was home with my mother and older brother. My father and four of my five siblings were gone somewhere. My mother was sitting on the living room couch deeply engaged helping my older brother with some difficult homework challenge. I asked her if I could light a match, saying I thought I knew how to do it but just wanted to practice. I must have kept bugging her and she must have been so immersed in helping my brother that she finally consented saying, “Just one. And do it over the bathroom sink.” Off I went, matchbook in hand. I lit it on the first strike and then wondered what it might be like to light just one square of toilet tissue, over the sink of course. Unaware of how quickly it would alight, I was startled when it burst into flame in my hand. I jerked back, dropped the match in the sink and the flaming square fell on the floor. I bent down and quickly blew it out. As I did so, it went behind the toilet. When I saw that though the flame had been extinguished there was still a little ember glowing I blew on it again, this time even harder. It went behind the hamper and I was relieved that I had taken care of a close call. I left the bathroom and closed the door. After a few minutes I heard my brother say, “Mom, I think I smell something burning.” She looked up and saw smoke, dashed down the hall, and opened the door only to find the entire bathroom engulfed in flame. She slammed the door shut, ran to the kitchen and called the fire department. Within minutes, it seemed, there were sirens blaring, lights flashing, and then fire fighters tramping through our house with their hoses. A huge neighborhood crowd had gathered out front to watch. I was mortified but not so much as my older siblings the next day when the news reported a “fire set by the Warnke children.” One can control a fire when it first starts, usually, but once it is blazing it is uncontrollable.