6 Epiphany—Year A
February 12, 2017
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
It’s always dangerous to take scripture out of context, and certainly this is especially true with today’s passage about anger and lust. The first thing to remember is that Jesus is talking to disciples that he is forming into a community that is capable of living as he does in the presence of God’s kingdom here and now. The disciples want be formed into a community that is capable of experiencing a taste of heaven on earth through relationships with God and neighbor characterized by peace, joy, love, and forgiveness. That’s why last week we said a better translation of the word “righteousness” is the phrase “covenant faithfulness”, because righteousness in our world usually applies to individuals and usually is understood to mean, self-righteous individuals. Covenant, on the other hand, is about a community that is formed and ordered by the living God, so that it becomes a blessing to neighbors and nations.
Without this covenantal, community-based, context our passage today becomes unintelligible which may explain why we have trouble getting our minds around it. Does Jesus really expect me to become so rigid and legalistic that a lusty daydream should cause me to do damage to my body?
I’ve been to numerous churches and have never seen eyeballs and hands lying around nor have I seen a disproportionate number of men and women with only one arm or one eye.
So what is Jesus trying to get at in this part of his sermon about anger and lust? Is he laying down new laws we are supposed to get good at following or could it be he is offering us insight into what God’s loving will is for his redeemed people, so that our daily lives don’t become a dumpster fire, or Gehenna which is the Greek word translated hell in this passage but which is the name of the smoldering garbage dump outside Jerusalem.
To me at least when I hear the phrase “God’s Law” it sounds like something separate from and not closely connected to God Himself. It sounds impersonal.
However, the phrase God’s will sounds like something that is part of God, intimate to God’s Being, that is, it sounds personal.
To be told to follow God’s Law makes me think there must be a divine checklist kind of like the one Santa uses in the song, on which God marks either yes or no.
“Did Bill murder anyone today: No…not yet!” “Did Bill get angry at anyone today”: Not yet but it’s early.
But when the law comes at me as God’s will it feels like a personal word to me in the moment that comes from God’s heart: God says, “Bill, it’s important to me that you not murder anyone today or nurse a raging anger at someone.” This feels personal, like God is telling me this for my sake in order to help me have a better day and a better life and a better community.
That’s why I think it was a mistake when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Alabama, Roy Moore, back in 2003 erected on the statehouse grounds a stone replica of the Ten Commandments. My argument isn’t just on Constitutional grounds, but rather it is the fact that this takes the Ten Commandments, the heart of God’s Law, and removes them from any personal relationship with the God who gives them. God gave those laws to Moses and the People of Israel as a loving guide to building a community of justice, peace, and love. Inside the covenant of God’s everlasting love the law is personal and compassionate.
This is what we see in Deuteronomy today: Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish….”
It is an act of profound compassion for God to reveal to his people how to live so that their community is just and peaceful, just as it is an act of compassion to tell them what damage they will do to themselves when they follow other gods who offer ways to live that lead to the destruction of the community.
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
I hope all of us are blessed with parents who did the same thing for us: They said, “My beloved children it is for your benefit that I give you rules for eating: so, go easy on the Twinkies and Kool-Aid and instead eat fruits and veggies, and drink lots of milk so that you will grow strong and healthy.
But if you follow the advice of the TV gods and their commercials promoting the joy of junk food, then your arteries will clog and your life will be filled with all sorts of avoidable illnesses.”
At no time were the commandments meant to replace our relationship with our creator. That’s why God tells Moses to put the Ten Commandments inside the Ark and then put a thick lid on top. Above the lid was where Moses, and then later the High Priest would meet with God.
So as Jesus, who is the place where we meet God, begins his teachings on how to live inside the Kingdom, he does not say that the Law doesn’t matter—much to the chagrin of liberals—nor does he say, just follow the law and you’ll be fine—much to the chagrin of conservatives.
Rather he says, “Look deeper than the letter of the Law all the way into the deepest part of your being and learn from me how to repair your broken relationships and thus heal your community.” Go into the dark places where your raging anger turns people into objects you wish to harm and then seek forgiveness and reconciliation with your brother and sister. Go into the dark places where your raging lust turns women or men into objects you wish to use, and learn from me how to seek relationships of faithful love with a real person.
Jesus is calling us to follow him into the dark places, instead of living on the superficial self-righteousness we present to the world.
Of course no one dares to enter those dark places without the assurance that Jesus is with us as guide and healer. Jesus’s death on the cross shows us his love his so fierce he will enter the darkest places of our heart and his resurrection shows us that his life is so powerful that he can heal even the most broken places within us.
We enter the dark places not to heal ourselves but in order to let him heal us and return us, his lost sheep, to the community of the King.
So let me be practical. When, not if, our anger and lust turn people into objects and thus destroy community, then one practice is to pray to Triune God and begin: “Loving Lord, you know I’ve been nursing my anger at Joe and that I’ve been fantasizing for weeks about Susy and that my soul is in turmoil.” That’s the part where we are mindful of what’s really going on inside us and name it to God and our ourselves.
Then we continue: “I pray, Lord, that you will show me the joy that you feel when you look at Joe and Susy in their full humanity. Let me experience how you see them—as beloved children, as brother and sister to your Son, Jesus.” That’s the part where we own our need for God’s help in seeing reality rightly.
This prayer frees us from seeing objects to attack or to use for our pleasure, so that we can see full-blooded human beings who are part of the Beloved Community with us. We will see them as people to forgive and serve, instead of objects to hate and use.
And we can also ask God to show us the joy God feels when he looks at us when we have raging anger at ourselves for not being perfect robots.
Jesus comes to build the beloved community out of flawed human beings who get angry and experience lust. He knows that we are but dust and that we cannot change ourselves by ourselves. So he calls us to follow him into the covenant community where we can choose life and prosperity; where as the Gospel of John says we can know the only true God and Jesus Christ who God has sent. John 17:3