I had the privilege of preaching at my internship site, Grace Lutheran Church in Petersburg, WV. The text was the gospel reading Matthew 5:21-37.
Relationships. They can be so wonderfully nurturing, so helpful to get us through difficult times in life. Whether they are friends or family. There are people that I’ve had as friends for years. We don’t see each other often, talk often, and yet when we’re together…we pick up right where we left off. They’re the kind of friends you can laugh and cry with.
I have one long time friend like that. Her name is Pat—she laughed with me and cried with me. When my Mom was dying and I was far away overseas, she visited her in the hospital when I couldn’t. Mom died 3 weeks before I returned to the States. Pat mourned with me. When I struggled with readjusting to life in the States, Pat walked with me. And we still pick up where we left off whenever we talk.
Other relationships aren’t as forgiving. It seems like one little thing, just one issue can start a big fight. No matter what you do or say after that, there is always tension between you. One thing seems to lead to another until the relationship is so broken, that you just give up.
There are many difficult and troubling things in today’s gospel passage. We have Jesus quoting the law’s requirements, and then interpreting them even more stringently than the scribes or Pharisees. The law teaches not to murder. Jesus said it’s wrong to be angry.
The law forbids adultery. Jesus teaches that even lustful thoughts about someone are wrong. It is an issue of the heart, which we cannot pluck out or cut off.
The law gives guidelines about divorce so that the wife wouldn’t be left out in the cold. Jesus forbids divorce altogether. Some of us have struggled especially with this issue. Some of us are victims of a divorce we never wanted.
The law forbids false oaths. Jesus says not to make an oath at all!
I’ve been a bit puzzled with this passage. Is Jesus being moralistic, just laying down a tougher law? Is that all God wants us to know is how to behave? Doesn’t that just sound like more law? Where is the grace?
It all boils down to relationships. Jesus died for all humanity. And he wants his people to be one, to show his love, to be a witness to the world, not in word alone, but in action. It’s about our relationship to God and one another.
I was visiting one of our members the other day. We talked together about how sometimes it’s the small things that really irritate us—the cashier at the grocery store that’s more interested in talking to her friend at the next register rather than acknowledging your presence. Something that particularly irritates me is getting cut off in traffic. Now it doesn’t happen as much here as in RI, but I do get ticked when it does happen. It’s the little things that can build up.
The heart of murder is anger. Over time that anger builds. We’ve all heard the expression, “If looks could kill.” Sometimes it’s written all over a person’s face. Anger is the source of murder. Murder is the symptom. Jesus is teaching about relationships in his kingdom—redeemed relationships and what they look like.
In the epistle reading today, Paul addressed the issue of relationships within the body of Christ at Corinth. There were factions. The body of Christ was broken and splintered. This breaks God’s heart.
Luther interpreted the commandments in much the way Jesus did. It’s a matter of going beyond what’s written to the heart of God’s desire. Concerning the 5th commandment prohibiting murder Luther wrote, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help them in all their physical needs” (http://www.oldlutheran.com/page.php?page=confirmation&id=2). God’s desire is not just that we don’t kill, don’t get angry or hurt our neighbor, but that we help them.
How do we relate to our neighbors? Are we letting God’s love flow through us so that Christ’s body may be whole? Do others see this love in us? If a neighbor is sick, do we see if there’s any way we can help? Are we supportive to the neighbor who is a single mom?
Being in right relationship to our brothers and sisters even trumps our gifts to God. We heard that in last week’s Old Testament text. God was not impressed with the Israelite’s fasting and sacrifices—He wanted right relationships, the ending of oppression and injustice. When accused, Jesus says to QUICKLY come to terms with our accuser. Reconcile quickly.
If how we should relate to one another is the heart of the matter, then each of the examples Jesus lifts up, is more of the same.
Adultery, that’s certainly not a pleasant topic of conversation, but the Ten Commandments and Jesus address it. Adultery is symptomatic. The cause is lust according to Jesus. And there are so things in our world today that feed lust. It’s in our faces seemingly everywhere we look. How does one not look at another without lust when the stimulus for it is all around us? It all boils down to relationship—how we think about one another—how we treat one another. Luther puts it this way, “We are to fear and love God so that in matters of sex our words and conduct are pure and honorable, and husband and wife love and respect each other” (ibid.). Murder, adultery—it’s about relationship with God and then relationship with each other—being one of love and respect for each other.
Jesus goes on to deal with another issue, the matter of divorce. This is an issue many of us have struggled with. After being married for 21 years, my former husband no longer wanted to be married. I didn’t even believe in divorce. It didn’t seem possible that this could be happening to us. And we have these verses in Matthew and elsewhere about divorce. And yet, it wasn’t my fault that my marriage broke up. And I suspect I’m not the only one who has struggled with this issue. How do we hear these words? Where is the grace? Where in here is the gospel?
. One commentator suggests that the issue was that of divorcing in order to marry someone else. He writes, “[The] point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery. That is, [Jesus’] strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else, sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one's desires or ambitions” (workingpreacher.org).
Jesus’ last issue is that of oaths. The law said not to swear falsely. Jesus said not to swear at all. People would swear by God, by someone’s life etc. to add emphasis to their words. Later on in Matthew Jesus gives a number of examples as he is rebuking the religious leaders of his day. Jesus’ point is to do what you say you’re going to do. Keeping our word is a way of respecting others, a way of being in right relationship with others. Doing what we say we’re going to do is a means of maintaining the unity of Christ’s body.
Luther’s spin on the commandment about false witness is, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest way” (http://www.oldlutheran.com/page.php?page=confirmation&id=2). That’s so hard to do, especially for those of us on the cynical side, myself included. Can we ask God to help us see and understand them the way he does? Can we look at this neighbor through the lens of grace?
Jesus is talking about kingdom relationships—the kingdom that is to come and that which is here and now because of his death, burial, and resurrection. Take the Ten Commandments, for instance. The first group of commandments is about our relationship with God. The remaining commandments are about relationships with one another.
This God, who loved the world so much, loved us so much as to send Jesus to die, desires us to be in communion with him and with one another. We are being challenged by the gospel to see the world in a new way. Behind the seeming rules and regulations is God’s vision of a restored, redeemed humanity.
How can we practically live out this lifestyle Jesus sets before us? Do we have a God-sized vision for justice in this world that goes beyond our prejudices? Do we resist helping out at the food pantry because we think maybe those people deserve their lot in life?
Do we have a vision for reconciliation between friends, neighbors, enemies that can serve as a beacon of God’s love? Can we allow God to use us to help provide a hope and a future to those living on the fringes of society, the disenfranchised, the ostracized, the despairing?
It may mean changing our preconceived ideas about people, our self-righteous knowledge. It means following our Lord in laying down our lives for the people he laid his life down for. Can you imagine what such a world would be like—where we honor and treat each other as those blessed and beloved by God (David Lose)? To quote Louis Armstrong, “And I say to myself, what a wonderful world…”