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Rules or Relationships?

This is the message I shared last Sunday at Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY, where I have the privilege of serving as pastor. It is based on Matthew 5:21-37.

            The Ten Commandments don’t sound that hard, do they? Is Jesus doing away with the law? After all, that’s the Old Testament. It doesn’t really apply to us today…or does it? Jesus’ interpretation makes it sound like he’s making it a lot harder. Jesus doesn’t let any of us off the hook, but levels the playing field. We all fall short and we’re all guilty.

            Jesus is not giving us a new, harder list of rules. Rather, he is talking about the intention of the commandments. Jesus is saying, “Yes, I am challenging interpretations of the law that are not consistent with its heart: whole-hearted love of God and neighbor." Remember that Jesus told the rich man that the two greatest commandments were to love God with your whole heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is the crux on which everything—the 10 Commandments and the law are based. 

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses various examples to demonstrate that simply committing the act is not the root of the problem. The root is the intention behind the action. Another way to put this is that it’s not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. Jesus breaks down the act of murder to its root of anger with others and insulting others. We may have never committed murder, but I’ll bet that we have been angry and maybe even said things we shouldn’t have said. If nurtured, that plant of anger grows into hatred and ultimately murder. God considers reconciliation so important that it takes precedent over the ritual of giving gifts to God. Reconciliation takes precedence over legal settlements as well. Jesus goes so far as to say that if God’s people are the victims of such activity, they are responsible to restore the relationship. We are to overcome anger by becoming the opportunity for repairing broken relationships. 

            We need to treat each other with respect rather than anger. Once our hearts are right, our motivation will be that of love to our neighbor and our enemy. Jesus is calling for his people to see relationships differently. He wants our lives to demonstrate God’s vision of a new humanity of restored relationships in our broken world. The Christian life is all about relationships—relationship with God, relationship with each other and relationship with our community. Does that sound familiar?

            Jesus uses the example of marital infidelity to demonstrate the importance of relationships. In Jesus’ time, adultery referred to dishonoring a male of one’s community by having sexual relations with his wife. It was all about a woman being the property of her husband. Once again Jesus goes to the heart of infidelity—relationship. Where loyalty, trust, and giving of oneself to each other,       epitomizes a marriage, there is no room for adultery. Objectifying others as a means to satisfy our physical desires by lusting after them is the root that grows into adultery. 

The ultimate sin in marriage is not divorce, but the lack of mutual sharing and giving of oneself to the other. Divorce in Jesus’ time was more like abandonment. Once again, the spirit of the law goes to how we treat people. “Jesus allows no room for divorce in a culture in which divorce is an assault on the value of persons, an abuse of power, or a trivializing of faithful commitments (Long, 60).  People should not be treated as disposable. In contrast to a world where women were treated as property, Jesus gave women dignity to the point where they were invited into his mission as disciples.

            Jesus sounds extreme when he speaks of tearing out one’s right eye or cutting off one’s right hand. These are statements of intentional overstatement to make a point. God’s law is not meant as a killjoy, but as something that is for our own benefit. It’s like limiting what our children do because it just isn’t good for them. How many of us have told our children these things: don’t play in the street, don’t play with fire, and treat each other nicely and play together? We limit children’s activities because we love them. God is doing the same thing for us. The purpose of the law and the 10 Commandments were to set the boundaries in which we are to live as a civilized society. They shouldn’t be looked at as a series of “Thou shalt nots,” "If you do this, you’re going to be punished." What God is saying is as long as you live in a certain way and conduct yourself within these boundaries, you’ll be alright. When you go beyond these boundaries, there will be consequences that will cause hurt to yourself and to others. As Luther stressed, maybe the law is the precious gift of an adoring parent given to beloved children, showing them how to treat each other well. All the talk of cutting off body parts serves to demonstrate just how important our relationships are to God.

            Jesus’ teaching on faithfulness flows right into the teaching on oaths. The oath taking of this passage has nothing to do with taking oaths to testify to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth like we do in court. Swearing falsely doesn’t mean cursing God either. It boils down to bearing false witness when we lie, when we distort, conceal, and evade telling the truth. Jesus again takes our responsibility one step further. Jesus calls his disciples to lives of integrity and of faithfulness to promises. A person like this has no need to swear that they are telling the truth because their nature is being truth-tellers. 

            The concern was to honor God’s name, not to profane it by making an oath using God’s name and then failing to perform it. Invoking God’s name was to invoke his presence. To do so lightly was to seek to use God’s power instead of putting oneself at God’s service. 

            We should speak and act truthfully in all our dealings, and then we have no need to make oaths at all. Our word should be our bond without need of making false promises by invoking God’s name. 

            God cares deeply about how we treat each other because he loves us so very much Jesus is calling his people to live lives that lift up God’s desire of a new humanity of restored relationships in our world. 

            Martin Luther wrote:
This is true comfort that does not rest on our ability, but on the fact that we have a gracious God, who forgives our sins; on the fact that we believe in Christ and not in our own worthiness, he cleanses us from day to day; on the fact that whenever we fall short we should always place our hope and trust in Christ. See, this is the main drift of our Gospel.

            Jesus is calling us to view and live our relationships in a revolutionary way, the way of his kingdom. Can you imagine what life would look like if we did this? We would be demonstrating God’s vision of relationships of healing and restoration. Our relationships are meant to show the love of Christ to those around us. In John’s gospel Jesus said, “… everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). 

What might that love look like? It might mean you visit someone in the hospital, drop him or her a card to cheer them up, call someone you have been thinking about for a while, or a whole host of other activities. As far as our life together as a body of believers, it means we won’t spread half-truths about each other and gossip about something at church or about someone that bothers us. Of course, we know the whole problem with church is the people that go there. They’re a bunch of sinners! Yes, that’s true but at the same time, each and every one of us are also saints. The problems cited in today’s gospel are divisive and destructive for the life of the church. The real issue is how members of Christ’s body engage each other. Remember, God wants us to live his vision of a new humanity of restored relationships. 

            Let us be God’s good news to a world in pain and invite them to walk with us as together we live and proclaim God’s way. Amen. 

Works Consulted:
Dale C. Allison, the Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999)
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A
Thomas G. Long, the Westminster Bible Companion Commentary on Matthew (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
David Lose,

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