This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church last Sunday, 2/12/23. The gospel text was Matthew 5:21-37.
The Ten Commandments tell us what kind of lives God wants us to live. But that’s not enough. In fact, it sounds like Jesus expects even more!
Murder is the first issue Jesus addresses. That doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for us here in this congregation, does it? Phew, we’re safe here.
But then, Jesus drills deeper into the real issue—what causes someone to commit murder. “…anyone who is…angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder” (v. 22). Jesus certainly doesn’t let us off the hook here! Sometimes we are angry with those we love the most—spouses, children and other relatives, friends.
Jesus continues, “If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right… only then, come back and work things out with God” (vv. 23-24). Did you catch that; when someone is angry with us? Sometimes we don’t have a clue why someone ignores us, and doesn't even respond when we say, “Hello.” The onus is on us to go and make things right, even when someone has something against us.
Let’s see if Martin Luther can help us out. Concerning the fifth commandment, he writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs” (The Small Catechism). This is Martin Luther’s answer to murder! From murder to anger to grudges to helping and supporting our neighbors!
Adultery and divorce are next. This teaching has been particularly significant for me. Most of you know that I was previously married and divorced. Having been raised Catholic, I struggled mightily with Jesus’ words.
In this case, Jesus works his way up to divorce, starting out with lustful looks and hyperbole about eyes and hands. Jesus has flipped things, going from the root of the problem to its fruit; divorce.
Divorce in Jesus’ day was completely unlike that of our day. “A divorced woman would have been forced to beg or work as a prostitute, if another man did not take her in. By tightening the requirements for when divorce is allowed, Jesus is ensuring that women will not be forced into compromising situations” (sundaysandseasons.com).
Martin Luther says concerning this commandment, “We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.” That’s not so bad. I can live with that.
Oaths, empty promises, are Jesus’ next subject. At Jesus’ time, it was much more common to swear by this or that when making a promise. I think of scenes from TV shows where someone being questioned by the police tries to convince them that they’re telling the truth, saying, “I swear it! I swear by my mother’s grave” or someone or something else. Writer Debie Thomas puts forward:
Jesus is suggesting a community in which the default assumption is that people tell each other the truth. People keep their promises. People don’t deceive one another. In such a community, no one needs to say, “I swear!” in order to earn trust. In God’s beloved community, no one uses language to connive or manipulate others. We remember that the words we say are spoken in the presence of God, and so we speak with care and respect for each other.
Luther makes this harder, remarking on the eighth commandment, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light” (The Small Catechism). Even that awful neighbor who mows his lawn at 6 am on a Saturday—the one day you want to sleep in? What about the one who lets her dogs out to wander and do their business on your lawn? There are many worse examples we can think of. Yet, Luther says to “interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” I really struggle with that. How about you?
What does this all mean to us? Does it seem Jesus is giving us a lecture on ethics and morals? At the heart of each issue is the motivation that lies beneath the actions. It’s unlikely any of us would be moved to murder someone, but we may have horrible thoughts about them. That’s just one case, but the same principle applies to each example in this gospel reading.
Jesus is unveiling to us ethics framed by love, woven together in love. It’s all about our relationships—our relationship with God, our relationship with each other and our relationship with our neighbors and world, which seems so upside down. We think things can’t get worse—and they do. It’s good to be on top of the news, but if you watch too much, you’ll just get depressed. There is only One in whom we can trust, who is with us in all things. He walks with us and talks with us through all of life’s ups and downs.
That’s how we can make a difference in our world— love of Christ, which leads to love for others with Christ’s love. One pastor related how when he started talking about his church helping the homeless in their city, some members walked out. They did not want to let in “those people.” We can give thanks that we, as a small church, do quite a bit to reach out to our neighbors, including socks for the homeless.
Let us pray. Jesus –We have heard [your words] about murder, adultery, divorce, and vows.
Teach us the depths of what was said. Move us from rote obedience to deep embodiment. Reframe how we move through our anger, our lust, our sexual immorality, and our commitments.
Renew our understanding, [to be] reconciled to one another. May we lose the pieces of ourselves that wound others. May we wisely engage our relationships, and may our word be strong. And the people of God say, Amen.
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism
Sundays and seasons.com
Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net
Rev. Courtney Veazey, Praying the Lectionary