Sunday, February 16, 2014

A sermon on reconciliation: Matthew 5:21-37

A. Hanson France, 2009

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from God who is the Light of the World.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel text is one of those readings when you are not entirely convinced that you want to respond, “Thanks be to God” or “Praise to you, O Christ” when it is over.  This portion of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is really painful to hear, so let’s break it down and put it into context. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew is making the claim that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.   That Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures.  The Sermon on the Mount is deliberately intended to be a parallel to Moses teaching the people from Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus. Just as Moses taught the Ten Commandments, we have Jesus doing the same thing. Jesus is not issuing new laws, but rather engaging in the Jewish tradition of faithfully wrestling with the laws and continuing to apply them to ever-evolving situations. The law was never intended to be a static prescription for right and wrong.
Today’s Gospel reading is just sixteen verses out of the Sermon on the Mount, which spans three full chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and is actually 111 verses.  I counted. We do a great disservice to this text if we separate it from what comes immediately before it, the Beatitudes and the proclamation that we are the Salt of the Earth and Light of the World, and what comes immediately after it, a command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we hear the many ways that we are blessed by God and interwoven with all of the directives on the law throughout this sermon, Jesus is saying that being in relationship with God also means being in relationship with others. We are called upon to love God and love our neighbors.
When we hear this text, we are immediately drawn to the loaded words, “adultery” and “divorce” and the fierce word, “murder”.  This text is going to hit all of us deeply in one way or another, so it is worth naming that right now.  These words of Jesus sting, because they hit us right in our broken hearts. I think there are two major mistakes that can happen when reading a text like this: first, to make it a simple morality lesson.  This interpretation might go something like this:  “Well, Jesus said that divorce is prohibited, so you simply must stay in a relationship at any cost, because to marry again or enter into another relationship after divorce would mean that you are committing adultery.  And we can see what happens to adulterers.”  This leads to profound unhappiness in a relationship at best, and at the worst, can create an environment that perpetuates abuse and effectively closes off escape routes for those who experience abuse. It puts up a barrier between the “righteous people” (which is where we would like to see ourselves) and “those other people” (those who are not quite as righteous as we think that we are). 
Another mistake that is just as damaging, although more subtle, would be to read this text as a history lesson. A directive that applies to a different people at a different time, and could not possibly have anything to say to us now.  This interpretation could go something like this, “Jesus lived in a patriarchal society.  Women had no way of providing for themselves and needed to be cared for by men, so divorce would cause a woman to become destitute.  And Jesus didn’t want that, so he decided to prohibit divorce.  But since women are perfectly capable of providing for themselves now, we can just ignore what Jesus is saying.”  If we dismiss the text as an ancient legal prescription for how to live, we do not have to hear how it speaks to our lives now.
In both of these mistaken interpretations, the text is used to create a barrier between us and our neighbors. And this is exactly what Jesus is commanding us NOT to do.
Human nature doesn’t really change all that much over the generations.  The Ten Commandments were given to the people of God so that they might be in right relationship with God and with one another.  But mere hours after Moses received the Ten Commandments the people were worshipping a golden calf and killing each other over who is holiest and closest to God. Fast forward many generations, and those gathered around Jesus at the sermon on the mount are still fighting with one other, hurting each other, even on their way to the temple. In their efforts to be righteous in the eyes of God, they are neglecting their relationships with one another. Jesus is calling out those people who are on their way to enhance their personal relationship with God, yet all the while ignoring their broken relationships with others.  Jesus is making the bold claim that it is not possible to love God without loving your neighbor. And how often do we do this too? From the little things…fighting with our families in the car on the way to church, but pretending like nothing happened as soon as we walk into the sanctuary, to the much larger things…holding onto a grudge for decades that poisons our relationships with all those around us.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus is not providing a to-do list for how to be a better person.  That is not what this is about. Jesus is talking about what it means to live abundantly in the light of God. The spirit of the law given to Moses and preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was never about “do this… but don’t do this and then you’ll be saved”, a how-to plan for salvation if you will, it was about how to live now in a broken world that will one day be redeemed and made new by a loving and gracious God.  It is about reconciliation with one another in the broken present.
But that is hard and scary and sometimes downright impossible.  To reconcile with someone means to own your part of what went wrong. It means to be vulnerable and open yourself up to being hurt.  It feels better to hang onto what we perceive to be our righteous indignation.  Because anger can be useful for us.  It can inspire action. However, it can also be destructive. There is a saying in twelve step recovery programs, “holding onto anger and resentments is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  And there is incredible truth in this for all of us, not just alcoholics and addicts.  Anger just creates a steel box around our hearts that prevents us from loving fully and drastically reduces the quality of our lives. This is not who we were created to be.
All of the words that Jesus says about divorce and adultery and bearing false witness, otherwise known as lying, all come down to looking at the ways that we deeply hurt each other and the ways that we continue to be hurt by others. This command of reconciliation is NOT about never getting angry or impatient ever again or taking the abuse of others in the name of Christian piety, it is about God breaking in to our lives, and loving us so completely that we are able to see Christ in the other.  God gave his own heart to us in the person of Jesus Christ, knowing that it would be broken, yet did it anyway. God’s heart is not clenched in anger against us. This is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, helping us to forgive those who hurt us, make us angry, and God loving us back into wholeness.  And God is going to keep on doing that regardless of how we feel about it. This is the true freedom of the Gospel.
            This reconciliation is not dependent on us deciding to make it happen.  When Christ tells us all the ways that we are blessed in the beatitudes, and that we are salt of the earth and light of the world, he is saying, you are mine.  You already belong to me.  I live in you.  I know that it’s not always easy to love one another and you are going to stumble along the way, but always remember, I have claimed you and I will give you all that you need.  You are reconciled to God in Christ, no matter what you have done or failed to do, you are saved.  And that’s pretty great news.  Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

Libby said...

This is helpful! I'm teaching an adult Sunday School class on this passage tomorrow and your blog post really helps to get at the practical nature of Jesus's words. Thanks!