It’s All About Relationships

Lesson: Matthew 5:21-37

Before I read this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel I want to warn you that it is a tough passage. Like many Bible passages, if you read it in isolation, without understanding the context and as though it weren’t part of a larger message of good news, you might think it is the opposite of good news. So hang with me, please. We’ll get through this together. One side note: When I read the passage, I’ll substitute the original Greek word “Gehenna” for the word that our pew Bible translates very poorly as “hell.” Gehenna is not hell. It was the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem that burned perpetually, just like the Great Tire Fire on “The Simpson’s.”

[Read passage]

Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. Some people are big fans of Valentine’s Day and some aren’t; and I’m not just talking about men, either. Personally, I’m not nuts about the romance-according-to-schedule aspect of Valentine’s Day. If you need to be reminded by a Hallmark holiday to be romantic, isn’t it, well, less romantic? Besides, Valentine’s Day feels like a trap for the unwary. You know something is expected of you, but you’re not sure what. Are flowers and a card enough? Should you get the candy, too? Or are flowers and candy clichéd, unimaginative, and what you’re really supposed to do is rent a yacht for a moonlight champagne dinner cruise for two, or book a surprise trip to Paris? See, somewhere between flowers and a trip to Paris – that’s your dilemma. Valentine’s Day seems designed to set us up to fail.

This was something like the state of the Torah, of Jewish law, in the first century, when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount. There were 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament – the five books known as the Torah. 613 laws to remember and keep in order to be righteous, right with God. The Talmud, the written commentaries on the law that interpreted and expanded them, wasn’t in place yet, but in Jesus’ time there was already a large body of oral interpretation developed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The point of these interpretations was to make sure no one would break God’s law even by mistake. So, for example, to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain, they refused to pronounce God’s name at all. To avoid violating the Sabbath, they outlawed thirty-nine activities that might be construed as work[1] – including the healing that got Jesus in trouble on a number of occasions.

The prohibition against healing wasn’t the only problem. Many people, especially poor, working class people, didn’t have the luxury of following the rules meticulously. Do you remember Tevye’s song, “If I Were a Rich Man” in “Fiddler on the Roof”? One of the lines is, “If I were rich I’d have the time that I liked to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the eastern wall. And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.” Studying biblical law, Torah, so closely that you knew all the details and nuances was reserved for people – well, for men, specifically – with the time and leisure to do it. An ordinary working stiff was too busy making a living to study and know the minute details of Torah but also too busy and too poor to make following the letter of the law a priority.

So what had evolved was a two-tier system of people who could afford to think of themselves as righteous, and everybody else, who was a sinner. In Jesus’ time, sinner just meant someone who did not follow the laws of Torah. Later in the Christian tradition, “sinner” came to mean anybody and everybody because no one is flawless – there are lots of problems with that but we’ll save that for another sermon. The point is that some people could be “in” with God because they followed the rules, while the rest were “out” with God. How could an ordinary person’s righteousness ever surpass that of the professional holy men? People were set up for failure.

Jesus is saying there are good reasons, important reasons to follow the rules, but following the rules for the rule’s sake isn’t the goal. Loving God, and loving your neighbor as yourself is the goal. Each one of these points that begins with Jesus’ saying, “You have heard it said …” and concludes with his saying, “But I say to you …” – each one is about relationships between people. God cares about our relationships.

So it’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words.

It’s not enough to avoid physically committing adultery, which, by the way, was more a property crime than a moral failure in first century Judea. Adultery meant one man had essentially used another man’s property – his wife – which dishonored the man with the wife.[2] But Jesus introduces the radical notion that we should also not objectify others by thinking of them as just a means to satisfy our physical desires by lusting after them.

It’s not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure to provide for the most vulnerable – in Jesus’ culture that often meant women and children.

It’s not enough to stop ourselves from “giving our word” or saying, “I swear to God” when we don’t mean it. We should speak and act truthfully in all of our dealings so that we don’t need to make oaths at all.[3]

Do you see what I mean? All the hyperbole of cutting off body parts and burning in Gehenna – and it is ancient Middle Eastern hyperbole – serves to magnify just how important our relationships are to God.[4]

I suspect this runs contrary to the way most people think about God and God’s laws. Many people think of God as being more like Santa Claus, and I don’t mean in a good way. I mean in that, “He sees you when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” kind of way. Think about it. How many of you grew up with, or maybe even still carry around an image of God that’s something like that stern Santa Claus, always ready to judge us or even punish us for breaking God’s laws?

Jesus’ words on divorce seem especially out of touch today. When 40 to 50% of marriages end in divorce, Jesus sounds pretty judgmental about an awful lot of people, and so do the Christian churches that still apply this as an inflexible, for-all-time rule. The Presbyterian Church does not, by the way. Not only the legal implications of divorce, but also the cultural expectations of marriage are entirely different today than they were in the first century. Today, we know that divorce can be necessary for spiritual, emotional, or physical self-preservation. Choosing life for ourselves and our children may mean leaving a dysfunctional or abusive marriage. While this choice is always painful, it may be part of the healing process for ourselves and those we love.

What Jesus is actually doing here with his admonitions about divorce, chastity, and adultery, not to mention lying, is pointing to a radical mutuality in marriage that was centuries, millennia, even, ahead of its time. When we think about fidelity in marriage, the focus is usually on sexual intimacy. It’s that, of course, but it’s much more. Faithfulness is about the promises we keep and choices we make for the sake of forging the bond between the partners in the marriage. Fidelity is about thinking of “we” as well as “I.”[5] In our American culture we elevate individualism practically to cult status, and the central danger is that we tend to commit to others only when it’s in our personal interest. For the survival of marriages and societies alike, we need to keep a balance between respecting of the needs of the individual and considering the needs of the community – the community that is a married couple, and the larger community.[6]

Rolf Jacobson writes that Joel Osteen’s best-selling book, Your Best Life Now, would be a lot closer to the biblical vision of life if it had been titled instead, Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now. That’s why Jesus intensifies the law in today’s reading – to help us avoid seeing the law as merely drawing moral boundaries, and instead alert us to our responsibility to care for those around us. We can too easily discriminate, injure, neglect, or speak poorly of a neighbor all the while saying, “After all, I haven’t murdered anyone.” And so Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being.[7]

A man named Frank tells this story from his childhood: When he was about eight years old, he started arguing with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. Frank reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, his fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” And as a parent only can, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!”[8]

That’s what Jesus is saying about the law: it’s God’s gift to protect and care for God’s children. “No, you can’t hoard everything. No, you can’t discriminate and exclude. No, you can’t violate and exploit. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.” Jesus said it loud and clear in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere: all God’s rules for human living are summed up in “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything else springs from this. That means that to be a Christian in the way of Jesus, we’ll have to swim upstream in today’s American culture: Share what you have with anybody who needs it. Love your enemies. Live generous lives. Tell the truth. Act toward each other the way God acts toward you. Sacrifice something big for something good.[9]

This week I read about a move to reframe Valentine’s Day that even I can get behind. A movement that calls itself “The Revolutionary Love Project” issued a declaration: “We, people of faith and moral conscience, reclaim Valentine’s Day as a Day of Revolutionary Love, Day of Rising,” it begins. It continues: “We declare our love for all who are in harm’s way, including refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Sikhs, LGBTQI people, Black people, Latinos, the indigenous, and the poor. We stand with millions of people around the globe rising up to end violence against women and girls who are often the most vulnerable within marginalized communities. We vow to see one another as brothers and sisters and fight for a world where every person can flourish.”

“We declare love even for our opponents. We vow to oppose all executive orders and policies that threaten the rights and dignity of any person. We call upon our elected officials to join us … We will fight not with violence or vitriol, but by challenging the cultures and institutions that promote hate. In so doing, we will challenge our opponents through the ethic of love.”

“We declare love for ourselves. We will practice the dignity and care in our homes that we want for all of us. We will protect our capacity for joy. We will nurture our bodies and spirits; we will rise and dance. …”

“We commit to fight for social justice through the ethic of love – love for others, our opponents, and ourselves. On Valentine’s Day, we will rise up across the U.S. and around the world in music, poetry, dance and engage Congress to declare that #RevolutionaryLove is the call of our times.”[10]

That’s worth at least a dozen roses and a box of See’s chocolates, in my book. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 164 (large print ed.).

[2] Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 145-146.

[3] David Lose, “The Relational God,” February 11, 2014, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3071

[4] David Lose, February 11, 2014, ibid.

[5] Herbert Anderson and Robert Cotton Fite, Becoming Married (KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 147.

[6] Anderson and Fite, 26.

[7] David Lose, “Epiphany 6A: On Love and the Law,” February 6, 2017, in “Dear Partner,” http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-6a-on-love-and-law/

[8]   Lose, February 6, 2017, ibid.

[9]   Amy Butler, “The Sermon on the Mount is Counter-cultural. That’s the Point,” February 7, 2017, https://baptistnews.com/article/the-sermon-on-the-mount-is-counter-cultural-thats-the-point/#.WJ9NzBIrKuU.

[10]   http://www.revolutionarylove.net/. 

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