Sunday, February 12, 2017

Chose Life

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Matthew 5.21-37
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Is it me, or is it getting a little warm in here? If you really listened to the Gospel reading – really listened to it – most of you, maybe all of you, are feeling a little heat.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus talks about not committing murder, not committing adultery, not getting divorced, and not swearing falsely. Most of these are pretty big offense in the eyes of Jewish Law. And some of them continue to be pretty big offenses in our own legal, as well as ethical and moral system. We still condemn murder. We still take a pretty hard stand against adultery. We still look disapprovingly at false oaths, broke promises, and outright lies. And divorce? Well, today we generally recognize that there are legitimate situations when divorce may be preferable to staying married. But divorce is still far from ideal.

But Jesus does not stop there. He equates such normal, everyday emotions as anger with the act of murder. He equates lustful thoughts with the act of adultery. This is where things might get a little uncomfortable. Who of us has not been angry at one time or another? And I would guess that some of us have had lustful thoughts, even if only fleeting, at one time or another. Why, even Jimmy Carter admitted this during his presidential campaign. So what is Jesus doing here?

First we need to step back to our Gospel reading from last Sunday, when Jesus told his listeners, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt 5.17-18). He then goes on to say “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.20).

The scribes and the Pharisees were masters of the law. They knew exactly what to do to meet the law. But their actions, and Jesus’ criticism of them elsewhere in the Gospels, indicate that while their actions may have met the letter of the law, they were not always consistent with the intent of the law. Therefore, Jesus is calling those who follow him to be more righteous than this. Righteousness being right living in the eyes of God. Jesus is calling his followers to a higher standard. He is calling his followers to not just act in accordance with the letter of the law, but to live consistent with the intent and spirit of the law. We are called to take the commandments to heart. To make them a part of who we are in the deepest sense.

With that in mind, we can return to the points Jesus makes in today’s Gospel reading to try to ferret out what he was really getting at.

First, “you shall not murder.” Jesus tells us that even being angry with someone, even slander and mockery, carries the same weight and puts us under the same judgment as if we had committed murder. As we know, murder is the taking of the life of a person. Unforgivable. But how does anger, slander, or mockery merit the same weight and judgment? What Jesus is getting at is that while murder is the literal taking of another’s life, when we are angry at another, we are metaphorically taking away something of the life of the other. Now I know what’s running through your minds. It’s impossible to never be angry. It’s a very human emotion. For that matter, how many times, particularly in the Old Testament, did God become angry with Israel? By linking anger to mocking or slander of another, Jesus is implying an emotion that is not your garden variety anger. Rather, he is pointing to a more violent, even publically abusive display of anger. It is about the intent of our anger. The degree. The appropriateness. An anger that intentionally demeans a person in some way. When we do that, we are not showing respect for the other. We are not honoring the dignity of that person as a fellow human being. We are taking away the humanity of the other. As always with Jesus, it is about justifiability, appropriateness, and intent.

Then there’s “you shall not commit adultery.” Jesus tells us that even looking at a woman lustfully is tantamount to actually committing adultery and therefore subject to the same judgment. Here again, this more stringent interpretation is about intent. What Jesus is essentially saying is that those lustful looks, those lustful thoughts, boil down to an objectifying of the other person. In so doing, the dignity of the other is not being respected. They are not being recognized for the fullness of who they are, of who God created them to be. Jesus is condemning the predatory nature of a patriarchal society and recognizing the equality of women to men. It is a condemnation of the social structure, but also our participation in perpetuating the resulting inequalities.

This message regarding the equality of all God’s children, and particularly the equality of men and women, is further emphasized in Jesus’ subsequent comments about divorce. While today we recognize that there may be some justification for ending a marriage, Jesus is addressing the ability of a man in his own day to summarily dismiss his wife without justification. Such action, again, disregards the dignity and the full humanity of the one being dismissed. Even today, it is still pretty easy to end a marriage. What Jesus is saying is that such sacramental relationships need to be taken more seriously. That when there are difficulties, more effort needs to be put into working out differences, for creating reconciliation if at all possible. And not just in marriages, but in all our relationships. That our connections with one another should be considered sacred and therefore taken with utmost seriousness. To not be so easily dismissed when things get rough. Rather to work to maintain and repair those relationships that may be fractured before they become broken.

And then there is Jesus comments about swearing false oaths. Of course we should not make oaths under false pretenses. But Jesus extends this to all oaths. What he is saying is that people who are in true and honest relationships do not need to make oaths in an attempt to justify their position. In a truly sacred relationship, one’s word is enough without invoking the name of God or some other means of emphasis. This is about establishing and maintaining trust and respecting the other in the relationship. That they are entitled to your honest word. And to be able to take what we say at face value.

The common thread between these commandments Jesus addresses, and particularly in his reinterpretations of them, is that they are all about human relationship. About how we engage in relationship with one another. To murder, slander, commit adultery, and depending on the reason, divorce, is to show disrespect, disregard, even contempt for another human being. The point Jesus is trying to make is that when these commandments are given deeper meaning in our lives, are made more a part of who we are, then even anger, insults, mockery, lusting, or dismissing another, inherently devalues, disrespects, and disregards the dignity and sanctity of the other – of one who is made in the image and likeness of God, just as we are. Such actions do violence to the other. Rather, all relationships are to be based on mutual respect. Precisely because the other is a beloved child of God, just as we are. The way of the Kingdom of God means that the way we relate to others – to everyone – changes.

This is reinforced by our Old Testament reading. Moses conveys the words of God to the people of Israel, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances” (Deut 30.15-16) then you will be blessed. This may make it sound like God’s blessings are dependent on our behavior. But this misses the point. First, the blessing of God is not having many descendants and having prosperity, but relationship with God. Obedience, true obedience, to God is simply an expression of that relationship. It is an expression of the desire to be in full relationship with God. Obedience is our response to God’s invitation to be in relationship with him. We need to remember that this passage was written to a people who had largely abandoned the covenant with God. Here, God was seeking to bring them back into the covenant relationship. The real lesson is that even when we mess up, even when we mess up in a really big way, it is not permanent. God is all about mercy. Even in our faithlessness, God is faithful to us and will always seek to bring us back to himself. Here God reiterates his invitation to relationship while also issuing a promise that that invitation stands even when, especially when, we mess up and turn away from our relationship with him. God tells us that blessings are a gift from him. That God’s grace is always present, always available to us.

And equally important is that our relationships with each other are an image and reflection of our relationship with God. When we genuinely work to maintain our relationships with each other, we are reflecting our commitment to our relationship with God. For we are each made in the image and likeness of God. Our relationships are to honor that image and likeness inherent in one another. In so doing, we begin to see the love of God working through the other. And the other begins to see the love of God working through us. In this, we receive the blessing that God promises.

Edwina Gateley, poet, theologian, Catholic lay minister, and modern-day mystic and prophet, begins her poem, “Called to Say Yes,” inspired by today’s readings, with the words:

We are called to say yes
That the kingdom might break through
To renew and to transform
Our dark and groping world.

And she ends with:

We are called to say yes
To this God who reaches out
And asks us to share
This amazing dream of love.

God invites us into relationship with him. God invites us to live that out in our relationships with one another. To reflect in our relationships the love God has for each and every one of us. A love that, through us, gives life to the world. A love that gives blessing to the world. A love that changes the world. As God conveys to the people through Moses, so, too does he continue to say to us, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”

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