This is the Word of the Lord.
Wow. That is quite a list, isn't it? It's like Jesus is taking the Law and putting it on steroids. Many scholars call these the “antitheses,” because Jesus is saying, “you have heard... BUT,” putting expectations over and against established expectations.
Oh, goody, new rules. Peachy. And a laundry list of stuff, too... murder, anger, adultery, divorce, making oaths... and the punishments are over-the-top! For cryin' out loud, being condemned to Hell for calling someone a fool? Mutilating our body to refrain from committing sin? No wonder these fall in to the category that's called “the hard sayings of Jesus.”
It goes without saying that most Christians don't follow the letter of these sayings. We get angry. I know I do, anyway. Divorce is common nowadays, and in our lawsuit-crazed society we swear oaths verbally and with our signatures all the time. I don't know of anyone who has come to the Lord's Supper, then before taking part has left to go make up with someone they'd had a quarrel with. It has probably happened, sure, but I have never seen it. I don't know of anyone who has poked their own eye out or cut off their own hand to refrain from committing sin.
As a list of rules – I am gonna go ahead and just say it – these are unreasonable. If I have to treat this passage as a checklist of things I cannot ever under any circumstances do, or else, I give up. I can't do it. I mean, for crying out loud, I get upset at people's FaceBook posts, and don't even get me started about Twitter!
And let me go further: If we treat the Scriptures as a list of rules and regulations, a law-book, a Constitution... we will fail. Maybe not every time, on ever point, no. I may do OK not lusting after my neighbor's wife, but as soon as I get in a hurry to get from one job to another and Highway 280 gets backed up around the Summit, I can promise you someone is gonna swing in front of me from the other lane, cut me off, and I will at least call that driver a fool.
I can tell you that I know of at least one person who was mentally ill, and who obsessed over keeping every point of Scripture, and was constantly tortured that he could not do it all, to the point that, one night, he lay down on some railroad tracks. And no, the story does not have a happy ending.
But what if... what if the point of what Jesus is saying here goes deeper than keeping rules, following laws? Look at what Jesus is actually saying here, look at the focal point of his antitheses.
“...If you are angry with...” “...if you insult...” “...if you say...” are some of the phrases Jesus uses to start off this reading, and he does it over against murder. Jesus seems to say anger is worse, or at least on a level, with killing... and to be sure, someone would have to be pretty angry with someone to kill them, you'd think. But I want to suggest to you that this isn't even about antecedents to murder.
It is about how we think about – how we treat – one another. It ain't about rules. It's about relationships. God cares about our relationships. That is the thread that weaves this seemingly stream-of-consciousness reading together. It isn't random rules and threats of punishment. It's about how we relate to one another, and through that, how and if we relate to God.
Isn't that amazing? This is truly revolutionary thinking! God is not the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers, nor does God see us as playthings, nor is God completely disinterested in God's creation. God is not simply a spiritual director or a dispenser of divine karma. God cares. God cares about us, and God cares about our relationships.
I know that sometimes people say or even do bad things, and our natural reaction is anger, our natural tendency is to strike back somehow. We have a right to! But at least in the Christian community, that right is less important than the responsibility, on both the part of the offender and the offended, to reconcile.
God cares about us. God cares about our relationships.
Think about it – when we hold a grudge, the person we are mad at is living in our head rent-free! It takes our heart and mind away from the things that matter, it causes stress, and stress can kill us. Better to forgive, even if we cannot safely forgive face-to-face. Forgiveness isn't about letting someone off the hook, remember, it is about allowing ourselves to move on and grow out of that and into our life in Christ.
And notice how the burden of reconciliation isn't just on the one offended – Jesus says that, whenever we realize we have offended someone, even if we are in the middle of church, even gathered around the Lord's Table, we must go and fix it right then, it is that important. Right relationships with one another both speak volumes to those outside of the faith looking in on us, and those relationships help to strengthen our individual and corporate walk with God.
Believe it or not, this dovetails in perfectly with Jesus' words about adultery, lust, and divorce, because if we value other people deeply enough to care about right relationships, one thing we are careful not to do is objectify other people – remove their humanity, define them as a body part or value them only for what the can do for us. We cannot treat people as possessions and truly value relationships with one another or with God.
God cares about us. God cares about how we care for and about others.
Now, treating people, specifically women, as a possession was exactly what Jesus was talking about when he was speaking of divorce. In Jesus' time, remember, women had no rights, no identity of their own. Rabbinic tradition held that a man could write up a “bill of divorcement” and leave his wife if she displeased him in any way. Women couldn't own property, had no legal recourse, could not work... for cryin' out loud, even the Ten Commandments lists “your neighbor's wife” in the same “Thou shalt not covet” sentence as his livestock!
A woman could be left homeless, destitute, starving to death, because she burned the toast.
So this isn't about forcing women, or anyone, to stay in bad, even abusive, relationships, it is about elevating women, and by extension all people, of any race or gender or nationality or orientation or identity, to the level of equal human beings.
I am serious. If we can get that one thing right, everything else will fall in to place.
If I consider every human being equal, then I don't have to worry about being greater than someone else. No one has to be less-than for me to feel good. If every human being is of equal value in the eyes of God, then my concern for right relationship with God compels me to act like it – to reconcile, to support, to heal.
If I am honest, it would be easier if our passage today was a list of rules and regulations, a checklist I could review every day and give myself a pass-or-fail. Relationships are messy, difficult things. I am a dyed in the wool extrovert (I know that is a shock), but there are days when I just don't want to be messed with. There are times when I get hurt or offended or wronged and, by golly, someone owes me an apology.
God cares about us. God cares about our relationships, and right relationships are more important than being right.
In the coming week, I'd like to invite you to join me in doing two things. First, call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you. One that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you. What makes that a good relationship? Why is that relationship so important? Reflect on that relationship this week, and in your time of prayer and meditation give God thanks for that person and the relationship you share.
Second, think about another relationship that is important to you, but it has suffered some damage. Don’t waste time trying to figure out who was to blame for the hurt; rather, hold that person, hold that relationship in prayer. Offer that broken relationship to God as an arena of God’s help and healing. And here is the hard part: take some time and think about what action you can take to move that relationship to greater health.
That's it. We start small. Just one.
Let us pray.
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:
We give you praise for our good relationships. Help us to see, and to focus upon, the things that are good and right and which bring us joy and life.
And because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you,one God, for ever and ever. Amen.