Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exhorts his followers to embrace standards of righteousness that exceed legal requirements and traditional expectations.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers; from God our Father, Christ our sibling and the Holy Spirit who gives us hope; Grace to you and Peace, Amen.
I am the oldest of 3 children in my family. And while I get along really well with my younger brother and sister now… this wasn’t always the case. In fact my grandmother despaired regularly and quite vocally that we would never be able to sit in a room together as a family without fighting.
One of our favorite methods of annoying each other was to find the loopholes in our parents’ disciplinary measures. For example, if I was making faces at my sister, my mother might say, “I don’t want to see you making faces at your sister.” And so she didn’t. I made sure that my mother would not see me making faces at my sister.
And there was always the ever popular “I’m not touching you.” Now that one keeps coming up generation after generation, doesn’t it? Or the ongoing debate on what constituted a clean bedroom. Does the bed have to be made or does tossing the comforter over the pile of blankets and pillow count?
With each person in the house there was, is, and probably always will be, a different interpretation of the rule in question. And really, while most of us know the parameters of the rules, we tend to make as many excuses as possible and justifications to sidestep the true intention, or the spirit of the request.
These past few weeks, we have been hearing various portions of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard about salt and light and Jesus’ bold statement that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And Jesus expands on that in today’s passage as he discusses the law and the commandments.
Now, I’m not quite sure where the term, the Spirit of the Law first came into being, perhaps it has been around since teachers and rabbis first began discussing scripture and what God intended in his commandments. But one thing has remained the same. Whenever theologians, scholars, teachers or lawyers begin to discuss the ‘letter of the law,’ we cannot help but push further to discuss the spirit of the law- the original intent of the lawgiver.
The difficulty is that often, the only place we can look to find the spirit of the law is within the letter of the law. However, in today’s Gospel reading, as Jesus is preaching his sermon on the mount, he explains to the congregation gathered – the meaning of the commandments—teaching that we are to follow the spirit of the law, not simply the black-and-white interpretation.
Jesus is lifting up the spirit of the law, and instead of making it easier, or even clearer, Jesus is actually casting a wider net. He is telling us that law is actually more about relationships than about actions. The way we treat each other matters – Our relationship to God, and especially our relationships to one another – matter.
- It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and actively seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
- It is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery. We should not objectify others by seeing them only as a means to satisfy our own desires.
- It is not that we must follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. But rather, we should remember that people are not disposable and we must make sure that the most vulnerable among us are provided for, and in Jesus’ ancient near east culture, that meant women and children.
- It is not enough to keep ourselves from making false promises or lying to others. We should speak and act truthfully in all of our dealings so that we don’t need to make oaths at all.
And the strange emphasis of cutting off body parts and burning in hell serve to magnify just how important relationships are to God. For our focus should be on right relationship with each other and the primacy of the grace filled interactions.
The law is good. The law, almost all of our laws, are important.
They are necessary to keep us living well with one another.
And we are blessed to have many to serve tirelessly and well upholding these laws, keeping peace and mediating justice.
But as human beings we are always looking for a way around the law. An interpretation that might sidestep the letter of the law– even as it breaks the spirit.
And Jesus is reminding us that it is imperative that we keep the spirit of the law. Because our thoughts, assumptions, and silent judgments often lead to our actions.
It is as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously said:
Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.
How we think influences what we do. The status of our heart shapes the actions of our hands. God knew this – that is why laws and commandments were created.
God saw that this wasn’t enough- so he sent Jesus to clarify. And in Jesus we saw evidence of the greatest love which came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
And that is our comfort, our hope and our strength. That even though we are sometimes going to have hearts full of anger, greed, lust, envy, apathy, pride, and selfishness … they do not have to define us, our thoughts or our actions.
Christ moves in our lives and our hearts and gives us clean hearts and renewed spirits, always inviting us to right relationship with God and reconciling us to one another. This is the fulfillment of the law.
So there is, indeed, hope!
Hope for bickering siblings
Disagreeing community boards
And even partisan politicians
For we have been made in the image of a loving God and we are called to recognized that image in one other.
This is the covenant, the promise we share with God:
To love God – with all our heart, our souls, and our minds
To love our neighbors as ourselves.
And to love one another as Jesus first loved us –
This is the peace that we share.
May this Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.