In today's gospel lesson, Jesus preaches some pretty harsh-sounding warnings about the consequences of failing to practice righteousness. What is righteousness? For a Jew it was faithfulness to the law—in particular, the Torah. We know the Torah as the first 5 books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Adherence to the Law made one righteous. Matthew’s Jesus redefines righteousness as not simply faithfulness to the Law, but faithfulness shaped by mercy. This is from the Sermon on the Mount as Matthew tells it.
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.’ 22 But 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come 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. 26 Truly 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.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If 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. 30 And 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.’ 32 But 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.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Jesus is talking about relationships with each other. God cares about our relationships with each other. Look at the Ten Commandments. They are divided into two parts—our relationship and responsibility to God and our relationship and responsibility to one another.
To say our relationships matter to God is to distinguish between the God of the Scriptures and most of the gods of history. God is more than the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers, or the disdainful gods of Greek mythology who saw humans as playthings. God is more than simply a spiritual guide or the director of divine karma. God cares about our relationships—cares deeply and passionately, that is, about how we treat each other because God loves each and all of us so much.
To say our relationships matter to God is to reinterpret the law in a way I think is more faithful to this passage. The Bible is a story of relationships—it’s not a science book or really even a history book. It’s a story of people—people who lived together and who knew, just as we know, that living together is not easy. Each of these different instructions concerns how we treat each other. Jesus doesn’t just heighten the force of the law, he broadens it.
- It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words. Otherwise we could pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while at the same time we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our word. Think about it—we even call it "stabbing someone in the back."
- It’s not enough to avoid physically committing adultery. We should not objectify other persons, seeing them as things to be used and not as a person to whom one relates with care and respect.
- It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. In Jesus’ day, women were property and almost without value. A man could divorce a woman for any reason. We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable are provided for.
- It is not enough to keep ourselves from swearing falsely 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.
God cares about how we treat each other. Jesus deepened that understanding by the way he lived his life. “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus broadened the definition of neighbor to include even those who are different from us.
The Church is not innocent in the ways we have fostered legalistic interpretations of scripture—more concerned about faithfulness to the law than faithfulness shaped by mercy. The Church in some places yet today permits and even fosters demeaning words and actions toward persons of color, persons who are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and women. We are part of a wider community of progressive Christian voices that calls for inclusion and for learning a new language when it comes to relationships. I am grateful for these progressive communities of faith like the UCC.
It used to be common to refer to someone whose mental capacity was not fully developed as retarded. We are now attempting to remove that word from our vocabulary and to recognize the full humanity of every person regardless of their mental capacity. We’ve learned to speak of children with special needs as a child with autism, not an autistic child; a child with Down syndrome, not a Down syndrome child, as if the child is defined by their diagnosis. Some-times we refer to this as political correctness, but that phrase is often said with a jeer.
It seems to me it is not political correctness, but about loving our neighbor and caring that the words we use not demean nor diminish the humanity of any person—not if we truly believe that God loves every person and cares deeply and passionately about the relationships we share.
You might have wondered at my earlier list of persons demeaned and the fact that I listed women. And then maybe you thought I was referring to churches in the US where women are not allowed to be pastors. Actually something else spurred the inclusion—something far more frightening. Did you know that one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime? That is one in three women in our family, our circle of friends, our workplace, our church. The organizations Sojourners and One Billion Rising are calling the church to speak out against violence towards girls and women—what is called the most hidden injustice in our world. V-Day—Valentine’s Day—was set to reach as many people as possible with this hidden injustice and the call to rally the church so that our daughters and granddaughters, and the daughters and granddaughters of women in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, will not become statistics. If you would like more information on how to be involved, please let me know.
Jesus challenged the people of his time to go beyond the letter of the law and build relationships of mutuality, where every person is treated with dignity. I know it is tough work and I know that sometimes it sounds like another crusade of hopelessness. You and I can’t fix the world, but we can change our own way of speaking and thinking. We can be real about the problems. And we can choose words that dignify and honor our human family for we are all created in the image of God.
Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.