6TH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Sweet Lord Jesus, help us to bring back the sweetness into this world that has been carved with cruelty and destruction. Help us to mend the wounds we have inflicted on others and ourselves. Call us with compassion to see others as Your children, as our kindred, and that all have the possibility of repentance, redemption, forgiveness and healing, for nothing is impossible for You. But Sweet Lord Jesus, we are hurt, we are angry, and we are tired. Bitterness comes to our mouth and it is hard to swallow. Help us to find Your goodness in others and in the world, and help us to make the world sweet again, as You intended. Amen.
Hebrew Bible Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 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, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
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.”
The United States is a country that has a tradition of seeking to function under the rule of law. We have national laws that are for our safety and protection. We also have state laws that are designed for a particular community. What is interesting is that every state has some questionable laws on the books and New Jersey is no different. Throughout the years, politicians have established some pretty strange policies, many of which may have you scratching your head. The following curious items were once, or are currently, illegal, despite how ridiculous they might seem. A few have slipped by, staying on the books by oversight. While they may not be enforced, they’re still official state laws:
- In the state of New Jersey, it is illegal to frown at a cop.
- If convicted of driving under the influence, you’re no longer allowed to have custom license plates.
- It is illegal for a man to knit during fishing season.
- It is illegal to wear a bullet proof vest while committing a murder.
We are not the first people to have rules and regulations for the betterment of the community. We are not the first folks to have strange laws or have different understandings of the rules that are on the books. The laws of Jesus’ day are not exception. The Jewish community began with ten commandments and over time more rules to explain the laws of God caused the community to have over 500 clarifying regulations. Our passage for today seems to be about laws and how they are applied, but maybe they are about more that do-s and don’t-s.
You see, I’ve most often heard two nearly opposite interpretations of these verses from Matthew, each claiming that Jesus is being radical in his approach to the law. In the first reading, Jesus is being radical by urging us to take the law far more seriously than we’d ever imagined. He is, in fact, initiating a new law that both exceeds and supersedes the law of his forebears. Interpreters in this school point to the regular “You’ve heard it said…, but I say…” contrasts to make their point. While this reading takes the ethical demands of the faith seriously, however, it disastrously renders the Christian life almost entirely a matter of morality. I mean, did Jesus really have to die so that we could have the Ten Commandments on steroids?
The second line of attack goes in the opposite direction: Jesus is radically taking the law to extremes precisely to show us that we are utterly helpless to follow the law. This reading puts a decidedly theological twist not just on this passage, but indeed on the whole of the law, as suddenly the law’s chief value is not to guide the Christian life but instead to drive us to Christ for mercy. While this version underscores our dependence on God for forgiveness, it nevertheless empties the law of any significant moral content. Worse, it makes it sound like Jesus didn’t really mean what he says. I mean, do we really think Jesus — especially the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel — couldn’t give a rip about our observance of law?
Okay, so if I don’t care for either of these two readings, in what way do I think Jesus is being radical? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t think Jesus’ main concern is with the law at all. Seriously. I think Jesus is talking about God, specifically, the kingdom of God, the kingdom that is coming and, indeed, is made manifest in his life, death, and resurrection. And whenever you’re talking about God you’re also talking about relationships. Which, of course, names the problem with the law, or at least our response to it, in the first place. You see, we think the law is about, well, being legal — you know, it’s about doing the right thing, staying in the lines, keeping your nose clean. But the law is actually concerned with relationships.
Take the Ten Commandments, for instance: the first table is about our relationship with God and the second with our relationships with each other. Understood this way, the whole law is actually a way of pointing us toward ways to honor those with whom we are in relationship. But somehow, we forget that, and so get caught up in keeping the law for the law’s sake. Which is why Jesus intensifies the law — not to force us to take it more seriously or less seriously, but instead to push us to imagine what it would actually be like to live in a world where we honor each other as persons who are truly blessed and beloved of God. It’s not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder; you also have to treat each other with respect, not letting yourself fly off the handle in anger because that, too, demeans and diminishes God’s children.
There is, of course, a legal dimension to the law — it is what holds us accountable for our actions toward each other. But that is a by-product of the law, not its essential character. Law is given to guide us in the way God would have us honor, respect, and care for each other. If we want to play the legal angle of the law, we can and all-too-often do. We do so, however, at our own peril, as before long our only resort is to count, and accuse, and litigate, and punish, and before you know it we are all cutting off our hands and plucking out our eyes to avoid the weight and fate of the law. In the world of “an eye for an eye,” as Ghandi said, “all become blind.”
Law understood primarily in legal terms, you see, ends up being a moral and all-too-often self-justifying check list: No murder today; check! No adultery; check! Jesus wants more from us. Actually, Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to regard each other as God regards us and thereby to treat each other accordingly. Jesus is getting radical about the law precisely by calling us to look beyond the law to see its goal and end: the life and health of our neighbor! In this way Jesus calls us to envision life in God’s kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting that they are doing the same for us.
So I wonder what would it be like, if we took a leaf from Jesus’ notebook and asked:
- What kind of community do we want to inhabit?
- In what ways do the laws we know and observe help us not just stay out of trouble but actually care for one another?
- In what ways are we tempted to honor the law — satisfying it legally — rather than honoring our neighbor?
- What are the laws today that we need to intensify to do justice to the kind of relationships that God calls us to as children of the kingdom?
By asking and discussing these questions, we might just we spark a conversation about how the kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated might be more fully embodied in our homes, communities, and the world. Pretty radical!
Commentary provided by Christopher T. Holmes, Zaida Maldonado Perez, Karoline Lewis, Scott Hoezee, David Lose, Amy G. Oden, Joyce Yanishewski and Clint Schnekloth