Sixth Sunday of Epiphany Matthew 5:20-37 February 16, 2014
Let us pray: Loving God, anoint us with your Holy Spirit, as we hear your Word this day. Fill us with your truth that we may walk in the ways of Jesus and to the glory of your kingdom. Amen
Let me begin by saying that every pastor has his or her favorite scripture texts, they are passages of the Bible that have been instrumental in their faith development, provided comfort and have inspired or challenged them to look at and live life differently. For me, texts like the one we heard a couple of weeks ago from Micah that encourages us to do justice,loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. Or from Matthew were we are reminded of how when we care for the poor, the hungry, the destitute, we are in fact caring for Christ himself. And of course there is the core of Paul’s theology where we are reminded that we are saved by grace and not by works. Each of these verse and others have been instrumental in my faith journey.
On the flip side of that, every pastor has a set of passages they would prefer to avoid or gloss over for one reason or another. Today is one of those days because we are confronted with a reading from Matthew that has the potential to step on lots of toes, my own included.
What do I mean, you might ask? Well, did you hear what Jesus said? To start with he said it is not enough that I have not actually physically murdered anyone. He takes this commandment and pushes it even further by saying that if I am harboring ill feelings toward someone I’m in trouble He says that if I call someone a “Fool” I am destined for the fires of hell Jesus goes on to suggest that it is not enough that I have not physically committed adultery or divorced my wife—but if I have even caught myself fantasizing about someone other than my wife, I am guilty.
Let’s be honest, these are tough words to hear, they are words most of us would prefer not to hear and to be honest, words that I would prefer not to preach on because I know that there is not one person in this sanctuary who can walk away feeling guilt free.
So, having said all that, what are we to do with these hard words? Suffice it to say, I don’t believe Jesus said these challenging words just to make our lives all that more difficult.
I don’t believe he is instituting some get-tough policy,cracking down on moral codes, tightening up the strictures. I don’t believe he is saying in effect, “If you thought the rules were rigid before, just wait ‘til I get through tightening them up!” And I say that because it seems inconsistent with what we know of Jesus’ life and teaching.
So what is Jesus doing? I can see two things in particular that stand out. The first being is that Jesus is attacking what might be called“loophole theology”. What’s a loophole you might ask? Quite simply it involves twisting the intent of the law to fit one’s own purposes. It often involves seeking out unethical or quasi-ethical options and actions without entirely crossing the line, seeking to avoid responsibility and avoiding getting caught or found guilty. With tax time approaching I assume there is a fair amount of loophole searching going on, looking for ways to avoid having to pay one’s taxes.
When it comes to matters of faith and life we can be equally guilty And this is where Jesus reminds us that while we might not be guilty of actually taking someone else’s life, according to Jesus if we call them inappropriate names, if we allow a deep seated grudge to linger over time, if we refuse to forgive someone, if we behave in a way that is insulting and demeaning to others, we are guilty. In fact, if we even ignore someone who needs our help, we are guilty. I suspect you could say that if I simply went through life ignoring the needs of others, refusing to help, minding my own business—well, it means I’m guilty.
And then there is adultery? Keep in mind, at the time Jesus spoke these words he was primarily addressing the men of that day. Why? Because it was a male dominated society and should a man grow tired of his current wife he could write a certificate of divorce for the simplest reason and the woman would be tossed out on the streets to fend for herself.
So even the most pious of men of the synagogue could take advantage of this loophole and cast off another human being and begin searching for a trophy wife who might satisfy him for who knows how long.
Now lets be honest, by and large times have changed, the status of women has improved, granted they still get paid less for doing the same job as most men, but the times have improved. But let us also be honest when we realize that men do not have the monopoly on matters of adultery. And if we were to take this literally, the sanctuary would look like a pirate’s convention, eye patches and hooks instead of hands and fingers. Sadly, men and women have successfully managed to come to equal terms on this one and who among us here has not been affected by divorce in way or another? Granted there are times when divorce is preferable to staying in a destructive and violent relationship
But even then, there is always the manifestation of our human brokenness, and nobody is able to stand smugly before God as an innocent party who has followed the letter of the law. Instead, all stand before God bruised and broken by a severed relationship and needing forgiveness.
Under the law there will always be someone looking for a loophole And it would seem to me that if I am looking for a loophole, chances are I already know that I am guilty and if I know it, you can bet Jesus knows it And quite frankly, I suspect Jesus is embarrassed and disappointed in us as he watches us try to wiggle out from under the law, when we behave like weasels looking for an out of our current predicament.
And that I believe leads us to the second thing Jesus is trying to do in this reading, he is inviting us to move beyond the letter of the law to a life guided by love. In other words, Jesus is not handing down a bunch of moral admonitions—a set of do’s and don’ts—by which persons might attempt to make themselves “good enough” for God. Rather he is presenting us with a picture of life in the renewed and renewing community that God brings into being through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In short—Jesus is inviting us to make the move from a life governed by the law to a life nurtured and guided by love.
What do I mean by that? Consider it this way; the laws found within the Ten Commandments were based on obedience. Which I might add is a good thing, so good a thing that Christ fulfilled the law by obeying the will of God even to his death.
But having fulfilled the law, Jesus introduces a new guiding light, love, a power far greater than the law. Love is always greater than the law because: Obedience is based on fear, whereas love is based on grace. Obedience motivates us to what we do if we know what is good for us – a bit of advice I suspect we have all heard at some point, “If you know what’s good for you—you will clean your room, stay out of trouble, and share with your sister or brother. Love motivates us to do what we do because it is good for our brother and sisters. Obedience motivates us to do know what we should do, while love motivates us to do those things that we want to do for others. Obedience comes from our heads, whereas love comes from our hearts. And it is in our hearts that the law of love must reside.
Let me try to put it this way. Last Friday we had the opportunity to celebrate Valentine’s Day. There were two ways I could have gone about observing the day. On the one hand I could have somewhat begrudgingly made my way to the Unclaimed Freight store where they sell cards and try to find any old Valentine’s card and perhaps if I had enough spare change I could buy a box of chocolates. In the spirit of knowing what is good for me, I would have fulfilled the law. That’s one possible option.
Here is the second. Rather than simply trying to get by with the bare minimum, I could have planned ahead and sought out a card that I knew Julia would like and I could have made reservations for dinner at a fun restaurant and then attend a show over in St. Cloud.
By taking the time, by considering what Julia might appreciate, I am being guided by something greater than mere obligation or the law, I am responding out of love.
But I have to tell you, even in this situation, Jesus would push the envelope even further, because we all know that even though I might behave this way, we all know that in some way, I am, to some extent doing this because I know what’s good for me. Or to paraphrase Luther, even our noblest actions have a degree of self interest attached.
But let’s say, this sort of behavior was something more than a once a year phenomena?
What if this was to some degree and monthly, weekly, dare I say, a daily experience?
And what if Jesus pushed the envelope even further and motivated me to look beyond my love for my wife and consider my love for my brothers and sisters and neighbors outside my immediate family, perhaps those less fortunate than myself, and in doing so, bring some joy to their lives? Jesus is inviting us to expand the circle of our love, coloring outside the lines,even eliminating the lines that divide, moving beyond the letter of the law.
Yea, you can get through life living by the law, being obedient, keeping your nose clean and flying under the radar. But Jesus is inviting us, challenging us to live larger, to live not just ho hum lives, but abundant lives, lives motivated and guided by the grace and love of God and love and care of neighbor.
Keep in mind, the law is good, obedience to the law is a good thing, it provides good order—but in the grand scheme of things, love always trumps the law. The cross of Christ overshadows the tablets.
In this reading Jesus bids us to look at what is behind the law, and consider how we relate to others, how we treat other people, how we deal with other people, those near and dear to us as well as those who are different from ourselves, even those who we consider to be our enemies.
Do we treat others with the hardness of the heart or with a spirit of compassion?
Are we quicker to criticize or encourage? Do we role up our sleeves to help or do we sit on the sidelines a serve as armchair coaches?
I get the distinct impression from what I read of Jesus that there is something wrong with a spirituality that doesn’t inspire selfless concern for others. Or, as I recently saw on Facebook: “If you theology doesn’t lead you to love people more, you should question your theology.” I say this because compassion and grace is at the core of what Jesus is saying to us this morning And because of that, I believe we all need to ask ourselves: “What is motivating my response?” “Am I doing what I am doing because it is in my best interest, or the best interest of others?’ “Am I acting in the true spirit of compassion?”
Today’s Gospel reading, though difficult as it might be hear and to preach, is important for us to reflect upon if we are going to live the kind of life that God desires for us.
It is important for us to look deep into our hearts and see where we need to change and where we need repentance and forgiveness. It is important for us to ask ourselves if we are like the Scribes and Pharisees who were only concerned with going through the motions, who were only concerned with external things, and minimal things?
These hard words ought to prompts us to take a hard look at ourselves and determine what is that is motivating our actions. Hopefully, we will come to obey God’s law not only with our heads, but also with our hearts. And after all, love is a matter of the hearts as well as the heart of the matter Amen
Let us Pray: Good and gracious God, you call us to obey the Law, but you also invite us to go beyond, to live life in the light of your love Help us to do more than simply get by, inspire us to live with compassion, grounded in your grace and led by the love you have for all your children Help us to love you with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, for in doing so we give glory to you and grace to our neighbor in need of your love. Amen
Pastor Stephen BlenkushZion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353