The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; I Corinthians 3:1-9;
Remember last week how Jesus told us that he had not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them, and how he said that [our] righteousness needed to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Well, today, he starts working out exactly what that means, and each section starts with a familiar refrain, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” Oh, that “but I say to you…” that’s always the problem; that’s always where the rubber meets the road.
The law said, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment,’ but Jesus extends this to how we strike down one another with our anger, our insults, and our slights.
When something is amiss in our relationships, and we’ve been wronged, it’s hard enough to make the first move toward the one who has offended us and seek reconciliation, but Jesus has us go a step or two or a hundred further; Jesus asks us to think about what our brother or sister may have against us? As we stand before this altar, preparing to make our offering, what wrong might our brother or sister perceive that we have done to them? We have to think about that; Jesus asks us to leave our gift right here before the altar and go to our brother and sister and work it out, be reconciled to them, then we are to come back and offer our gift. Wouldn’t it be something if some Sunday we just stopped church right at the offertory and went and made peace wherever we needed to and came back the next week and resumed our worship. Something to think about.
Jesus continues. If we’ve been accused of some wrong, Jesus wants us to sort it out with our accuser before we hit the courts. What if we embraced mediation as the norm in resolving our disputes?
Next, Jesus moves into the realm of the personal. The law says, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but Jesus says if you look at a woman, and let’s be equitable and add “or a man,” if you look at a woman or a man with lust in your heart, you’ve committed adultery already. Jesus teases out that we can keep to the letter of the law in our closest relationships, but still violate the sanctity of our commitments. It was also said, that ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ but Jesus says divorce is no small thing; it is a very big thing. Even Jesus thought there were legitimate grounds for divorce, but the reality of divorce in that society was a socioeconomic disaster for the woman. This is addressed to men who held the power in that day, and it is hardness of heart here that Jesus is after. Breaking off a marriage for trivial reasons or because the grass looks greener somewhere else will ripple forward in all kinds of waves of brokenness. The law allowed it, but Jesus saw the profound ramifications of a casual attitude toward marriage.
And sandwiched in-between the counsel on adultery and the counsel on divorce, there is this truly bizarre teaching which is pretty graphic. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it’s better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 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.” What are we to make of this? Is Jesus counseling amputation? For those in our community who have had to experience amputation for medical reasons, this seem outrageous to consider; that Jesus would simply tear out or chop off a part of the body that was working perfectly well medically is unthinkable. Okay, this is one of those places where we need to give Jesus a little credit for his rhetorical skills, for his highly skilled use of hyperbole. If we literalize Jesus here, we will totally miss the point. Jesus is saying, “There is no such thing as sin in isolation. There is no such thing is an ability to compartmentalize sin. There is no such thing as thinking we can contain sin to a little part of our life, to a small part of being and think it won’t affect the whole of our life and the whole of our being.” If there is some piece of us that thinks we can dabble in this or that which is contrary to the lifegiving way of God, we are kidding ourselves.
What Jesus is pushing for here, and throughout all of these “but I say to you” passages, is an integrity of life and being. So, if some piece of us is pulling us off center, pulling us off the path, we need to let it go so that we can be whole. The alternative is hell—a state of being where we are at war with ourselves, a state where we experience separation within our self, with God, and ultimately with our neighbor. If we are being dishonest in some part of our life, it ultimately will poison all of our relationships. Cultural examples to the contrary, we human beings just aren’t made to live dual-lives, and human beings that are even just a little awake will eventually buckle if they try to do so. Covering tracks, keeping a false story going, not ever being able to be fully honest with yourself or anyone else, that’s its own kind of hell. Jesus is using really strong language here, but what he is arguing for is an integrity of being and life that ultimately is lifegiving.
The law said, “You shall not swear falsely,” but Jesus says don’t swear at all. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than that comes from the evil one, the diabolical one, the one who seeks always to throw things apart. So many of us struggle to be clear in our “Yes’s” and “No’s”—it just is so hard for a southerner to be that straightforward—we’re so nice, so polite.
When I was a young intern at the Cathedral in Louisville, the organist from deep southern Alabama and I had to sit down one day with the Dean of the Cathedral, who was from Philadelphia (she was a Yankee). She couldn’t figure out why she kept landing in hot water with the things she’d say to people. We explained to her, that in the south, you take 15 minutes to say “No” and then the other person isn’t ever quite clear that you have said “No.” She thought that was ridiculous. Our counsel may have been sound diplomatic counsel, but it was dead wrong where Jesus is concerned.
Say “Yes,” say “No,” say it as lovingly as you can, but say it clearly, otherwise, everything gets all muddled, and no one can move forward when it’s all murky.
Not to mention the fact that baptismal life is always about saying “Yes” and saying “No.” We say “No” in our baptismal renunciations; we say “Yes” in our baptismal affirmations. Take a look at the baptismal vows, they are all about saying “Yes” to some things and “No” to others.
In many, many ways, the law laid out a good ethic, and in so many ways, a such better ethic than what the people of ancient times had known, but Jesus sees how easy it is to slip into a legalistic keeping of the law that sacrifices the spirit of what it intended. Jesus sees how a righteous keeping of the law can actually hide horrific practices that hurt and destroy the creatures of God. Jesus is calling us to a deeper ethic of love that will push all of us out of comfort zones at every turn.
So, how are we doing with our anger?
What language are we using to describe those with whom we disagree?
Are we stopping to think about what others may have against us?
Are we eager to escalate conflict?
How are we doing in our most intimate relationships? Are we avoiding the hard work of intimacy opting instead for the infinite number of distractions our culture offers us on a daily basis?
Are we compartmentalizing our lives and declaring some areas off-limits to God?
How are we holding to our commitments? Are we treating them as holy and sacred?
What about the integrity of our word? Are we able to say the “Yes’s” that we need to say, and just as importantly, are we able to say the “No’s” we need to say?
Our faith dares to proclaim that there are ways to live that are more lifegiving than others, and our faith has been proclaiming this since Moses stood up and addressed the people just as they were getting ready to cross over into the promised land—“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 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.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 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…
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
There are ways that we can live that bring life and allow us to enjoy the land that God promises when our lives line up with an ethic of love, or we can hand our lives over to other gods and lose our capacity to be present to the life of wholeness that God longs for us to know. And it is always a choice; it is always a choice.
Today, Jesus is as clear as he can be, “You have heard it said…but I say to you, ‘Choose to live this way; choose life.’” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 16, 2014