[Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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.“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.
“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.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Well. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like I’ve been taken to the woodshed after hearing this gospel text today. This is the third week that we’ve heard part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and it’s pretty obvious that we’ve moved past the feel-good “Blessed are you”s of the Beatitudes. Now, we’re starting to feel some sting in Jesus’ words. I mean, of course we aren’t supposed to murder, but now you’re telling me that even if we’ve ever just gotten angry at a person we’re facing God’s judgment? Even if we’ve ever just insulted someone, or if we’ve ever called someone foolish, we’re bound for the fires of hell? If that’s the case, then there’s no hope for any of us. It’s simply impossible for anyone to interact with other people and not get angry, or to think or speak about someone in an unflattering way. It just can’t be done.
And then Jesus continues by discussing marriage and divorce. If you get divorced, and especially if someone gets remarried, then in one way or another you’re engaging in adultery. I don’t want to get into a detailed consideration of Jesus’ views on marriage here today; that’s another day’s sermon, but still, this is a very sobering teaching for a lot of us – since, statistically speaking, more than half of all marriages end in divorce, and something like half of those divorces end up resulting in a remarriage; and this statistic is at least as true for us in the church as it is for the general public.
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text can cause us to feel fear and guilt, maybe even tremendous fear and guilt. Every time I read this particular passage, it reminds me of a parishioner I once knew. She was a very deeply devoted Christian, and very active in the life of the church. She’d been raised in another church tradition before becoming a Presbyterian as an adult. When she was a young woman, she’d been in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage that, thanks be to God, she got out of. A few years after that, she met a wonderful man. They eventually got married, and at the time I knew them, they’d been happily married for decades. But over time I noticed that whenever we served the Lord’s Supper, she never participated. Finally, I asked her why, and she told me that it was because of her childhood teaching in that other tradition – that it was sinful for her to have ended her first marriage, even as abusive a it was, and when she got remarried, she put herself in the position of living constantly, irretrievably, in a state of adultery – and that no matter how much of a Presbyterian she was now, deep down in her heart she still held onto what she’d been told as a child. She couldn’t’ shake the feeling that she was living in a dirty, sinful, adulterous lifestyle, and that made her unworthy to participate in Communion. Can you imagine living with that burden of guilt on your shoulders your entire life?
Well as I said, this isn’t a marriage and divorce sermon. But before moving on, I’ve got to say that I don’t think that Jesus’ primary point here – or anywhere else, for that matter – is to make anyone live with that lifelong kind of guilt and shame. To be even more blunt, I think that to interpret Jesus’ words here, or anywhere else in the gospels for that matter, in a way that harms someone in the way it did that parishioner, in a way that causes someone a lifetime of unshakeable pain, is a form of ecclesiastical malpractice, negligence.
Now having said that, I don’t mean to take all the teeth away from what Jesus is saying here, either. These issues are obviously very important to him; it’s only when he’s talking about something very important that he veers into this strong kind of language – pluck out an eye, cut off a hand. What I think is important about all of these things is that they all deal with the issue of human relationships, and potential harm to those relationships.
The issue of being in right, healthy relationships is of the absolute highest importance to God, and anything that would harm or break those healthy relationships is a very, very serious matter in God’s eyes. Simply put, we were created in order to be in relationship. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that being in healthy relationships with one another is a necessity for us to be fully, truly human.
And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is one of the most important reasons that Christ established the Church. One of the most important things that we’re called to do is to offer an alternative way of being, a way different than what’s typically seen in the world. We’re supposed to model just how people can live in healthy relationships, relationships that honor God and complete our own humanity. It’s easy to find too many examples of the harmful behaviors that Jesus mentioned in this passage – allowing anger and insult to rule the day, harming and even breaking, destroying relationships, whether they’re marital relationships or other kinds. We seem intent on setting up different categories of people in order to justify not engaging in positive, constructive relationships with them. We see it done all the time; divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation – all these sorts of classifications and categories really boil down to being attempts to set up different tribes among us, and then to justify getting angry at them, or insulting them, or considering them foolish, or completely breaking relationship with them – in short, they’re attempts to justify not loving them.
The fact that being in healthy, right relationships with one another is so important to God is why harming those relationships earns some of Jesus’ strongest language. And we, the church, are called to model these kinds of relationships – not artificially, by ignoring the legitimate differences that we have within our midst, or pretending they don’t exist; but by loving one another even while acknowledging them. By seeking God’s help to allow us to find positive, authentic ways of living, and serving, and worshipping, together, forbearing one another – loving one another – without falling victim to any kind of actions or ways of being the church would separate us, divide us, tribalize us, and lead us into ways that break our relationships. We’re called to love one another when it’s easy. We’re called to love one another when it’s hard. But even when it’s hard, we can have hope, and confidence, because God has promised to walk this journey along with us. And if God has called us to that way of living, and has promised to lead us and strengthen us as we try to live that out, is there anything that we could possibly be worried or afraid of?
Thanks be to God.