“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly 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.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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.’ 32But 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.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
(This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.)
What I appreciate about this particular passage of scripture is that it is an equal opportunity offender. There’s something here to make just about everybody mad. If you weren’t rubbed the wrong way by at least something from this passage in the Gospel of Matthew then you probably weren’t paying attention. I can’t help but think of that interview that Jimmy Carter gave that he always gets panned over, in which somebody asks him if he’s ever committed adultery, and he says that he has, because he has frequently lusted after his own wife in his heart.
So if you have come to church looking for a reason to be mad, well, my congratulations. You’ve come on the right Sunday. If you’ve ever been angry with somebody, if you’ve ever called somebody a fool, if you’ve ever experienced lust, if you’ve been divorced, if you’ve married somebody who has been divorced, if you’ve ever sworn an oath or tried to spin bad news, Jesus has some tough words for you: words like the hell of fire. And prison. And the evil one. If these are the terms, I don’t think any of us would get away scott-free.
And maybe that’s the idea. Maybe that’s the idea. This isn’t just a laundry list of things to avoid in order to get into heaven. I mean, I don’t know anybody who’d pass this test. We all sin. We all need grace. We all need Jesus.
So the question is this: knowing that we are who we are, how can we be good Christians? How can we fulfill God’s call on our lives?
You know, I talk a lot about leading with grace, about the importance of mirroring the grace God has shared with us as we deal with others. I think it is important to lead with grace as far as your dealings with yourself go, too. Everybody feels inadequate. I don’t think Jesus means to indict anybody. That’s not how God works, for God is love.
But I do think there are some things we can take from this passage. I don’t think we ought to throw it out with last week’s garbage or anything. I think that in the interest of following Jesus, of being good Christians, of being faithful to our calling as children of God, that we have to get past our gut reactions, the ways in which this passage stings a bit, and find a word for us now.
I mean, there is some good here, right? Yes, the business about lusting after your spouse is a little silly, but being a follower of Jesus means seeing people as people, not as meat! Yes, we have thankfully moved past the idea that divorce is always the wrong thing, but I’ve never met anybody who went through a divorce that relished it. Following Jesus means taking our relationships seriously, even when there is enough dysfunction to end those relationships, not callously throwing people aside like they are trash.
And my God, language. Talk certainly is cheap these days. There is this word that entered the national vocabulary a few years ago—truthiness. Do you know it? It was created by the comedian Stephen Colbert to describe our penchant for pretending that what we say doesn’t matter, that misleading headlines on cable news are not a big deal, and what’s a little gossip among friends?
It is no coincidence that Stephen Colbert is a devout Christian who teaches catechism classes at his Catholic church. It is no coincidence, because Jesus started talking about truthiness long before Stephen Colbert showed up, long before any of us.
The issues Jesus faced weren’t so different from our own. I would venture to say that if the Pharisees that Jesus was talking about were around today, they’d be running cable news networks and dubious news outlets, you know, just making a living, not actually hurting anybody, just writing headlines that are technically true, running stories that are technically true, reporting on things that technically can be seen as fair.
But then, it is this business of being technical that Jesus reacts so strongly to. In last week’s scripture lesson, the verses just before this one, Jesus says that he hasn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, to embody it, to make it true in a way that is beyond technical, not just stuck in the black and white on the page, to make it true in a way that is real. And he preaches against those scribes and Pharisees that are more interested in walking around with their Bibles and saying see, see, it says right here in black and white that you are wrong and I am right. Jesus preaches against those who see faith as a battle to be won rather than a life to be lived.
So he turns it around. Sure, he says, if you want to play that game, let’s play that game. Technically, yes, it says you shall not murder. But if you want to follow me and reflect the spirit of God just as I have embodied it, technically is not good enough. You cannot love on a technicality. Now, a black and white Christian says, see? I haven’t killed anybody today. Good for me. But a Christian that embodies love, Jesus says, must understand that not murdering is not just about following the law for the sake of abiding by the black and white, but about recognizing that we are all members of the same family, about embodying love, and when you cut into somebody’s humanity by counting them a fool, or by seeing somebody as an object of your anger rather than a subject in God’s kingdom, you’re not embodying love. You’re murdering.
And yes, Jesus says, you have heard it said that adultery is bad, and a black and white Christian says, oh, good, I have once again made it twenty-four hours without cheating on my spouse, isn’t she or he so lucky to have me? But a Christian that embodies love, Jesus says, must understand that not committing adultery is not about me as much as it is about us, about all of us, the relationships we have in life, for in the final analysis we are called to love one another as God first loved us, and relationships may well be all we have. Not committing physical adultery is easy, at least relative to other things, but seeing each person we meet as an actual child of God rather than something or somebody to be used is much, much more difficult, and much, much more meaningful, for—just like most of what Jesus taught us—this is about relationship more than it is about my own need to pat myself on the back. It is much more about embodied love.
You have heard it said, he says, that you should follow the law, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but what I am saying is that unless you are embodying love, you could take all the books in the theology library at Emory and add them to all the books in the law school library and you wouldn’t have an ounce of worthwhile. You know, I get tickled when we get into these conversations about posting the ten commandments in the courthouse. I don’t have anything against the ten commandments—I keep them on a shelf in my office, in fact—but the business of following Jesus is not about following some laundry list of laws: you have broken Section 304.2 of the Christian code or whatever. Following Jesus is about embodying love, and that doesn’t mean we pretend there are no boundaries. In fact, Jesus says, we ought to take those boundaries even further. The boundary of murder comes way before you get to the point of physical violence. The boundary of adultery comes way before you get to the point of physical action.
We tend to see rules as simply existing for their own sake; when politicians tell us that they are passing a law to protect us from ourselves, we respond with understandable charge that we are being patronized. But when God shares these laws with us, we must understand that they are not about getting us to do anything but to love, for Jesus’s message here is that love is the most important thing, for it drives us to go ever deeper, ever further in the depths of our devotion to God and one another. Simply refraining from physical adultery is almost meaningless if you can’t see people as children of God rather than objects who exist to make you happy. That’s ridiculous, and yet it is a mindset that has infected everybody I’ve ever met, for each of us sees the world through our own eyes. It is easy to be myopic, to believe your perspective is the best perspective: your needs the only needs. And so the problem with how I view the law is made manifest in how I view everybody else: as serving me, as all about me.
It’s not about me. It’s about God. And it’s about God’s children.
I’m a little ashamed to admit how hard it can be for God to pull me out of my own boots and remind me that the world doesn’t revolve around my size twenty-three-and-seven/eighths-sized head. I know it’s not all about me, and yet because I see the world through my own eyes, it can be hard to forget. And yet sometimes, sometimes God gets through anyhow, in the midst of all the rest of my junk, and reminds me of my calling as a child of God, a calling we all share.
And you know what probably most profoundly did it for me, most profoundly got me out of my own head and reminded me that love drives the bus? It was a sermon, of all things. I know, you are probably thinking, my God, I haven’t heard a sermon that moved me in ages, but it is true, it was a sermon that I probably think about just about every day. We were at annual conference a few years ago, which is the gathering of all the Methodist churches in North Georgia, and Bishop Alfred Norris was preaching. Bishop Norris was serving as the dean of Gammon Theological Seminary, which is one of our United Methodist seminaries here in Atlanta. And his theme was this: people are precious. If you don’t agree that people are precious, he told a group of clergy about to be ordained into the ministry, then not only do you stand opposed to Jesus, but you’re going to be miserable in ministry. People are precious. Everybody. The ones who drive us crazy. The ones who don’t take us seriously. The ones who give and give and give until they don’t have anything left, and the ones who can squeeze a penny so hard that Lincoln starts to sweat. People are precious.
So I’ll close with this. People are precious. Bishop Norris was the one who stuck that in my head, but Jesus said it first, of course. In fact, Jesus said, people are so precious, our relationships so precious, that it is the case that if you have brought money with you today and you have a beef with somebody, Jesus says, I don’t want your money until you have resolved the issue. Because people are precious. Because our relationships are the most important thing: more important than our own myopic views of the world, more important than the law, more important than giving money to the church.
I’m not saying it’s not really important to give your gifts to God through the church. I’m just saying that for as important as that is—and it’s how I get paid, for whatever that’s worth—it pales in comparison to the importance of recognizing that people are precious. So if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar, go be reconciled, and then bring your gift. Because for as much as God wants your money, it pales in comparison to how much God wants your heart, for people are precious. That means you, by the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.