6 Epiphany – February 12, 2017

Matthew 5:21-37

So, our readings this morning are not of the warm and fuzzy variety, they relate to the law. Our reading from Deuteronomy tells us to choose life.  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…”   

Our gospel presents some of the commandments.  Jesus reminds us that we already know what we need to know. We already have heard the Ten Commandments and memorized the Golden Rule and know we should put them into practice in our lives. And then he continues….“But I say to you” … so there’s more. The outer practices need to be integrated inwardly.

Jesus raises the old commandment to a new level, telling his disciples not only to obey the commandment but also to get rid of, or subdue, the feelings and attitudes that might otherwise lead them to violate the commandment.

The law was given by God as a gift to God’s people.  Recall that the commandments are given after God has already declared that Israel is God’s people. This means the law is not the means by which to become God’s people or to earn God’s love, but rather a gift given to God’s people because God loves them. So, from this point of view, the injunction to “Choose life!” is less a stern command than it is a heart-felt invitation or even earnest plea.

The law is given to strengthen community. The “you” in both Deuteronomy and Matthew is always plural. The law isn’t about meeting our individual needs but about creating and sustaining a community in which all of God’s children can find nurture, health, safety, and blessing. The logic behind the biblical focus on community is simple. When you’re looking out for yourself, it’s you against the world. When you look out for the others in your community, and they in turn look out for you, it’s the community together that faces the challenges, setbacks, and opportunities the world offers.

And the law comes as a gift to strengthen community by orienting us to the needs of our neighbor. The law, let’s be very clear, isn’t meant to remove the neighbor and his or her needs from our view or concern but rather draws us to our neighbor more closely. Jesus is intensifying the law in today’s reading – to help us avoid seeing the law as merely drawing moral boundaries and instead alert us to our responsibility to care for those around us. One can too easily discriminate, injure, neglect, or speak poorly of a neighbor all the while saying, “I have kept the commandment because I have not murdered.” And so Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being. For by caring for our neighbor we strengthen a community that can best serve as a blessing to the world.

I set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Here’s a choice
all of us must make. What do you choose?  Do you believe that knowing the rules is all we need?  Or do you believe that setting free hearts that are stuck is divine work and that this can be a reality in your life?  Here on earth the best place to see the glory of God is in a human heart set free.

Consider the familiar rules that Jesus cites:  • No murder   • No adultery • Legalized divorce • The integrity of oaths

These have to do with perennial features of human society: • Violence • Sexuality • Relationships • Speech

Much of the time when we human beings get into trouble, it has to do with one or more of these perennial features. And so we maintain societies using rules that restrict us in a variety of ways.  These rules are not meant to govern angels. They are rules that recognize that human beings are flawed and that society is imperfect.  They represent ways to curb the damage we do to one another and to ourselves.

If “choose life” was the test case for what we did and said, we may then pause before we lash out in anger and fear. We might take a moment before we label someone pro-life, pro-choice, pro-abortionist, (or anti all of those things). We might stop and think, is what I am about to say and what I am about to do something that would be recognizable as life-giving, life- upholding, life-empowering?

Dorotheos of Gaza, a sixth-century teacher, once preached a sermon for the monks in his monastery who were grumbling that they were unable to love God properly because they had to put up with one another’s ordinary, irritating presence. No, Dorotheos told them, they were wrong. He asked them to visualize the world as a great circle whose center is God, and upon whose circumference lie human lives. “Imagine now,” he asked them, “that there are straight lines connecting from the outside of the circle all human lives to God at the center. Can’t you see that there is no way to move toward God without drawing closer to other people, and no way to approach other people without coming near to God?” (Roberta C. Bondi, Memories of God, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 201)

In other words, Jesus is saying that interpreting the law is far more complex than we make it out to be. And if your interpretations lead to death — the silence of voices, the discounting of the personhood of the other, the disrespect and demeaning of entire groups of people, the labeling (which is a nice way to say calling names) thereby putting people in their place — then we have to think long and hard about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

I share a poem, entitled Clothesline by Marian Maciel:

those people
wouldn’t it be lovely
if one could
in a constant state
of we?
some of the most
can be some of the biggest
what if there was
no they?
what if there
was only
if words could be seen
as they floated out
of our mouths
would we feel no
as they passed beyond
our lips?
if we were to string
our words
on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud
as our thoughts
flapped in the

“clothesline,” poem by Marilyn Maciel. Published in Patti Digh, “Life Is a Verb: 37 Days To Wake Up, Be Mindful, And Live Intentionally.” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 42.

So do you see God as love or God as Judge? I see a God of love. One who provides the commandments as a gift. There is a prayer from Iona that goes:  “We pray for those who need to forget the God they do not believe in and meet the God who believes in them.”

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Choose life.  Amen.