Jesus started off so gently–”Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…”    The writer of Matthew’s gospel arranges these teachings of Jesus into a sermon, beginning with what we call “the beatitudes,” or blessings.  All those gathered around Jesus could hear him speaking directly to them–”Blessed are [you] the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all sorts of evil against you falsely on my account…”  “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world…”

But then he gets into the crazy talk–”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.’”   OK, now Jesus is talking directly to me.  Really, Jesus?  I can’t even be angry?

He’s far from finished.  “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 you 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.”  Really, Jesus?  If we’re so convinced we’re a “Christian nation,” it seems to me there ought to be a whole lot of spare body parts piled up around here.

“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.”  Even though this is clearly directed at men, it still makes me incredibly uncomfortable.  How many marriages have come to a place where they are no longer life-giving, in fact, where Death and destruction have already essentially parted the two people?  No divorce, Jesus?

And finally–for today!–”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…Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”  Wow.  Is our language really that important?  It seems like every other conversation I overhear on the street uses the “f-word” for every part of speech imaginable.  No swearing, Jesus?

On one level, this all just seems to reinforce the stereotypical image of God as the stern judge looking down upon us, making sure that nobody’s having too much fun.  And in fact, these are not wimpy texts.  They show us, as one writer put it, that loving God is costly love [Sharron Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2/6/11] .

Beyond that, though, what these texts tell us is that our “relationships matter to God” [David Lose, Working Preacher, 2/11/14] .  God is not some Unmoved Mover who is detached from the day to day interactions of human beings.  In fact, it would appear that God would rather we did the work of reconciling our relationships rather than come to worship – “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.”  Imagine if, before the offering, we were to pause so that everyone who had a complaint or grudge or misunderstanding with another member of the community could go and clear things up!

Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie writes, “Jesus brushes past the surface stuff (murder, adultery) to get to the tendrils of evil rooting within the heart.  It isn’t enough just to refrain from killing or from infidelity but to uncover the anger and lustful impulses that form into thoughts, desires, and then deeds.  Purity of heart is called for.”  (Edge of the Enclosure, Epiph. 6A)   And she recalls what an impact reading the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Step, made upon her.

There is a term in Buddhist psychology that gets translated as “internal formations,” or “fetters,” or “knots”.   These formations or fetters or knots may get tied up within us when we don’t understand the cause of someone’s anger or hostility, when we allow someone or something to “get to us.”   This doesn’t mean that that person shouldn’t take responsibility or even be disciplined for their actions, but when we are not tied up in knots, our response will at least be coming from a place of compassion and understanding, rather than anger and retribution.

[I find it interesting that the Aramaic word which Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer– “forgive us our trespasses or sins” also has the meaning of “tangles or knots.”  “Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to each other,” is the way one scholar translates that phrase from the Aramaic (Neil Douglas-Klotz, Prayers of the Cosmos).   ]

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus said just before today’s reading. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  He does not really “brush away” murder, adultery, divorce, or swearing oaths, but he does broaden the law and uses hyperbole or exaggeration to heighten the importance of our relationships, how we treat one another in community.

In a small, relatively endangered community like Israel, like Jesus’ community, the consequences of murder are devastatingly obvious.  In that same community, bound by codes of honor and shame, and where a man’s wife was considered his property, adultery was less a crime of passion and more an attempt to shame another man.  It was also disruptive to the community where the ideal mate was one’s first cousin.  Divorce customs, where a man could simply write a certificate of divorce for his wife, made women objects of property and left them without shelter or resources.  And oaths were most often given in the context of selling–I swear this is good, or where it came from, that sort of thing.  So oaths implied that one might not be honest and so needed to swear.  A small group depending on its members for survival will quickly disintegrate if honesty and truthfulness do not underlie all their dealings with one another.

So this, Jesus was saying, is the distinctive character of life in God’s new age. We don’t live in the same small, endangered community, but if we seek to live in God’s new age, the guidelines are the same.  Our thoughts and intentions matter, as they give rise to our desires and deeds.  Be mindful of them, pay attention to your anger, to your lust.  Every day you must make the decision to stay married, if you are married, for it happens all too often that one day we discover that we have lost touch with our commitment to that one we had pledged our life to.  We have let a wall of resentments, grudges, hurts, and apathy grow up between us.  Other life commitments seem more appealing.  Our relationships matter to God.  Studies show that the number one factor in determining well-being is not health or wealth or possessions but the quality of our close relationships.  They matter.  They’re worth our attention and care.

So, you might think of one relationship that is good and important to you.  Think about why it is good and why it is important.  Give thanks to God for this person and be sure to express your gratitude to that person.  Think also of a relationship that is wounded or broken.  Without blame, hold that relationship in prayer, invite God into that relationship, and see how you might untie some of those knots that have tangled you up.

“You have heard that it was said, …. but I say to you.”  Jesus deepens and expands the law given to sustain and enrich the community, woven together in relationship with God.   It is not the law that earns us relationship with God; God’s Love guarantees that.  But live into more deeply and fully into that Love, Jesus says.

Sometimes the old wisdom needs to be set free.  Listen to part of this performance poem by Christopher Burkett, based on the form Jesus used.

You have heard it was said
Charity begins at home
Your care
confined by what you know.
But I say to you
love is not bound,
it stretches your will,
enlarging your soul,
confounding constraint

and making you bleed.
For if you care alone for those near,
what have you learnt
but to subsist?

You have heard it was said
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
Your learning of life dulled by your age.
But I say to you
the tree grows until its dying day,
living is learning,
experience and the new knocking on each other,
making discipleship true.
For if you know only yesterday’s answer,
where will you meet
the risen Christ anew?

You have heard it was said
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Your imagination held tight by what is.
But I say to you
a better way there may be
sight isn’t vision,
what’s comfortable can be a sham,
how things are
excludes too much.
For if you let what is, be all
where do you see
the Kingdom’s changing call?

You have heard it was said
Blood is thicker than water
Ties of birth determine who’s kin.
But I say to you
kin is belonging
that’s given by God,
ties that bind
are as wide as
sovereign grace.
For if you make your clan sole affinity
where then is God’s plan
for inclusion that heals?

You have heard it was said
Children should be seen and not heard
For they have yet to earn a place in the world.
But I say to you
now is the time
to live and respect,
not tomorrow and not yet,
joy is for now
it’s not an adult’s sole inheritance.
For if you deny the children voiceshow may you know
the things that you’ve lost?

Here is the notion,
Here is the action
In the realm where grace is all:
Not commonplace, not easy,
Not ‘as was said.’
Nor what’s agreeable,
Just the enigma of a God
With an earthly frame
Calling us on —
Not to abolish but to fulfil
And to seek in all things
The Divine will.

[“You Have Heard It Said,” a performance poem by Christopher Burkett, PreacherRhetorica, 2014.]

May we live into all that God intends and is creating even now.  So may we live in God’s

kingdom on earth.    Amen, and amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark


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