Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on February 16th, 2014
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
They’re only words!
Has anyone ever said that to you? Usually, I get it as an excuse for saying something shocking or vulgar. It’s as if they’re trying to say “It’s your own fault if you’re offended by what I said. The words themselves have no inherent power.” Ironically, usually they have chosen to use those particular words precisely because of their power to shock and offend.
Words do have power. The power to hurt or to heal; to offend or to forgive; to destroy or to create; to knock down or to lift up; to stir to action or to lull into complacency.
Sometimes when we hear Jesus’ words, they’re so disturbing, so shocking, we just wish he hadn’t said it at all. We want to ignore it. Maybe today is one of those days.
The gospel we heard today has some pretty shocking images. They would have been even more shocking to Jesus’ audience. The deformities he is talking about would not only deprive the person of their livelihood, consigning them to a life of misery and begging, those deformities would exclude them from the Temple; from the religious life of the community. Pretty shocking.
So, why do you think he would make such outrageous statements? Do you think he expected people to literally pluck out their eyes or cut off body parts? Or maybe he wants to make them sit up and listen. “Pay attention! This is really important!” So maybe we should pay close attention, too.
We’re in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ first major sermon of his public ministry. In it he lays out his mission and message – the proclamation and inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven and what that means for the lives of people. We’ve been working our way through this sermon for three Sundays now. We’ll spend one more Sunday and Ash Wednesday with it and then the lectionary pretty much ignores the rest, although it goes on for another chapter in Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus begins the sermon with the Beatitudes, the blessing of the “unlikelies,” so to speak – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, etc. We heard that bit two weeks ago. Many people find comfort hearing these blessings. Certainly the crowd gathered to hear him did. Last week, we heard him tell those gathered that they are “salt of the earth” and “light for the world.” And then he went on to proclaim that he would not be abolishing or even altering the Law or the Prophets.
And this week we hear him refining the requirements of the law; narrowing and tightening it.. He’s interpreting the spirit of the Law. Now, as one commentator noted, within the Old Testament, the Law has an enduring heart or core, with an evolving, contextual edge. Throughout the Old Testament, the Law is continually being reinterpreted and refined for new contexts.
Even as early as Moses, we find that the Law is not merely a set of arbitrary rules by which God can judge whom to reward and whom to punish. In our reading from Deuteronomy we find Moses giving his farewell address just as the people are about to cross into the Promised Land without him. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses, ” he says. “Choose life… loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” The Law is not about avoiding punishment. It is choosing life, good life.
Jesus shows us this evolving, contextual edge with a series of six antitheses. We hear four this week and will hear two more next week. Each one begins, “You have heard it said that… but I tell you…” In each case, Jesus starts with the obvious, concrete behavior addressed in the heart of the Law (You shall not murder) and then he expands on it, getting to the underlying spirit and reason for the law.
And each time, what it comes down to is an overarching awareness and concern for the well-being of our neighbor; the well-being of the community.
It’s about living in the Commonwealth of God or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew calls it.
So let’s look a little more closely at the first one. “You have heard that it was said… ‘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.’
He goes on to instruct them to be reconciled with those they have offended before offering their gift at the altar.” Notice that he doesn’t say “Don’t be angry.” Rather, unreconciled anger or resentment or any other wrong is harmful not only to the individual, but it’s harmful to the well-being of the whole community.
You’ve probably had the experience of stewing about something that happened or something you did. It eats away at you until you do something about it. This is why we pass the Peace right before the Offertory. It is an opportunity to seek reconciliation with anyone with whom we may are at odds; whom we harmed or whom we resent. It is a sign of our willingness to be reconciled.
The other antitheses are just as significant. I won’t take the time to go into detail about them today. Perhaps it would be a good topic for Bible Study?
I wonder what Jesus would say about the evolving contextual edge of the Law today?
How do our choices save lives or kill; increase or diminish the well-being or misery of others?
Do we treat other people as objects to fulfill our needs or purposes?
How do we care for the vulnerable or do we leave them to fend for themselves?
Can others count on us to be true to our vows, our promises, our commitments?
What does it mean to be a person of integrity in all our relationships? That is the heart of it.
May we always choose life and blessing.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.
Blessed are the pure of heart for they will see God.