An audio recording of the sermon from this Sunday is unavailable, so we offer the sermon text in its entirety.
Murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing. Aren’t you glad you came to Church today? You picked a good day to come to Church, because in this Epiphany season there is no dark corner of life where the light of Christ cannot bring illumination, grace, and wisdom. Thanks be to God. We should read today’s gospel in the context of the sermon on the mount which we have been working through this Epiphany season, and last week’s gospel ended with Jesus promise that participation in the Kingdom of Heaven involved a righteousness which exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Today’s gospel then, appears to be Jesus effort to flesh out exactly what that kind of righteousness would like. As he does so, Jesus uses this dichotomy, you have heard it said, but I say to you. You have heard it said, by people like the scribes and the Pharisees, but I say unto you there is a better way to look on the law. Jesus first shows us a picture of what he considers righteousness as usual, an approach to upright living which might ask, what is the bare minimum? how to I keep the letter of the law vs the righteousness which he proposes, an approach which is never finished giving thanks to God with our actions and which tries to keep the big picture in mind.
Murder. My mother was a waitress the whole time I was little at a hotel restaurant which served breakfast and lunch. It was hard work. So she would get up before 5 in the morning and I would always try to get up early enough to say bye to her. When she got home in the afternoon I would ask her how work went, and a common response was, well, I didn’t kill anybody. Though I didn’t understand at the time, now that I’m older and have taken a turn at being a waiter myself, though not a very successful one, I am able to take that statement as the true celebration that it was, and on our worst days, getting through the day without committing murder may indeed be the best we feel we can do, but we know that our calling as Christians is higher than that. A Pharisaical righteousness, one following only the letter and not the spirit of the law, might rest on the laurels of not having murdered while at the same time carrying around all kinds of malice, hatred, and bitterness of heart toward brother and sister. A day spent demonizing the opinions of others, secretly hating others, full of jealousy and inward wrath, ended by saying today, I followed the law of Moses, I kept the ten commandments, because I didn’t kill anybody, That is not a day lived to the fullest. I came that you might have life and have it abundantly, Jesus said, and a life of barely restrained murderous intention does not qualify as abundant life. We should not pat ourselves on the back for not being the kind of person who would kill another while at the same time wallowing in the anger and judgment which are the cradle of murder. You are responsible for your anger. The bare requirement of following the law is not enough in this situation, Jesus says. Not for righteousness and not for joy. Rather, to truly fulfill the law is to allow the holy spirit to cultivate a good will toward brother and sister which would set reconciliation and right relationship as the highest good. Even before sacrifice at the temple. If you are in the midst of performing your religious obligations and remember that you have reconciliation to do, leave your gift and go and be reconciled, that is the truest work of righteousness. Where right relationship flourishes then, Jesus says the commandments are truly fulfilled.
Jesus continues this same kind of exploration of the law with adultery.
Whoever looks with lust in his heart has already committed adultery in his heart, and the first thing we feel is conviction because all men and I dare say all women have experienced this. But Jesus here seems again to be pushing us to abandon the attitude of bare minimum righteousness.
Committing adultery, along with murdering appears in the big ten commandments and so from the beginning of the law was considered important. And just like with murder our sinful nature wishes to excuse a great deal of unwholesome thought and behavior by using the commandments as an excuse. A man could spend the whole day treating women merely as the focus of desire, disrespecting their personhood by thinking of them as only sexual objects, perhaps even harassing and degrading them, but stopping short of adultery, could end the day justified by the letter of the law. This too is not right according to Jesus interpretation. But rather we are responsible for how we look upon each other, responsible for our attitudes as it concerns other people. As with anger, though there may be very few people who are not guilty of lust, that does not change the fact that we are responsible for what goes on in hearts, not just what we do with our bodies. And the fact that our hearts will never be perfect is not an excuse for irresponsibility concerning what goes on there. Look on your sisters in Christ with respect as whole children of God, and let that inform the way you treat them.
Divorce. In Deuteronomy it was written that a man could divorce his wife if he found something in her, which was displeasing or disgraceful. This law was interpreted differently depending on the time and place, but following the letter of the law with an eye toward bare minimum righteousness led men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons. Though it had a tremendously negative impact on the woman involved. The scribes and the Pharisees would have been knowledgeable and expert upon what was exactly written in the law, exactly what was legal, but Jesus here again sees that everything that is legal is not good. In fact to treat marriage frivolously, to treat people as disposable servants is as bad as being an adulterer in the teaching of Jesus, because both show a lack of care and concern for the other person.
And finally to swearing, not swear words, or curse words obviously, which are merely matters of culture but the act of swearing a vow. The law in Leviticus simply said, do not swear falsely but carry out the vows you have made. And these vows were often made referencing very important things. We still hear things like I swear to God, or I swear on the life of my unborn children. But Jesus says, do not swear at all. Some of you may be wondering about the act of swearing in court to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or pledging, which is another word for swearing, allegiance to the flag, we are not going to talk about any of that today, but rather we will read this teaching of Jesus through the same lens as we have with murder, adultery, and divorce. It should not be that you truly carry out only what you have solemnly sworn to carry out. Nor should you only tell the truth when you have solemnly sworn to tell the truth, and as long as your fingers weren’t crossed behind your back. But you should tell the truth all the time without having to swear. We should not regard anything outside of a solemn oath as an opportunity to lie and get away with it, though that would not technically be against the law. The letter of the law says carry out your solemn oaths, Jesus says be a person who tells the truth and does what one says one is going to do and swearing becomes un-necessary.
We have made it, through Jesus difficult list of things to talk about, and gotten a picture of what the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven looks like. It is not a righteousness that looks to push the bounds of acceptable evil, it is not a righteousness that looks to take as much advantage of others as possible without trespass, it is not a righteousness that looks for justification and loopholes and the bare minimum, but rather one that looks for the loving thing to do, and we begin to understand better a story that happens later in the book of Matthew. One of the Pharisees who was a lawyer by trade, an official expert in the laws of God came up to Jesus and asked him, what is the greatest commandment? And Jesus said to him you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all of your mind, this is the greatest and first commandment and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments, says Jesus, hang all the law and the prophets. May we fulfill God’s law by always doing the loving thing in the name of Jesus, and may we find in all those holy actions our greatest joy and peace. Amen.