“But I Say To You”
Year A Epiphany 6
St. Thomas Episcopal
I think it is safe to say that few of us like to hear, “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that.” Really, once you get to be an adult, correction is not easy to hear if we are in the wrong, or if someone is treating us beneath our years, it can be outright annoying.
In the realm of moral ideas, growing up to be who our parents and our culture want us to be, we need to start somewhere, though. We need to start out with the “Don’t!” commands. Think about it. One of the first words a child learns is “No!” They learn it from hearing it over and over and over. Then they flip the tables on us, and they start saying it. They find their voice and the way they say it mirrors our our own corrective voices. When we are starting out, we are looking for guidance. We look for what it is we need to do. How do get started?
We need the dos and don’ts to be sure we are coming close to being on track. But with patience and practice, we become more sure of ourselves, and we can add subtlety and nuance. We can finesse our practice to a place of mastery and self-expression. This applies to most all activities, whether ice skating or even our ethics.
Writer and philosophy professor Dallas Willard tells the story of growing up in Tennessee during the expansion of electricity under the Tennessee Valley Authority. He remembers the family meeting with his parents and uncles and aunts where they all discussed whether they were going to bring in this new and potentially dangerous idea, electricity, into their homes and what it could mean, both the good and the bad. One thing that they did realize was that it whatever it did bring, it would change everything. He goes on to say that that last statement was more true than they knew. After taking electricity on, it changed the rest of their lives. The fears were forgotten because the new was so different and so much better that they embraced electricity with all their hearts. He says the same is true for Christ and his teachings.
They change everything. If we follow his way, truly and with our whole selves, things will be so much better and so different we cannot imagine going back to the way it was before.
James McClendon, theologian, in his Systematic Theology treatise called Ethics discusses how we live out this new life by looking at what sociologists teach us about game theory. All games have rules. We can follow all the rules, and we can even win a game or two without our heart even being in it.
When I am playing on the carpet with my daughter, playing a pretend game with legos or whatever, and when my eyes wander to the news or the Olympics, she knows. “Dad,” she will deservedly whine, “play for real.” One time she even took hold of my chin, turning me back to what we were supposed to be about. It is not enough that I go through the motions, Jesus is asking that our heart be in the game as well. He calls on us to invest our whole selves. James McClendon calls this having a Lusory Attitude. Lusory from the Greek lusos for game. Rules are needed and important, but Jesus asks for something more, to play for real.
Think about it. When our forefathers and mothers were beginning in their relationship with this wild desert god, they needed to know what were the basic expectations. As a teacher I totally get this. The first week of school is all about establishing boundaries and making clear expectations of what is to be and what the students are to be about in my classroom. Here we do THIS. Here we never do THAT. I make my list and it gives a student the lines that they should not cross. These commandments are a starting place. They are good reminders of the BARE MINIMUMS. If as a teacher I am still working on these at this point in the school year, here in February, something is horribly wrong.
In the Gospel reading from St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount section, Jesus is quoting the rules given by Moses, mostly in the Ten Commandments. He does not deny or denounce them. He gives this line “You have heard it said...” He is very clear that that WAS the expectation. Like Moses he has placed himself on another mountain and he is establishing his expectations and understandings for those that choose to take on his yoke of discipleship in their lives. “You have heard it said...” he starts, “but I say to you...” he finishes. Let’s look at these.
Jesus looks to our relationships, our commitments, and our vows.
5:21 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'
5:22 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.
Okay, I can imagine coming to Jesus. I get to follow you right? I’ve never killed anybody. Good enough. But Jesus does not want to settle, nor does he call on his followers to settle. What are the slides that lead us to murder? Anger. Contempt. It starts there. Jesus is telling us, don’t even let it start. You did not cross that line, but he warns us, do not takes steps down that path. We have all been there. Someone wrongs us, we want to wrong them back. Eye for an eye. Snub for a snub. But Jesus tells us to hold on a second. He recognizes that if we do not take care of these things it not only affects others, but us as well. It even gets in the way of our dealings with God.
5:23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
5:24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Do you hear Jesus? How we deal with each other is more important than our rites and our rituals. Let me say that again so it is clear. How we deal with each other is more important than our rites and our rituals. Why is it, do you think that we have the passing of the peace before we give our gifts to God, or we celebrate the Great Thanksgiving? Christ wants us to be in a good place with those we can see and live with here on this plane of existence before we look to the next. We hear coaches all the time yell, “Get your head in the game!” Jesus calls us to get our heart in the game as well.
But our relationships with friends, enemies and strangers are not the only ones where Jesus reframes Moses’ teaching and raises the bar.
5:27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'
5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Lust affects us. It affects the committer of said lust, and those in relationship with them. Jimmy Carter was too honest in a jaded world when he alluded to this Scripture in his presidential bid. He was an honest man who took Jesus’ teaching seriously. The world, as usual, just did not understand. Jesus uses hyperbole next to make his point.
5:29 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.
5:30 And 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.
Now our brothers and sister who take the Scriptures literally, or say that they do, I notice that they are not one-eyed, or one-handed. I think Jesus is saying here, like he was that we should leave our offerings at the altar, that we are talking about unbelievably serious things. Like General Maximus said before battle in Gladiator, “What we do here today echoes through eternity!” For Jesus, the battle was internal, not external. Like the early Desert Mothers and Fathers who recited the entirety of the Psalms daily, the enemy is inside us, those things that keep us from God. We show how different we are from the world by how we keep our promises.
Jesus’ first look at Vows are in his view of the importance and seriousness of Marriage.
5:31 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'
5:32 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.
Jesus recognizes that our first level relationships are foundational. It was a simple matter to divorce one’s wife. Notice I said wife there, not spouse. And there were rabbinic traditions that made it a hot debate, and for time’s sake will summarize it with “Any reason at all” vs. “Infidelity only.” Jesus jumps in with the infidelity-only camp. But he takes it further. The ripples continue. A clean certificate of divorce that allows women with little to no power in that society to go on and marry again is not so clean, in Jesus’ eyes. It starts another slope that leads ultimately to adultery, and even more adultery.
Jesus again points his disciples to the importance of our actions and the smallest of things and the hugest points in directions away from what he is instructing us as most dear. His call is for justice for all involved. Both the man and the woman. This is radical and transformative teaching in Jesus’ time, but too often it has led to even more legalism and heartbreak. Jesus wants his followers in his way of connecting to God to involve all their relationships, and not just “go by the rules.”
A bit more on Vows: what about bearing False Witness?
5:33 "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.'
5:34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 5:35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.5:36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.5:37 Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Because we can dye our hair now, does not give us permission to lie. Jesus says we do not need invoke divine wrath if we just tell the truth. We swear to God when we need something beyond the apparent truth to be believed. “Say yes, and mean it. Say no, and mean it. You, as my true followers, do not need to invoke anything further.” There was a reason that the Quaker was used as a symbol on a can of oats. What we say is in here is in here. Period. No further questions need be asked. It is the same when a repairman’s truck or ad in the Phone Book has that Jesus fish, supposedly they are saying: “You can trust us.” Sadly, to those outside the church, it could look and sound like a child saying, “I swear to God.”
This Jesus way of life is not easy, when it is done halfway. If we hold on to our Anger, our power in our dealings and relationships, our need to be right or at least in charge, we are like if the Willards of Tennessee ran the lines out to the house and never plugged anything into the socket. If we do not make the change all the way, it does us no good. Is our head in the game? Is our whole heart in the game? Whose side are we on?
In the wisdom of our Apocrypha reading from Sirach:
15:15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
15:16 He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
15:17 Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.
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