February 16, 2020 | Pastor Tim Dean
Imagine if you got a Valentine’s card that read “you will liable to the hell of fire” or “tear out your eye and throw it away.” You would most likely figure out who sent the card and call the police!
I get the feeling that Jesus is trying to get our attention with these stark images and words that seem threatening. The question is: when we perk up and listen, do these words bring life? And if so, what kind of life?
I think a helpful starting point and lens for these words comes a few chapters earlier in Matthew. Matthew proclaims Jesus as Emmanuel—God with us (1:23).
God is with us – not God with me
God brings us into relationships with others—God is the God of community. Us.
Jesus, God-with-us, then gathers a community of disciples around him and preaches his first sermon to this community. The sermon begins with blessings of people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are you, disciples, when people revile you and persecute you…” (5:1-12)
Then we hear Jesus, God-with-us, blessing “us” in the plural again. You all are salt. You all are light (5:13-16).
The emphasis on community is clear, and community is the appropriate context for words we hear today on anger, adultery, divorce and false oaths. Jesus is speaking to us as leaders, participants, followers within his divine community, his living body.
These are words to show us how to live together in healthy ways. The next section of the sermon shifts to beyond the community, beyond the neighbor all the way to the enemy. For today, though, Jesus is speaking for the life of the community, about how one treats brothers and sisters, members of the body.
Jesus, God-with-us, has joined us to community, and because of that, he gives us rules, ethical standards, to foster intentional, caring behavior. To create life within our relationships.
Let’s take a dive into these ethical standards, and hear how the God of community speaks life to us through them.
First, concerning anger
Jesus goes to the root of the commandment not to murder. It is not simply to avoid killing people. There is no room even for anger, insult or name-calling—no room for behaviors that chip away at relationship and community.
Think about how mismanaged anger from our political leaders is affecting our societal connections right now. Name-calling and bullying not only destroys social fabric, it dehumanizes people.
Jesus is not talking about feelings of anger, per se. He’s talking about a smoldering, on-going anger, that when not dealt with appropriately, attacks the bonds of community and dehumanizes others.
Pastor Eugene Peterson, who published a translation of the bible called the Message, once said that anger itself can be a useful diagnostic tool. “Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong….” Anger can help us determine when an injustice is taking place.
However, Peterson went on to say, anger can’t tell us whether the wrong is outside us, or inside us. As erring human beings, we usually assume the wrong is outside us—so we blame a family member, or friend, or stereotype people, when we feel angry.
Jesus reminds us that feelings of anger need to be dealt with and named internally. This allows steps of reconciliation, including justice-keeping and forgiveness, to happen in relationships.
Second, concerning adultery and divorce
Jesus lived in a patriarchal culture, in which only a man could divorce his wife. A woman was seen and considered to be a possession of a man. So the force of Jesus’ instruction in the sermon on the mount is to prevent men from objectifying women—to prevent them from seeing women as objects and then easily casting them off through divorce.
Yet, even though he lived in a patriarchal culture, Jesus transcended the norm and treated women with respect and compassion. He healed many women and frequently praised their faith. Women provided material support for him in his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). All four gospel accounts show women to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10, for example).
In his words for us today, Jesus again goes to the root of the commandment, and calls for men to treat women with respect and equality. Like anger, lust is linked to contempt for another person, treating another as object and not a person bearing God’s image.
Again, Jesus calls us to form healthy relationships between men and women, and to see each other not as objects or possessions but equals, people of God.
Divorce, in Jesus’ day, was something quite different than our own modern context. Most of us have experienced the pain, separation and brokenness of divorce—if not our own relationships, then with family members and friends. Divorce is not something entered into lightly, but there are times when two people mutually conclude that it is best for all to end a marriage.
In these circumstances, we trust that Jesus, God-with-us, is present in our brokenness, and can lead us through the death of a marriage into a new, resurrected life.
What seems most important in Jesus’ words is that we in this Christian community are not to exploit others, or turn people into objects that we can manipulate. Rather, we are to care for one another under the broad umbrella of God’s merciful, healing love.
Our community bonds—all of our relationships—are to reflect the One in whose name we gather. And where there is brokenness and pain, Emmanuel promises grace upon grace.
God give us grace to belong and to serve in this community, to be connected to others. To be a disciple means that we are never alone, because God joins us to a community of other disciples.
Because God is with us, in our midst, we are strengthened to attend to our anger in healthy ways, to reject lust and how it objectifies others, and to seek reconciliation with those who are part of Christ’s body.
The ways we interact—the rules for our faith community—really do need to reflect the incredible promise of Emmanuel, that God truly is and always will be with us. And this God, the God of community, will help our relationships to bring forth life and bear fruit in love.
Help us, Emmanuel, to pay attention to your words today, and to choose life, equality and healing in all our relationships.