February 12, 2017 – 6th Sunday after The Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Our readings from the Gospel of Matthew for this week and for next week are portions of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In these readings we find Jesus expanding some of the commandments found in the Torah, the law or teaching about God in the Hebrew Bible. Remember that Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. He often made reference to commandments in the Hebrew Bible and expanded and intensified them.
Jesus used a style of teaching that was common practice among rabbis of his time, the formula “You have heard that it was said,” followed by “but I say to you.” This formula rooted the rabbi’s teaching in scripture and the traditional interpretation of scripture and provided room for new interpretation and new meaning. We find Jesus referring to familiar commandments from scripture and telling his hearers what more was required. He went to the heart of human behavior, the sources of our wrongdoing.
Jesus speaks first about murder and refers to the sixth of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder” or “kill” (Exodus 20:13). Most human beings refrain from murder, so that might seem a relatively easy commandment to keep. Not with Jesus’ expansion of the commandment. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus is directing our attention to what may lie behind murder – anger. He does not condemn the emotion of anger – in fact, the gospels report that Jesus was quite angry himself on a number of occasions. But he warns us about the potential consequence of holding onto anger, of feeding it and growing it until it leads to violence. Perhaps we don’t feed our anger or allow it to turn to violence. Is that good enough? No. Jesus teaches us that if we say, regarding another person, ‘You fool,’ we “will be liable to the hell of fire.” Is there anyone who has not broken this commandment? The contempt for another person behind calling that person a fool – even only in our private thoughts – is contrary to the second Great Commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the law that Jesus calls us to obey. His teaching points out that we are not in love and charity with our neighbor when we hold that neighbor in contempt, when we nurture our anger for our neighbor, or when we kill our neighbor.
Jesus goes on to teach about adultery and divorce. We need first to understand something about marriage in Jesus’ time and culture. In ancient Israel, women were considered the property of men, of their father prior to betrothal and marriage and then of their betrothed or husband. Adultery was understood as a betrothed or married woman having sexual intercourse with a man other than her betrothed or husband. Adultery was punishable by death for both parties. One reason that adultery was prohibited was to insure that children were the issue of a woman’s husband and not someone else. Another was the protection of a married man’s property.
The seventh of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Jesus once again directs our attention to what may be behind adultery: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus uses strong language to emphasize the seriousness of lust. Tear out the eye that stimulates desire, cut off the hand that reaches out to take the forbidden partner. The Greek word translated as “lust” can also mean “covet,” the word we find in the tenth of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). To lust or covet is to desire an object or person in such a way that may lead us to take the desired object or person, by stealing or in adultery. One’s own selfish desire – “I want” – takes over, to the exclusion of ethical principles and of concern for the rights or well-being of others. Jesus leads us to see that this dynamic of human motivation goes far beyond sexual morality and legal property rights, far deeper than breaking the Ten Commandments.
In his teaching about divorce Jesus begins in this way: “It was … said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” This is a reference to the book of Deuteronomy 24:1: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.” A certificate of divorce certified that the woman had been divorced by her husband for a cause other than adultery. This allowed her to remarry, and in a world where women needed the support of men, provided women with some measure of protection.
Jesus says, “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.” This strong language conveys the idea that it is not good enough to obey merely the letter of this law regarding divorce. It is not acceptable to discard a person to whom you have been married with only a small gesture of protection that costs nothing. It is not acceptable to use other human beings and discard them when they are no longer useful or pleasing. Not in marriage, not at all.
The teaching of Jesus in this morning’s lesson is very demanding, as it goes to the heart of our relationships with our neighbors and searches our hearts. How can we bear his teaching? We all fall short. We are all guilty. Where is there any hope?
I think we can take comfort and find hope in these passages from scripture. First, from the Gospel of John (8:2-11): “Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ … Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and Jesus was left along with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”
And this passage from the Gospel of Luke (23:39-43) describing Jesus’ crucifixion: Two criminals were crucified with Jesus, one on each side of him. “One of the criminals … kept deriding [Jesus] and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
The teaching of Jesus is sometimes hard, but we are assured that our Teacher is merciful. It is in Christ’s mercy, not in our sinlessness, but in Christ’s mercy, that we find our abiding hope. Amen.