Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 12, 2017

2017.02.12 “Choose Life, Part 1” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32

Central United Methodist Church
Choose Life, Part 1
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 21 – 32
February 12, 2017

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“Maurice Harron, Hands Across the Divide, from Art in the Christian Tradition”

You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.

“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.

“Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.

“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

“Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The overall theme for this Sunday and next Sunday is announced not by the Gospel, but by the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy: “Choose life!”

“Choose life” was not a bumper sticker on Moses’ car, but his final plea to the children of Israel. He reminded them that despite all they had been through, they still had a choice: to choose life by following God and God’s commandments, or to turn their backs on God, forsaking God’s command- ments. Which will it be?

But suppose when Moses said this, some seeker or smart aleck had raised his hand and said, “Rabbi Moses – exactly how do we choose life by following the commandments?” Do you mean just the ten commandments, or all 613 commandments; the 248 positive commandments, one for every bone in the body, or the 365 negative commandments, one for every day in the year? And, Rabbi Moses – a follow up question – how would you have us follow them: literally or figuratively? One might imagine Moses would have had security remove him, or ask for a localized lightning strike from his friend, God.

Ah, there’s the rub. If we “choose life,” which rules do we follow, and how do we interpret them, literally or figuratively? Do we dress like orthodox Jews, or like the Amish, or – as most of us – do we keep our faith hidden, and practice the rules in our behavior and in our heart?

In today’s reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this is the question: How do we interpret and follow God’s commandments? And – perhaps even more importantly – what is the point of following them at all?

This Sunday and next Sunday, Jesus talks about six representative issues – anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Each time Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Even though Jesus’ antithesis – as they are called – fill less than a page, entire books have been written about them, so there is no way I can address them fully in the short time we have. Let’s split them into two groups of 3 each. Today, let’s do anger, adultery, and divorce. (That sounds bad, especially in church!)

As you might gather from Jesus’ statement, there was no shortage of interpretation about how to interpret the law in his time. Not only were there the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes, even among the Pharisees (the movement to whom Jesus was closest), there were differing interpretations, such as the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammei, about such things as – for example – how difficult or how easy it should be to divorce your wife. I might note it was not the first or the last time, when MEN wanted to make the rules that pertain to WOMEN.

Might I add that while we may look with amused curiosity upon the differing schools of interpretation in 1st century Judaism, it is worse today. To begin with, in a text based society – our text being the Constitution of the United States – how it is interpreted is critical, which is why the appointment of judges is so important.

In regard to religious interpretation, not only do we have more religious options (Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and of course, NONE) we have extremely diverse interpretation just within Christianity. Not only are we Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant, there are over 200+ varieties of Protestants, and far more non-denominational churches. And among each of those of those there is the spectrum of progressive, evangelical, and conservative. Throw in the volatile mix of cultural and political loyalties in the Age of Trump, and today we have Christians denouncing and defriending each other: “My way is the way of life; your way is the way of death.” Now – more than ever – we must learn how not only to respectfully disagree but charitably disagree, without vilifying each other.

Because – in the face of differing interpretations and corresponding animosity – Jesus steps forward to say:

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.”

“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices — they also corrupt.

“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.”*

As Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary points out, the irony is that this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the difficulties of the interpretation of Scripture. Jesus shows us that the complexity of making sense of faith is part of faith, but – even more significantly – he also models the hard work of interpreting Scripture for new times, new places, and new circumstances. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”

At root, what Jesus is teaching in these six antitheses, is about “choosing life.” Jesus is saying that life is diminished, not only when life is taken, but when anger and judgment and insult reign. Jesus is saying that life is diminished, when women are objectified and dehumanized, seen as existing only for the fulfillment of male sexual desire or to carry on the family name. Jesus is saying that life is diminished when women are discarded, solely judged upon their capacity to satisfy privileged and patriarchal needs, or their capacity to bear children. While it was worse in Jesus’ time, while it was bad up almost until modern times, if you haven’t noticed, there are still a lot of these attitudes out there, right up into the highest chambers of our land. (Karoline Lewis, “Choose Life,” Dear Working Preacher, February 5, 2017)

So – as difficult as these ideals Jesus taught may be – when we practice them, we choose life. Jesus is trying to tell us that God is not interested in us keeping the law for the law’s sake, God wants us to keep the law for our sake. Think of it as the fence – not keeping us out of, but keeping us in – the good life.

As difficult as they may be – when we practice them, we choose life, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors. Rolf Jacobson, another professor at Luther Seminary, once said of Joel Osteen’s best-selling book, Your Best Life Now, that it would be a lot closer to the biblical vision of life if it had been titled instead, Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now. At its best, the Law – at its best, and especially as taught by Jesus – reveal the parental heart of a God who desires the health and happiness of ALL God’s children.

David Lose shares a story which he says captures this for him. He says his friend, Frank, who was about eight years old at the time, started an argument with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon, Frank had his sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop. In response, Frank reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!

This is the ethic Jesus is teaching: God’s gift of life is for ALL God’s children. “No, you can’t hoard everything. No, you can’t discriminate and exclude. No, you can’t violate and exploit. No, you can’t murder and kill. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.” (David Lose, “Epiphany 6A: Love and the Law,” In the Meantime, February 6, 2017)

The last time I checked, the Ten Commandments were still in effect. However, according to Jesus, it is never enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” Still married; check!” What God designs of us is not just that we fulfill the minimum daily requirements, but that we internalize them in our heart and practice them in our lives, so that everywhere we go and in everything we do, we respect, honor, and love all God’s children: Christian and non-Christian, black and white, male and female, young and old. When we do this, we choose life. Amen.

*Jesus statement about divorce addressed the cultural situation of his time, where men could easily divorce their wives for trivial reasons, leading to a woman’s disgrace and impoverishment. Even then, the prohibition was evolving, with an allowance for divorce (sexual promiscuity) added to Matthew over Mark’s Gospel, the earliest written. Finally, Jesus’ extreme statement about divorce should be read in the context of the extremity of all the antithesis; what we often view as the moral failure of divorce, is no less than the moral failure of anger, retaliation, or loving your enemy. All these are impossibly high standards, and forgivable.

 

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