Note: The “Last Minute Lectionary” format is being retired in favour of a not-last-minute lectionary format, Looking Lectionary! From now on I’ll be blogging a week ahead. –L
Matthew 5:21-37 (NIV):
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
As the US tries to impose a ban on Muslim refugees, the world has to grapple with the issue of responsibility: who is responsible for those fleeing wars and upheaval? Do borders demarcate where responsibility begins or ends? Essentially: Just who is our neighbour? We are all the lawyer in Luke 10:29, asking, “And who is my neighbour?” – furtively hoping, perhaps, that refugees, Muslims, LGBTIA people, women and others suffering pain and oppression are someone else’s problem.
But Epiphany 6A’s narrative lectionary reading is all about taking responsibility and about doing more than the law requires.
In Matthew 5:21-37 Jesus continues his discourse on kingdom life. In Epiphany 5A we saw the beginnings of Jesus’ revolutionary, counter-cultural, counter-intuitive message about kingdom life: it wasn’t what the religious culture of Jesus’ time made it out to be. Blessed are not the rich, the wealthy, the men, the “one percent” – no, the poor are blessed, the mourners, the meek, those who are hungry, the compassionate, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted (Matthew 5:1-12). All the people who couldn’t adhere to the rigid, taxing and expensive cleanliness standards of “the law” of Jewish religion at that time and who were thus excluded, were part of God’s kingdom as Jesus embodied and taught it.
But Jesus went further. While legalism had abandoned the “spirit” of the law by committing to the outward “letter” of the law instead, Jesus returned the law to how he understood it – concerned not with outward appearance so much as with inner conviction. When he spoke about anger, adultery, divorce and oath-taking, he began by saying, “You have heard it said… But I say…” He dismantled religion concerned primarily with outward appearances (and so, exclusivity) by equalising the field: murder isn’t just the physical act, but the inner, unseen anger. Lust is as good as committing adultery. Divorce (in the first century Palestinian context) may have been legal but it wasn’t ethical. And so on. While some may easily have boasted in keeping “the letter of the law”, keeping the spirit wasn’t so easily attainable, and not something you could flaunt or use to impress or overpower.
And that’s the point. When we focus on the outward appearance of our faith, we often do so at the cost of that inner conviction. Talking a good game is worlds removed from taking responsibility for the inside of our “white washed tombs”. But taking responsibility is exactly what Jesus requires of us.
That’s the question to ask ourselves and the people around us this week: are we taking responsibility for ourselves and our thoughts and feelings? Do we take responsibility for our fears, our prejudices, our apathy, our anger, our lust? Or do we “thumb off” these questions by adhering to a “letter of the law” mentality?
Are we willing to “cut off” the easy approval gained by outward religiosity, and to do the hard work of being honest with ourselves and taking responsibility for our place in God’s good-news-to-the-poor-and-captive kingdom?
Blessings for your sermons,