Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality. They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior. The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.” And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be. Or take the Fifth Commandment. “You shall not murder.” Of course you shouldn’t. But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much. I know some very nasty people who could say the same. If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.
This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them. Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it. But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment! We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause. These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.
Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment. Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others. Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence. But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed. Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world? Then it was good. Did that anger fester inside you? Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people? Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good? Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally? Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused. We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault. We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important. No. We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned. Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter. Our thoughts matter. They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.
That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson. It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people. God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible. After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today. But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them. Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson. Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking. They’re not about making life harder. They’re about choosing life.
From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives. God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole. But since the Fall, humans turn away from that. We make choices that make the world a worse place. We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others. We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil. And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up. We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil. And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else. Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.
That’s why Moses talks about life and death. Because we do have a choice to make. We have choices to make every hour of every day. We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us. But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life. In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths. It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death. It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate. That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day. Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.
The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky. The law is a guideline to how to choose life. This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament. For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous. This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous. Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.
As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets. (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.) Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job. If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution. In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all. And so Jesus forbids divorce. I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce. Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant. But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.
It all comes down to one question. Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation. Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism. It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be? Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins. Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives. We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God. We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift. We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.