Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 16, 2014
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.
Deuteronomy is one of those books of the Bible that most people will never read. It takes place just before the Hebrew people enter the Promised Land. God had used Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, and they had been nomads in the wilderness for forty years while they learned to be God’s people and live as God wanted them to. They had learned to trust God and follow God even in the harshest conditions. It hadn’t been an easy time; they kept backsliding, grumbling, and rebelling against God. Now they were finally ready, and had been led to the area we call Israel today, the land God had promised to give them. They were standing across the Jordan River from the land, they could see their future home. But before they crossed, Moses had a few things to say. Well, actually, Moses had a lot to say. And the book of Deuteronomy tells the story of his speech. Moses knew he wasn’t going to live much longer—he died before they crossed over the river. And he wanted to help them remember the things they had learned in their years of wandering. So he gave them the Law—chapter after chapter of legal minutia, everything they needed to know to establish a just and lawful society.
Our first reading comes from his summary, as he’s wrapping up his speech. In this reading, he reminds people why the laws are there. The law isn’t given so that people will trip up; it isn’t given so that lawyers can have a job; it isn’t given as a way for the powerful to oppress the powerless by wielding unjust rules. The laws are given so that the people can live good, honest, and open lives. We all have many choices in our lives, things we can decide to do or not do. Some of them seem to be hard, but yet worth it in the long run. Other choices are easy and seem good at the time, but lead to problems down the road. It’s not always easy to lead a life of honesty, integrity, and love; sometimes it’s so much easier to be petty and deceitful and selfish. But a life filled with love of God and loving your neighbor as yourself leads to, well, life. A life filled with pettiness and selfishness, on the other hand, doesn’t. Or, at least, it doesn’t lead to the kind of abundant and joy-filled life that God wants for us. Choosing badly may not be a literal death; it may be a death of hope, a death of love, a death of possibility, a death of joy. An addition to the brokenness of the world.
When we make choices about how we’re going to live, how we’re going to treat ourselves and others, that’s what’s at stake: are we going to choose the abundant life God has promised us? Are we going to choose healing and wholeness? Or are we going to turn away, and choose death and brokenness? Choose life, Moses says, and reminds us that when we make those decisions every day, we don’t just make them for ourselves, but for our family and community.
Jesus is also talking about laws in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, and again it’s about choices. What kind of life are we going to live? Chapter 5 is the sermon on the mount. You may recall a few weeks ago when we heard the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn. Why? Because they will be comforted, filled, lifted up; because in those times of grief and loss, some of the deepest connections and relationships are forged. Whether or not the world can see it, God is with those who are last, and lost, and least. Then, last week, the Sermon on the Mount continued with Jesus talking about being salt and light. God has chosen us to be the light of the world, to let God’s light shine through us on the whole world, and participate in God’s work.
Then, today, Jesus’ sermon takes a more legalistic bent. What kind of life should followers of God lead? Jesus’ expectations are pretty high—much higher than was required by the Law of Moses. But the expectations are high for the same reason. Some choices lead to life; some lead to death. Jesus wants us to choose life, not just for our sake but for the sake of the world. Jesus wants us to live lives that let God’s light shine; Jesus wants us to help build up God’s reign on earth, where the poor are loved, where those who mourn are comforted, where the meek and lowly aren’t trampled underfoot, where mercy and peace are everywhere. So here are some practical tips on how to live that kind of life.
The first is about reconciliation. There is conflict in life. There will always be disagreements, inside church and outside church. Sometimes those conflicts are small, and sometimes they’re not. But we human beings aren’t very good at dealing with conflict. All too often, we’d rather nurse our resentment and anger than forgive; we’d rather sweep things under the rug than take the hard work of rebuilding the relationship. How many of you have had an argument or problem with somebody in the community that lasted for a long time? Think about that conflict: did it affect other things in your life? Did it take a toll on other people? Did the resentment creep into other things you did? That’s no way to live. Jesus calls it a kind of murder: not of lives, but of relationships. It destroys possibility; it breaks down the whole community. So, Jesus says, if you have a problem with someone or someone has a problem with you, you should handle it immediately—don’t sweep it under the rug, don’t bury it and seethe, go and be reconciled. Even if you’re in the middle of worship, take the time to work through the problem and rebuild the relationship. By the way, we actually allow time for this in worship. Have you ever wondered why we stop in the middle of service to pass the peace? It’s not just to catch up with people and say hello. It’s a time intentionally set apart so that if you have a conflict with someone, you can take the first step of healing the breach: sharing peace with them.
The second area of behavior Jesus talks about has to do with more intimate relationships: marriage and sex. Jesus focuses on adultery: actions which break those relationships. And, specifically, he focuses on things men do that break up relationships. Why? Because men had the power in society. A man could blame a woman for his own misbehavior. A man caught in adultery got a slap on the wrist, but a woman caught in adultery could be killed. A man could beat or kill his wife with few if any consequences. A woman had very few circumstances in which she could get a divorce, even if she were being abused; a man could get a divorce for virtually anything. A meal he didn’t like could be grounds for divorce: and while a man who got divorced didn’t face many problems in society, a woman who was divorced had very few options. She could live with her father or brothers as a servant; she could marry again (if she could find someone willing to marry her); she could become a prostitute. There weren’t many other choices.
So I don’t find it surprising at all that Jesus told men not to divorce their wives lightly or for trivial causes. When you get a divorce, that’s a death of possibility. It kills the relationship, and often it kills more relationships than just the couple’s: parents, children, siblings, friends, all are caught in the conflict; all are affected. It can be devastating. And in Jesus’ day, you added to it a very real possibility that the woman’s life would be ruined even if she had done nothing wrong. Divorce for trivial reasons was the opposite of everything Jesus was trying to teach. It was the opposite of the love and mercy and peace that Jesus was sent to bring. For that reason, I don’t believe that Jesus would apply this teaching on divorce to cases of abuse: abuse, also, is the opposite of love and mercy and peace. Marriage, like all relationships, should be good and positive and life-affirming. Jesus wants us to make choices that lead to life, and that includes choices about marriage.
The third thing Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading is oaths. Not cursing, but swearing. For example, when a witness is sworn in court, and they put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And at first when I was reading this passage I didn’t get the connection. Then I realized: why do we make people swear oaths? Because we don’t trust them to do the right thing on their own. We don’t trust that witnesses in a court will tell the truth without an oath and penalties if they don’t. We don’t trust that people who hold government positions will do their best if they don’t have to stand up and give an oath—and maybe we’re right not to trust. Certainly, some people try to lie and cheat. But Jesus’ point is that we as Christians shouldn’t need to take oaths—we should tell the truth even without them. We should act with honesty and integrity whether we’ve sworn an oath or not. We should act with honesty and integrity whether or not there are consequences. We should make the choices that lead to trust, and integrity, and the kind of life worth living.
There are a lot of laws in the Bible, and sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in them. Some people study the letter of the law, and forget the spirit; some people use the law as a club to beat other people over the head with. But that’s not why God gave the law to Moses to give to the Hebrews, and it’s not why Jesus talked about the law, either. God gave us guidelines for behavior to help us make good choices, choices that lead to life and love and wholeness and healing.
Moses said: “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.”