Law and Grace

Sermon, February 12, 2017 – Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Matthew 5:21-37

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

That was a pretty sobering Gospel lesson that we heard today. Listen to these phrases, some repeated more than once:

“will be subject to judgment”
“answerable to the court”
“will be in danger of the fire of hell”
“may hand you over to the judge, and you may be thrown into prison”
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. 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.”

Who do these dire warning apply to? Surely only to the most wicked and evil people, right? Surely not to us? Well, actually they do apply to us. Or would if Jesus hadn’t intervened for us. Anyone who is angry with someone else, or calls them a fool is subject to judgment. From what I can see on Facebook and Twitter that takes care of pretty much everyone. But on the off chance that doesn’t apply to you, can you honestly say that you have never had a wandering lustful eye at some point in your life? Out with that eye!

Whoever isn’t condemned to judgment in hell for being angry or dismissive with another, will be walking around with one eye. What kind of world is that? It makes me think how Ron enjoys creative titles for his sermons, and I might just be able to top him today. How about “In the Land of the Damned, the One-Eyed Man is King?” Hmmm….that sounds more like the next big movie about a future dystopia instead of a sermon.

Or I suppose that I could turn this into a sermon on politics. After all, when one thinks of insults, anger, adultery and promise-breaking, what comes more quickly to mind than politicians? Tempting subject, but I don’t think I will go there.

Seriously though – what is our Gospel reading about? What is Jesus trying to tell us in this passage? Where did the good news of the Gospel go? What happened to grace? It’s there. I promise you. But first, we need to see this passage through the right perspective.

We tend to understand these teachings of Jesus through the same lenses as the Pharisees. Understanding this is key to hearing what Jesus is telling us. Now, just to be perfectly clear. I realize that the Pharisees have a very bad reputation today, but the way they viewed law is predominant amongst people in all times and cultures.

The Pharisees were devout Jews who wanted to be sure that they were following God’s law. They studied God’s law as revealed to Moses in the Old Testament and then created a code of behavior which they thought they would keep them safe if they followed it legalistically.

Take the issue of adultery for example. The Ten Commandments said not to commit adultery. Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce in certain circumstances. So the Pharisees codified rules around the specific outward behavior that they believed God was forbidding and then a created legal work around to allow people to end their marriages when they wanted to. Everything was focused on outward behavior.

Our legal system in the United States today adopts this same approach. For every crime, the prosecutor must prove the objective outward act which constitutes the crime. For most crimes, the prosecutor must also prove the subjective intent to do the thing. However, absent an actual outward act, the subjective intent is irrelevant. Think of it this way – I may contemplate and even intend to rob you, but unless I take actual outward actions in furtherance of robbing you, I am not guilty of the crime of robbery.

We often refer to this attitude as being legalistic. The reason is pretty clear – we are adopting from the legal system the principle that only external behavior counts. If you didn’t do the action, then no matter what you were thinking, you didn’t break the law.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus is telling us that this attitude just doesn’t cut it in the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s law is meant to apply to all of our lives – thoughts, intents, and behaviors. One commentator, Professor Scott Hoezee, wrote that “From the outside looking in, it looks like Jesus is making the Law of God ridiculously hard to keep….But is Jesus changing the Law into something new and different? No, he is radicalizing it, he is bringing everyone back to the roots of why God gave the Law in the first place.”

God did not give us the Law as a tedious set of rules which we have to navigate around in order to accomplish our own selfish ends. No, God gave us the Law so that we could set our hearts and minds on God’s call on our lives. Don’t think of God’s law like the criminal law or governmental regulations. No, the better way to think of God’s law is to think of a young man courting a woman. Yes, here is the sermon’s Valentine’s Day reference! But think – what if the young man really didn’t love the woman, but he was just going through the motions? What if he didn’t have any emotional investment in the woman? What sort a romance would that be? Not much of one. In courting, it is the intent which is most important, and the intent animates the courtship behaviors, such as flowers, dinners, and such.

This is what God’s Law must be for us. In our passage today, Jesus is telling us that God’s law isn’t really about our external behavior. He is telling us that it is all about our hearts and minds, knowing that if our hearts and minds are focused on God and what God wants, then our external behaviors will follow.

Let us take another look at the passage. Jesus begins by addressing murder. He repeats the admonition against murder, but then makes it clear that God also wants us to treat others with respect. If we carry bitter, hateful and cynical thoughts in our hearts about others, than that will come out in how we live our lives. We will be living our lives enslaved to our own passions, or own selfish desires, and not in furtherance of God’s will for our lives. God’s call to us is to live in peace and concord with our neighbors to the extent we can. This means reconciling with those we are in conflict with as soon as we can.

Next Jesus addresses the issue of adultery. Again, he acknowledges the teaching against marital infidelity, but then warns us that if we regard others simply as objects to give us sexual pleasure, then we are missing what God’s plan is for our sexuality. God’s plan is that men and women come together in the covenantal bond of marriage, where they are committed to each other and each other’s well-being for life. This bond is the context within which sexual love plays out. This covenantal commitment in marriage is so important that it is compared to Christ’s deep love and commitment to his Church.

Jesus speaks out against the certificates of divorce that were the way that men could legalistically extricate themselves from their marriages. Jesus points out that this is just another way of evading the covenantal responsibility that came with the marriage. Jesus says that the men who wrongly divorce their wives – even if they followed the legal technicalities – are guilty of adultery, because they broke the marriage covenant in their hearts.

Finally, Jesus speaks against oaths. In the time period of the New Testament, scholars believe that the Pharisees had developed intricate oaths which allowed them to avoid telling the truth while not technically violating the Mosaic Law. It would perhaps be the ancient equivalent of today’s fine print. You know, the kind where the big words in the advertisement say one thing, but the fine print at the bottom says something completely different.

Jesus says that this sort of legalistic hocus pocus was an offence against God no matter what technical formulas were used. He calls for a simple yes or no. Jesus would be a big advocate of truth in advertising. His teaching in our passage is calling us to say “yes” if we mean “yes” and “no” if we mean “no.” Trying to make it sound like we mean “yes” when we really mean “no” is being dishonest with others, no matter what clever oaths we use.

So what is Jesus basic message in our Gospel passage? Professor Hoezee writes that Jesus is interested in us “at every level, including at the deepest levels of our hearts and minds. God wants us to respect each other, to love each other, to see God’s own image residing deep within one another. Human life is not supposed to be some giant game in which you scheme and scam to get ahead…We are not to use people as pawns, as objects of lust, as receptacles for our scorn, as the targets for our desires to brutalize, manipulate, and then discard.”

If we see this passage through the eyes of the Pharisees, then we are indeed in deep trouble. Our sinful natures are always luring us towards selfishness, scheming, scamming, manipulating and using others. God knows this, and it is why he sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins and take away our guilt. So this passage isn’t about our punishment. Jesus Christ has taken care of that already by his death on the cross. But Jesus came to also show us a better way, and the Holy Spirit has come to live within us, and help us live as God is calling us to live. And that is where this passage comes in. It is Jesus telling us how we are to live now that we have been freed from our bondage to sin.

And that is good news.

Let us pray, in the words of today’s collect, which reminds us that we can only follow God’s law through God’s grace,

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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