Don’t start (February 16, 2014)

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Year A
January 19, 2014

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never 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 say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

So what do you want to talk about this morning: that anger is as bad as murder, that adultery happens with a look, that divorce is no different than adultery, that it’s better to pluck your eye out than to sin, or that anything more than a simple yes or no comes from the evil one?

I love this text – but I don’t really want to preach it this morning.  I don’t have the fire in the belly to preach it with power – and I’m not sure that’s what you need to hear.

Jesus has said that your righteousness needs to be greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees.  He doesn’t just mean that you have to be better people than the Scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus is going to call them hypocrites – a Greek work that means actors playing a role.  In fact Jesus will use a lot of inflammatory rhetoric, even calling them “fools” – the word he has forbidden his followers to use here.

Your righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  It needs to be of a different order, a different kind.  The scribes were the authorized interpreters of the law – so Jesus is talking first about the commandments.  The Pharisees were known for their piety – so after this Jesus will talk about prayer, fasting and acts of mercy.  Explaining in both cases what it means for our righteousness to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.

So how can Jesus get away with calling someone a ‘fool’ when that’s prohibited to us?  That hinges on the word ‘brother’ in verse 22.  Does that word ‘brother’ mean ‘fellow believer’?  And, if so, is Jesus saying that these rules apply only within the fellowship of his disciples?  That we can’t be angry with each other, that we can’t call each other fool, that it’s better to pluck out our eye than mess with another member’s marriage, that there will be no divorce in the church, nor any need to make vows?

Or does the word ‘brother’ mean ‘fellow Israelite’?  After all, the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus addressing his followers and the crowd.  What does it mean to be the people God called through Abraham and Moses?  What does it mean to be the people through whom God was to bring blessing to the world?  What does it mean to be the holy people of God?

If Jesus is talking to all Israel then we are still in the same territory as before, only instead of thinking small – how we treat others in the church – we would be invited to think much bigger – how we treat all other Christians.

But Jesus’ vision isn’t just for a holy community in an unholy world.  The promise of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is at hand, the reign of God is dawning, the healing of the world, the reconciliation of the world with God, is at hand.  God is coming to pour out his Spirit and govern every human heart – and what will that rule look like?

How are we to behave in a world where sins are forgiven, the lame walk, the outcasts gathered in, and the dead raised to life?  How are we to behave as a community that is a foretaste of that new world – and an agent in bringing that new world to birth?

That’s the real question.  We are to be a foretaste of the world to come and agents in bringing that new world to birth.  How shall we live?

The reason we are sent out into the world is not to get more people to help out around here and help us pay the bills – nor is it to get more people joining the Christian team.  It is rather to extend this reign of God to others until that day dawns in completeness when all the world is made new.  (As I have said before, evangelism isn’t bringing people to Jesus; it’s bringing Jesus to people.)

So what does the kingdom of God look like?  What does it look like when the Spirit of God governs our lives?  How do we embody that reign of God?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is not just tightening the rules so that we are more rigorous followers of Moses.  Jesus is trying to give us a whole new vision of what it means to walk in the Spirit of God.

So the commandment is not to kill.  But it’s not enough to simply refrain from murder if we are rending the human community with our words.  Insult leads to insult.  You attack me I attack you back.  And this is just what happens when my brother wanted to play “rock, paper, scissors.”  If you win you got to hit the other person with two fingers on their wrist.  But you start licking your fingers to get a little more sting in your slap and you start hitting harder and harder until eventually the “game” breaks out into swinging fists.

One of those horrors of my childhood happened when I was 7 or 8 and my older brother, Ken, was taunting me.  I think I was doing homework.  I just know that I was trying to write with a newly sharpened pencil and, in anger, I stabbed his hand.  The pencil lead broke off beneath the skin.  My grandparents were babysitting and were very upset; they had to take him to the doctor to get the lead removed.

Violence escalates.  “Don’t start,” says Jesus.  Don’t start.

Words are where it always starts.

When Jesus says that if you are angry you will be liable to judgment – it doesn’t really mean you are at risk for judgment – the ancient legal system wasn’t about deciding guilt or innocence, it was simply a matter of deciding the appropriate punishment.  You are not simply “liable to judgment”; you are “deserving condemnation.”  You are awaiting sentence to the smoldering waste pit known as Gehenna that was the contemporary picture of the realm of the wicked dead.

Don’t start.

Adultery breaks families.  Adultery was experienced in the time of Jesus as an affront to the honor of the husband.  It would often lead to the death of the woman by her brother because she brought shame upon the family.  And it would usually result in revenge against the offending man.  Adultery led to violence and the rupturing of communities.  “Don’t start,” says Jesus.  “Don’t start.”  Don’t even consider the possibility of being involved with your neighbor’s wife.

(This, by the way, is why the ancient legal code of Israel said to put both the man and the woman to death – the community was supposed to act to prevent the outbreak of feuding and violence that could rend the community forever.)

Don’t start.

Marriage was normally within families among second cousins.  For a man to divorce a woman, to send her away because she did not please him, was an affront to the honor of her family.  Divorce rips families apart – and since villages were often extended families – it tears whole communities apart.  It’s not hard for us to picture this.  We ourselves know how complicated divorce is.  Friends and neighbors – and family members – have to choose with whom they will side.  I’ve seen congregations ripped in two by a divorce where each had friends in the congregation and neither wanted to leave.  Imagine how complicated this is in a small village.  And here, too, it’s easy for violence to break out.

“Don’t start,” says Jesus.  Don’t start.

Why do we have a rule that you don’t sell a used car to a friend?  Because if something goes wrong with the car, the friendship is ruptured.  You begin to squabble over who should pay and whether the seller knew there was a potential problem.  And if friendship is ruptured, their families are at odds and, in a small community, the whole community is divided.

The marketplace was one of those places where conflict often arose.  When people were selling to one another it was customary to swear to the quality of your goods.  But people were reluctant to invoke God’s name as witness to their honesty and integrity, so they would so they would use some other word – they would swear by heaven or Jerusalem – and the fact that they avoided the name of God could lead to conflict, as if the seller were being intentionally duplicitous.  You can hear someone exclaim, “The only reason he avoids the name of God is because he knows his goods are inferior!”  So the oath leads to conflict, maybe leading to violence, but certainly leading to a ruptured community.  “Don’t start,” says Jesus.  Don’t start.

To have your eye plucked out is to be rendered to a condition of permanent shame.  There is a story in 1 Samuel where an enemy besieges the town of Jabesh Gilead, and the price of peace was to do exactly this, to put out the right eye of every man “and so bring disgrace on all Israel.”

Those who were deformed or crippled were unclean and not able to enter into the temple courts.  They were in a state of permanent shame.  “It’s better to pluck out your own right eye, better to bring shame on yourself,” says Jesus, “than to rupture the human community.”  Better to shame yourself than invite hell, better to shame yourself than to betray the dawning reign of God.

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar.  These are the images that come to our minds when we hear these words.

It’s hard to imagine a church teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone.  We are normally trying to make it easier for you to give, not harder.  We do, after all, have to pay the heat and lights.  But the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.  Nevertheless, in the liturgy, just before for the offerings are gathered, we ask you to share the peace.  In the scriptures and preaching and creed we have heard it proclaimed that God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, you have the chance to make peace with others.  The presiding minister declares “The Peace of the Lord be with you,” and you respond, “And also with you.”  What would it be like if we declared instead: “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”  Or, perhaps more gently, “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.”

Jesus, of course, and his hearers are not imagining pews and ushers passing offering plates.  They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades.  In the center is the temple itself, rising high above a surrounding wall that keeps out everyone but the priests.   In the central courtyard is the altar – essentially a 7 or 8 feet square barbecue pit, with smoke rising up from a constant stream of sacrificial offerings.

The temple proper, you remember, has an outer room with candles and incense into which only one priest goes once in the morning and once in the evening.  And there is an inner room, the most holy place, where only the high priest goes once a year on the Day of Atonement.

Attached to that central courtyard is the court of men – It shares the same high wall but with a colonnade around it and large doorways or gates: the outer gate allowing entrance to the court, and the inner gate connecting to the court around the temple.

Beyond these two inner courtyards, there are the outer courtyards – for women (beyond which no woman could go), and for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go).  The whole platform being surrounded by a huge colonnade – at one end, two stories tall.  Even to reach the temple complex is a long climb up many stairs to enter through the outer gates.

Making an offering means a pilgrimage to the city, climbing the steps, exchanging your money, purchasing an animal, taking it through the courts to the entrance to the court of men, testifying that you are ritually pure and able to enter, taking your animal to the inner gate, waiting your turn for your animal to be slaughtered and taken by the priests to be burned on the altar in part or in whole.

This is the picture that comes to mind to those who were listening to Jesus.  If, at the end of your pilgrimage, when you have purchased your animal and at last made it to that inner gate – if there you remember that you are at odds with someone, Jesus declares you should leave your gift and run out in order to be reconciled with your adversary.  That image allows us to hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile.  God is in the world to heal the human community.  God is working to restore the torn fabric of life.  It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger.  We ought not think religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.  Indeed, as they prophets often proclaim, they are more likely to offend God than to honor him if we are not living the justice, mercy and reconciliation of God.

Amen

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