Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 for Epiphany +6 A, February 12, 2017
[Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.
“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.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
On Sunday evenings here there is a yoga class. It is not a flow yoga workout, but a stretching, meditative yoga. At the end, we are invited to return to a seated position, place our hands together and bring them to our chests in prayer position. The final word the leader says to us us “Namaste” which we all return, “Namaste.”
Namaste is the common greeting in India and Nepal. It comes from ancient Sanskrit. It means “I bow to the divine in you.” Literally it means that I recognize in you, not just the person I see on the outside, but that you are much more.
On the outside, I see you as a man or a woman. I see your race. I see how you dress, I can guess your age and your social status. But you are more than that. You are a precious, unique person, never before, never again to be made exactly as you are. In Jewish and Christian terms, you are “made in the image and likeness of God.”
The Image Remains
Does our sinfulness erase or efface the image of God in us? No. You and I are not perfect, but the image of God remains indelibly true of us. Even in the worst of us, the image of God remains. That insight into our essential core was understood in ancient Israel.
The book of Genesis tells, in mythical language, of a world wide flood, which God sent because human violence and evil had become overwhelming. If sin erased or effaced God’s image in us, it would have ceased long before.
But the opposite is true. After the flood, in language that is meant to evoke images of a new creation, with words taken from the first creation myth, we hear God outlawing murder and giving the reason for the prohibition:
“Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.
And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” (Gen. 9:6-7)
Even after everything that had happened, still the image of God remains, and the original blessing is re-affirmed.
By the way, whatever you want to make of the doctrine of “original sin” first named by St. Augustine in the fifth century, we need to be clear: the most true, most fundamental fact of humans is not our sinfulness, it is the truth that we have all been made in the image and likeness of God. The most basic fact of our relationship with God is not that we are cursed, but blessed. The original blessing God gave is still in effect. We are blessed children of God.
It is hard to believe that about ourselves at times. We hear that voice in our heads condemning us, telling us that we are not enough, that we are insufficient, telling us that we are bad.
None of that is true, if you say it that way, as a description of who we are. It is true that we do and say things we should not, and fail to do things we should. We do make mistakes. We do wrong.
But what we do is not who we are. We are made in the image of God. We are precious and unique.
Sometimes we are lost lambs, but God is there as a shepherd to find us and bring us back to the fold. Sometimes we are prodigal sons and daughters, but the father is waiting to welcome us back to the family as full members, ring, robe and all.
So, even without being Hindu or Buddhist, we can sincerely say to each other, “Namaste”: “I see, I value, I love the image of God I see in you.” That is what is most true of you and can never change.
“You have heard, but I say…”
Which brings us to the text we read from the gospel of Matthew, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We do not stop with merely saying a greeting like Namaste. We put it into action. Because we are all precious to God, we are precious to each other. Because of our true identity, we treat each other with dignity and respect.
Jesus gets very specific, but let us just take one moment before we look at the specifics to notice something amazing. For each one Jesus begins with the phrase:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times,”
or the short form,
“You have heard that it was said.”
If you did not know any better, you may think Jesus was just quoting hearsay – “people have said this, but I say that.” But as everyone hearing his voice knew well, Jesus was quoting the torah, the law of Moses, in fact, the ten commandments.
And remember, the law of Moses, for them, was the law of God. In the story, Moses received the law from God directly and brought it down Mt. Sinai and gave it to the people.
So Jesus is saying, the word of God said one thing, but I am saying something else. Immediately preceding this, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus said that he came, not to negate the law of Moses, but to “fulfill it.” Whatever that means, Jesus is going beyond Moses. God is still speaking.
So what is Jesus doing in contrast to the law of Moses? He is fulfilling it. He is getting to the heart of the matter. Getting down to the fundamental values, down to where no one can find loopholes or exceptions. Down past where a lawyer could find a technicality.
Murder and Anger
The first is the command not to murder.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’”
But to Jesus, murder was only the final act in a succession that begins with despising, instead of honoring, another person. It begins with anger that is not dealt with in a mature manner, and then goes to name calling.
It is so important to honor the essential dignity of another person that if you are on your way to offer a gift to God, as an ancient Israelite would do, at the temple, and you are unreconciled with someone, don’t bother with the gift. Set it down for the moment, and go make things right. Reconciliation is more important to God.
When we are angry, we suffer. And when we suffer, the natural and automatic thing we do is to to make the other person suffer. So we say something sharp in reply, or do something – maybe even with our facial expression, or the roll of our eyes – to inflict suffering in return. And so the cycle of suffering and causing suffering continues.
Some relationships never get out of that cycle. Certainly not until at least one person is able to say, “I am angry and suffering, and I need your help; I am doing my best.” “Doing my best” means that I am practicing spiritual practices to help me live into my true humanity as a person made in God’s image; I am meditating, I am practicing gratitude, I am in conscious contact with God.
And, if the other person has the maturity to practice compassionate listening, without resorting to self-defense, but patiently hearing the perspective of the other with respect, reconciliation can happen.
By the way, when Jesus said calling someone a fool would make you liable to the “hell of fire” as it says in English, what did he mean? Actually the word “hell” is an interpretation that goes way beyond the literal word. Literally the word for hell here is Gehenna. Gehenna is a valley, just over the western wall of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was a trash dump where the fire was always burning. Getting tossed out with the trash would be a horrible fate for anyone, but it is not at all Dante’s eternal inferno.
People as Subjects, not Objects
Next, Jesus then brings up adultery:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again Jesus goes behind the final act of adultery, and goes back to where it begins. It is in a mind that looks at other people as objects. To treat another human, made in God’s image, as merely an instrument for one’s own pleasure is the fundamental error. We are to treat others as ends, not as means.
The same is true about divorce. In Jesus’ day, divorce was quick and easy – for men (and only for men, in that patriarchal culture). But divorce left women in a terrible position. They could try to return to their father’s homes, if he would, or could take them, and their children back. Otherwise they were forced to the streets to either beg for alms or find less desirable ways to make money. Easy divorce was a horrible abuse of women who are made, just like men, in the image and likeness of God.
Obviously the social circumstances are different for women today, and so the ethics of divorce are different. But marriage is serious. Divorce should never be treated lightly. It always brings suffering, especially if there are children involved. Clearly, there are reasons for divorce today. Chief among them is relief from an abusive relationship. Nevertheless, every divorce is a tragedy, like an amputation.
Honesty is exactly the same. Jesus said,
“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.”
It is not a matter of swearing by something of value – heaven or earth or Jerusalem or anything else. Our simple “yes” should mean “yes”, and our simple “no” should mean “no,” without fingers crossed, without a wink, without making up “alternative facts,” because to mislead a person by lying is to disrespect them.
We all know how we feel when we have been lied to. Dishonesty undermines relationships. It destroys trust. Rather, we speak the truth, giving each other the dignity and respect of honesty.
Beyond the Letter of the Law
In each of these examples, Jesus goes beyond the letter of the law, down to the core of who we are, to help us understand how we should live. We are precious, unique persons, made in God’s image; in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, an “immortal diamond.”
We can say to each other “Namaste”, without any irony. I see and I value and respect the image of God in you.
What is fundamentally true of you and me and all of us has nothing to do with the secondary features we see on the surface. Whatever your race, whatever your nationality, your religion, whatever your gender, or status, or orientation, or anything else about you, you are a child of God, just like me.
This is how we define spiritual maturity. It is simply treating others as we want to be treated. This is not just good manners or politeness, it is far deeper; it is recognizing that every human being bears something divine; the gift of the image of God. And that how we treat each other is of primary importance to God.
How can this not affect every relationship we have?
How can this not transform our community?
How can this not inform our politics, our economics, our goals and desires for our nation and for our world?