Week of Sunday February 16 – Epiphany 6
Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly 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.”28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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.” 32But 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.” 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
My father frequently expressed his sympathy for the Japanese soldiers who had been his mortal enemies. He had worked closely with Japanese POWs, and saw the atrocities of the Second World War largely as a clear outworking of the arrogance of one particular class of the Japanese military. His gentleness ensured that I, born not so long after that war, arrived at university with no prejudice against the Japanese students I met. Instead, I was ambushed by a deep antipathy toward folk of Greek and Italian descent. I did not even suspect this was within me!
There were Greek and Italian fisherfolk in our nearby grain port. And in under the ranges, many of them ran market gardens. I later learned the gardeners had come from several other European countries as well, but comfortable Anglo farmers had conveniently lumped them all together as "Greeks and Italians." I'd never met any of them, but my heart betrayed me.
Alcye McKenzie calls her reflections on the text this week "The Telltale Heart." It is an acute description of the issues Jesus is addressing. I had no idea that I was quietly soaking up malice and fear, all pre-judice, about Greek and Italian people. If I had uttered such things out loud, my mother would have set me straight with unforgettable clarity. I still remember the fiery results that followed my repeating state school abuse of the convent nuns across the street when I was in Year 4!
But all that prejudice was in the air, despite my Mum. I learned to respect my catholic neighbours, thanks to her, and have long been nurtured and blessed by the women and men of the catholic clergy. It grieves me that the other prejudice is something I still confront each week, even now.
Amy Oden says
Perhaps one of the most radical aspects of Jesus' extension of the law here is his internalization of it, so that not only behaviors, but attitudes and emotions fall within its scope. Of course, this is not new to Jewish thinking. Throughout Hebrew Scriptures, the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed…..
Jesus' reframing of righteousness exposes the easy truces we make. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words--we even call it "stabbing someone in the back." The notion that we must reconcile with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God, stops us in our tracks.
I can rejoice in the many blessings given me by Pitjantjatjara people. I am blessed by the deep peacefulness— almost imperturbable placidity— of arefugee friend from Africa. But all the noble sentiments of justice and love on display in my shopfront are betrayed by my telltale heart which, before I know it, vents its hatreds and frustrations out the grubby rear windows onto a passing Italian girl. I know this is irrational, let alone prejudicial, but it is like an inoperable cancer, intertwined deep in my innards, which must constantly be weakened with irradiation.
I find it frightening. What other things lie deep in my heart that I do not yet even see?
In this part of Matthew, he is reflecting upon the new community Jesus' beatitudes have described. As John Petty describes it, "Jesus is saying that life in the kingdom is marked not only by a different way of living, but a different understanding of life entirely." He says, "the old categories are being scrambled." The words are not to be taken literally, and they are "not legislation," but "shock tactics… to press home the point." (Loader)
We already understand that it is not enough to say we believe; we have to live it out. But there is more. We have to let the living out convert our heart. There are no "easy truces," here.
Our telltale heart will always betray us.
I once chuckled at a dear friend, when we were all much younger, who was struggling with the insights of feminism. Some of our female colleagues had pointed out that all his preaching anecdotes and illustrations were masculine. He proudly came back with male and female anecdotes and illustrations for his next sermon. All the male illustrations were good, while the women were the bad examples. But the joke— it can scarcely be called that— is on me; I sometimes still find the same bias in my own writing as I rework the first drafts.
Will we listen to our heart? The heart tells the truth of us.
Since Jesus' teaching calls us to work at such a deep heart level, it is unsurprising that his six examples— four this week, and two next week— begin and end by dealing with anger and hatred, which are at the very guts of our social existence.
Anger is not the problem. Jesus himself is angry in the temple. It's the dealing with anger that is at issue.
Jesus constantly breaks open conventional wisdom; blessed are the poor in spirit. Really!? He does it again as he addresses the problem of inappropriate anger.
It seems that as Jesus diminishes the offenses, the penalty goes up. Murder and anger get you judgment, but simply calling someone "raka"--a Hebrew word of contempt--can get you sent to the Sanhedrin… Then, simply calling someone a "fool" (more) will get you burnt up in Gehenna, Jerusalem's garbage dump. Murder someone and you're judged? Call them a fool and you get complete annihilation? John Petty
It's the shock tactics again. Lesson One: Go learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. It's not what you say, it's what you do. (Matt 9:13) And now, lesson two: it's not just what you do that counts, it is who you are. Your telltale heart will betray who you are, and give the lie to what you do.
So, in short, Matthew tells us to closely observe our heart. It will tell us the tale of how, or even if, we are letting Jesus touch us and convert us.
Anger, in the end, comes from us not getting our own way. And sometimes, when we are being abused, for example, anger is an appropriate response, at least in the beginning. It is the heart warning us of evil. But beyond that, anger is too often a sign of us failing to live as community. Our anger is the visible sign of our heart's betrayal. It is the heart rejecting life made whole by living for others. It is the heart wanting to live for "Number One"; the heart saying we are the most important person in the world; the heart saying love yourself, not your neighbour.
Something similar is involved in the teaching about adultery. It is not that sexual attraction is wrong. Sexual attraction just is. What is wrong is us using others for ourselves, as though we were the most important person in the world. Adultery says my wants and desires are more important than your key life relationships. This applies to women as well as men.
If I say, "Pornography is wrong because it objectifies people; it diminishes them and turns them into a commodity," many will agree with me. But the deeper issue is my heart. Using pornography says I am most important. I can use people. They are there for me to buy. It is that attitude which is dangerous and antithetical to the Faith.
This brings us to oaths.
The prohibition of oaths, if taken literally, lands us in a … mess of literalism. Paul regularly uses oath formulations, swearing by God, that this or that is so. The issue is partly the objectionable attempt to employ God's name in a manipulative way to further one's own ends and partly the failure in honest straightforward communication which this entails. Loader
Oaths and contracts are really a polite way of saying, "I do not trust you. I need a greater power to hold you to your word."
The complexity of a congregation's life may require memoranda of understanding and lists of responsiblities so that we can keep track of ourselves. But if we require oaths and promises— let alone legal contracts— within a church, it is a sign that our hearts are not yet pure. The heart of the matter is that we cannot trust each other because we are not yet converted. How many people feel they can take us at our word?
At the end of Matthew Chapter 5 we read verse 48.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect
This perfection is about completeness. In Matthew and Jesus' imagery, our heavenly Father has perfectly and completely given himself to us in Jesus' death on the cross… and despite our hatred and murder, has come back... still loving us. That kind of perfection within us, requires a complete giving of our heart that will allow Matthew Chapter 5 not to be theory, not only to be a limited doing, but a wholesale conversion and healing from our self-ishness to living in Christlike community with others. This is the beginning of the kingdom of God among us.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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