We might wonder where the gospel – the good news – is in the gospel lesson for today. We have to remember four things as we contemplate these words. First of all, Jesus was not prescribing some kind of legal punishment for a particular wrongdoing or crime. He was talking about self-confession, about our being aware of our own shortcomings and taking steps to remedy them. Second, the historical context is different than we experience today. And third, he was using hyperbole, exaggeration, to help us understand the need for correction. Finally, after Jesus has identified who we are – blessed, what we are to be – the salt of the earth and the light of the world, now he is emphasizing how we need to act in community. That is, our words and actions as disciples have a direct effect on others.
This is the third part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which is primarily directed at his disciples, those of us who would follow him. Jesus is asking us to consider what our relationship is to the commandments, the law of the Torah. Remember, he said earlier in his sermon that he did not come to abolish the law or the teaching of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, but to fulfill it. He uses several examples to show that the literal interpretation of the law is not the only time it affects us. Most of us would never actually murder someone, but Jesus says that our words and actions, when they are full of anger or hatred, can effectively kill someone’s spirit. It is up to us to reconcile with those whom we have harmed with our words or actions. One of the ways we do that during worship is to share the peace with one another. We aren’t greeting one another; we are offering the sign of peace, of shalom, before we share the sacrament. Ideally, we should share the peace with those with whom we may have disagreements or who we may have, even inadvertently, hurt or angered.
When Jimmy Carter was running for president, someone questioned him on his moral standing. He had never committed adultery in the conventional sense. But because he understood what Jesus was saying in this passage, he said that he had committed adultery in his heart, in the sense of being attracted to another woman who was not his wife, even though he had never acted on that temptation. He was lampooned as some kind of naïve Bible thumping nut case, but he was merely trying to say that he wasn’t perfect, that he had temptations just like everyone else and that he did his absolute best to resist them.
Jesus employs hyperbole to say if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, or if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. In the ancient Middle East cutting off a hand was, and in some places, still is, a punishment for stealing. But Jesus is not suggesting this as a legal remedy, he is talking to us as individuals, and he is certainly not suggesting that we actually cut off a part of our body so that we don’t commit sin. He is telling us to be self- aware, to identify our weaknesses and to work on finding a remedy so that we aren’t led into sinful or destructive behavior. For example, if we suffer from some sort of substance abuse, we should try and excise the demon by seeking counseling or enrolling in a 12 step program. Jimmy Carter was confessing that he was aware of the fact that he might at times be attracted to another woman, but he put those thoughts aside and remained faithful to his wife out of his love and respect for her and his loyalty to the vows they shared when they were married. Were we to literally cut off the hand that got us into trouble we would not be able to extend the hand of peace to one another.
In Jesus’ day, according to Mosaic Law, divorce could only be initiated by the man. Even if a husband committed adultery, the wife could not sue for divorce. Conversely, men could sue for divorce for a variety of reasons, in some strict interpretations even if he wasn’t happy with the food she prepared for him. Divorcing a woman often sentenced her to a life of poverty and ostracism. Jesus was always sensitive to the plight of all those who were poor or outcast and so his words are directed at the men in an effort to protect the women of his day. Jesus’ words can easily be taken out of context in our society, where both men and women have the legal right to sue for divorce. Our belief is that although we do not ostracize people who are divorced, it is usually considered a lesser of two evils, except in cases of abuse, where divorce can save the victim from more harm. Sometimes divorce is inevitable and we would not want to further hurt someone by denying them the sacrament, but unless there is abuse or other extenuating circumstances every effort should be made to reconcile the two partners before choosing divorce.
Jesus’ last instruction is perhaps the easiest of all to understand – do not take the name of the Lord in vain. Do not use language that demeans either God or our neighbor. Do not take an oath that we have no intention of carrying out. Do not agree to something just because it is the expedient thing to do. As we are told in our first lesson from Deuteronomy, “choose life.” That is now used as a political slogan but in the context of Scripture; Moses was trying to convey to the people the path they should take as they entered the Promised Land. The end of their journey had been delayed for 40 years because of their unfaithfulness, but finally, they had the opportunity to settle in this land God had promised to them, and Moses wanted them to live in covenantal relationship with God and with one another.
Like Moses, Jesus tells us we have two choices – we can choose life, a life that is lived in relationship with God and others, a life that follows the commandments and resists temptations, a life in which we confess our sin and confront our shortcomings and, with the grace of God, go on to live better and more faithfully. Today, in memory of Richard, our resident poet, I would like to close with a poem called “clothesline” by Marilyn Maciel that reminds us that life is a verb and helps us to “wake up, be mindful and live intentionally.”
i – you – us – them – those people
wouldn’t it be lovely if one could live in a constant state of we?
some of the most commonplace words
can be some of the biggest dividers
they – what if there was no they?
what if there was only us?
if words could be seen as they floated out of our mouths
would we feel no shame as they passed beyond our lips?
if we were to string our words on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud as our thoughts flapped in the breeze?
“clothesline,” poem by Marilyn Maciel. Published in Patti Digh, “Life Is a Verb: 37 Days To Wake Up, Be Mindful, And Live Intentionally.” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 42.