Wouldn’t it be nice if we got a controversial Scripture lesson every now and then? J We do get a good one today… “If you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council.” (FYI: Our Council meets this Thursday at 7:00 p.m.) * “If you look at someone with lust, you’ve committed adultery.” “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.” **
I suspect a literal interpretation of these verses has caused some people to leave Christian faith. On a first reading, Jesus’ words do sound harsh. Cut out your eye? Chop off your hand? Lusting makes you an adulterer? Marrying a divorced woman makes you make her an adulterer?
This is a tough passage. So, what are we to do with it? Is it one of those texts we discard as “not Scripture for us,” words that had meaning 2,000 years ago, but not today? Was this bit from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount written in a cultural context so far removed from our own that it’s lost power for us? Or might digging a little deeper reveal some spiritual truth, even for us?
The last two weeks, we’ve heard from prophets Micah and Isaiah. Through them, God invites people to think beyond their worship practices to the intent behind them. In Micah, the practice questioned is offerings. “What do you want from us?” the people ask. God responds with familiar words: “What does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?” Offer all the sacrifices you want, God says, but true righteousness is measured in relationship, by how you relate to other people and to God.
Last week, the people to whom Isaiah writes wonder why God isn’t pleased with their practice of fasting. To those people God says, “Look. You only fast to draw attention to yourselves. Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house?”
In both instances, the people had gotten so rigid about their religious practices they had lost sight of the intent of those practices. The intent of religious practices was—and is— to draw us closer to God. The closer we draw to God, the more we start seeing things as God sees them, the more we start seeing people as God sees them. How does God see people? God loves them. God hopes for their wholeness. God acts them into well-being. And when we participate in religious practices in ways that draw us closer to God, when we start seeing people the way God sees them, we, too, will love them, hope for their wholeness, and act them into well-being.
And when we participate in religious practices, not to draw closer to God, but to draw attention to ourselves, we’ve missed the point….which was Micah and Isaiah’s point exactly.
It’s also Jesus’ point in today’s Gospel lesson. As a faithful Jew, Jesus knew the writings of the prophets. They were part of his Bible. And based on how often he quotes them, he seems to have identified with them…right down to using the go-to prophetic M.O.: challenging people to think about their religious practices and to see the intent behind them: drawing closer to God and becoming more like God, especially in actively hoping for the wholeness of others.
So, when Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say to you….” he’s preaching like a prophet. Like Micah and Isaiah, he’s inviting folks to think about their religious rules, to look beyond the letter of the law to its intent: getting closer to God & acting others into well-being.
Sometimes, the best way to get people’s attention is to startle them with comical exaggeration. Remember a couple of weeks ago when the people cried, “Will you be happy with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?” Comical exaggeration. That’s the rhetorical device Jesus is using in today’s Gospel lesson. “If your eye causes you to sin, cut it out.” Jesus would sigh deeply and perhaps question our sanity if we were to take that bit literally. He’s simply trying to make a point through the use of exaggeration.
And what is his point? It’s this: Only and always to do that which will act every creature of God into well-being. That’s why it’s not only murder that is sinful, but anger and insult—anything that causes us to look at others as less-than-human. That’s why “lusting in one’s heart” is on a par with committing actual adultery—because lust turns a human being into an object, which is by definition less-than-human. The law said a man could divorce his wife by saying, “I divorce you.” Women didn’t have the same legal right. In fact, women had few legal rights in ancient Palestine. So, Jesus invites people to look at that divorce law through an ethical lens–he invites them to think about what divorcing one’s wife does to her. Jesus was inviting people to look past the letter of religious laws to the impact those laws had on human beings. The law was fine, Jesus said, if you don’t lose sight of its purpose: to act all of creation into well-being.
Recently, I came across a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that summarizes this dynamic well. In a speech he made to an integrated group of students in Washington, D.C., in 1959 he said: “Make a career of humanity.” Make a career of humanity…that is, make it your job to see every person as a human being, to treat every person with dignity, to see every person as God sees him or her, to hope actively for the wholeness of every person.
Our country has come a long way in its attempts to ensure that all people—no matter their race—are treated equally under the law. Does that mean true equality actually exists? One need only look at the ranks of the impoverished and the rosters of the incarcerated to see that there is still much work to do on the racism front. It is true to say, though, that we have made some progress, especially since 1959.
One place where the full dignity of people isn’t yet fully recognized is in the area of equal rights for people who identify as something other than heterosexual. Many members of this community have had to go to other states to have their marriages legally recognized. The number of states that recognize same-gender marriages is increasing by the year—which is great! But, as a country, we’re definitely still in process when it comes to equal rights for LGBT folks.
Just this week, a federal judge declared the Kentucky ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. While there likely will be an appeal, the gist of the decision is that now the State of Kentucky must recognize as legal same-sex marriages that are performed in other states.
Some of you will remember Rachel Small and Leslie Stokes, now Rachel and Leslie Small-Stokes. Rachel and Leslie attended Pilgrimage while they were in seminary. They lived in New York for several years—where they were legally married—and have lived in Berea, Kentucky for the last year and a half. I asked Leslie and Rachel what the ruling means to them.
Rachel said that not having legal rights made her feel “less-than” and angry. “It invites everyone into our bedroom in ways that other married couples don’t have to deal with.” “Pastors tell their congregants that we are to be feared. You never know who you’re talking to and what their reaction will be [when they learn you’re gay]. People feel like they have a right to make a judgment on your life.” Rachel’s words resonate with another line from Dr. King’s 1959 speech: “The denial of the vote not only deprives the Negro of his constitutional rights but what is even worse-it degrades him as a human being.” When I read that quote to Rachel, she said, “Yes!”
With the ruling comes an inherent sense of safety she didn’t have a couple of days ago, Rachel acknowledged. Because of the ruling, “we no longer have to be dependent on the kindness of strangers,” Rachel said. “If I’m in the hospital about to die, I don’t have to hope hospital staff will communicate that to Leslie. And if Leslie becomes pregnant, we don’t have to hope we get a judge who will approve me as the child’s second parent. Now, it will be assumed by law that when one of us dies, the other will inherit our estate. Now, we will have the same rights as every other married couple. ”
Leslie added that, even when Kentucky didn’t recognize their marriage, there were people who DID recognize it. “Knowing that people in other states and countries have our backs gives me more courage,” she said. Leslie also confessed to being surprised by how the ruling affected her emotionally. “I didn’t think having our marriage legally recognized would change how I feel about our relationship, but it does. In a state that doesn’t recognize your marriage, you can’t get divorced. Suddenly, I’m more invested in the marriage now because I can’t just get up and leave. Living as a legally married couple…if problems arise, you work them out. [Since the ruling] my love for Rachel has grown; I didn’t know that was possible. ”
What we do here matters. Participating in worship as a means of drawing closer to God… learning to see people as God sees them…reorienting our hearts toward all God’s children to the end that we do what we can to act them into well-being, to prevent them from feeling “less-than,” to help them know deep down with every fiber of their being that they are worthy because we see them as worthy? Yes, what we here do matters. It matters a lot. May God give us the grace, energy, and love to keep doing it.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2014
Matthew 5:21-37 (NRSV)
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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 –>
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 –>
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 –>
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.*