Matthew 5:21-37 & Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” This verse from Deuteronomy is often quoted by those who advocate for the pro-life side of the abortion debate. Of course, they are narrowly defining what life means in this case—the baby who is growing inside his or her mother is alive, and therefore, choosing life in this case means not having an abortion, but instead letting the baby come to full term and be born. Some of you may have been following the recent controversy between Thrivent and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod this week. The LCMS is ardently pro-life. Someone in the LCMS discovered that Thrivent’s Choice Dollars program, which allows people to direct where Thrivent gives some of its money designated for charitable programs, was allowing people to direct money to Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Planned Parenthood is one of the nation’s largest abortion providers, so obviously this person had a problem with this. They let the higher-ups in the LCMS know, and these folks raised a ruckus with Thrivent. Thrivent, hearing these concerns, put a hold on all charitable money going to both pro-life and pro-choice centers while they examined the matter. Several days later they came back with a decision: no money would go to either pro-choice or pro-life organizations. The ironic thing about this is that, while it was only one chapter of Planned Parenthood that was involved in this controversy, and only one person had directed money in their direction, many more pro-life pregnancy resource centers, who had relied on this money coming in from Thrivent, are now looking at reduced funding because of this decision. What the folks in the Missouri Synod thought it meant to choose life actually wasn’t in the end.
In today’s portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a broader view of what choosing life is all about. And it is about our relationships with one another. Jesus’ tightening up of the laws against murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing are not meant to become legalistic, with us being thrown out of the kingdom of God if we break them. Instead, they are meant to be a description of what life in the kingdom is supposed to be like. And that life is not about following the letter of the law to the extent that we show no mercy upon others. Instead, it is trying to understand what the spirit of the law is, and how that law benefits us and sets us free to love one another.
So, let’s begin with Jesus’ teaching about anger. If you’re like the confirmation kids who encounter the commandment, “You shall not murder,” for the first time, you’re going to think, “Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, so I’ve got that commandment down, no problem.” But, Jesus says that even if you’re angry with someone, then you’re liable to judgment. Now, Jesus knows that we are going to get angry in life. Jesus himself got angry when he went into the temple and drove out the moneychangers with a whip. What Jesus is talking about here is about holding that anger inside of you so that it eats at you constantly and damages the relationship you have with the person with whom you are angry. Because the longer you hold that grudge and that anger inside of you, the closer you skate to actually murdering the other person. This is why in our worship services we have the sharing of the peace before the offering. It is not really a time to greet friends and ask how they are doing. It is not, as some have named it, the “seventh-inning stretch” of the worship service. Rather, it is a holy ritual to signify that we are reconciled with our brothers and sisters before we offer our gifts at the altar. God is more concerned that we are in a right relationship with our brothers and sisters than he is about what we offer to him as gifts.
From anger and murder, then, Jesus moves on to the relationship of lust to adultery. And remember that we are putting this not in the framework of morality, which wags its finger at people when they break its rules. No, we’re putting this in the framework of right relationships with one another. There is a difference between lust and love. Lust for another person objectifies that person. In other words, if I am lusting after a man, it is because I see that man not as a person, but instead as an object that I can use to fulfill my desires. Love, on the other hand, sees the person as a beloved child of God, someone who is sacred, and not an object. If I love someone, then that frees me to ask what that person’s needs are in order that I may serve that person. Lust leads not only to adultery, but also to things like sexual harassment and to rape. Love for one another leads to commitment to one another, service to one another, and to valuing each person as a beloved child of God.
I recently saw a video online that reversed the roles of men and women in society, so that men could experience what often happens to women, even today in the 21st century: being whistled at by construction workers, enduring lustful stares from those passing by, having the blame for an assault put on us because of the outfit we are wearing, etc. This video is a little too much to be shown as part of this sermon, and even I, who have experienced some of this myself, was shocked to see the man in this video being put in this role. (If you folks reading this online would like to watch this video, here is the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/07/gender-roles-reversed-film-oppressed-majority_n_4740248.html) In Jesus’ teaching today, he does not say that we will never have lustful thoughts. To deny that we have those from time to time would be to deny that we are human. Instead, in God’s kingdom, Jesus is calling us to discipline and master those thoughts, for when we do not master them, they lead us down the road to adultery and worse. We as Christians are called to love and value one another, remembering that we are all God’s beloved children, and not to treat one another as objects to fulfill our desires.
After anger and lust, Jesus tackles divorce. This is the most difficult part of these difficult teachings today, because divorce is common and, although not necessarily approved of in the church, accepted as sometimes necessary. It was not always like this. I remember reading some old church records once where the council of that church—which was Lutheran–deliberated on whether or not to excommunicate two people because they had gotten a divorce. So to understand what Jesus is telling us here, we need to understand the culture in which he lived. The law stated that a man could divorce a woman (and not the other way around) if he “finds something objectionable about her”. Some strands of interpretation of this law said that therefore a man could divorce his wife if she ruined his dinner! Jesus therefore tightens up this law for the woman’s protection, because if a woman was divorced, she was often without protection in her society.
Of course, we Christians who want to be faithful to what Jesus has taught us then earnestly seek to understand in what cases today divorce and remarriage might be allowed. Some of us, while meaning well, then make this teaching into a legalistic rule, which is not what Jesus intends. Again, remember the framework that we’re looking at for all of these teachings: it is about relationships and it is about treating people as loved and valued children of God. For a man to divorce his wife for ruining his supper meant that the man was treating the woman as a disposable object, and not as a beloved child of God. So, as we look at divorce within the Christian community, we will need to ask ourselves in each case: Is one partner treating the other in a way not befitting the value that each person has in the eyes of God? If so, is there anything that we as a community can do to help the couple stay together? Or, is this a case where it is better for each partner to go their separate ways in order to regain that sense of being loved? What will be the best solution for everyone to be safe and protected? When we frame the question of divorce in this manner, we move away from a legalistic interpretation of what Jesus has taught, and more towards the mind of God.
Finally in today’s passage, Jesus tackles the issue of swearing oaths. This may seem a bit foreign to us, as we usually only think of swearing oaths in connection with testifying in court or taking political office. In Jesus’ world, things were done verbally instead of being written down, so oaths to do something that was promised were the way people were held to their word. This doesn’t mean that lying still didn’t happen, though—people lie and have been lying for a long, long time. So, in Jesus’ day, oaths were becoming overused and no longer meant anything. Today, Jesus’ teaching is that, as Christians, we believe that God knows the truth about all of us. Therefore we should not be afraid of speaking the truth to one another, but with the goal of keeping our relationships with one another good and harmonious. We do not need oaths to keep us to our word, for love and respect for one another will encourage us to speak plainly with one another. Again, it is about treating others as beloved children of God.
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,” says the first part of the verse from Deuteronomy. Those who interpret the word “life” narrowly often forget the rest of the sentence, but now, let’s add it on: “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days”. Jesus shows us what choosing life in a broader interpretation looks like. And his interpretation of these laws, while seeming stricter than the original ones, are given to us out of his great love for us, knowing what will help us to choose life and live long: living harmoniously together. These teachings from his Sermon on the Mount today are not meant to be interpreted legalistically, for to do this would not enable his beloved children to live in right relationship with one another. Instead, we are to live according to the Spirit of the Law. Will we fail at this? Of course—we are still sinful human beings. But we rest in the knowledge that our loving and gracious God will extend mercy to us, and that knowledge will help us extend mercy to one another. Amen.