‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But 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. 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.
This Is Intense: Matthew 5:21-37
I have heard scholars say that you can tell something about what is important to a community by paying attention to the things people in that community argue about. For example, this last week, I went to a community forum organized in response to the Klan leaving flyers in neighborhoods in Augusta and Gardiner. One of the speakers talked about ways that our national conception of race has changed as different ideas about race have become more or less important. For a long time, Irish, Italian, and French folks (all European ethnic communities that were primarily Catholic) weren't really considered to be completely white. When the Klan first became active in Maine, even though they still really hated black people, they directed most of their rage towards Catholic communities, especially French ones, and ones populated by newer European immigrants. You see, here, they were the most threatened by new immigrants with different religious beliefs than them. So, that is who they targeted. Around the same time, on the national level in our country, immigrants from Syria who wanted to become American citizens, argued, and won, in court that they should be considered white. If they were considered Asian, they would not be granted citizenship under the auspices of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion act.
Move forward a little over a hundred years, and some ideas about race have changed. Irish, Italians, and French immigrants and their descendants, by virtue of being European, are considered white. And, far fewer Americans see immigrants from these communities as a threat. Interestingly, as of 2020 census, Syrians immigrants and their descendants will be able to classify themselves in a new official census category, Middle Eastern and North African, a category that is understood to be non-white. Activists within Middle Eastern and North African communities have expressed both optimism that having an official, government-level census category will help support members of this community and also trepidation, particularly from Muslim members of that community, who worry that the census data may be used to further discriminate against them. All that change, in just over a hundred years. Whole groups of people have become insiders while others are still navigating a different kind of outsider status while also dismantling unjust systems that are built on the foundational idea that the lighter skin you have, the more deserving of privilege you are. It's been more than a hundred years. Shoot, it's been more than 400 years. We're still arguing about race and ethnicity. It must mean that it is something important to our identity as a nation.
So, what's important enough for the community that produced that Gospel of Matthew that they argued about it? For this Gospel, the primary argument seems to be about how to follow Jesus and Jewish law. Specifically, it is an argument about whether or not following Jesus' means ignoring Jewish law. Significant portions of the Gospel, including the Sermon on the Mount, are dedicated to sorting out Jesus' relationship to the law. When reading the full text of the Sermon on the Mount, it seems pretty clear that the author of Matthew thought that Jesus held the law in high esteem. This author believed that he would never have asked his followers to abandon Jewish law. In last week's reading, Jesus said specifically that he believed that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Therefore, to follow him is to strive to follow the heart of the Jewish commandments and to strive to adhere to God's word more closely than even the most devout leaders of their religious community.
Many, including Jesus himself, argue that the core of the Law is guidance about relationships, specifically relationships with God and with other people. Like, if you look at the Ten Commandments, about half of them are directions on how to demonstrate love for God and about half are directions on how to love your neighbor. In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus builds on the this understanding that relationships are at the heart of the law. As he taught his disciples, he showed them that truly living a life in accordance with the law meant that should build right relationships with one another. In this week's reading, and next week's, we'll read through several examples that Jesus pulls from the law and from his own community as actions that endanger right relationship in community. He then directs them on how to follow the heart of the law in each situation. Following the heart of the law ends up sounding a little harder than following the letter.
First, Jesus takes up the prohibition of murder. He says that the law is not only addressing murder but also about addressing the root of antagonism that leads to murder, anger. He said that if we want to really address murder, we'll address anger first. He asserts that reconciliation should be a foundational religious action. If you find yourself preparing to offer up ritual sacrifices while you still harbor anger at one of your siblings in Christ, you should go and reconcile. You can't truly fulfill your religious obligations until you've done this work. After talking about anger, Jesus goes on to discuss another next destructive force in his community: the mistreatment of women. Jesus saw that women were often mistreated because they had less power than men in social situations. To address this mistreatment, he had to speak to the ones with the power.
At this point, all of his disciples are men. He began to speak to them about a particular power they had as husbands. Remember, in parts of the law, women are lumped in as possessions over which men had control. Women who were not connected to men, either as spouses, daughters, or mothers, found survival difficult, as did women who's familial ties were abusive. Jesus understood two issues to particularly harmful to women: adultery and desertion. In both cases, the men were mis-using their privilege and putting people over whom they held power in danger. He told them how they could use their privilege for righteousness instead. He worked within the framework of their understanding and linked adultery with stealing. He said that the heart of adultery is wanting something that is not yours. Stealing is destructive. The men who followed him should therefore avoid even wanting to steal something that didn't belong to them (that's what he meant by lust). He even went so far as to say that if they couldn't corral all of their body parts into avoid wanting women to whom they did not have sexual access, they should cut that body part off. In this way, women were assured that they weren't entertainment for men, but people who's needs were considered real and important. He doesn't stop there, though. He goes on to talk about divorce.
Now, I'm sure that you know of people who have stayed far too long in unhealthy relationships because they've read this scripture on divorce and understood it to mean that they had to stay because Jesus wanted them to. Given how much concern Jesus has for oppressed people, I can't imagine that he would tell someone who was being harmed to stay with someone who was harming them. I think it is more helpful to hear these words in the context in which they were written. A colleague pointed something out that I did not know. While this is written in Greek, Jesus was referencing scripture written in Hebrew. The Hebrew word that is often translated into English as divorce more often means "deserted." For example, two places where this word are used are when Abraham leaves Hagar and their son out to die in the wilderness in the book of Genesis and when David's son Amnon throws his sister Tamar out of his room after he assaults her in the book of 2nd Samuel.
With the definition of desertion in mind, it seems more true to the spirit of Jesus' intent to read this passage as a call to men to not abandon their wives, leaving them in desperate circumstances. It seems like a fair reading to me to see this as Jesus reminding the more powerful people in the relationship that it was their responsibility to do right by the women they married. If women were abandoned, it was very difficult for them to survive. Once again, Jesus reminded the men who followed him to remember than their actions affected people over whom they had power. To bring this point home, Jesus follows this teaching against desertion with a call to trustworthiness, first in their familial relationships, but also in the wider community. He said that when his followers say yes, they should mean yes. And, when they say no, they should mean no. Say what you mean, and do what you say you are going to do. This is how you build trust. This is how you build right relationship.
This week, with this text in mind, I want to leave you with a final question to think about: If we were going to look at the issues that might be affecting our own community's ability to be in right relationship, be that in church, in town, in the nation, in the world, what might be the things that Jesus talks to us about? Jesus talked to his disciples about anger, mistreatment of women, and trustworthiness. What might he talk to us about? And how can we learn to follow God's commands more intensely in those areas of relationship? Each generation of the church is called to address what matters most at that time. What matters most in ours?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Thanks to Dr. James Cook, who spoke of changing ideas about immigration and whiteness in US culture, and the Rev. Michelle Torigian, who shared her research about divorce and desertion in the Hebrew Bible.
Information about changes in census categories:
Karen Georgia Thompson: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_12_2017
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3157
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033
During the month of February, we have been celebrating music that has been important in African American church traditions. On this Sunday, the choir sang "O Brother Man," written by white abolitionist poet and Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. For more information on Whittier go to:http://www.hymnary.org/person/Burleigh_HT
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.