Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 16, 2020 – Matthew 5:21-37 – Trinity, Winchester
In today’s Gospel, you may be tempted to hear Jesus throw out the Law of Moses in favor of a newer, more up-to-date version of God’s teaching.
His speech does have that sort of pattern to it. “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .” “It was also said . . . but I say to you . . .” “Again, you have heard . . . but I say . . .”
It sounds a lot like, “Not that, but this.”
While you may have heard it this way, it is my job to say to you, that this is not what Jesus is doing. He is not casting aside the old law in order to replace it with a new one.
He is reiterating established law and drawing deeper meaning from it. It’s not so much, “I am creating new law” as much as it is, “I am mining the riches of the law that God has already given you.”
Jesus gives several examples. The first is, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder;” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”
So far so good! This law needs no updating or replacing. Murder is bad. Killing people is wrong. Don’t do it.
Jesus continues, “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.”
By adding the stuff that comes after the “but I say to you” Jesus unearths meaning that we at first did not hear. Not only is murder wrong, but so is undue anger, insult, and name-calling.
Why? Because all of these things devalue human life. To kill is to render life meaningless. It is to completely and utterly devalue God’s presence in another person.
Most people aren’t murderers, but all people have a tendency to devalue human life. Who among us, when held hostage by outrage, has not begun spewing words of violence, hatred, or spite?
Insulting or cursing someone in a moment of fury is to discount their worthiness. It is to ignore them as bearers—as Jesus has said—of salt and light. It is to wish them dead, which, like killing them, devalues the sanctity of their life.
That’s what Jesus is getting at. Not “out with the old and in with the new” but “Please, remember this, too.”
Understanding that Jesus is augmenting, rather than contradicting, the law is a good thing, but a comprehensive sermon it does not make. To conclude the sermon here would be to reinforce this moral: it’s not just killing that will have you burning for eternity—it’s name-calling, too!
But that’s not quite right. Banishing us to the pits of hell really isn’t Jesus’ thing. That kind of fire and brimstone stuff was developed much later by preachers with a very different agenda.
Jesus’ overarching message is one of grace and peace, love and hope, forgiveness and redemption. If his words today seem particularly harsh to you, consider that that is because he wants your attention.
He wants you to understand that it is possible to live in right relationship with God and your neighbors. He wants you to understand that anger and insults keep you from doing just that. He wants us to understand that unbridled lust can lead to depression and malcontent.
He wants you to understand that the sacred bond of marriage should not be dissolved on a man’s whim. He wants you to understand that there is no honor in making fancy promises that you cannot keep.
Most of all, he wants you to understand that your previous sins do not prohibit you from standing now and ever more secure in the grace of God.
When discussing murder, and anger, and insult, Jesus offered the following advice. “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.”
These words may also seem a tad extreme, but rest assured. If Jesus isn’t in the business of scrapping Hebrew law, he certainly isn’t in the business of chasing anyone out of Church. This is to say, Jesus does not require everyone who momentarily recalls interpersonal strife to get up and proceed to the nearest exit.
However, by offering this image, Jesus does seem to be making the case for urgency when it comes to our habits of reconciliation.
Whenever you are reminded of a transgression that needs forgiving or a relationship that needs restoring—even if it is during a time so important as worship—take it seriously. Whoever you are, wherever you are, and whenever it is that you remember such a thing, Jesus calls you to the important work of reconciliation—right then!
Jesus’ advice is very pastoral. If ever you remember a fault of your own or the error of another, Jesus does not want one more second to go by without orienting your mind toward the healing power of reconciliation. It is a reminder that such things are not the end of the world; there is wholeness yet to come.
In keeping with this pastoral spirit, I want to say that there are circumstances in life, such as in the aftermath of certain broken marriages, when personal reconciliation may be neither appropriate nor healthy nor safe. Jesus understands and honors our individual contexts and personal situations.
As for times when reconciliation is appropriate, Jesus believes that it’s what’s best. That’s why he says to get up and go. As far as he is concerned, the sooner that you experience the peace of reconciliation, the better.
So if you do choose to walk out and tend to something right now, that’s fine. But you always have the option to stick around and soak up even more Jesus, in the breaking of the bread and the prayers.
It certainly can’t hurt.