These readings are not about the specifics of the law. They are about how we approach laws, how we live in ways that deepen our relationship to God and to each other.
Today’s texts – Psalm 119: 1-8 and Matthew 5: 17-32
Let me start with a question – one that I am looking for you to answer.
Were there statements, images in our two scripture readings today that jumped out at you, that surprised you, that made you squirm?
Both of these readings focus on lot on our behavior. And those kinds of readings can make us either uncomfortable – or if we are perfect, they can make us feel self-righteous. And the idea of plucking out eyes and chopping off hands really is squirm-inducing.
Let me suggest there is a richness in both of these readings that we miss if we try to update our law books to make them match what we heard today. These readings are not about the specifics of the law. They are about how we approach laws, how we live in ways that deepen our relationship to God and to each other.
Using that approach, if I pluck out my eye, I will not see you as well. If I chop off my hand, I will have a harder time reaching out to you. Let’s acknowledge that Jesus was using hyperbole here – exaggerating in a shocking way to make a point.
I’d like to ponder a bit on one way to understand the point he was trying to make and then go back to that passage from Psalm 119 as a way to carry into the depths of our beings the spirit of God’s vision for how we might live.
Remember that at the beginning of this section of the Sermon on the Mount that we heard today, Jesus said: “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality.”
Two points about that. One is that the story of Jesus is not a story of throwing out the richness of the Jewish traditions and law. It is about going deeper with them.
And second – that last phrase – the law will be there “until everything there becomes a reality.” Jesus is looking toward that time when God’s vision of our world reaches its fulfillment, when life on earth is as it is in heaven. For now, we live with imperfection.
Then Jesus starts a series of statements with these words: “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” Again, what he’s doing here is not erasing the laws that the Jewish people had developed across the centuries into something known as the Torah. He was pushing people to go beyond the letter of the law.
You think murder is wrong? Of course it is. But take a step back. Anger leads to murder. It leads to Cain murdering Abel in the very beginning of the Bible. It leads to nations slaughtering people of other nations in bloody wars. It’s not enough, Jesus is saying, to outlaw murder. What we really need to do is deal with the things that lead to murder.
Anger is real. All of us know what it is like to be angry. Hopefully, none of us grab a gun and shoot the person we are angry at. There’s a long path between a flash of anger and a flash from a gun barrel. But there is a path and Jesus wants to get off that path sooner rather than later.
What he is calling for is not stifling anger but working towards reconciliation. He uses the image of not bringing your gift to the altar until you have reconciled with your opponent.
I don’t think Jesus is saying no one should come forward for communion if you have unresolved anger. I think our sharing communion here is one way to remind us that we share a common humanity, that we are all created in God’s image, that we need God’s grace and blessing as we seek reconciliation.
But I also think Jesus is saying, don’t let that anger simmer as it slowly moves toward a boil. Yes, reconciliation is hard. Forgiveness is hard. They do not happen quickly. But they really matter.
OK, that was easy. Now let’s move on to adultery and divorce. More squirm-inducing statements from Jesus. If I notice a beautiful woman and start having fantasies about her, is my only option to quickly pluck out my eye? If my marriage has crashed and burned, am I headed for hell if I get a divorce?
That can be the quick interpretation of these verses.
I’d like to say something specific about each of these for a bit of context, but I think there is a broader point here that I’d really like to stress.
When Jesus talks about not “every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart,” I don’t think he is addressing the very human responses both men and women have seeing someone who is attractive. As with anger, this is part of how we are wired as human beings.
I think there is a difference between thoughts fleeting through your brain and dwelling on the fantasies, sharing them with others, turning human beings into nothing more than sex objects. Not that we’d ever experience that in the ads we are bombarded with day after day.
And when Jesus is talking about the terms of divorce, it’s important to remember that the Jewish law allowed for divorce but set down conditions for when it was okay. And not surprisingly, those conditions were far more favorable to husbands than to wives.
With both of these passages, I think Jesus is doing something really important. He is raising the status of women in a society that treated them as disposable property.
This is not the only time Jesus does this – and remember how Paul in the letters most clearly attributed to him rather than to his later followers emphasized that in Christ, there was no male or female, all were equal. Remember the role women played as leaders in the early Christian communities until some of the guys started to reclaim their power.
In talking to men about not ogling women and shifting more of the burden to men who were seeking divorces, Jesus was changing the status quo. It was not the only time he did this.
Do you remember the parable of the widow who struggles to get justice from a judge? It’s in the Gospel according to Luke.
The judge would not pay attention to the woman’s pleas for justice, but she persisted, even though she had been warned to stop. Finally the judge says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so she will not wear me out.” She persisted.
Yes, Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets. And in fulfilling them, he moved everyone to a deeper level.
Which brings us back to Psalm 119.
This is the longest of the 150 psalms. It is 176 verses long. We only heard the first eight today. They set the tone for the whole psalm.
This psalm is interesting from a literary perspective. It has 22 stanzas with eight verses in each stanza. Each stanza starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet – image the first one with A, the second with B, and so on. And the eight verses in each stanza each start with the letter for that stanza. It’s an incredibly complex piece of literature.
Beyond the literary genius of this piece, it is also theologically rich. Of the 178 verses, 173 of them mention the Word of God in some form – laws, precepts, testimonies, ways, word. And the fact that there were eight verses in each stanza is significant. Eight was a number in Jewish understanding that represented complete teaching.
Drew Bunting, an Episcopal priest and musician from Milwaukee, describes these first eight verses of the psalm as a “journal of conversion, describing a process of spiritual growth.” In other words they are a story of interactions with God.
They move from hearing the law to obedience to the law, then to a close relationship with God that acknowledges dependence on God.
“Those whose way is blameless – who walk in the Lord’s Instruction – are truly happy!”
That’s the start, living within God’s instructions. But that takes us deeper.
“They seek God with all their hearts…They walk in God’s ways.”
And then an acknowledgment that we are not perfect, that we are always learning, always striving.
“How I wish my ways were strong when it comes to keeping your statutes…I will give thanks to you with a heart that does right as I learn your righteous rules.”
Isn’t this a reflection of the spiritual journey many of us are on? We seek to understand the way that Jesus sets out for us, we try to walk in that way, we wander off the path and then return, learning a bit more about life and God each time.
And so we ask, as this portion of the psalm concludes, “Please don’t leave me all alone!” We cannot navigate life on our own. We need God, we need companions.
Here’s where all of this leaves me.
Both Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount and the words of the psalm writer offer me a challenge to keep striving to do better, to not let my anger simmer, to work as a male toward deeper and truer understandings of both masculinity and femininity, to learn how to walk more consistently on the path as I am supported by God’s love and grace.
In the scriptures, one of the images of God is that of breath and wind, hovering over the chaos at the beginning of creation, blowing outside the cave of a prophet, roaring through a room filled with followers of Jesus. It’s an image of a powerful yet intimate God.
There’s a hymn that I think gives us a chance to open ourselves to God’s Spirit as we seek to walk in the way of God. It’s #292, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.”