SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Matthew 5:21-37
I want to give thanks to God for your resilience, courage and patience, for your fortitude and life-giving community today as I share this time with you with joy in spite of the floods and torrential rain which have been experienced here in your town and countryside.
The reading in Matthew and Deuteronomy are challenging, and may even seem impossible to understand and do and yet, Jesus’ clarity of thinking is transformational in our lives.
Today’s reflection is a mixture of deep reflection and underlying hope, but I am going to some difficult places and I hope you will journey with me.
The verses we have heard in Matt. 5: 21-37 are a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount which starts at Ch. 5:1. Most people are familiar with the opening part of the Sermon, the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…
I find we all nod in agreement, we agree as we do a quick mental check and approve of the sentiments being expressed, then we move on.
Jesus takes his disciples and those listening to the Sermon into a reflection on being ‘salt of the earth’ and the ‘light of the world’. He speaks directly to his audience, looking his disciples in the eye. There is no wriggle room here.
At the same time, he promises he has come not to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfil it.
That statement would have disappointed some, thinking that a new creation was going to start tomorrow, with hopes that God would give the right people a clean slate, reward the righteous and punish and exclude those who don’t the bill and let life be good for those of us who have been judged righteousness and good.
However, Jesus takes us another step. Jesus provides a further, deeper exploration of what that fulfilment of the law and the prophets might look like to his listeners and we shouldn’t be surprised that it continues to challenge us at every level.
It’s worth remembering Jesus himself is a well read, Godly Jewish man of his time, critically and crucially managing to step out of the social, economic, political and cultural expectations in extraordinary ways to speak directly to people beyond and outside what was normal, ordinary, accepted and understood.
Jesus went to the Synagogue each Sabbath – he was able to talk learnedly about the holy scriptures and debate and teach with the best. Jesus was also very clear; he came to fulfil not to abolish …. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:20).”
Deuteronomy gives a starting point about what might be fulfilled as the Law and Prophets…
“So now O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and God’s decrees…
“God …. is not partial and takes no bribe, God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger….and you shall fear the Lord your God; God alone you shall worship, to God you shall hold fast, and God’s name you shall swear.”
We remember too that when Jesus started his ministry he quoted from Isaiah 61:1-2a (Luke 4:18-19):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”.
So how does Jesus explain and try to illustrate what this love of God looks like and will feel like for us in this fulfilment of the law and the prophets?
Jesus speaks in this next part of the Sermon about holding grudges, about anger, adultery, lust, divorce, and swearing and making promises – which is about integrity, honesty and right living, righteousness and at the end of it all, it is about forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, restorative justice and redemption.
I wonder how many of us would make it to the altar if we did what Jesus suggests; that before we come to church, we put down our sense of who we are and our own problems and sense of grievance and demands for apologies and punishment and justice as our offerings to God, but instead go and say sorry and make restitution as a way of coming to God and being with God.
The verses about adultery and divorce can also be very hard to hear with our 21st century social and cultural expectations. However, it is important we understand in Jewish law, that because divorce was available to men in those times, because women were property and considered chattels, if a man abandoned a woman or divorced her, he essentially forced her into adultery and into breaking the law which was unacceptable.
Jesus’ teaching tries to show up the impact on the human spirit and our lives when we give way to lust, envy, greed and desire on others less able to respond. It is about the misuse of power and objectifying God’s creation.
Desire and envy build up like hatred and anger, killing our souls, and limiting our capacity to see God’s love and forgiveness.
And when swearing oaths, making promises, our world is full of fake promises, core and non-core promises, a variety of truths, and alternative truths, and post truth and facts; our cynicism is rampant, our disbelief strong, we resort to litigation to receive justice in our favour and the courts kill any capacity to have empathy for the ‘other’. We refuse people their humanity and their right to be seen as God’s children and part of God’s creation like ourselves.
It is very clear that having a right relationship with God means we must have right relationships with our neighbours, near and far.
Jesus’s exploration of the true meaning of the law and the prophets is challenging and exciting. We cannot live on the surface of the law while thinking and behaving differently in our hearts.
I am very clear that such emotions can and do lead to murder, adultery, stealing and coveting, dishonouring of one another, and increasing worship of false idols rather than God.
Jesus’ actual fulfilling of the law and the prophets intensifies the commandments, breaks them open and asks for life-changing transformational understanding and commitment. We can’t be half-hearted about this, pick and choose the truths we want and those we reject because they don’t suit our lifestyle or are inconvenient.
Jesus’ point is simply and challengingly this message. And how hard it is to embrace and do on our own without others around us striving and God’s love and desire for us to be the people God created us to be.
Our leaders seem incapable of it. Our neighbours appear to be focussed on faults and not on healing and reconciliation. Our desire for revenge and punishment can distort and damage our lives, as we seek justice with punishment and revenge; and refuse to enable restitution and restorative justice to take place.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent a lifetime not only listening to Jesus, but arguing this part of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount is anything but nonsensible and non-achievable piety; it is in fact, the unfailing path to redemption and new life. Tutu argues:
“True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done…. only together hand in hand, as God’s family and not as one another’s enemy, can we ever hope to end the vicious cycle of revenge and retribution.”
John’s epistles say it a different way: 1 John 4:20
“Those who say I love God, and hate their brothers or sister, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
This is a really challenging and exciting message today, it gives us an invitation to step closer to what Jesus is asking of you and I, rather than stepping back. Our failures are forgiven and God’s love emboldens us to keep trying, with God’s Grace.
The Lord be with you.