Readings; expanded Gospel reading here.
In the last two weeks we’ve heard Jesus pronounce “blessed” or “happy” an astonishing group: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the merciful, the peacemakers, etc. “You all,” he declares, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. And “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And behind this, the previous chapters with Jesus as Emmanuel (God with us) and Jesus’ baptism (“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”) Something new is onstage; there are new possibilities.
OK, Jesus, what does this mean in practice? So Jesus starts with some examples, six texts from the law he’s not abolishing, but fulfilling. The lectionary allots two Sundays to these examples, but since this year next Sunday’s Gospel is the Transfiguration, we’ll look—too briefly—at three of them. (For the other three, see the longer sermon on the blog whose address is at the bottom of the Gospel handout.)
Do these examples constitute a new law? No. They’re about how to interpret the law in light of God’s character, the character Jesus places centerstage in v.45: “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” God’s generosity. And they’re about what is now possible with Jesus on stage, Emmanuel, God with us.
“You shall not murder,” or, as normally translated in the Decalogue, “You shall not kill.” So as long as I’m not doing that I’m showing God’s generosity, being that “light to the nations”? Hardly. So Jesus focuses on anger, how we deal with our anger being s a big part of what it means to “not kill.” This is clearly not a new law, for Jesus himself calls the scribes and Pharisees “blind fools” (23:17), and it’s hard not to sense Jesus’ anger as he delivers the speech of which that’s a part.
What’s at issue both here and in the following paragraph: anger and desire start out as things that happen to us. That’s why Jesus’ world called them passions: we’re initially passive. But after that initial moment we can make decisions, decide what to do with that anger or desire. Jesus is focusing on what we do with our anger: do we carry it, do we nurse it? This is Bruner’s take: “Jesus is confronting our more frequent sin of irritable, irascible, temperamental anger—the decision to be angry people.”
We often don’t handle our anger well, and so Jesus focuses on reconciliation. How important is reconciliation? More important than sacrifice. Here Jesus is taking up a common prophetic theme (God is not impressed with sacrifice apart from justice) and pushing it further, for reconciliation seeks not simply justice, but the restoration of broken relationships. This is one of the reasons for the Peace in our liturgy, the opportunity to make things right—even if only in a very provisional way—before coming to the altar.
How important is reconciliation? Our very freedom may be at stake. Jesus’ example deals with literal freedom, but that is probably not the only freedom in play. I recall a comic who described how difficult it was to name her children, because all the names she thought of were names of people she was mad at. She finally ended up with ‘Eliezer’ and ‘Hagar’. Our very freedom may be at stake: I wonder if Jesus was thinking also of his people’s current angry trajectory that would lead to the destruction of the temple.
So how do we who have Jesus in our midst do “You shall not kill”? Paul’s “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27) isn’t a bad paraphrase of part of Jesus’ teaching. Early in our marriage a Jewish friend passed on advice in the same spirit: “As you argue, remember that eventually you’ll have to reconcile, so don’t make that harder than it needs to be.”
The second paragraph: “You shall not commit adultery” (from the Decalogue). Good luck fulfilling that if we don’t focus on the desire that draws us to the act. Think of the stories of desire that go badly wrong in Jesus’ Bible: David desiring Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, Amnon desiring Tamar, his half-sister, the two elders desiring Susanna. Usually there’s plenty of time to encourage the desire—or not—until the desire dominates the whole decision process and events spiral out of control. Matthew himself tells the not unrelated story of John the Baptist’s beheading, with Herod giving free rein to his desire for Herodias’ daughter, with the result that he, the king, ends up being the least free figure in the story. Pay attention to the Bible’s stories, and you learn that if you look at a woman in order to lust after her you’d better start figuring out now how you’re going to deal with the consequences of your “free” actions.
In this paragraph Jesus is addressing men, and in that context makes the important point that the desire is the man’s responsibility. No room for “if only she hadn’t been wearing that.” Different cultural contexts give women greater freedom to act on their desires, and I doubt that Jesus would mind them making the necessary transpositions to hear themselves addressed by his words.
Of course, not everyone who desires acts on their desire. For those who do not act, Jesus’ words may suggest something else: Do not think you are virtuous when what you lack is courage, opportunity, or creativity.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away…” From the start we’ve recognized that Jesus is not speaking literally, much less giving us a new law. What he is doing is encouraging a certain ruthlessness: to recognize what situations are too tempting and to stay away from them.
The damage uncontrolled desire does to families and communities gives Jesus plenty of reason to talk about it. But that’s not the whole of it. One of the fundamental goods of marriage is the erotic delight portrayed in the Song of Songs. God desires that for every couple. Uncontrolled anger makes that difficult. Uncontrolled desire makes that even more difficult. Here as elsewhere Jesus challenges us because we often settle for too little.
The next paragraph: divorce. Here Jesus is referring to the law in Deuteronomy that starts “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her…” (Deut 24:1). In Jesus’ time there was a lively argument regarding what ‘some indecency’ meant. Rabbi Shammai thought it referred only to adultery; Rabbi Hillel thought it could refer to anything…burning the toast, for example.
What does it mean to fulfill the Law with Jesus in our midst? Jesus in our midst gives us the freedom to wonder about what God intended marriage to be—and this is precisely the move Matthew records Jesus making later in the Gospel, returning to Genesis: “’For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (19:5-6).
Fulfilling the law in Jesus’ presence starts with the principle Jesus points us to in Gen 1-2: marriage is to be a permanent union, a union in which human faithfulness mirrors—however imperfectly—God’s faithfulness to us. This is a principle, not a law, and the attempts of various expressions of the Church to make a law of it witness, involuntarily, to the futility and inhumanity of the enterprise:
- The law is “no divorce” and we respond by multiplying annulments, declarations that there was never a marriage in the first place. Sometimes an annulment is appropriate; too often, the larger the gift to the church, the easier it is to procure an annulment.
- The law is “no divorce except for adultery” and we respond by enriching lawyers and detectives who can make a case that there has been adultery.
- The law is “no divorce except for a really good reason” and we’re back to Hillel’s burned toast.
None of this is to downplay the pain and tragedy of divorce or the good that one can encounter after divorce, but to suggest the futility of trying to come up with the right law or set of laws to achieve a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Ironically, Jesus’ approach to marriage via Genesis drives us back to Jesus’ words about anger and desire in the preceding sections. How I handle my angers and how I handle my desires will have a lot to do with whether I end up joining the Pharisees to ask Jesus “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
The next paragraph: Oaths. Calling on God to guarantee the truth of one’s words: what could be wrong with that? Well, someone testifies before Congress, and our first question is whether they were under oath or not. If not, we can safely ignore their testimony. Tellingly, the only folk who use oaths in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel are Herod (to Salome), the High Priest (to Jesus), and Peter—when he’s in the process of denying Jesus.
Human interaction is too important, too valuable for these games. And so Jesus says “Let what you say be simply `Yes’ or `No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” And when we think about that, we realize that the principle Jesus is articulating goes beyond the formal use of oaths. Think of our patterns of speech. How often do we hear “Honestly…” (So what preceded was something else?), “To tell the truth…” (So what you were doing before was…?)
The fifth paragraph: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In the Old Testament context that was about limiting retaliation: only one eye for an eye. In understanding Jesus’ words our first problem is whether ‘resist’ is a helpful translation. Throughout his life Jesus is resisting evil, Paul proudly resists Peter’s error (Galatians 2:11), and we’re all told “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
The context can help us. Jesus has cited “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a law which limits retaliation. He tells us: do not retaliate at all. So, as a translation I like “do not take revenge on” (TEV) or Bruner’s “Do not ever try to get even with.”
“Do not take revenge on…” is hardly easy: Jesus’ examples make that clear. But what the examples do is flesh out the portrait of the peacemakers as surprising people (Bruner). Klassen: “to be a peacemaker is to outwit the opponent, using the tactic of surprise and refusing to retaliate in the way the opponent expects” (cited in Bruner).
We are fortunate that Jesus’ hearers have periodically shown us the power of Jesus’ words—some of them not even Christian. Recall the scene in the movie Gandhi in which Gandhi and an Anglican cleric are discussing whether “turn the other cheek” is to be understood literally or metaphorically. Thank God Gandhi understood it literally. And Gandhi’s obedience to Jesus fed a tradition that in turn fed Martin Luther King, Jr., the Philippine revolution (1986), the African National Congress’ largely non-violent opposition that finally brought the South African apartheid regime to the bargaining table (1990), etc.
Encouraging as these modern examples are, there is no suggestion that turning the other cheek will always “work.” “Turn the other cheek” recalls what happens to Jesus’ cheeks in the Passion, ditto the disposition of his garments, and turning the other cheek is one way of ending up in Lesser Feasts and Fasts (Again, Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Let me come at it another way. A recent documentary on primate behavior included graphic footage of violence between baboon troops. Do we primates have an alternative? Moses gets us half-way there: only one eye for an eye; vengeance has its limits. (And this world would be a much better place if we would just listen to Moses.) Jesus challenges those of us who identify as his followers to go the other half: “do not take revenge.” Full stop.
The sixth paragraph: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” “Love your neighbor” is from Leviticus; “hate your enemy” was a common interpretation, but not an Old Testament command.
The status quo, Jesus observes, leaves the people of God indistinguishable from the tax collectors and Gentiles, replaying the Hatfields and the McCoys ad nauseum, which is to say, not all that distinguishable from the baboons. That’s the push, what might motivate us to seek something different.
The pull is God’s conduct and character. It is natural to picture God as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. Parts of the Jesus’ Bible—our Old Testament— can be read that way. Other parts reveal its limitations, Job, for instance. And what Jesus is arguing is that it shouldn’t be the first picture of God that should come to mind. Rather, as we look at God and the world, watch God making the sun rise on the evil and the good, sending rain on the just and unjust.
And this is the most useful picture for making sense of what God is doing in Jesus. Were God simply about rewarding the good and punishing the wicked, Jesus’ tour of Galilee would have looked much more like General Sherman’s march through Georgia. Instead, he is announcing the good news to all, healing the sick, delivering the possessed—all without first determining who deserves it and who doesn’t. Jesus’ portrait of God and Jesus’ conduct are two sides of the same coin.
“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” ‘Perfect’ is a possible translation of the text, but perhaps not the most useful. “Complete” (CEB) and “Perfectly mature” (Bruner) have been suggested. (On the other hand, Jesus might have really liked Vince Lombardi’s take on it!)
Combine “love your neighbor” with Jesus’ description of God’s conduct, and there’s no room for “hate your enemy.” Love your neighbor: “Commit random and senseless acts of kindness.”
Jesus has covered a lot of ground since saying “You are the salt of the earth…the light of the world.” It leaves us, if we do not flee, poorer in spirit than when we started. Who is up to this? It is tempting to flee, to reduce Jesus’ words to something manageable. But consider this. Our children and grandchildren often see more clearly than we do the brutality and senselessness of the world they are inheriting. Teen drug use and suicides rates have been going in alarming directions. To make Jesus’ words manageable in this world is to say that Jesus offers no real alternative to this world. The next generations deserve better news, and with Emmanuel (“God with us”) we can give it to them.
 Bruner, Frederick Dale (2004), Matthew, 1:209.