The 6th Sunday after Epiphany
When preparing for this sermon, I ran across an article by John van de Laar in The Text This Week - about a bad experience he had. Listen to it in his own words…
“I knew I was going to hit him, and I also knew it was his fault. I was going straight. He was turning in front of me. The light was green for me, and he should have waited. But he tried to squeeze through, realized he couldn’t, and then stopped with his nose right in my path. I hit the brakes, but the wheels locked and I could do nothing but watch as my car drifted into his front bumper. The damage wasn’t too bad, and as I drove away after the usual swapping of details, I thought we could probably agree to fix our own cars and leave it at that.
But, then I got his phone call with a demand for payment of the repairs to his Jaguar. When I objected, he simply told me that his lawyers had advised him that he would win the case if it went to court, and that if I decided to go ahead, he would be claiming a lot more than he was asking for now. He and I both knew he had the means to fight this hard, and I didn’t. We both knew he had the money and the allies to use the law against me. We both knew he would probably win, even though he had been at fault. So, I paid, and I felt the bruise in my humanity as I wrote the check I could not afford. The law can be a cold-hearted (expletive) at times.”
Have you ever had an experience like that? I have, and I have a feeling that many of you have as well. We all know of times when the “letter of the law” may have been met, but the result was nevertheless still very unjust and unfair.
In a way, this is what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. Just because something might be legally right does not necessarily mean that it is right. Jesus, it seems, knew that the law could be cold-hearted. Jesus knew that the law could be used to demean and oppress. He knew that a law that was left in the realm of letters and court rooms could often accomplish the exact opposite of what it was originally intended for.
It is possible to abide by the letter of the law and still wreak havoc on the lives of others. We can do business in ways that are completely legal, but which leave our workers destitute and unhealthy and may ravage the environment. It is possible to lead nations and organizations in ways that are legally sanctioned, but which serve only ourselves and leave others broken. It is easy to apply the law as a weapon, to learn to use it with lethal accuracy for the imposing of our own agendas. But when we do this, the law becomes incomplete – a shadow of the social-glue that it was created for - so that we could all live in peace and harmony with each other.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is portrayed by Matthew as being a new Moses – a new lawgiver. Just as Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Law of the Old Covenant and then taught it to the people of Israel, so Jesus also now goes up a mountain to reveal the Law of the New Covenant to his disciples.
In one sense, Jesus did not give any new teachings in his sermon. As he said in last week’s gospel, he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it – that is, to make it complete and perfect. Jesus knew that merely observing the “letter of the law” would not make a person righteous. Only through living by the spirit of the Law can we truly then have a “right relationship” with God and with our neighbors.
That is why Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount moves the Law from the realm of the letter to the realm of the heart. As he began teaching his disciples, Jesus likely was thinking of the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:33) God’s Law is only complete when it is written on our hearts – when it is at the very core of our being.
That is what Jesus is stressing in today’s gospel. If we want to know life and wholeness, it is not enough to just refrain from physically killing people. We must also refrain from hurting others with our angry words – be they insults, gossip, or manipulative “back-stabbing” – and always seek to be reconciled with each other if at all possible. In other words, the desire for peace must be at the center of all that we say and do.
And if we want to know what true love is like, it is not enough to just avoid the betrayal of adultery. As Eugene Peterson has Jesus saying in his “The Message” translation: “Don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body.” If we truly love a person, we will avoid objectifying and making her or him nothing more than an object of our own pleasure and satisfaction. True love means that we always want to value and treat the other person with the same respect that we would like to receive. And that kind of love and respect is not something that can be mandated by the letter of the law – it must be something that we want to do and want to give for each other.
And again, Jesus goes on to teach that divorce is not right just because it might be “legal”. In his day especially, a husband had the “right” to divorce his wife for almost any cause – even if it was simply that he had found another woman to whom he would rather be married. Jesus recognizes that divorce might be a tragic necessity at times – such as when a marriage is already dead because the spouse has been unfaithful – (or, as we also know, when a spouse has been abusive) but it is never a “right” thing simply because the legal requirements have been observed. If we truly love our wife or husband in the depths of our heart, then we will always want to honor and cherish and forgive her or him if at all possible – even during the hard times – so that marriage can be the wonderful unity that God has intended it to be.
And concerning our own reputations, Jesus wants us to understand that it is what we are like within that counts. The swearing of oaths (especially in a court of law) may sometimes help to persuade others of the truthfulness of what we are saying – but even more important is that we are people of integrity in everything that we say and do. Not because we “have” to – and not because we might get in trouble otherwise – but simply because that is what we want to be like in the depths of our being.
But in all these things that Jesus mentions in today’s gospel, we cannot just “decide” to be better people by trying harder. If anything – especially by his illustrations of tearing out or cutting off parts of our bodies – Jesus shows the sheer impossibility of ever fulfilling the Law through our own efforts. If left to ourselves, the Law more and more becomes just a cold-hearted legalism – like in that opening story from John van de Laar.
But the good news of the gospel is that God can make us into new people. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote in that passage I quoted earlier, Godwill put his Law within us and write it upon our hearts. Yes, God through Jesus Christ can “create in us new hearts” that will deeply desire to be at peace with him and with our neighbors. God can create new hearts within us that are ready to forgive others as God himself forgives us – new hearts that love as much as God loves us, and new hearts that are truthful and full of integrity in the same way that God himself is.
Yes, the law can often be a cold-hearted (expletive) at times – but when God changes us from the inside out, then it becomes a wonderful gift that fills us with life and joy. Then we shall know that we are forgiven, renewed, and empowered to truly love the LORD our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – and also to love our neighbor as ourselves. May it be so for us today and always – in Jesus’ Name! Amen!
Pastor Charlane Lines
418 W. Main St.
Sidney, MT 59270