Matthew 5:21-37 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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. So 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be `Yes, Yes’ or `No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Deeply embedded in our psyche these days, is a practice of barely squeaking by when it comes to what is right/wrong, lawful/unlawful, and ethical/unethical. The other day driving down 776 there was a nice sports car going very fast, and was closing in on the intersection. The light turned yellow, and although there was plenty of time to stop, the driver sped up, nearly ran over the person beside them, and barely made the light. None of us have ever done that I’m sure. It would seem that the more ethical action would have been to obey the law and slow down to a stop as the light turned yellow. That’s the law right? Green means go, Red means stop, yellow does not mean speed up before it turns red. Human nature is such that we dance around the law and we stretch the boundaries of ethics until it breaks or almost breaks. There is an ethic these days that goes something like, “well, it’s ok if we don’t get caught.” Jesus teaches us an ethic of Christian behavior that not only follows the law, but goes beyond the mere letter of the law. Jesus raises the bar and fully expects us to respond.
Jesus explains throughout his ministry that the entire law is summarized by loving God more than yourself and loving neighbor as we love ourself. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives us some specific practical examples of this summary of the law. The sin of murder, adultery and swearing falsely are all found in the Big Ten. These “thou shalt nots” are red lights that serve as clearly defined benchmarks for what is and isn’t sin. There is not much argument about whether you are loving neighbor or hating neighbor if you commit one of these infractions. The law is clear, these are red lights for our actions of neighborliness. Jesus makes it clear that merely failing to do these things, doesn’t quite meet the standards of loving God and loving neighbor. There’s more to it than that. Jesus raises the bar for us.
In Field and Track, the Pole Vault Event is spectacular. Men and women take these long poles and run furiously, toward two poles set far apart with a horizontal bar across the two. Usually the bar is pretty high off the ground. Competitors attempt to use the pole they carry to vault them up and over the bar. With each successive attempt, the bar is raised again and again. In 1993, Sergey Bubka (from Russia) became the current men’s record holder with a jump of 20 ft 1 ¾ inches. It seems that in pole vaulting, the ability to cross over the high bar, is a result of dedication, hard work and commitment. Sergey has certainly demonstrated his understanding that the higher the bar, the more difficult the attempt, and the higher standard that is set. Jesus explains that engaging in these infractions mean we miss the mark, but they are not the standard of loving.
Jesus declares that anger toward a brother and sister, or calling them a fool (a senseless empty-header person) is just as damaging, just as empty of love as the sin of taking their life; it is the same in severity as murder. With anger, judgment and reproach toward others, we take away the possibility for love. Jesus raises the bar on what it means to love our neighbor. It goes beyond the worst of the worst damage to someone. It involves recognizing that our emotion of hate, happens long before the resultant action. The yellow light for us begins with our heart being transformed. It’s as if Jesus is saying, and I believe he is saying, that the damage we do to our neighbors, as well as the love that we are to have for them, begins in the heart . Jesus calls for a heart change, a heart change so dramatic that the action that flows from it is one of love.
Love has a higher standard than merely failing to do damage. Love calls for a radical vulnerability. Jesus makes it clear how radical this notion is. The vulnerability that Jesus speaks about is one in which our own self preservation is at risk for the sake of love. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members.” I don’t believe that Our Lord was advocating self-mutilation, but rather he was showing us how radical our change should be, how radical the love we have should be.”
Loving neighbor as we love ourselves is a pretty high bar to reach, but we give thanks that there is God’s grace. No matter how hard we try, we can never fully live out perfect love. We always fail to reach that bar, but we are called to continue to strive for a radical love and keep trying. On the way to church one Sunday, a couple who had been married for years were arguing about where they would eat lunch. I want fish one said, I want steak the other demanded. As trivial as it all seemed, they huffed and puffed. With each nasty remark, the chasm between them grew on the road to church and continued throughout worship. After the announcements, the priest offered this offertory sentence, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The couple sheepishly looked at each other and knew what the priest implied. They joined hands, prayed together and both went to the altar rail having healed the minor gulf between them. Loving neighbor leads to loving God. Healing each other is a reflection of God’s healing in our lives. This cycle of love, reconciliation, and restoration does not end with those closest to us. As the church we are the reconciliatory agents of God in Christ for the world today. Our work of healing chasms of brokenness goes beyond those closest to us.
Hearkening back to Isaiah, the prophet tells the people that their worship is empty without justice and righteousness. Fasting, worship and praise is empty without justice. The prophet proclaimed God’s passionate appeal, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah 58:6 The prophet appeals to the heart of the community to love, radically love our neighbor, then and only then, to come and offer our whole selves to God. Our offering of ourselves is not only to God, but we are to offer ourselves to the world. We are to offer the love poured into us, as actions of love directed to a world that seeks to be whole.
Being reconciliatory agents in the world, our boundaries of neighborliness are not clearly defined. Our work as God’s people extends beyond our own doors. In fact, our neighbor is anyone with whom we come in contact, as well as those with whom we don’t. The prophet reminds us that God’s bar is high for us when it comes to our mission of reconciliation. Going out into the world in love means caring for the least, lost and lonely. We are to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and love the unlovable. Our mission field is much farther than the length of our closest companions and family. The same couple who reconciled in church finally found a restaurant on which they both could agree. The young woman who served them was quite outgoing, very sweet and went above and beyond in her customer service. She even commented on the wife’s lovely blouse and matching ring. Her smile was unforgettable. As she brought the check to the table, she asked, “Is there anything else I can get you?” The husband said, “No, you have been so nice and helpful.” She said, “I love it here. I moved from Tampa a month ago and we are so happy.” “We,” asked the man? “My husband and I,” she said. “He lost his job some time back, and has really struggled to find work.” “It’s been tough, but we do love it here,” she shyly remarked. “What’s his name,” asked the woman. “Bill,” she said. “We will keep you and Bill in our prayers,” the man said. The server smiled and walked away with a tear in her eye. When the man signed the credit receipt, he gave the server a very generous tip. His wife looked at the bill, pulled out six more singles and said, “Let’s make her night.” They both smiled and knew God’s grace was present. They shared the grace they had received earlier that day. Our faith is the propelling agent that lifts us to new heights and sends us over the bar of radical love. Our abundant gift of God’s grace pours out to those who need to feel the love of God. Simple acts of love.