In honor of the recent anniversary of the Beatles first appearance in the U.S. 50 years ago, we begin with words from a Beatles’ song (Beatles fans, see how long it takes you to recognize which song it is!):
"I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps.
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping, while my guitar gently weeps.
I don’t know why nobody told you how to unfold your love.
I don’t know why someone controlled you, they bought you and sold you.
I look at the world and I notice it’s turning, while my guitar gently weeps.
With every mistake we must surely be learning, still my guitar gently weeps.
I don’t know how you were diverted, you were perverted too.
I don’t know how you were inverted, no one alerted you.
I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps.
Look at you all, still my guitar gently weeps."
Sometimes we can find the gospel in the strangest places. I’m not sure the Beatles were particularly Christian, but they may have gotten, at times like in this song, the essence of Jesus’ message. Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus preached a long sermon, Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God. Jesus started the sermon with a well-known literary device of ancient times, blessings (often also with curses). He, as Chris preached about last week, then told the people their role in the kingdom – as salt of the earth and light to the world. He told the people that he did not come to abolish the laws of the Old Testament, but to fulfill them. Then he began to address issues that had arisen in Matthew’s flock. With each issue, he referenced Old Testament laws, and with the formula of "you have heard it said….but I say…" he began to embellish those laws with what must have seemed a very radical re- interpretation.
There is that commandment about not killing, he reminded the people. Everybody gets that. But do you realize, he said, that to destroy someone with angry words is just as bad as killing? Angry words can kill a soul. So, before you come to worship, he said, go and reconcile with those with whom you are angry. (This is what Passing the Peace in worship is all about.) Jesus said that if matters have gotten so out of hand that the one at whom you raged with anger sues you, settle out of court if at all possible. If it has gotten too out of hand, he told us, you may have to pay the consequences. So, the advice is to watch our anger, hold our tongues when angry, for anger can hurt and destroy almost as badly as a weapon.
Then Jesus reminded the people of the commandment to not commit adultery. But these verses also address "do not covet," or the sin of jealousy. The law of Moses forbids adultery because it destroys the covenant of trust taken by entering into marriage. Such a covenant and trust emulates the trust God gives to us. When we break such a trust, even if we are simply contemplating breaking the trust, Jesus tells us, we break a trust with God as well. Our sexuality is a gift from God, but we can misuse it in ways that hurt and destroy, and such opportunities lure us away from the life God intends for us. Jesus employed hyperbole to make this point. Never did he intend that anyone would pluck out their eye or cut off their right hand. He wanted to make the point that our desires can lead us so far astray that we deeply hurt ourselves and others, and that there will be consequences.
Such actions could naturally lead to divorce, so Jesus addressed divorce as it was practiced in his times. In order to divorce, all a man had to do was to write a certificate of divorce. A woman had no legal way to divorce. So a man who wanted to leave his wife for another woman could easily do so. Yet a woman who was abused, or to whom a husband was unfaithful, had no recourse. The only cause for divorce, said Jesus, should be unfaithfulness. The woman who was unfairly divorced by a man then had no rights in ancient society. In essence, the man abandoned the woman when he divorced her, as he had taken her from her parents into his household to marry her. Then he left her with no place in society, and could destroy her life, leaving her with few alternatives at that time to care for herself but ones that would be seen as sinful choices even today.
Please note that Jesus would not condone staying in an abusive marriage. Marriage, as defined by the Bible, should be a covenant and communion of love between two people that expresses the love that God has for us. It should be a place of safety, nurture, honor and respect. When marriages become distorted, they either need hard work to be restored to the covenantal state, or they need to be dissolved. We cannot simply apply the laws of ancient times to the laws and experience of divorce today. The essence of all of Jesus’ interpretation of the law was about love and respect for all people in all instances.
Jesus next addressed the issue of oaths, of not bearing false witness, of not lying. People in the ancient world invoked God’s name to make solemn vows or promises. We might say, "With God as my witness, I swear that I will…" We swear witnesses into court with a Bible even today. The Old Testament condemned giving such oaths and then not living up to them. Jesus says it is better not to give such oaths, better not to swear at all. Jesus’ words here also address the commandment to not take God’s name in vain. In ancient times, a name was one’s very identity. Saying their name was deeply personal. This was also true for the name of God, and the ancient Hebrews would not utter God’s name. YHWH was the Hebrew word for God in the Bible, but they did not say the name. We say Yahweh now, adding the vowels to this unpronounceable word. Taking oaths too lightly using God’s name implies a sense of control over God. "By God, I will get even with her if it is the last thing I do." Jesus strongly suggested not swearing at all, not in the name of God or heaven or the holy city, or even by the hairs of our heads. When we give our word, Jesus said, we need to live by it. Let your "yes be yes," and your "no be no." Be true to your word, as this is the way of God’s loving kingdom.
In the passages to follow ours, as Jesus’ sermon continues, he will tell us to love our enemies as well as our friends, to quietly give to the needy. He will teach us how to pray with the Lord’s Prayer, and talk to us about money and possessions ("Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…"), give us the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), and tell us not to judge others, or we will be judged. In other words, Jesus gives us instructions for living in God’s Kingdom. He tells us of a life full of love and respect, a life that honors and builds others up rather than putting anyone down. Such a way of living means we need to use self-control at times to rein in our urges and the urges that society, the media and advertisers so seek to lure out of us. And we do so out of love and respect for ourselves and for others.
I read a story on Facebook this week that seems to embody the approach that Jesus is telling us in these passages about how to live as good followers of God. (I asked permission of the author to share the story.)
Many of you know David LaMotte from Montreat, where he sings his wonderful Christian songs. David is also a peacemaker, and is currently in Cape Town, South Africa, where he has met with Desmond Tutu and others in his peacemaking efforts. He told a story on his Facebook page a few days ago about meeting a woman when he sat down to eat. He did not realize who or what she was and he liked her, so they sat and talked for a long time, and she opened up to him about her life’s choices and struggles. She was a mother of 4 children, a single woman who made her money to support herself and those children by prostitution. She said her name was Angelina, and that her mother was caught having an affair when she was pregnant with her. Neither man would claim the woman. When Angelina was 3 months old, her mother abandoned her in a trash can. She was caught, and imprisoned, and Angelina’s grandmother raised her. Later her mother was released from prison, but when she would pass on the street, she would not acknowledge Angelina. A month earlier, Angelina said, her mother had finally come to her asking for forgiveness. Though David did not condone the lifestyle this woman had chosen, he recognized, as she talked, that life’s circumstances had forced upon her the need to do something to provide for herself and her family. David summed up his thoughts on this moving story with these words:
"There are so many people doing the best we can with the options we see in a given moment, and the only firm rule I have for peace work is this: that which humanizes is good, that which dehumanizes is bad. Prostitution dehumanizes profoundly, and so does the stigmatization of prostitution. I sincerely believe she is doing the best she can with the options she sees. There may be other options but I can’t really know that and judgment doesn’t [or shouldn’t] enter into it. We have to treat each other like human beings." Then he concludes his post with "Hang in there, as you struggle with your challenges, and know that you are loved."
I believe David gets Jesus’ message. "Hang in there, as you struggle with your challenges, and know that you are loved." Jesus could have said that too. This sermon by Jesus is considered Wisdom Literature, like the Book of Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Such books intend to teach us about God and about how God wants us to live wisely and well. The words of Jesus have much to teach us, though we need to study and interpret them (which is not always easy) to use in our everyday living. Sometimes living as Christ would have us live leads us to weep, as did Paul’s guitar, while we watch the world. But we have the words to lead us into right living. And Jesus calls us to go deeper, to live the law and to love in ways that may differ from the ways of the world. We can do this together, helping one another, as a community, a covenant peole. May Christ lead us to live well. In God’s holy name, Amen.