Laws are routinely misused by those in power to suppress, exclude, and burden. Yet at their core, God’s laws are neither good nor bad. They are a set of guidelines; community norms; policies and procedures; boundaries that exist to help us maintain healthy relationships with God and one another. They are the essential framework guiding every aspect of our common life. Like the rules parents give their children, they are meant to help us thrive.They are meant to guide us towards a life of abundance and joy, while cautioning us against choices that can lead to scarcity and loneliness.
Our first reading is from Sirach, a book within the Apocrypha that is sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus. (1) The author is thought to have run a school for prospective scribes and sages during a season of political turmoil in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ ministry. This book of proverbs was written in a way that made the text easy to memorize. Of the six verses in our reading today, I would draw our attention to the first:
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice (15:15).
In other words, because God has given us free will, it is our choice to keep the commandments. When we choose to act faithfully, we are declaring our intention to be in relationship with God and community. The author points out this choice leads to life, whereas rejecting God and community will ultimately lead to death. Abundance and joy, or scarcity and loneliness. Our choice.
Our second reading is from the book of Psalms. (2) Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the bible, and it is a work of art. It is an acrostic poem about the law, where each of the 22 stanzas begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet; each stanza has 8 verses that each begin with that same Hebrew letter. Within those 8 verses are 8 synonyms about God’s authoritative teaching. This love letter to the Torah symbolizes the psalmists' love for God, their intention and commitment to seek God’s guidance in every step of their life.
Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in your law, O God!
Happy are they who observe your de-crees *
and seek you with all their hearts! (119:1-2 OSH)
The psalmist cries out to seek God with all their hearts. It’s worth noting that in antiquity the way they used hearts is more in keeping with how we would refer to our minds today. The mind was seen as the seat of one’s will, convictions, and intellect. The psalmist is saying again, it is our choice. Abundance and joy, or scarcity and loneliness.
In the gospel, Jesus invites his listeners to reflect on the meaning of the law. Jesus is in the thick of his Sermon on the Mount, which as Molly mentioned last week, is not actually a single sermon. Rather, Matthew has pulled from a document that contained Jesus’ most important teachings that was circulated amongst early communities of his followers. The portion we hear today is known as the antithesis because it highlights the opposition between the law as it’s been known, and the law as Jesus would have people understand it. Yet this section might be more aptly named, ‘the deeper meaning of the law’. (4)
Jesus is actually pretty stealth in his teaching method. (5) As he tries to help his listeners see the deeper significance behind the law, he begins by addressing the most egregious sin, murder. This would have been a pretty rare offense, and there would have been widespread agreement from his audience that this was a grievous sin. He then shifts his attention to adultery, then divorce, and then vow making. By traveling through his arguments in this way, he has created agreement with his audience on the easiest points, such as murder, before moving to topics with less widespread agreement. From inoffensive to increasingly personal topics.
As Jesus makes his case, he notes the minimal requirement of the law, before introducing an ethic that requires living into the deeper meaning of the law. All of which is necessary to build and maintain healthy relationships with God and community. It is yet another invitation to choose abundance and joy over scarcity and loneliness. Or as we might say, to choose the Way of Love.
Jesus tells us the law goes beyond our actions to our thoughts and intentions. He knows that by helping us reflect on the deeper significance of the law, we can better understand God’s dream for this world. With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at the four instances from today’s passage where Jesus invites us to look at God’s deeper intention behind the law.
First, do not murder. Jesus is telling us that life is sacred, and we need to do more to honor that sacredness than simply not commit murder. Seeing life as sacred also means caring for one another by working towards healing and reconciling relationships. We know it’s one thing to work through a disagreement with a loved one. It’s another thing entirely to work through our anger and hurt when there is estrangement. 27% of Americans are estranged from at least one family member, and 40% of us have experienced estrangement at some point in our lives. (6) Sometimes we could work through our estrangements and choose not to. It may be our stubbornness, a fear of further rejection, or a sense that too much time and trouble has passed to try and seek reconciliation. There are also times when things cannot be worked out. Maybe it’s dangerous, or the other person is missing, unwilling, or dead. Yet in every single case, what is imperative is that God’s dream for us is to work through our anger and pain, embrace our vulnerabilities, forgive and love ourselves and others. It is fundamental to our wellbeing, even if we never sit down with the other person.
Second, do not commit adultery. Jesus challenges us to cut away the distractions that can end up becoming more important to us than the person we have vowed ourselves to in marriage or the family’s we create together. And might I add, if you struggle with lusty thoughts, please don’t physically maim yourself, as I don’t think that was his actual point. I think the real point is we can be unfaithful to our vows in countless ways if we are not intentional. Lust or inappropriate intimacies - whether it be with other persons, images of them online, or fantasies in our head. Yet unfaithfulness goes beyond sex. We can find ourselves being unfaithful when we put love of self, work, stuff, experiences, or any number of things before those we’ve committed ourselves to. Jesus is again heavily concerned with the preservation of relationships within a community, particularly when we have made a vow to commit ourselves to another person.
Third, divorce was off limits except in cases of infidelity. This was one of *THE* controversial issues of Jesus’ day. There was one famous rabbi who felt there were a number of reasons a husband could divorce his wife, including if she burned his supper. While another famous rabbi felt a husband should only divorce his wife in extreme cases, such as infidelity. Jesus made it clear where he stood. And here’s why: God’s dream demands that we care for the wellbeing of the whole community.
In their patriarchal culture, only the husband could generally initiate divorce, and he was the primary provider. In that time and place, to divorce a woman because she burned your supper was a heinous crime against the welfare of that woman and any children within that household. It was an abandonment of all responsibility to care for the well-being of one’s family. It was an act in complete opposition of God’s command to love one’s neighbor.
Lastly, don’t break vows. We are accustomed to paper and digital files documenting every single vow, commitment, or promise we have ever made. Yet in Jesus’ context, all agreements were verbal. If you were not sincere in your vow, you were not trustworthy. Jesus is asking us to be impeccable with our word for the wellbeing of the entire community.
We do not need to take Jesus' instructions literally, we need to let them challenge our intentions, thoughts, and actions so that we are putting the welfare of the wider community first and foremost. In each and every one of these instances, Jesus is asking his listeners to think about the welfare of the whole community. To shift away from thinking about ourselves as individuals.Jesus is liberating us from the allusion that we are an island, only responsible to and for ourselves. Rather we are part of something much bigger, and we each have a role to play in that community.
This week, as we prepare to head out into the world, I would invite us to reflect:
(1) See commentary by Daniel J.Harrington in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, pgs 1457-1459.
(2) See commentary by Richard J. Clifford in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, pg 871.
(3) See Joel LeMon’s commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-psalm-1191-8-10
(4) See Aaron M. Gale’s commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pgs 20-21.
(5) See Melanie A. Howard’s commentary:
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