February 12: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for February 12, 2023 was preached in response to Matthew 5:21-37 based on the manuscript below.

We pick up this week
right where we left off last week.
We continue with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
where he is teaching his disciples
that love is the ultimate law.
Love is the lens through which all thoughts and actions
are to be evaluated.
Jesus’ directions today
“You have heard…but I say to you”
are not a new set of laws to follow
but a hyperbolic teach to make a point
about how life is to be lived broadly.
As Anna Case-Winters puts it,
“It is not just what can be seen
but what goes on in the heart that counts.”

In these directions
Jesus uses what would have been
a familiar rabbinical rhetorical device
where the second statement
seeks to deepen, intensify and radicalize
the first.
Jesus has made clear
that he has not come to abolish the law
but to fulfill it.
The Law has been a gift from God.
What Jesus pulls those committed to following him toward
is that keeping the mere letter of the law is not enough.
Love itself must be the true guide.

The first two teachings Jesus offers today
are heightening directions
from the Ten Commandments.
Despite the ways that textualism
has infected every aspect of our reading
Jesus is not saying here
that calling someone a fool
is The Worst thing you can do
and it will send you straight to hell.
Jesus is building on the command to not murder
and saying that in a life of true love
not killing someone
is a pretty low bar!
That’s one most of us clear,
but Jesus expects more of his followers.

He wants us to notice our anger —
especially at other Christians,
which is who the siblings are in this passage —
and breathe through it
rather than lose our tempers
and call them names in exasperation.
If we’ve sinned against a sibling
Jesus says that reconciliation and apologizing
are more important than the offering
you’d planned to make.
It would have been impossible
to leave a cereal offering
or a wild animal
in front of the altar,
with all its busyness
and hustle and bustle
of everyone else making their offerings.
Jesus doesn’t care.

What matters more than the burnt offering
as Isaiah told us last week,
is care for one another.
Seeking reconciliation,
seeking to walk in love
is the life of God’s love lived out.
Not murdering people is essential,
but there’s so much more.

This is Jesus’ direction too
concerning adultery.
He is not literally expecting
us to pluck out eyes
or to cut off our right hands.
Rather, he’s using hyperbole
about the necessity
of keeping our hearts in check.

While this is directed at men,
in Christ there is no male or female
and applies to all of us.
It’s not enough to keep your wedding vows
or to not try to steal another person’s spouse.
Thought is the father of the deed,
according to Jewish rabbinic literature.
Keeping the thoughts in line
keeps the actions in line.
In Jesus’ new mixed-sex community
where women were welcomed as siblings
the men of the group
who are used to getting whatever they want
are being called to a higher standard.
The call to cut out an eye or cut off a hand
if it causes you to sin
so that you avoid adultery
is a call to self control
and embrace of equality.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce here —
which is more fully expanded later in Matthew —
is an extension of Jesus’ expectation
for equality among the sexes.
Remember Jesus is not establishing New Laws
and we shouldn’t put any more emphasis
on the subject of divorce
than we do on cutting off hands.
When Jesus was teaching
it was nearly impossible for a woman
to divorce her husband.
Meanwhile it was relatively easy —
presenting a letter of divorce —
for men to divorce their wives
and move on to the next.
This could have devastating financial consequences
leaving a woman and her children

What Jesus is saying here
is that that’s not love.
The law provides a provision
for divorce.
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand
and love cares more about the letter
that allows for a divorce.
Love of neighbor,
love of spouse,
love of Christian sibling
requires not acting in ways
that leave them literally in the streets
while we move on with our lives.
This is not a prohibition
on victims of abuse leaving!
Jesus is limiting divorce not only
to where a spouse breaks their vows
but to where the relationship
is already irreparably broken.

Jesus’ final teaching today
is about our language and commitments.
In short, it’s to speak truthfully
because in loving relationships of all kinds
we say what we mean
and do not seek to deceive or beguile anyone.
Our word is our bond.
Our yes means yes,
and our no means no.
In spirits of love
we don’t have to prove anything
by swearing by something else
whether on our mother’s grave
or to Christ as we lose our tempers.
None of our rites with vows —
baptism, ordination, matrimony —
have swearing.
We make these holy promises together
trusting that in Christian community
we mean them.

Because of when Easter is this year
we don’t get to hear Jesus’ last two teachings
from this section.
About the whole set Anna Case-Winters says,
“One feature of these particular instances
is that they are all in tension
with our ordinary ways
of thinking and acting.
They shock and provoke;
they unsettle and destabilize…
A new disposition and intentionality
accompanies this reorientation to God’s reign of love,
and these changes issue in
new habits of thought and action.”
As we start thinking about
how to keep a holy Lent,
I hope we’ll thinking about
all the ways we do and can
walk in love as Christ loved us. Amen.

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