Today is one of those Sundays when you hear the gospel and your response is, “Whoa there, Jesus!” If there is not something in the gospel lesson that makes you uncomfortable, I would be shocked. All the hard stuff is here today: conflict between family members and neighbors, lustful thoughts, divorce, and even oaths. That last one may not sound all that upsetting, but wait until we talk about oaths, and you will start to get uncomfortable about that one too. As modern-day Christians, there are parts of the Bible that we would just prefer to skim over – those tough lessons that we either do not abide by or totally disagree with – but that we try to ignore so that we can still claim to believe in Holy Scripture. In fact, just last week in Adult Forum we were talking about how preachers in the Episcopal Church never get to choose the scripture for a given Sunday. That is both the beauty and the challenge of being an Episcopalian. By following the assigned lectionary, we hear the beautiful breadth of scripture, and are also forced to deal with the tough stuff of scripture.
Let’s review the tough stuff first. First Jesus says that before the people of God offer gifts at the altar, they should make sure they are reconciled with their sister or brother. Now if each of us had to make sure that all of our relationships were reconciled before we came to the Eucharistic table, I would imagine most of us would rarely receive Eucharist. Think about that family member, that fellow parishioner, or that friend from school or work with whom you just had an argument. Did you reconcile with them before coming to church today?
Next Jesus tells the people that avoiding adultery is not enough – they must even avoid lustful thoughts because that is as sinful as committing adultery. You would have to be pretty immune to our entire culture not to face lust today – in advertising, in entertainment, and throughout media. That does not even account for the lust we experience in spontaneous encounters with strangers, let alone with acquaintances and friends.
Then Jesus adds that anyone who divorces or who marries a divorcee is committing adultery. With over half of marriages ending in divorce today, each one of us here is impacted by a divorce: if not our own, then the divorce of a family member or a friend. I have a distinct memory of studying a Bible passage like this in Sunday School was I was in high school. My teacher at the time had been divorced, but was thriving in a second marriage. I asked her if we really believe Jesus’ words nowadays, and she insisted that we do. I demanded to know how that could be since she and her husband were so happy and faithful. She stated matter-of-factly that she and her husband would be judged for their lives. To be honest, knowing how faithful she was, and how judged she felt by scripture, I began to question my faith altogether.
Finally Jesus instructs the people of God not to take oaths. This one may sound a little strange, but basically Jesus is saying that you should never have to swear an oath because people should always be able to trust your word. Your “yes” should mean yes, and your “no” should mean no. So when your teacher asks you if you did all the reading or your boss asks you if you have completed a particular task, your “yes” better mean yes. When you insist that you have not done something, you had better be sure that that “no” can be trusted. In essence, there should be no need for you to swear at any point in life because your word can always be trusted. You should not have to promise to not tell anyone else a secret because you have never told another person’s secret. I do not know about you, but that makes me think a lot harder about what words come out of my mouth, sometimes even out of habit.
So are you uncomfortable yet? Is your mind spinning from all the ways in which your behavior is contrary to what Jesus instructs today? The good news is that there is actually good news. Jesus does not offer these four rules as a way of making faithful living harder than faithful living already is. As Jesus says in the verses preceding what we hear today, Jesus does not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. In other words, Jesus is still preaching the law of God, but Jesus is trying to get the people to see the intention behind the law. So Jesus says, “Yes, do not murder, but really beware of anger altogether.” Anger erodes not just our relationships with others but anger erodes our relationship with God. Instead, by being a person who seeks reconciliation, we can be people bringing about the reign of God in our midst.[i] Jesus longs for us to have the peace that comes in living a life that strives for reconciliation as opposed to the life that is willing to tolerate brokenness. Of course, God knows relationships are complicated, and that some relationships are downright harmful. But what Jesus is trying to get at is that longing for peace and reconciliation is the first step in healing not only specific relationships, but in healing the community of faith.
Jesus also affirms the original law about not committing adultery and not coveting; but he adds lust as being equally offensive. Now I know this one is tricky because we are sexual beings and our sexuality is a gift from God. But what Jesus wants us to acknowledge is that lingering on lust takes our attention away from healthy, loving relationships. Furthermore, Jesus also affirms the dignity of every human being by affirming that no one should be treated as a sexual object. Jesus is not saying deny your sexuality; Jesus is simply reminding us to celebrate healthy expressions of that sexuality. I am reminded of a couple of music videos put out by pop-star Beyonce recently. My first response to the videos was that they were pretty sexually explicit. But when you listen to the words and see that her husband is the male counterpart in the video, you can see that Beyonce is simply celebrating the gift of healthy sexual experiences within the covenant of marriage. Though the idea might be a stretch, perhaps what Beyonce is trying to communicate is not that she should be an object of sexual desire, but that we all should celebrate the gift of sexuality experienced within covenanted relationships.
Next, what Jesus says about divorce is not much different than what was already understood about divorce. But what Jesus adds is a sense of accountability, particularly for men, to tend to the well-being of their wives, who are made the most vulnerable in divorce in Jesus’ time. We all know the devastating effects of divorce; and fortunately, many of us have come through the other side to see the health and wholeness that come from ending unhealthy relationships and even in finding new thriving ones. But what Jesus is really talking about here is being more attentive to the way that our actions impact the most vulnerable in society. Our life decisions and actions are not made in a vacuum. Jesus is encouraging us to be thoughtful and intentional about how we make those decisions and then how we handle their implications. In the end, that sees to the welfare of a much broader range than simply ourselves.
Finally, what Jesus says about oaths is not as legalistic as it sounds, even though there are faith traditions that refuse to swear oaths. Ultimately, what Jesus is trying to get us to see is that our words and our integrity matter. If we are truthful people, then we have no need for oaths. Jesus’ invitation is for us to be thoughtful about our words, not only being a people who actively tell the truth, but also being people who do not flippantly use words or make promises without considering their implications.
So ultimately, Jesus tells us today that our actions, our words, our relationships matter. As followers of Christ, we do not get to be independent agents who care only for ourselves – a concept that is pretty counter-cultural in the United States. Jesus’ words and their implications do put a burden on us and sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. But in the end, Jesus words and their implications also make for healthier relationships, a healthier community, healthier relationships with God, and ultimately, a healthier version of yourself. So embrace the uncomfortable, and know that Jesus has your back! Amen.
[i] Marcia Y. Riggs, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 358.