February 16, 2020, Murder, Adultery, and Sin – Oh My! (Matthew 5:21-37) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000178
Have you ever considered how much of what you believe has been passed down from the people who came before you – your mother or your father, certainly, but also the people who taught you when you were little, your teachers or the priest at your church? Whether we realize it or not, our understanding of the Bible, our understanding of life in general, really, always comes to us through the filter of all the authorities of our past. And that isn’t only true on an individual level; for the most part, communities of people think the way they think because they have an inheritance from those who have come before them. Think of the fathers of our faith, people like Saint Augustine, Saint Francis, Martin Luther. Or think of the framers of our Constitution. The people that came before us have shaped what we understand as reality. And that isn’t always a bad thing. A community grows and gains wisdom through what it inherits. But sometimes that inherited wisdom stagnates. Sometimes it wanders away from the truth – and then it needs to be challenged. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing in the passage we read today.
We are continuing through the long sermon in Matthew’s gospel that we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” Last week Jesus was talking about the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Now, they were law-keepers to the nth degree. But then Jesus said something that would have sounded pretty shocking to his listeners. He said, “Unless your righteousness is far greater than the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees you’ll never get into the kingdom of Heaven.” Anyone in that crowd could have told Jesus that the Scribes and the Pharisees were the leading authorities on the inherited wisdom of the ancient Rabbis and their traditions. But what they were beginning to find out is that Jesus was in the process of turning all that inherited wisdom inside out and upside down – not to destroy it, but to restore it, to bring it back to life.
And so he began, “You know how it was taught in the old days, “You shall not murder. Anyone who murders is under judgment. But I’m here to tell you, if you insult your brother or sister you deserve to be brought before the council for judgment. In fact, if you call your brother or sister a fool you deserve the ultimate judgment.” The wisdom inherited down the generations had wrapped the concept of murder up into a tidy little box. To murder was to kill someone. But there were exceptions if the killing was an accident, or if it was provoked, or if the victim was a slave. If you killed a thief who broke into your house at night that wasn’t murder. But if you killed a thief who broke in during the daytime that was murder. The Law, and generation upon generation of Rabbinical wisdom, had murder defined and cross-referenced and categorized. But suddenly here was this Jesus claiming that the commandment not to murder was never just about the act of killing.
There are all kinds of ways to take the life of your brother or sister. There are so many things we do to make our brother or sister less in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. There are infinitely many ways that we human creatures hurt one another, infinitely many ways to be a murderer. Later in this same sermon Jesus teaches, “Don’t judge another person, or you will be judged.” When we fail to respect another human being, when we seek our own good over the good of another person, when we look down on our brother or sister, when we pronounce our judgment on another person in any way – then we are murderers, and we place ourselves under judgment.
And you think you know what it means to commit adultery? Jesus said. The wisdom inherited down the generations taught that adultery is hopping into bed with somebody else’s wife or husband – which was punishable by death. But, Jesus said, the commandment is bigger than remaining faithful to your spouse (though surely that is implicit). Adultery is even bigger than the marriage covenant itself. Adultery begins with the way you look at another person. Whether you are married or not, Jesus says that as soon as you look at someone as an object, as soon as you view another human being as a thing to satisfy your own pleasure, you are an adulterer already.
In our day and age, the world is almost continually inviting us to be murderers and adulterers. Top prize in modern society goes to the one who can kill with a word – especially a clever and humorous word. How many of the shows that we find hilarious are filled with people inflicting verbal wounds on each other? Cruelty is cleverness, and arrogance is self-esteem, and the one who fails to make the other guy look like a fool will end up being considered a fool himself. We live in a murderous world. And that mindset of murder deserves to be condemned.
If adultery is a matter of seeing another human being as an object for our own pleasure, what can we say about the way we are bombarded 24/7 by human objects, offered for our personal gratification? The man or woman whose flawlessly airbrushed photograph is plastered on the magazine page or the billboard or our computer screen – can we even imagine that he or she is a real human being who has a real life with childhood memories and pets and favorite things and scary dreams? The celebrity news invites us to entertain ourselves with the larger-than-life joys and suffering of movie stars and politicians. Our daughters and granddaughters are growing up in a culture that is grooming them to be attractive objects for the pleasure of others. We live in an adulterous world. And the mindset of adultery deserves to be condemned.
But if Jesus made anything clear in his teaching, it was that murder and adultery don’t just exist “out there.” In fact, the root of the matter is that all sin begins inside of us. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin.” Sin begins inside of us before a word is spoken or an action is taken. Murder begins in our heart of hearts, as soon as we consider our brother or sister as less than ourselves, as ridiculous, as unworthy, as bad. Adultery begins before we ever think of doing anything immoral or unfaithful. Adultery begins silently, in our heart of hearts, when we decide to use another human being, when we choose to see them not as a person, but as an object we can use for our own pleasure.
In our modern jargon, we would say that Jesus is unpacking the living Word of God, which had been handed down through the generations, packaged and processed, which had become dry and stagnant. And in Jesus the Word takes on new life. The commandments are not a matter of outward obedience. Obeying God is not a matter of keeping a checklist of do’s and don’t’s. Instead, obedience is a matter of relationship. Murder and adultery aren’t just actions that an individual person might do or not do; they are ways of breaking and perverting human relationships. Simply put, sin of any kind is a failure to love. Or, to say it in a positive way, love is obedience.
And the apostle Paul said that very thing, “The only obligation you have is to love one another.” he wrote, “Whoever does this has obeyed the Law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery; do not commit murder; do not steal; do not desire what belongs to someone else”—all these, and any others besides, are summed up in the one command, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If you love others, you will never do anything to harm them; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.”
Jesus tells a story: If you are going to worship, standing at the altar with your gift, Jesus says, and right then you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there, and go, be reconciled. And then you can offer your gift. And another story: if you are on your way to court with your accuser, be sure to make peace before you get there, or you won’t get out until you’ve paid the last penny. Reconciliation is the flip side of murder, the polar opposite, you might say. And reconciliation, Jesus says, is a matter of the utmost urgency. It’s not something to be put off. It’s not something that can wait.
And we know that. When it comes to reconciliation, it’s like Mrs. Which says in the book A Wrinkle in Time: “There is not all the time in the world.” I lost my sister to cancer almost a year ago. These last few years we were very close, but there were too many years, there were whole decades, that we didn’t speak to each other. I am very thankful for the good years we had. Reconciliation was a source of life for both of us. But it could so easily have been too late.
The truth is that not every relationship can be healed, but we can do what it is in our power to do, and leave the rest to God. Paul wrote with both grace and realism: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
If reconciliation is the polar opposite of murder, then we might say that sacrifice is the polar opposite of adultery. Jesus speaks in the most colorful and disturbing terms of plucking out eyeballs and lopping off hands. If there is anything in our lives that encourages us to treat other people as objects, if there is anything that makes it easier for us to indulge ourselves at the expense of another human being, then it is a matter of the utmost urgency that we cut it out of our lives. Not someday, not soon, but now, like a cancer that will grow and metastasize if it isn’t removed at once.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has quite a lot to say about sin. He talks about the kingdom of Heaven, and most uncomfortably, he talks about Hell. We Episcopalians are not much used to talking about things like sin and heaven and hell, and I think one of the big reasons for that is that we have inherited a misunderstanding from well-meaning Christians of days past, who taught us that sins are bad deeds that we better not do or else we’ll go to the “bad place” instead of the “good place” when we die.
But Jesus preached a kingdom of Heaven that has broken into this world already. There will be a time when the new creation has arrived and all suffering and sorrow is gone and hell and death are no more – and the sooner the better. But the kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is talking about is here for the participation now, and we are participating in the life of God’s kingdom, through the very real power of his Spirit, whenever we are abiding in love – the Father’s love for us, first of all, and above all, but also our love for one another.
In our unkindness and selfishness and broken relationships we also sometimes experience hell here and now, because when we separate ourselves from our brother or sister we turn away from God – and what is Hell, but separation from God? But reconciliation and healing, forgiveness, and even sacrifice, bring us back into a participation in the kingdom of Heaven, where our true belonging is – not just in the sweet by and by when we die, but today, now, and especially right here, in the gathering of his beloved people.