You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement… You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart… It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery… Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all…Some days it's great to be a priest!
– Matthew 5:21-37
[Click here to read entire passage.]
Like when you get assigned to preach the day before Valentine's Day – you know: love, hearts, chocolate – and the Gospel is the one where Jesus talks about anger, murder, lust, adultery, divorce, and swearing.
Jesus wasn't afraid to tackle the tough questions.
These are not comfortable topics to address, but I think Jesus saw a common thread between them all. If you think about it, each of these topics is about our sight. They're all about how we see others. How we see others determines how we treat them when we're angry with them; when our hormones take over; when our relationships go bad; when we're called on to tell the truth.
We are in the season of Epiphany, the season of light, shouldn't we be able to see things more clearly? In that new light, Jesus calls us to see things clearly. The subjects of anger, murder, lust, divorce, adultery, and oaths were just as tough in Jesus' day as they are in our own.
In a way, Jesus seems to be saying all murder is premeditated in the sense that it begins with what we do with our anger. Anger in it of itself is a natural human emotion, but how we deal with our anger, how we channel it, how we let go of it, is our task as Christians. Jesus said our anger with our fellow human beings interferes with our relationship with God:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.In ancient Israel, a woman was considered to be the property of her father and then her husband; thus adultery was a violation of the husband’s property rights. Jesus was dealing not just with God's laws, but the laws in place in his country at that time. A man could decide he didn't want his wife and just dump her, and she had to find a way to fend for herself in a culture that pretty much only gave her and her children two options: begging on the streets or prostitution. Can you imagine the startled looks on the faces of the men and, at the same time, the joy on the faces of the women and children in his audience? I would loved to have watched Jesus' audience: the men with the mouths dropping open, and the women in the audience saying, "I think I like this guy!"
– Matthew 5:23, 24
Divorce in Jesus' day was nothing like what we experience today. But, before we get too comfortable thinking this doesn't apply to us, I think we have to admit there is a clear principle that when relationships go south, we are still responsible to treat the other person with dignity and respect. And if there are children involved in that relationship, we are absolutely responsible for their welfare.
Having to take an oath presumes you're not going to tell the truth unless you're forced to do so. Recently in Virginia there was a case where a man was arrested for not stopping for a school bus with its lights flashing, stop sign out, and kids unloading. The case was thrown out because he found an error in the way the law was written. The law said "a car shall stop a school bus" instead of "a car shall stop FOR a school bus". It was a typo. The guy knew he had done wrong but he went after the letter of the law to find a way out.
Many have tried to isolate sections of these teachings about adultery, divorce, taking an oath, and even cutting off your hand or putting out your eye and force it to have a literal application today. But Jesus was not a legislator and in this twilight world he gave us not a law but a Spirit to live by — the spirit of an informed and understanding love that sees our fellow human beings made in the image of God.
Mark Twain said, "It is not those parts of the Bible that I do not understand that bother me. It is the parts of the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most." I am responsible for how I handle my anger. I am responsible that all my relationships are to be based on mutual respect and not exploitation. I am responsible to consider the needs of others. I am responsible to be honest.
Sometimes this light and improved sight comes slowly. In America, we understand that it sometimes takes a long time to see others clearly as fellow human beings made in the image of God. It wasn't until 1792, people who were not Protestants like Jews, Quakers, and Catholics could vote in America, 16 years after our founding. Slavery was finally done away with in 1865, 89 years after the founding of America. Women got the vote in 1920, 144 years after the founding of America. Discrimination against other human beings – whether because of their race, gender, religious faith, sexual orientation, age, or any of a hundred different ways we human beings define "us" and "them" – sadly continues.
Today, in the Episcopal calendar, we commemorate Absalom Jones, the first African-American to become a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1802. Absalom Jones has a tale to tell us about seeing your fellow human beings clearly.
Long before he became a priest, he was a lay reader and lay evangelist at St. George's Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, he did his job too well... the number of African Americans who attended St. George's increased dramatically. The vestry was alarmed, and had a balcony built to segregate the African Americans without telling anyone. On a Sunday in November of 1787, three short years after he had purchased his own freedom from slavery, Jones and his friend Allen knelt for prayer in their usual pew, and the sexton collared Jones and tried to pull him to his feet during opening prayers. The Blacks walked out in a body. He and others left and went on to found St. Thomas African Episcopal Church.
In 1793, the first wave of a disastrous epidemic of yellow fever hit Philadelphia. 20,000 citizens fled to the countryside during this time, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other members of the federal government (at that time headquartered in Philadelphia), but Absalom and his congregation weren't going anywhere. They stayed. Under Absalom's leadership, Philadelphia's black community put aside their resentment and dedicated themselves to working with the sick and dying in all capacities, as nurses, cart drivers, and grave diggers. In 1793, Philadelphia was the largest city in the United States with more than 50,000 residents. By the end of the summer of 1793, one-tenth of the population of Philadelphia had died. Almost 300 of Absalom's congregation died of yellow fever ministering to white and black alike during this epidemic. In 1794, one year later, the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was received into the Episcopal church, and we became all the richer for their presence among us.
Jesus frees us from the bondage of old ways of seeing people as "us" and "them". Jesus calls us into the light so that we may see ourselves and others clearly; so, we will be compassionate in our dealings with one another, honest, humble.
Absalom Jones was speaking of slavery, but his words ring true today as we still struggle as Americans and as citizens of the world to treat our fellow human beings with dignity, love, and compassion. He said,
"Arise out of the dust and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in … and in meekness and fear… desire to walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free."Amen.
– Sermon delivered Sunday, February 13, 2011, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Reno, NV.