Forgiveness And Love Are The Only Way: Epiphany 6

Forgiveness And Love Are The Only Way: Epiphany 6

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany: February 16, 2020

Year A: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

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This Sunday’s gospel is brutal. We’re still hearing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You can try and unpack its meaning time and again, but it’s tough stuff. And it’s tough because Jesus seriously meant it to be that way. There’s no getting out of it, even the scholars who are most skeptical about what Jesus said or didn’t say agree that these hard sayings are clearly from him.

“You have heard it said…You shall not murder. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment, and if insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say,  ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” [1]

Jesus is equating murder with us being angry. I haven’t ever murdered anyone, but I certainly have been angry. Who among us hasn’t been angry? For those of us with siblings, we know how brutally we can fight. Who among us hasn’t called our brothers fools or some other name? Certainly, our siblings have called us, if not fools, then the verbal equivalent.

How are we to understand this part of Jesus’ most famous sermon? Does Jesus expect perfection? If so, I’d wager that everyone here, including me, feels a little hopeless, a bit more than a little guilty, and perhaps even a little resentful, asking “who can live that way?”[2]

Indeed, no one can live up to these standards, at least not on our own. And I think that’s actually part of the point of Jesus’ sermon. In a world of individualism, it’s often easy to forget that Jesus was really talking about a new way of living when he was offering these prescriptions for life. Jesus is describing living in community, a community that has come to be known as Christians, rather than as individuals. We are to rely on God and each other, but most particularly we are to rely upon God.

Jesus is talking about how to understand the law of Moses, the law of God. Which means following the law is about what you do. But people want to treat it like legal rules – rules they can manipulate. I’ve always been told that I would make a good lawyer because I like to look at the detail and I admit to sometimes talking about the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law. We all do that to some degree. How many of you have thought – well I can go up to nine miles an hour over the speed limit before the police will be me a ticket. Others say four miles an hour, and others are certain it’s seven miles per hour.

What Jesus is telling us is that attitude doesn’t work at all. In fact, it is the opposite. Murder is wrong, but so are other hurts we inflict upon people – ways of hurting, bullying and undermining people that are strictly speaking, not against the law, but do spiritual damage to others. When we call others a “fool” or even worse.

The word the NRSV translates as “You fool”[3] is not even a Greek word; it’s a crude insult from Aramaic that tells the target that they are nothing, purely a target for contempt. Jesus is firm about this: living a life of contempt for one’s fellow human beings is the surest way to a life of torment. I find it particularly troubling that contempt is so fashionable nowadays. And even more troubling is that it is sometimes Christians are among the most contemptuous.

There’s so much in this passage to question. When Jesus talks about adultery and divorce and “prohibits” divorce, he is doing the same thing as with murder and anger—plenty of people, especially men of his day, found technical ways to get out of responsibilities to their wives and even children through a writ of divorce, it says right in our gospel passage a “certificate of divorce.”[4]. You can’t be right with God, technically or otherwise, while betraying your responsibilities of respect and care for others. Jesus is not saying that a couple must remain together when a marriage is beyond repair—when there is infidelity, abuse, or neglect.

Jesus is telling his listeners that what would become known as the Christian community is a community of abundant life, a life that is at the same time very joyful and very demanding.

Just about every one of us has fallen short on some part of Jesus’ expectation as posed in the Gospel. Can we ever be perfect in living out our lives as Christians? The answer is absolutely not – we can’t. But Jesus is presenting us with life, much like we hear in Deuteronomy today: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; that that means life to you and length of days.”[5]

The Christian life is not a life of avoiding mistakes. It’s a matter of living joyfully and openly and making mistakes. It’s about accepting the times that our relationships with our sisters and brothers in this world have been broken and accepting that we might in some way be part of the blame. This is a process of life. As Jesus says here: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that you brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It’s about sin, forgiveness and grace.

One of the things I liked growing up in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church was a sentence that was offered by the congregation immediately before receiving Holy Communion, much in the way the Lamb of God is sometimes offered in the Episcopal liturgy: “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, only say the word and I shall be healed.” I am not worthy to receive you, only say the word and I shall be healed.

Of course, it’s not only when we approach communion that we should offer this act of contrition. We should recognize our faults and ask for forgiveness regularly. If you’re familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, you will know that meetings start with, “Hello, my name is…and I am an alcoholic.” In everyday life, it could be in the morning and at night, “Hello, God, my name is…I have sinned and need forgiveness.”

Jesus ups the ante a lot for us in this Gospel passage.

In the current state of affairs in our nation, a difference of opinions at the political and ethical levels has caused a visible divide among families, friends, and communities. How do we find common ground in the midst of our differences?

Jesus came to this world to reconcile us with God. Knowing that, knowing that we are forgiven, knowing that we cannot keep the covenant of Hebrew Scripture perfectly, knowing that we cannot keep the commands of Jesus in the New Testament perfectly, knowing all of that does not mean that we practice careless Christianity.

Instead, we must be inspired by Jesus’ forgiveness and love. We must be inspired by the generosity of Christ. And remember that all of us have fallen short of what God wants, but God still offers us grace and forgiveness. Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:21, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazo Press, 2006), p. 61

[3] Matthew 5:22

[4] Matthew 5:31

[5] Deuteronomy 30:20

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