Preached by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar
February 16, 2020
Have you ever not felt like doing something, but afterwards you were glad you did?
There are days I’m not particularly excited to go to a yoga class,
But I paid for the membership and I’m going to get my money’s worth…
So I go.
Halfway through the class, when we are in some challenging pose,
Like chair pose. Makes your legs burn.
I might wonder, “why?!”
Yet, nearly every time by the end of the class my body and my soul is at peace.
Stress and tension is relieved and I’m refreshed – more energized than before.
And I’m so glad I pushed myself to get there.
Sometimes we may not feel like doing something, but afterwards we are so glad we did it –
Whether it’s changing out of the sweatpants and getting out to see friends,
Or turning off the TV and spending some quiet time in prayer.
God’s law and commandments are one of those things that we may not always feel like doing,
But when we do it, we are so glad we did.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus explains some of God’s law and how we are to follow.
This portion comes immediately after last week’s portion
in which Jesus says he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets.
Immediately after today’s reading comes the command to love even our enemies.
What we hear today can be read knowing that the conclusion of Jesus’s sermon is that we are to love.
The examples of anger, adultery, divorce and swearing, are all meant to help us live more loving and happy lives.
Let’s listen to the first section:
Matthew 5:21-37 : Anger
God’s law in the Torah is that one should not murder.
Jesus takes this law deeper and goes to the heart saying,
don’t even let anger and division fester in your relationships.
Jesus says, “if you insult your neighbor you are liable to the hell of fire.”
Yet, such an extreme punishment doesn’t line up with Jesus’s other preaching on forgiveness.
So many scholars read his statement as hyperbole – an exaggeration to make a point.
Deal with anger and division immediately, don’t let it fester.
Share your frustrations before they boil over into harmful language or worse.
Jesus takes an ancient law about murder and points us to the root of the law: burying anger or hurt.
On a less extreme scale, anyone who has suffered through a friend or family member’s passive aggressive tactics can attest to happiness felt when small or even large troubles are shared early and calmly – before they grow bigger than needed.
Speaking early and calmly is far more loving that exploding in anger later.
Let’s hear the next example of God’s law intended to help us grow in love.
Matthew 5:27-30 Adultery
God’s law in the Torah or Old Testament is against adultery.
Jesus takes this law deeper, goes to the heart, and says, don’t even look lustfully on another.
Again, we have some exaggerated language – tear your eye out if it looks at another.
Taken literally, there wouldn’t be many people with eyes left.
Even so, Jesus is pointing us to the root of the law:
lustful breaking up of another’s relationship or taking what is not ours.
A liberating portion here is Jesus’s focus on the man –
The implied listener is a man (v.28: everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.).
However, in the Hebrew scriptures and in Jesus’s time, adultery was usually blamed on the woman. Such that if a married man had relations with a single woman, it was immoral but did not carry the harsh punishment faced by a woman committing adultery.
Here Jesus equalizes the law – women and men who look outside their committed relationships are harming their supposed loved ones.
The point is that both parties need to maintain the sacred trust required for a relationship to go deeper.
If you have ever told a friend a secret, but then the friend told others –
You know how hurtful it is when the sacred trust of a relationship is broken.
You don’t know if you can be open with that person again.
Adultery breaks the bonds of trust in romantic relationships.
It hurts regardless of the method that sacred trust is broken.
Jesus does not want us to suffer or cause such pain to others.
We are called to love others, not break trust.
To grow deeper in love, we need to be able to trust our partners, our friends, our family, indeed, whoever we are in relationship with.
Psychologists say that adultery is often a result of trouble in the primary relationship.
So working on the primary relationship can relieve the wandering hearts,
However, sometimes a relationship is detrimental and must end.
If a relationship must end, it is obviously better and more loving to do so openly and honestly,
Instead of cheating and lying.
This is true in romantic relationships, but it is also true in friendships.
Sometimes friendships have run their course –
Some honesty up front can often save the other hours of hurtful wondering.
Of course, Jesus had something to say about ending relationships as well,
Again focused on marriage relationships,
But with implications for all of us on how we are to love.
Matthew 5:31-32 Divorce
This verse has been used to shame and blame divorced people in horrible ways,
Sometimes keeping people in abusive and unsafe situations.
Yet, this saying of Jesus is not a blanket condemnation of divorce –
After all, there is an exception clause right away.
As in the first two examples we looked at,
Jesus lifts up an ancient law,
goes to the heart of the law and deepens the meaning.
In this case, the ancient law had a more lax attitude towards divorce
– which in Jesus’s day was being exploited to harmful degrees.
Understanding the historical context is important here.
In the world around Jesus divorce was increasing in frequency,
But only men could issue a divorce.
A woman did not have the right to divorce her husband, for any reason.
Moreover, a divorced woman had very little prospects –
It was socially difficult, if not impossible, to marry again,
Nor would she be welcomed back to her father’s house –
Which essentially left her out on the streets to fend for herself –
But a divorced woman of that time would probably be without property or land,
Because land ownership passed down to sons,
Not daughters, and definitely not divorced daughters.
Furthermore, a divorced woman of Jesus’s time would be hard-pressed to find employment outside of prostitution.
So, to divorce a woman in the time of Jesus essentially made her destitute on the streets.
It is in this historical context Jesus condemns any man who divorces his wife.
In doing so, Jesus is protecting women from poverty –
which is in line with many of his other teachings and actions to care for the poor and needy.
Jesus takes a lax law that was harming women and points to the heart of the law –
Marriage covenants were meant to protect both parties,
Not to be discarded on a whim to the extreme detriment of women.
What sounds on the surface to be a harsh and potentially harmful decree,
When understood in the context of the time,
is actually a call for people to keep their commitments to those dependent on them
and protect vulnerable segments of society.
Whether we are married or not,
We all have a responsibility to care and protect those in need.
God’s law is all about means to love one another – and abandoning someone to a life of poverty not only neglects love, but it neglects basic respect.
Let’s listen to our next and last section of God’s law of love for today.
Matthew 5:33-37 Oaths
Jesus once again takes a law, in this case not exactly from the Hebrew Scriptures, and goes to the heart of the matter.
Fulfilling one’s vows or oaths was a common expectation in Jesus’s time, as in our own:
That is why testimony given under oath in a courtroom is treated more seriously than talking to your neighbor in the front yard.
Words spoken under oath are deemed more true than those spoken out in the front yard.
However, Jesus goes deeper to say that all words should be true –
v. 37 Let your yes be yes and your no be no.
So we come full circle:
Do not let anger fester; but be truthful about your frustrations and divisions early on.
Do not break sacred trust by adultery or other means; but be truthful and trustworthy, even to the end.
Do not abandon those dependent on you nor break your word; but be truthful and true to your responsibilities.
When we are truthful with one another our relationships grow in love.
Instead of anger or murder,
When differences are dealt with early and honestly,
it clears away misunderstandings, restores peace, and allows relationships to grow in love.
When a relationship must end or needs to change,
Instead of cheating or ghosting or otherwise breaking trust,
If we dare to speak truthfully and vulnerably,
We not only respect the other,
but we allow for an ending with the least amount of damage.
When we are tempted to leave an uncomfortable and trying relationship,
We may do well to remember that sticking through the trials can yield a deeper love.
Not in every situation, but perhaps more situations than not.
I’ll end with a touching quote from the Netflix series The Crown.
Has anyone here watched the Netflix series The Crown?
It’s a lavish biography of Queen Elizabeth’s first years on the throne.
To quote a fellow pastor Lynne Silver-Breen (http://inspiringchange.us/2018/01/02/netflixs-the-crown-marital-truth/):
“[At the core of The Crown] are the conflicts that face a young woman whose father dies relatively young and has the British monarchy thrust upon her at 25. We’re witness to the parallel sacrifices of her husband…Prince Philip [who] chafes under the demands of his marriage to the Crown, his roguish behavior brings increasing pain and anguish to Elizabeth. Despite the developing pressures, Elizabeth suggests a small party to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. And it is at this dinner party that Philip makes a brief speech that describes the core of marriage’s work: (although it contains truth for many types of relationships.)
(laughter …) “Ten years has taught me,
The secret of a successful marriage is actually to have different interests.
Well, different interests, not entirely different interests. It’s a funny business.
One sees the whole of the other person. You see even that part of them that they don’t see themselves.
And presumably, they see that hidden part of you.
One ends up knowing more about one’s partner than they know about themselves.
And it can be pretty tough to keep quiet about it.
So you have to come to an accommodation, an arrangement, a deal if you like.
To take the rough with the smooth.
But the extraordinary thing is down there in the rough, in the long reeds of difficulty and pain,
that is where you find the treasure.”
(The Crown, S2E4, “Beryl”; starting 19m.00s)
Whether it’s a marriage, a friendship, a family relationship or church family relationship,
When we work through challenges with loved ones, with truthfulness and honesty,
we find a stronger peace, an abiding joy and a deeper love…in short, we find treasure.
Through the examples given today, Jesus is pointing his disciples to the heart of God’s law:
A law intended for the strengthening of love between one another and with the Divine.
The fruit of following God’s law is love.
So may we plant the seed of honest speech and the seed of perseverance,
That we may grow in love, joy and peace. Amen.