Sunday, 12 February 2017

More Life (Matthew 5:21-37)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on February 12, 2017, Epiphany VI)


Missing Out on Life

You’re with a good friend on the way to a gathering of good friends, and you’re looking forward to it. You’re looking forward to the honest smiles, the natural flow of conversation, the mischievous jokes. You’re looking forward to catching up with people with whom you haven’t talked in a long time. You’re looking forward to dropping the mask that you wear most of the time, at work, at school, in the midst of strangers and acquaintances that you try to impress.

You’re looking forward to all of this, when your companion beside you in the car says something, or does something, that pushes one of your buttons. Maybe he revives an old, bitter argument. Maybe she questions something that is close and personal to you. Maybe it is simply suggested that you are wrong about something. Whatever it is, it rattles you. Annoys you. You don’t say anything, but the fire has been kindled. The offending words burn beneath your skin. Soon, what began as a minor irritation, grows and grows: first into a frustration, then into indignation, and finally it fans out into a full-blown anger.

The two of you arrive at the gathering of good friends, but you are little more than a shell of yourself for the evening. It’s like you’re on auto-pilot, like you’re sleepwalking, like you’re a well-programmed robot. You ask the right questions, respond with the appropriate responses, laugh at the funny and embarrassing stories.

But the truth is, you’ve checked out. Your body is there among friends, but your spirit has removed itself to a faraway place. You are dwelling alone in your anger—maybe imagining accusations against the friend who offended you, maybe hosting a bitter pity-party for yourself, maybe dreaming of retaliation.

One thing is for sure. You are missing out on life. Rather than relishing every word and savoring every smile, rather than yearning that the night would last a few more hours, you feel the burden of each passing minute, the pain each time you must force a smile or a laugh. This has somehow become the last place you want to be.

We’ve all been there. Jesus captures the feeling perfectly. This is not life. This, he says, is like being thrown into prison and not getting out until the anger has somehow been accounted for (cf. 5:26), until forgiveness and reconciliation have unlocked the shackles of resentment.

All of this to Jesus’ point: you don’t need to break the law to lose your life. Murder is not the only thing that robs us of life. Simply holding onto anger can do that.

Beyond the Letter of the Law

In last week’s scripture, Jesus proclaims that he comes not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. In today’s scripture, we see just what he’s talking about. If we didn’t know any better, we might think he was questioning the law, challenging it, like a revolutionary, like our American forebears who disputed certain laws imposed by the British government. He keeps saying, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” He keeps confronting the law with new words of his own.

I imagine if someone charged Jesus with contempt for the law, he would have denied the charge and in fact suggested the opposite. Because it’s not that Jesus isn’t taking the law seriously enough. On the contrary: he’s taking it more seriously than many of his fellow Judeans. While they’re merely attending to the letter of the law, he’s seeking out the spirit of the law. While they’re merely obeying, he’s fulfilling. For Jesus’ fellow Judeans, the law is the final word. The law draws boundaries around life. For Jesus, the law is a first word, an invitation into abundant life. Life is not meant to serve the law; the law is meant to serve life, to stir up life, to inspire life.

If Jesus is chipping away at the exterior of the law, it’s only so that he can get to the heart of it. He’s looking beyond the letter of the law to the life that it harbors and nourishes. He’s looking beyond the cold, hard gavel and handcuffs of the court to the warm, fragile lives that resist classification. If he picked up a newspaper in today’s world—where we measure death by the murder rates, marriage by divorce rates—I imagine he would point to these charts and say something like, “You measure life by numbers, but life is more than a biological fact or social statistic. Murder is not the only thing that robs us of life. Resentment and little grudges do that. Divorce is not the only thing that robs us of relationship. Lust does that well enough on its own.”

The Case of Divorce: 
Seeking Life behind the Law

Jesus’ words on divorce itself are particularly tough. It would be tempting to pass over them, to write them off as idealistic and impractical. But we needn’t be frightened. Jesus, remember, isn’t talking about the law in order to make life tougher or to impose punishments on us. He’s talking about the law in order to facilitate life, to fertilize life, to free up life. As we see in today’s Old Testament scripture, the law has always been about life. “See,” Moses says to the Israelites, as he gives them the law, “I have set before you today life and what is good, and death and what is bad” (Deut 30:15).

So let’s look a bit more closely at this difficult law on divorce. The ancient Jewish law allowed for a man to divorce his wife. The rabbis debated over the valid grounds for divorce: for some rabbis, an undercooked meal would have been enough reason. For other rabbis, only unchastity would justify it.

The Bible itself hosts an interesting conversation on the matter. There is no single voice, no unanimous decision, no divine decree from the clouds. Moses suggests it’s okay; Jesus suggests it’s not; and then Paul ends up somewhere in the middle, advocating it in select cases but not in others. So which voice is true?

Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. To ask that question, I think, is to make the same mistake that many of Jesus’ fellow Judeans were making when they held rigidly to the letter of the ancient law rather than seeking the life behind it. For Jesus, life is not in service of the law; the law is in the service of life. And in his day, the law that allowed divorce so easily was depriving people of life. Some men were treating their marriages like a commodity, like a matter of convenience or advantage. The moment it became a burden, they simply dropped it. Thus Jesus isn’t so much challenging the act of divorce as he is the attitude with which men were marrying. The problem wasn’t divorce: it was the way that people were forfeiting relationship from the start, treating marriage as a matter of self-gain. When they looked at their spouses, they saw not the holy and mysterious image of God but the possibility of self-gain and satisfaction. They were cheating themselves and others out of life and all its joys and difficulties.

All that to say, to hold onto Jesus’ word on divorce as the black-and-white final word, is to make the same mistake that Jesus is warning against. To try to pin down Jesus is to focus on the wrong thing. It is the classic avoidance of responsibility: “I was only doing what I was told.” The truly responsible thing to do is to follow Jesus’ example, to search for the life behind the law, to seek out the goodness of life and relationship, even among the most difficult situations and decisions.

If You Could Have More Life, Would You?

Jesus fulfills the law not by following its letter but by freeing up the spirit of life within it. So rather than settling for a commandment against murder, which merely preserves biological life, Jesus invites us to watch out for anger that drains the real life from our relationships. Rather than settling for a commandment against adultery, which merely preserves the social order, Jesus invites us to watch out for lust, which consumes the inner life. Rather than settling for a commandment that anticipates divorce, and prepares for damage control, Jesus invites us to make unconditional commitments that deepen our relationships and enrich our life. Rather than settling for a commandment that anticipates deceitful speech, Jesus invites us to make our every word true and alive, so that our life together grows from a living responsibility to one another. In every case, Jesus fulfills the law, making it even truer to itself, which is to say, more life-giving.

At the heart of the law, then, is not a threat or a challenge. At the heart of the law is a heartbeat, and a gentle question:

If you could have more life, would you? I don’t mean more days or years, necessarily. I mean more laughter and tears, more gazes into the infinite depth of another’s eyes, more sacred silence, more steps along the wooded path. I mean more changed diapers, more hugs and touch and blessing, more shared meals, more whispered prayer. I mean more words that actually mean something, more holy hushes, more sanctification by starlight. I mean more love.

If you could have more life, would you?


God who is always speaking
A new word
So that we may have abundant life—
Lead us beyond mere obedience
To what we have heard said;
As Christ fulfills the law,
So may he fill our hearts
With your desire for more life.

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