(Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/hktaHssOwpI)
[Jesus said,] 21‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgement; and if you 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,* and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court* with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.* 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.*
31‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33‘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.” 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’
*Phew…these are some of Jesus’ more difficult words to hear. Perhaps a little humor is needed before we dwell in them. There’s the funny one about a judge who was interviewing a woman regarding her pending divorce and asked, “What are the grounds for your divorce?” She replied, “About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property with a stream running by.” “No,” he said, “I mean what is the foundation of this case?” “It is made of concrete, brick and mortar,” she responded. “I mean,” he continued, “What are your relations like?” “I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, and so do my husband’s parents.” He said, “Do you have a real grudge?” “No,” she replied, “We have a two-car carport and have never really needed one.” “Please,” he tried again, “is there any infidelity in your marriage?” “Yes, both my son and daughter have stereo sets. We don’t necessarily like the music, but the answer to your questions is yes.” “Ma am, does your husband ever beat you up?” “Yes,” she responded, “about twice a week he gets up earlier than I do.” Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, “Lady, why do you want a divorce?” “Oh, I don’t want a divorce,” she replied. “I’ve never wanted a divorce. My husband does. He said he can’t communicate with me!”
I think anyone who’s been committed to a marriage for a long time would agree that the key to its success is good, healthy communication. It wasn’t the wealth or the children or the in-laws or the careers or the status or any number of perks that come with a marriage that held it together. It wasn’t even the love that kept it going all those years. No, what most long-married couples attribute the longevity of their marriage to is open communication. Both partners were able to clearly express their needs and wants, their joys and sorrows, and their hopes and dreams. Because they were able to clearly express these things, their partner was better able to satisfy them. Their marriage blossomed into both a life-sustaining and a life-enhancing relationship. It is only natural that once the communication breaks down, so, too, does the marriage. A marriage needs good, open communication in order to survive and I think that joke illustrates this well.
Of course, Jesus tells us in our passage from Matthew that there is only one justifiable excuse for divorce: infidelity. The breakdown of communication doesn’t qualify as a justifiable excuse for divorce according to God, only extramarital sexual relations. Over the years I’ve wrestled with this teaching in its sheer oversimplification. Surely there are a number of other excuses that are more worthy of divorce! How about a complete lack of respect or love for each other? What about the hatred of in-laws? How about the disregard of children? What about financial irresponsibility? There are countless reasons for getting a divorce and yet Jesus singles out only one that is acceptable to God. I don’t know how to explain his choice nor why he limits himself to only one. Perhaps that is why I’ve wrestled with his teaching all these years.
Not that his teachings on anger and adultery and oaths are any easier to accept. How can he liken anger to murder, lust to adultery? How can he tell us to never make promises with each other? These are difficult teachings to hear, not necessarily because they’re difficult to understand but because they set a difficult standard…an ideal standard. Jesus sets the bar for perfect, God-pleasing behavior by likening feelings to actions and condemning promises that encourage hope. This standard seems extreme, almost impossible to meet. Is Jesus being fair to us? Is Jesus helping us or hurting us through his standard?
We begin to answer these questions by considering our other readings assigned for this week. In our passage from Deuteronomy, we hear Moses speak to the Israelites about obeying the commandments, decrees, and ordinances of the Lord. God’s law has provided the Israelites with two choices: life and prosperity or death and adversity. If the law is obeyed, then life and prosperity is achieved. If not, then only death and adversity await the disobedient. Life and death…two outcomes to the same law. God gives the Israelites (and us!) the choice to obey his law, and receive life and prosperity, or disobey it and receive death and adversity. One law, one choice…it seems that God has a history of oversimplification! God couldn’t make it any easier for us! Choose life or choose death, the choice is ours to make.
The psalmist tries to convince us to choose life: “happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart.” We will be “happy” if we choose the way of life. We will experience joy through the way of life. Who among us doesn’t want to be happier, more joyful?! We are all in search of more happiness, more joy. Even those who claim they aren’t have found a sense of happiness in unhappiness. No, we are all seeking a form of greater happiness in this world. True happiness, true joy, comes from God and being in right relationship with God and we are in right relationship with God only when we obey his law. The psalmist makes a pretty convincing argument for choosing life by advertising “happiness” as the reward.
Even Paul notes in his letter to the Corinthians that we need God to grow us. We are nothing without God and God’s law. We need God’s law to help grow us into fully matured, God-pleasing beings. We need God’s law to guide and protect us. We need God’s law to nurture and sustain us. We need God’s law to stretch and form us. We’re not only happier but formed as God intended us to be. God wants us to live and grow. God wants us to live and flourish! God’s law helps us to do just that.
So, returning to Jesus’ teachings on anger and lust and divorce and promises, I think he lifts these up as potential obstacles for achieving the life He wants us to have. When we are angry, when we are lusting, when we are divorcing, when we are promising, we are choosing death. We are choosing to limit the life that God wants us to live. God gave us each other to help build each other up. God gave us our bodies to glorify him with. God gave us our spouses for companionship. God gives us promises because only He can guarantee to satisfy them. These are all gifts from God and they all bring about new life, new hope, and new possibilities.
Throughout this season of Epiphany, we’ve been celebrating Jesus being the light of the world. His light is evident in his teachings along with his miracles and his witness. His words set a standard that can be difficult to hear. They are difficult because they are words of life; words that are strange in a world of sin and death. Let us cling to his words as we venture forth, ever eager to…choose life.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.