Relationships: A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Okay, to be honest, today’s gospel lesson from Matthew is close to a preacher’s worst nightmare.

I can imagine that it is not pleasant to contemplate from the other side of the pulpit either.

In today’s gospel, Jesus lays out a series of harsh, almost brutal consequences regarding the conduct of his followers.

Murder, anger, lust, adultery, divorce, oath taking . . . There are quite a few unpleasant topics in today’s gospel.

And the penalties that Jesus suggests for these things are almost as unpleasant as the things themselves:

Being hauled before the courts for getting angry, being consigned to hell for calling someone a fool.

Tearing out your own eye if it causes you to sin, cutting off your own hand and throwing it away.

These are just a few of the moral and physical implications of wrongdoing that Jesus describes today.

What do we do with these harsh words, rules, and descriptions of justice?

How on earth does this reconcile with our understanding of God’s forgiveness and love?

With Jesus’ compassion and concern for humanity?

No indeed, on the surface at least, this is not a text that we want to preach on or listen to.

But if we can step back for a moment, from the hyperbolic harshness of what Jesus seems to be saying,

I think there is, in today’s text, a message that does indeed point to God’s love, compassion and concern for humanity.

Much like our own society today, the world in which Jesus and his disciples lived, was moderated and governed by laws.

We too have laws that prohibit murder, getting divorced is still a legal matter, just as it was in Jesus’ day.

The laws were put in place for the same reason we continue to have laws today, to hold people accountable, in some way, for their actions.

In Jesus’ day, as in our own time too, there were laws that were fundamentally unjust, especially in their treatment of the poor, of women and other minorities.

Part of the reason, for example, that Jesus spends so much time in today’s gospel dwelling on the issue of divorce…

…was because in Jesus’ day the laws about divorce were deeply unfair and harmful, particularly towards women.

In Jesus’ day, a man could simply declare that he was divorced from his wife, without any kind of review of the circumstances.

A man could divorce his wife for burning dinner, or simply because he was tired of her.

And women, in Jesus’ day, had no legal recourse in situations of divorce.

Women couldn’t defend themselves in court, a woman didn’t receive any financial settlement in a divorce, apart from what her husband chose to give her.

Divorced women were often left penniless and shamed, separated from their children, their families, their social support, in Jesus’ day.

So Jesus basically tells his disciples that the law regarding divorce in his time and place is fundamentally unjust.

In our own time and place, we have much stronger protections in place for both parties when divorce occurs.

And so we need to hear Jesus’ words today about divorce in the context in which they were written…

…prompting us not to condemn or shame those who’ve gone through a divorce,

but instead to think about how our laws in our own time and place serve either to help or to hurt other people.

And yet, I don’t think any of us would deny that, when applied properly and in the spirit of justice and accountability, laws in any time and place can be a very good thing.

Laws can hold forth a standard of behavior that helps us function together as a society, and within the communities of which we are a part.

And I am not suggesting, in any way, that we should ignore, disregard or disobey the law.

But laws are often applied in extreme cases.

For example, the law goes into effect when someone is angry enough to commit murder, or someone’s safety is at risk . . .

when a marriage simply is no longer working, when legal promises need to be changed or ended.

The root of Jesus’ message today is that sometimes it is not enough to simply follow the law, if at the same time, we are not also working on our relationships with one another.

If you take a look at today’s gospel, every single one of the scenarios that Jesus describes has to do with a relationship that is somehow broken or hurting.

Take for example, being angry with a brother or sister.

Maybe you don’t commit murder, but you are still angry with them, fuming, derogatory, or even insulting towards another them.

Looking at another person with lust . . . even in innocence, it still objectifies the other person, as an object of desire rather than as full person.

Divorce, while sometimes necessary and in the best interest of both parties, does mark the end of a relationship.

The point of each of these things is that we can be upright, law-abiding citizens and yet still our relationships with one another can be broken and hurting.

We can see that in every one of the scenarios that Jesus describes today.

The law doesn’t ask us to work on relationship—instead the law goes into effect often when that relationship is somehow rendered irreparable or about to be cut off.

And the unreasonably harsh penalties that Jesus dishes out today: cutting off limbs that cause us to sin,

committing adultery by simply looking at someone in lust, going to hell for calling someone a fool.

Help to illustrate this fact. Jesus isn’t being absolutely literal.

We should not tear out our own eyes or cut off our own limbs every time we slip up.

If that were true, we would be a one-eyed, one-armed society, for sure.

Instead, Jesus uses such dramatic examples to illustrate this fact: the letter of the law may be being followed,

but it is not enough to congratulate ourselves on this fact when our relationships with one another are still broken and hurting.

In today’s gospel, Jesus radicalizes and dramatizes the law in order to make the point that sometimes following the letter of the law . . .

. . . does not always mean that we are doing the hard work of relationship that is asked of us as Christians.

And sometimes we do use rules, laws, or codes of conduct, as a way of avoiding the hard work of relationship.

For example, sometimes it is easier to follow Robert’s Rules of Order than to actually have a full and honest conversation.

Or it is easier just to sue someone rather than try arbitration.

Or it is easier to accuse someone before taking the time to get to know their side of the story.

I think the point that Jesus is trying to make is that it is in working intentionally and lovingly on our relationships . . .

Even those relationships that might eventually need to change or even come to an end . . .

. . . it is in working on relationship, honoring one another as full people, that we begin to discover the kind of love that God has for all of us.

Think, for a moment, of the contrast between the kind of behavior Jesus describes today

and the way that we understand God’s behavior towards us.

In contrast to what we often do in anger, God doesn’t act in insult or passive aggressive fuming, any more than God acts in physical retribution.

God’s love for us results in forgiveness, compassion, grace and mercy.

God’s love for us doesn’t objectify us or see us as less than human.

God sees us for who we truly are, our faults alongside of the wonderful things about us, and loves us as we are.

God keeps God’s promises to us, even if those promises are fulfilled in ways that we do not always welcome, expect or recognize.

And sometimes, when we intentionally work on our own relationships in our life…

When we can peacefully and lovingly work through a tough time with someone,

or if we can respectfully bring a relationship that is no longer working to a dignified end…

When we can still hold people accountable without attacking their character or their essential humanity,

When we can gain insight from hearing another person’s side of the story, without getting defensive or angry,

When we reach a point of forgiveness or reconciliation with one who has wronged us,

Then we get glimpses of what God’s love is like.

We see God a little clearer perhaps, know God a little better, and our own relationships are better for it.

It is hard work, but what today’s gospel points to is the truth that, as Christians, we are held to a higher standard than what the legal books, or society tells us.

What is truly good and just and right, what is truly a reflection of God’s love, is not always what it is on the books . . .

. . . sometimes it requires that we do more, working hard and intentionally on our relationships with one another.

And with God.