February 12, 2017 – The 6th Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
There is a joke among clergy that anytime Jesus says something about divorce we should probably preach on one of the other lessons. Jesus never has anything nice to say about divorce or people who are divorced or people who marry someone who is divorced. As a single man and pastor of a loose affiliation of followers who came and went as they pleased, he had that luxury. He wasn’t worried about whether the offering plate would come back a little lighter than usual if he upset the really generous givers by calling them adulterers. Nowadays, clergy know better. We have sat and cried with too many people whose marriages ended long before the divorce papers were signed. Many of our parishioners are divorced. Sometimes ex-spouses still sit in the same pew, each one refusing to budge to make the other one and his or her new spouse comfortable. Many clergy are divorced, too, so how are we supposed to preach with any authority on the subject? For the most part, anything Jesus has to say about it is a landmine we’re better off avoiding.
But you know what? The teaching on divorce in today’s gospel lesson isn’t even close to the hardest thing Jesus has to say. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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.” I can’t even make it to church in the morning without calling an inattentive driver something worse than “you fool.” What about you? When was the last time you got angry with a brother or sister? When was the last time you spouted off about some “idiot” on Facebook? When was the last time you sent a text message or an e-mail to a couple of friends about that one person whom none of you can stand?
And let’s not get started on lust! Even sweet Jimmy Carter squirms in his seat a little bit when he hears Jesus say that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If we took Jesus’ instructions seriously—“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”—there’s be a lot more one-armed, one-eyed, one-legged people hobbling around.
And what about oaths? I know the courthouse will let you affirm instead of swear when you take the stand, but I don’t think that fully addresses what Jesus had in mind when he told us to “let [our] word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” How would our legal system survive if we didn’t have affidavits or notarized signatures? How would homeowners and businesses know which contractors to hire if they weren’t bonded? Does marriage itself become meaningless if we eliminate the solemn vows associated with the rite? I guess it all boils down to whether we can really afford to trust one another, and most people I know—including me—are no dang good.
But there’s a reason Jesus says all of these things. There’s a reason he takes the presumptions of religious and civil society and turns them on their head, calling into question everything that everyone had assumed for generations. Notice how Jesus repeatedly says to the people, “You have heard that it was said…” And each time he then twists their assumptions into a new direction by saying, “But I say to you…” The problems that Jesus raises are not with the Old Testament texts themselves but with the way that people had been hearing them. Everybody thought that they already knew what Moses meant. They had been hiding behind common wisdom, and they had let “you know what they say” become a substitute for what God was trying to say to God’s people. But, if we take a moment and sift through these statements and look for the real hyperbole among a field of outlandish claims, we will discover what Jesus had in mind.
Of all the over-the-top things that Jesus says about anger and lust and divorce and oaths, the most ridiculous is what he says about brining your offering to the altar: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Now that might not sound crazy because we’re used to bringing our checkbook with us when we drive six blocks to come to church, but I want you to imagine the look on my face if you walked into St. John’s and handed me a lamb or a pigeon or a calf and said, “Would you hold onto this for me? I just remembered that I said an unkind word to my brother-in-law in Sarasota, Florida, and I need to drive down there and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ This will only take a couple of days.” Because, back in Jesus’ time, leaving your gift at the altar meant leaving some livestock at the temple in Jerusalem while you walked back to Galilee to make amends with the one you had hurt. There ain’t no priest in first-century Palestine or twenty-first-century Decatur who’s willing to do that. And, as usual, the thing that Jesus says that makes us laugh and scratch our heads at the same time is the part that we really need to pay attention to.
This whole passage is about remembering that we cannot be right with God if we are not right with one another first. No one leaves his offering at the altar and turns around and walks all the way home just to say, “I’m sorry,” but that’s what Jesus is telling us to do. We are fooling ourselves if we think that we can come here and kneel down and say our prayers and receive God’s forgiveness if we are not serious about seeking forgiveness from one another. We are living a lie if we think that we can approach this altar and receive the body and blood of Christ and participate in the sacrifice of God’s Son as the redeemed and reconciled children of God if we are not willing to address the brokenness that exists among us and between us.
“At least I’m not a murderer,” we say to ourselves, “or a racist or a psychopath,” but we let our hatred and our anger control us just the same. Ours is a culture defined by anger, and this most recent election has made that abundantly clear. We no longer know how to have a civilized disagreement. We skip the debates and move straight to insults. There is a brokenness among us that can only be healed if we recognize that victory for our side isn’t as important as communion with the other. Lust is a problem not simply because sex outside of marriage mistakes union for pleasure but because people are not a means to an end, and, as long as we view another human being as a potential conquest, then we cannot know what it means to value the humanity of that person. In other words, lust presents the same problem as anger. Divorce, too, at least as a means to cut your losses and pretend that you can start all over, is the exact same problem because you can’t start over. And divorced people know that. Unless you deny the reality of that other person, once you’re united to someone, you can never fully be separated from him or her. Oaths, too, are a denial of our humanity because, when we rely on an oath and not on the person swearing it, we have lost sight of who it is that is giving us his or her word.
The truth is that we need help, and this gospel lesson reminds us that there is no escaping that fact. And thank God for Jesus Christ who is that help. We, in our self-absorbed fantasy of anger and lust and mistrust, allow our ego to displace the humanity of those around us, and that’s exactly why God takes that humanity onto himself in the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God becomes that which we cannot become on our own—a complete, perfectly vulnerable, perfectly relatable human being. He is one with the “Great I Am,” yet in him there is no ego. And, by uniting us with himself, he makes it possible for us to become that which we cannot become on our own: truly selfless. Because of our egotistical weakness, we cannot accept diminution of ourselves for the sake of others until we find our true value in the one who makes us whole. As he takes our humanity onto himself, we lose ourselves in him. Together as the people of God, we are united with Christ, and, thus, we find it possible in him to care less about ourselves than about the life we share with others. As followers of Jesus, we know that there is no difference between being right with God and being right with one another. They are synonymous. And in Christ we find the promise of perfect union with both.