First preached on February 16, 2019 to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square, Chicago.
Relevant lectionary texts here.
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
Today we continue on in the Gospel of Matthew with Jesus’ sermon on the mount. A few weeks ago, Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by his comrade, mentor, and cousin, John, and then was driven out into the wilderness. And upon returning, Jesus learns that John has been arrested by King Herod, and it is this event that radicalizes him, and he begins building a movement, calling disciples, and starting his public ministry. The sermon on the mount is some of the first major moments of teaching that Jesus does in the Gospel of Matthew after gathering together his crew of people. This is the first time in this account that we really get to hear Jesus teach. And he starts out with a list of blessings, the beatitudes, an exhortation to us to be salt and light in the world, and a promise from Jesus that he did not come to abolish the law but fulfill it, which Pastor Erin preached on last week.
And so today we get the next part of this sermon by Jesus. Different gospel accounts break up Jesus’ teachings in different ways, but in Matthew we get a big bulk of quotes and proverbs right up front here. So just as Jesus explains that he is not here to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he expounds a little bit on what the law means. Jesus spends a lot of time interpreting and reinterpreting scripture. As a Jewish person born to faithful Jewish parents, he is well acquainted with the law, and like other rabbis and teachers he discusses the law and what it means.
We all do this, actually. We are all interpreters of anything we read. And with scripture we are making choices all the time. Some of us would like to say we come at scripture objectively, or that we just believe “what the Bible says.” But the fact is the Bible says a lot of wild stuff. And we are all coming to these verses with our own experiences, biases, and culture as a lens.
Like today, Jesus tells us that if our hand causes us to sin we should cut it off. But I look around and most of us are not hacking off limbs. We have decided that that part of scripture is metaphorical, not literal. But other people throughout Christian history have interpreted this differently. I will leave this for you to Google later, but the early Christian scholar, Origen, came to a different conclusion about this verse and took it much more literally.
*That’s the thing, every time we read scripture we are making decisions. Is this literal or metaphorical? Is it poetry or history? Is this hyperbole or some other rhetorical technique? Is this culturally specific to a particular time and place? Is this universal, and for all of us? Each of us makes these choices every time we read the Bible. We all elevate certain parts and ignore others, we all chose what is to be taken literally or metaphorically. There are many people out there who will, for example, be clear that cutting off one’s hand is metaphorical, but will cling to a literal interpretation of the fires of Hell. And it is important for us to be self aware about the choices we make in interpreting scripture, and to be honest about it. I can be honest, for example, that I will pretty much always read the words of Jesus from a feminist point of view. I believe there’s good reason for that, but regardless, it’s a choice in interpretation that I am making.
And the feminist in me by the way takes issues with several parts of this sermon of Jesus’, or at least the way that it has often been interpreted. There are the words about lust, which as someone who grew up in the midst of purity culture, were used to shame people for any kinds of sexual thoughts or fantasy. And the words we have read today about divorce have served to keep people – especially women – in unhealthy, toxic, or even abusive marriages. But marriage in that time and marriage today are two completely different things. So part of interpreting scripture here is to acknowledge that context is important in reading these verses. And because many of these verses have been used in such awful, death dealing ways, I want to make sure that I say this very clearly:
There are many valid reasons for a marriage to end. A marriage ending does not mean that you failed. It does not mean that your relationship was a failure. Human relationships are complicated and often full of brokenness. Sometimes the most faithful choice is to leave a marriage.
What Jesus is reminding us, in these verses and in this whole passage, is that human beings – people made in the image of God – we are not disposable. Jesus is teaching that all people, especially the vulnerable, should be protected, not exploited. Children are to be cherished, not sacrificed to the idolatry of gun worship or shot down in the streets by racist agents of Law and Order. Immigrants are to be welcomed, not detained in concentration camps or kidnapped by ICE. The sick are to receive healing, not laden with hospital bills. The poor are to be sheltered and fed and given justice, not neglected or criminalized. Widows are to be cared for. Women are to be respected. Human beings, human life, is precious and must be honored. Jesus is saying in these verses that it is not ok, to objectify a woman, to turn her into an object of pleasure and fail to see her as a whole human being with hopes and fears and dreams and passions. These behaviors – using people and throwing them away – are death-dealing behaviors that flow out of our deep inner thoughts. The way we think about one another affects the way that we act towards one another. And dehumanizing people, even internally, silently in our thoughts, has real consequences for our external living breathing relationships.
It was preaching this kind of message that got Jesus’ mentor, John, arrested and held as a political prisoner. We find out later on in Matthew that King Herod arrested John in part because John was publicly criticizing Herod for a really sketchy situation involving divorce. King Herod was an immoral ruler whose predatory sexual misconduct was only one of many ways he dehumanized other people and treated them as disposable. And John specifically criticized King Herod for casting aside his wife and unlawfully taking the wife of his brother, as if she was an object for his pleasure who could just be passed around to everyone and then thrown out. Herod had done this shamelessly, everyone knew about it, and yet he was still claiming to be a faithful Jew. I know it must be soooo hard to imagine a sexually predatory demagogue who punishes people who criticize him and hypocritically claims faith as he climbs the ladder of Empire. [sarcasm] But that was what was happening. John was telling Herod, “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is near!” And so Jesus, who started building his movement in response to John’s arrest, continues to not so subtly criticize Herod. He may have well have said, “You have heard it said don’t abuse women. But I tell you, anyone who says or even THINKS that he can just grab women by the….those men? They are guilty of the sin of misogyny.” This part of the sermon is a pointed criticism that all who were following Jesus would understand. Jesus in the tradition of John is criticizing Herod and all who boorishly act like him.
So that left me thinking about Jesus’ warning against anger. It’s a little confusing to me that the guy who was a disciple of John, who was constantly calling people out, who later went on to overturn tables in a protest filled with rage that involved property damage…this guy is telling us, “don’t be angry?” And honestly I’m a little protective of my anger. I love anger, maybe you’ve noticed. But I have worked hard to get to the place where I was able to get angry at injustices around me instead of hating myself and blaming myself, as if abuse or oppression against me were my own fault. This anger I have is a sign of my health. Before I thought I deserved it. Now? My anger reminds me of my own human dignity and identity as a beloved child of God, it says that something that harms me is not ok. And too often my oppressors or abusers would shame me for my anger and admonish me to be “nice” as a means and method of controlling or silencing me.
But the Greek word here for anger doesn’t have a perfect English translation. The connotation if this word is the kind of anger that holds a grudge, that is malicious, that turns inwardly and seethes and stews with hate.
Reading this story I couldn’t help but wonder if this part of the sermon might be Jesus preaching to himself, telling us the message he most needed to hear. This is a thing that preachers do a lot, we often preach the Good News we long for or the hard truth that we know we need to be convicted by. We preach the sermon to remind ourselves. So I kind of wonder if Jesus is doing that here when he is talking about anger. Jesus had just been radicalized by the arrest of his comrade and mentor. He started fishing for people, building a movement, building power and in coded words, criticizing the rich and powerful. And as he starts preaching, maybe Jesus is angry. Maybe he is saying to himself, “Listen. You can sit around and let this anger eat you up inside. Or you can channel into something external, relational. You can use this righteous anger against Herod, against the taking of John as a political prisoner, against the Empire, and you can use it, this anger, as fuel to build a movement. You can be bitter or you can build the kingdom.”
Jesus is laying out realities for us, modeled after the words from Moses in Deuteronomy. He is saying there are thoughts that lead to actions that are death dealing, that kill a person’s body or harm our own spirit. And there is the way of God, the way of love and liberation and life. And just like in Deuteronomy, Jesus is pleading with us to choose the things that lead to life, that lead to health in our human relationships. We do not have to bow down to the false gods of capitalism, white supremacy, or the cis hetero patriarchy. We do not have to give human sacrifices upon their unholy altar. God has freed us to choose to be a part of the liberating, life giving work that God is already doing all around us. But it is hard and holy work, and part of the work is unlearning the thoughts that lead us towards harm. We have to deprogram, decolonize our thinking in order to build a movement that lasts. We have to think revolutionary, radical thoughts to do revolutionary, radical things.
In under 10 days, we will begin the season of Lent. As you are considering what kinds of Lenten disciplines you take on, how might you connect the work on your inner self to your revolutionary outer action? Are there hard things you might want to bring to your therapist, scripts in your head you want to rewrite? Are there fears you might need to release in order to be free and free others? Are there ways you might want to intentionally inwardly digest the words and experiences of people whose voices are often silenced, by for example, reading only books by Black women during Lent? I am planning on fasting from Amazon, and praying that this fast might illuminate for me the ways that my false worship to the gods of convenience has affected my own soul in addition to harming the lives of my neighbors. Lent is an opportunity not only to change our actions, or to punish ourselves by metaphorically cutting off our sinful hands, but to allow that change in our actions to serve as a pathway for transforming and liberating our thoughts, breaking through our socialization, unleashing a new creativity that dreams up more wild and holy ways to be in solidarity with one another.
*In Gratitude to Dr. Hector Avalos who is the one who explained this to me about interpretation and scripture, including introducing me to that fun fact about Origen.