Law of Love

Matthew 5:21–27, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on February 12, 2023

To begin today’s sermon, I’d like to talk with the kids. Let’s think together about Jesus. Jesus is lots of different things—a healer, a friend, someone who fed the hungry and spoke up for justice, and Jesus is a teacher. In the Bible, people called him “rabbi,” which is the Jewish name for teacher. Do you have a favorite teacher? What is that person like? In today’s Bible reading Jesus is teaching about anger. We all get angry. It’s normal and okay to get mad. And it’s very important what we do with our anger. Jesus says if we let our anger make us mean and disrespectful, it can really hurt the people around us. Our words can hurt them just as much as if we hit them or kicked them, or even killed them. And Jesus also knows that we all mess up sometimes. We all have times when our anger gets too big, gets out of control. And then God wants us to make things right, say we are sorry and do something to make the hurt better. Jesus reminds us that we can always make a fresh start. We always have another chance when we need one. 

Today’s text is a tough one. Adultery, divorce, judgement, hell, putting out eyes and cutting off limbs—frankly, there just isn’t time to address all these hot button issues in one sermon. However, even when I struggle with Jesus’ teachings, I like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Because I believe that his overall aim as a teacher was consistent—he was trying to guide his disciples toward liberation and life. In this text, Jesus probes the deeper spirit of the Jewish law. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” As I told the kids, Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher of the law. So he was not rejecting the law, or one-upping it. He was interpreting it. He was saying that the commandments are more than a laundry list of dos and don’ts. They are shorthand for an entire way of life, specifically life that flourishes in community. Today’s teaching extends the theme of the entire sermon on the mount—how to live in right relationship with God and God’s creation. 

When Jill’s artwork first appeared in the Gathering Hall, she and I were talking about the exhibit. She wondered aloud if people would feel uncomfortable with all the bodies, naked bodies no less. I assured her that the bodies are welcome. And I thought, hmm . . . that’s a sermon topic. What do you notice in Jill’s piece that I chose for today’s bulletin cover? Here’s what I am seeing. The figures are interconnected, interdependent. To me, the thin, somewhat waver-y outlines of the bodies communicate vulnerability. And strength, because they are not self-conscious. There are no attempts here to pretend or cover or apologize. There is a quiet celebration of what is. And then there is what Jill calls the “larger kaleidoscope of shape and color” that creates a more abstract image. The impression I get is of white clouds in a blue sky. On her website, Jill explains that this reflects 

The way our interactions and relationships with each other create a more encompassing—and more complex—story than our own individual narrative can be.[1]

And I love the way that this piece and others integrate the earth into our complex human stories.

It seems to me that Jill’s art and Jesus’ teaching compliment and amplify each other, because they are both about how we live together in community. Jesus’ opening discussion about anger is key to reading the entire passage. It’s really quite bold and startling, if you stop to think about it, that he equated insults and disrespect with murder. Jesus knew that a community that tolerates violence of any kind lacks trust and cohesion. He also knew that rifts will happen between people who are trying to love each other, people are supposed to be bonded in covenant. Anger is normal and hurt is inevitable. And we must work it out; we can’t let it fester. None of us can worship God properly (bringing our gifts to the altar) unless we take up the discipline of continually naming and repairing the harm we do to each other.

Turning to Jesus’ discussion of adultery . . . I do not think there’s any reason to align Jesus with later Christian tradition that feared sexuality, that labeled it shameful and bad. His remarks here suggest to me that while sexuality is a natural desire, a holy gift, lust is the attitude that people are objects to be used, controlled, and possessed. In the mind of Jesus’ culture, men were the perpetrators of lust, and women its victims, but we can widen our view and make this teaching more universal. Jesus was saying that the objectifying posture of lust toward another human being is destructive, whether it plays out in minds or our bodies, whether it is secret or overt. The denial of another person’s sacred worth and dignity harms the person, and it harms the whole community. A community that tolerates lust is not a place anyone can thrive. 

Finally, to our ears, Jesus’ statement about divorce might sound like an unhelpfully cut-and-dried rule. However, it was really meant to protect women, within the constraints of Jesus’ time and worldview. The assumption here, of course, is that only men had the power to divorce. So within a culture that viewed women as property, Jesus advocated for women to be treated as fairly as possible. A man could not simply divorce his wife because he was tired of her cooking. Such a power play was oppressive and abusive to her and to the community. 

Jesus’ teachings are concerned with how the law can bring liberation and life to the community—by stopping physical and spiritual violence; by refusing to tolerate behavior that objectifies and oppresses; and by committing to a process of repairing the harm that happens when the community falls short of those ethical standards. I’m realizing that this teaching resonates powerfully with the legislative agenda that MN IPL has crafted for this session, which seeks climate justice alongside reparations to indigenous communities. They see these two goals as intertwined, as mutually necessary. In a recent webinar, MN IPL staff member Liz Loeb explained the linkage. She said,

When we engage in reparations, we are trying to undo in ourselves the worldview that resources are something to be used for progress and profit, which is possible because we are separate from the earth and each other. It is only possible to believe that [we are separate] if you do not believe that the earth is your mother or your parent or your relative, and that worldview [of separateness] enables climate destruction. The same worldview that believes that we can extract from the land without relationship is the worldview that believes land can be owned and taken from native people, and that black people should and can be enslaved as sources of labor. . . . If we are able to shift our relationship to land and ownership, we can change how we have been colonized by that worldview, then we make it possible to win concrete change around climate justice. We can’t win on climate without shifting our worldview around ownership and we can’t make that shift without engaging in healing and repair.[2]

Friends, lately we have been asking each other, “Who is Jesus for you?” This question is intentionally personal. It challenges us to set aside what we were taught, what the person next to us is saying, what we think we “ought to believe” and find our own voice. Our relationship with Jesus is an ongoing, evolving conversation; the question also assumes there are a multiplicity of ways to relate to Jesus. None of us has all the truth; we each contribute our own experiences to the richness of a shared vision of Jesus. Jesus is a teacher, yes, and he is the sort of teacher who answers questions with questions, who tells ambiguous, open-ended stories, and who wants us, as the song puts it, to be “listening people.” We have a law of love to guide us. And we are responsible for our own discernment of what is ethical, of what particular choice, in each moment, brings liberation and life, and enables community to flourish. Amen.