Salvation came rather suddenly to our home growing up. Although we had always been part of a church, there was a time when I was around twelve that my mother had a serious conversion and something akin to Mt. Vesuvius subsuming the city of Pompei occurred — it seemed that in the blink of an eye our household was covered completely in fire and brimstone. The overall climate shifted from boisterous light-heartedness to such a level of seriousness that we could’ve given gallons of it away to sinners as Christmas gifts and not put a dent in the pile.
At times, it felt like my precious mother had been swapped out for a biblical Stepford wife and Holy Scripture had become for her a “holy script”. She rarely spoke in anything but Bible verses, determined to memorize as much of it as possible. Among her favorite responses to our frustrating attempts to have normal conversations with her was this last line from today’s gospel “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or No, No; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” I’m not sure that her ambitious initiative is what Moses is referring to when he encourages the people to write all these words on their heart; but, I don’t know. It might be. It certainly seemed to give her some comfort.
And, when you consider what precedes this warning about answering with only “yeses” or “nos”, it is understandable that the smart money is on keeping things simple. To say any more is to chance committing a grave sin. Jesus doesn’t cut us any slack today when it comes to murder, adultery, or swearing.
The truth is, for all the reputation that we have of being “liberal”, the readings prescribed for us are anything but! So, let me be as clear as I can be as a priest of the Church. For the record, when it comes to murder, adultery, and using the name of God as an oath, we are completely against all three. And, in full disclosure, I confess to you that I have been angry enough to commit murder, invoked God’s name thoughtlessly where my own word should have been sufficient, and divorced the father of my children on purpose and if I had it to do again I don’t know that I could make any other choice. So believe me when I say that, if there were any way to soften today’s gospel, I’d have found it, if not for your sake, for my own. For, in a short sixteen verses Jesus comes down so hard on these three sins that offenders could easily end up without any eyes or hands by the end of the day!
The punishments described get increasingly worse even though the offenses themselves do not necessarily seem to be increasing in severity. This crescendo of punishments, however, signals the danger of harboring hostile anger, of violating the sanctity of marriage by divorcing without considering the consequences, and of trying to add heft to empty promises by invoking God’s name.
Hostility that results in verbal abuse is more damaging than beating someone and as worthy of punishment as taking someone’s life. Because that’s what verbal abuse does: It cuts away at someone’s soul until it expires from lack of hope or sense of worth.
As for the hard line on divorce and adultery, when you look closely, Jesus’ teaching gives voice to the danger of a self-centered orientation to relationships. Far from merely seeing women as property to be coveted by men, Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce reinforces the dignity of women and warns against a culture of male privilege that considers women as little more than a source for momentary pleasure. It is not so different today than in the first century, where women who were used and then discarded for another’s sexual desires experienced repercussions that reinforced a culture of poverty, disease, and an increased risk of suicide.
A woman who had been seduced brought great shame upon her family. A woman who had been raped was considered damaged goods. Wives could be cast aside for ridiculous reasons, including burning bread. In contrast to a world where women were treated like worthless pieces of property, Jesus’ mission allowed women to be disciples! And I am not naïve. I fully recognize that in cases of adulterous liaisons it takes two to tango, but when the dancers are publically exposed the chastisement has always fallen disparately stronger against the woman. Jesus’ unambiguous sanctification of relationships is intended for the health of families and communities. And his words regarding the sanctity of marriage are intrinsically connected to the warning against making empty promises.
God wants us to be people of integrity, people who are faithful to our promises, people who have no need to swear in the name of God that they are telling the truth because they are known as truth-tellers. He wants us to be people who honor our commitments in marriage and who respect the commitments that others have made. He is calling attention to the women in our midst, reminding us that women are not people to be used and abandoned at will, but to be treated as fellow disciples. Women are among the ones who are now blessed by God’s kingdom on earth. For us as the Church to claim Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom come, we must strive to be the kind of people who reflect God’s character.
One of the most radical aspects of Jesus’ extending the law beyond “you have heard it said” to “but I say to you…” is his internalization of the law, not just quoting it word for word but drawing in our attitudes and emotions to the very heart of the sacred law of love. Jesus connects the dots for us from outward acts to internal orientation. It is one thing to behave rightly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be rightly oriented.
Jesus offers a more radical ethic than just not murdering someone or divorcing someone or not invoking God’s holy name thoughtlessly. He is offering a reign-of-God-ethic based on the inward orientations of our hearts. The righteousness of this newly inaugurated kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor.
God’s inbreaking presence in this Epiphany season re-orders the relationships of this world and re-orients the internal landscapes of our lives. God is present with us not as a keeper of check-lists but as a radical reformer of our deepest character.
You may be thinking that this is just too much, that you preferred it when I preached about politics, that things are in such a state for you that you are already considering how you will get around without any eyes or hands. To all of this I believe God steadfastly declares: Be still beloved child. Do not continue to REACT but rather choose to ACT.
Indeed today – like every day – God has put before us blessings and curses. We must practice choosing wisely, and learn to seek counsel; spend our energy in seeking reconciliation, not stoking hostile embers. We ought not mind little stings or give them. And we should consider each person as God’s beloved and a fellow disciple, extending to each other all the accompanying respect. Finally, we have to consider well the implications of making promises, determining in our hearts that we will be known by no other reputation than those whose word is their bond.
It is never too late to begin again, no matter what has happened. Let this be the day that we choose life. Let this morning’s collect be the prayer we write on our hearts, knowing that in our weakness we can do nothing good without God, and because of that, asking that God help us both in what we want to do and what we actually do, through Christ our Lord.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
February 12, 2017