Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
Good morning. I have a new favorite meme on Facebook. I think I shared it a couple weeks ago. It’s one of those inspirational quotes that looks kinda like a piece of scripture, but it’s not. It reads: I can do all things through a single Bible verse, taken out of context.
It’s funny because it’s true. We have a tendency to focus on the parts of scripture that we like, especially if they confirm the things that we already believe or the actions we typically take. And sometimes we focus in on a verse or two, taken completely out of context, and use that bit of scripture to attack our neighbors when they do or say things that we don’t like. And I think the worst thing that anyone can say is, “Don’t blame me, that’s what the Bible says!”
Please, please, please don’t say that. Please.
Also, please don’t say, “That’s the word of God, and that never changes!”
Just. Don’t. Go. There. Trust me on this.
I say all this because our reading from the Gospel of Matthew includes some remarks about divorce that are often taken out of context. Far too many Christians, far too many pastors, far too many male pastors, have taken this teaching from Jesus and regurgitated it to women who were considering divorce. Too many pastors, especially male pastors, have quoted this passage to women who were physically and verbally abused by their husbands. As if God would prefer that a woman stay in an abusive marriage. That’s a misuse of this piece of scripture.
Both of today’s readings are about true righteousness, as opposed to self-righteousness. That’s been one of the recurring themes for the last few weeks—righteousness above and beyond the letter of the law. The narrow context of today’s gospel lesson is the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus is teaching the disciples how to be righteous as they go about living their call to be disciples. The broader context is that Jesus is pushing back against the teachings of the scribes and the Pharisees, who spend an awful lot of time debating the Law of Moses and how to follow the law. This legalistic approach to Scripture leads the scribes and the Pharisees into a place of self-righteousness. Jesus is arguing against this sort of legal interpretation. In doing so, he offers a nearly-impossible standard to live into:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”
So, guys, men, when’s the last time any of you plucked out an eye, or cut off a hand? Anyone? I didn’t think so. This is almost impossible, and if we try to obey this command word-for-word, then we are falling into the same trap as the scribes and the Pharisees.
But if the word of God never changes, should we be chopping off some hands and plucking out some eyes? Again, this is why context is so important. So, let’s look at our Old Testament reading.
The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a series of speeches or sermons given by Moses to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. The name “Deuteronomy” is Greek, not Hebrew; it means “second law.” The book is a retelling or resetting of the law of Moses. And the law of Moses needs to be retold because the people who are called Israel have done a poor job of living into the spirit of the law.
Without a doubt, some of the Israelites must have been personally righteous, must have obeyed the letter of the law. But many more of them did not. That’s why Moses urges them to “choose life” before they enter into the Promised Land. Moses implores the Israelites to accept and live into God’s blessings. He urges them to be righteous so that they get out of their own way.
Sometimes we think that God’s blessings are a reward for righteous behavior on our part. They are not. God offers us blessings because God loves us. That’s it. When we act in unrighteous ways or self-righteous ways, we sabotage those blessings, for ourselves and others. We subvert the beautiful community into which God wants us to live. God wants us to be shining city on a hill that all can see. We search for bushel baskets; we try to keep the light for ourselves. And then we don’t understand why the people around us aren’t living righteously.
That’s what happens when we use the law as a checklist of individual behaviors, a measuring stick for our own righteousness. We take rules out of context, forgetting that God wants a world where all people flourish. That flourishing requires all of us to see every other person as a beloved child of God. It also requires us to see everyother person as a neighbor, rather than a stranger or a foreigner. Like the Israelites, we’re reluctant to do that.
Remember, though, that God keeps trying, keeps offering grace.
The Book of Deuteronomy was probably written down several hundred years after the events of the Exodus. Remember, the story of God giving the law to Moses is originally told in the Book of Exodus. But the Israelites didn’t follow the law, in letter or spirit. So, the story of God’s law was retold to the people of Judah much later, in the hope that they would repent and live more faithfully into God’s covenants. That didn’t happen.
God’s response to Israel’s unfaithfulness was not punishment and destruction. God’s response was to enter the world in the person of Jesus, who taught true righteousness. And for Jesus, true righteousness means going above and beyond the letter of the law. Jesus doesn’t set a minimum standard of decency; he offers a way of living that nurtures community. Then he invites us to live into that call, to be a city on a hill.
In our personal, secular lives, and also here in church, we hear what we want to hear. It’s easier that way. When we hear what we want to hear, it’s easier to ignore people we don’t agree with. We call out other people’s unrighteousness because it’s easier to pick out a verse or two from Jesus or one of the Ten Commandments and make an argument about someone else’s behavior. We hear what we want to hear and we do what we’ve always done because it’s easier than changing. It’s easier than being truly righteous. It’s easier than following Jesus, especially when Jesus tells us:
· Blessed are the meek.
· Blessed are the merciful.
· Blessed are the peacemakers.
This is the context of Jesus’ teaching, but we don’t want this context. We don’t want to be humble when the world tells us to stand up and assert our individuality. We don’t want to be merciful to people who have hurt us. We don’t want to make peace with people who are wrong. We don’t want to follow Jesus, but that’s the only way forward!
The only way forward is to practice the true righteousness that Jesus preaches. The world is profoundly unjust. And each and every one of us participates in that injustice in some way, shape, or form. We cannot wish that away and we cannot ignore our own participation in the ways of the world. Nor can we say set aside Christ’s call because some person or group has wronged us. We must participate in this work. We must forgive others and we must work toward peace and reconciliation.
You may have noticed that I pulled the title of my sermon from our lesson in Deuteronomy. We are very concerned about the survival of the church, and this congregation, in particular. For too long, we have measured the church by the things of the world: the number of people in worship and the amount of money we collect every Sunday. This is how we measure success in the church.
Beloved, I am here to remind you that we are NOT called to be successful. We are called to be faithful. I believe that faithfulness, faithfully following God’s call to love one another and do the difficult work of reconciliation—in this congregation, in this community, and in the world—is the way forward. This is how we choose life! If we live faithfully into Christ’s call, then we will get out of our own way and see our blessings. If we remain faithful to God’s covenants; if we work for reconciliation; if we reach out to the last and the lost and the least; then people will see that we are alive with the love of the Lord. People will see that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to share our blessings with all people. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!