A greater righteousness


Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

16 February 2020

St. David’s Episcopal Church

DeWitt, NY

Dan Handschy

Epiphany 6A (RCL)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

     The Gospel reading last week ended with Jesus telling us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, we would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  We were left wondering what such a righteousness might look like.  Today, we have our answer.

     It was a standard rabbinic form of argument to list what other rabbis had said about a topic, and then conclude, “But I say to you.”  Rabbi so-and-so said.  Rabbi such-and-such said.  But I say.  What is remarkable in this passage is that Jesus isn’t listing what some other rabbi said.  He is quoting Torah, the text that rabbis interpret, and then adds, “But I say to you.”  That’s really bold.

     And then he ups the ante.  You have heard it said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder.”  But I say to you that anyone who is angry at a brother or sister is liable to punishment.  How many of us have committed murder?  Not very many.  How many of us have been angry?  Every last one of us.  Yikes!  So, what are we supposed to do?  Jesus gives us the answer:  if you are making your offering, and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar, and first go be reconciled, and then come make your sacrifice.

     Sounds do-able, right?  Imagine you’ve just walked two days from Galilee to Jerusalem, leading your lamb for sacrifice.  Now, you’re going to walk four days round trip before sacrificing.  But notice what happens.  The restriction against murder is reasonably enforceable.  The restriction against anger is not.  But anger tears up the community that is going to eat the meal made by the sacrifice.  Jesus insists that the community be reconciled.

     That’s why the Peace comes where it does in the liturgy.  We are about to make our offering, so we confess our sins against God and our neighbor.  The absolution takes care of the sins against God.  The Peace reconciles us with our neighbor.

     The saying about divorce is also likely to make a number of us uncomfortable.  We live in very different circumstances that Jesus did.  His prohibition of divorce was meant to be a protection for women; divorced women had little standing in his world.  One of the rabbis who debated divorce allowed a man to divorce his wife for burning his dinner.  But Jesus takes things even a step further in the saying about adultery.

     In the ancient world only a married woman could commit adultery.  If she had sex with anyone other than her husband, she invaded his rights to know her children were his.  And the man involved was committing adultery against the husband.  But Jesus says, anyone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her.  Poor Jimmy Carter – he never lived that down.  But notice what happens here; it is the man who commits adultery, without the involvement of the woman!

     Again, Jesus turns the focus back onto life lived in community.  Adultery, as he found it, was reasonably enforceable.  It involved the violation of the husband’s property rights.  But Jesus refocuses the rule onto how we treat one another.  No one is to be treated as an object.  Everyone, even women, count in this new society.

     That is perhaps what the writer of Deuteronomy meant by saying that God was setting before us life and death, blessings and curses.  We tend to see the law as a code of things we shouldn’t do, with consequences for doing them.  Murder brings punishment.  But the intent of the law was to establish a livable society.  Since we can’t legislate what people think, we set consequences for bad acts.

     But if what holds a society together is only the fear of consequences of bad acts, society will fall apart.  There has to be some value in living together.  God’s commandments aren’t just “thou shalt not.”  We misunderstand the law if we make it into that.  So, Jesus radicalizes the law, and turns it into something that none of us can live.  No one can live without being angry.  None of us can live without, sometime or other, thinking of others and a means to our ends, as objects for our use.  No society has ever existed without divorce.

     That’s not the point.  The point is to show us that we cannot, on our own, create a livable society.  That requires grace, and grace is not something we can demand.  It can only be freely given and received.  I think that’s what is happening to our social fabric right now.  Many of us are coming to believe that the things society gives us are ours by right.

     In my ethics classes, I used to ask the students what a right is.  The Declaration of Independence says that God has endowed us with certain inalienable rights:  life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  What does that mean.  The only possible definition of a right is an enforceable claim we can make against others.  That’s why American case law is based almost exclusively on suing one another.  That’s our way of determining what is an enforceable claim.

     But what an awful way to live – to be going to law suit against one another all the time.  Jesus radicalizes the law to show that none of us can live without grace.  The things community gives us are not ours by right, but by grace.  Think of the huge shift this would make in our way of thinking.  It would make us grateful for everything we have, and make us want it for others.

     Every time I come back from Africa, I am grateful beyond measure for running, drinkable water.  It astonishes me that I can turn on the tap, fill a glass, and drink it.  What grace.  Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could do that?  Shouldn’t we want that, rather than allowing companies to have water for free, so they can put it in plastic bottles and sell it back to us?  Thinking about the law as restrictions on behavior makes us think, “What can I get away with?”  Thinking about grace makes us think, “What can I do for others?”  That seems to me the much happier way to live.