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“A New Path to Aliveness”
Rev. Melanie Homan
February 28, 2016
The Law and the Prophets
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[c] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[d] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,[e] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[f] a brother or sister,[g] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell[h] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[i] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[j] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[k] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.[l] 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.[m]
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.[n]
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
You have heard it said, “Do not murder”. But I say… “It’s just as bad to be angry at your brother or sister.”
You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery”. But I say… “It’s just as bad to look at someone with lust.”
You have heard it said, “Do not break your oaths.” But I say… “Do not make oaths in the first place. Simply let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.”
You have heard it said, “Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.” But I say… “Turn the other cheek. If someone forces you to go one mile, go two.”
You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I say… “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”
There’s a pattern here. It’s called the antithesis. What in the world is that?
An antithesis is something that rabbis used when they were comparing and contrasting their own interpretation of the Law with other rabbis’ interpretations. For instance, “The rabbi down the street says this…but I say this…” It’s what teachers did when they were interpreting Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus is unique in that he didn’t just critique the interpretations of other teachers, he’s critiqued the actual Law. But, he didn’t do so in order to throw it out or set it aside. Rather, what he was trying to do is get to the root of the commands.
So, the command to not kill people is pretty clear and basic. But, Jesus was trying to get at the root of it, to affirm the underlying purpose of that law. To do this, he gave an example, to make it come alive for the people and to help them connect the old law to their current situation.
In all six of these antitheses, Jesus was talking about the relationships we have with one another. Each one has to do with our relationships. For example, don’t kill. But, more than that, don’t be angry with one another! The underlying desire of God is that we not be hostile towards one another and that we be reconciled, and in right relationship, with one another.
Jesus pushed the envelope of what the law requires of us, and it’s easy to read these and think, “That’s not only impossible, it’s ridiculous.” Yet, this is what we have – Jesus calling out for the best in us, challenging us. Who among us wants to love our enemies? Nursing a grudge can feel good. And, we all tell lies every now and then, right? The teachings that Jesus put forth make the laws and the words of the prophets look easy compared to what he wants from us.
And yet, there’s a reason for it. His intent was to try to get the community in right relationship with one another. That’s why he said, don’t kill… but, more than that, don’t be angry with one another. He pushed back against divorce because, at the time, women were simply property that men could purchase and do away with on a whim. Jesus said “no” to that!
None of these antitheses are easy to live out. Each one of them is challenging! At the couples retreat last weekend, Jen and Jess Elmquist, the presenters, shared a similar idea. They didn’t use a theological framework to talk about it, but they were basically talking about the same thing Jesus was talking about.
At one point in the retreat, Jen handed out a little plastic train to each one of us. She encouraged us to keep it in our pocket as a reminder. I wondered, “What do trains have to do with anything?” She went on to explain that the train was like our thoughts, and they are running along tracks in our mind. The more we have a certain thought, the deeper the ruts of the tracks become and the easier it is for the train to just keep going down those same tracks all the time. Jen was using this as an example for people who are in a “couple” relationship, but I think it’s relevant to all of the relationships and friendships that we have.
Let’s say you’re really frustrated with your partner and your thoughts go down the train track, with the thoughts… “They never remember to take the trash out.” “They always forget to turn off the lights.” “Nothing ever gets done around here unless I do it myself.” Before you know it, the ruts of the tracks run deep and you’re telling yourself, “They never do anything right. I’m so angry with them.”
With a friend, it might be, “Surprise, surprise… she’s late for coffee again, like my time isn’t important.” Or, “Surprise, surprise… she’s cancelled again at the last minute, like she’s the only one who’s busy. Why do I even bother?”
These might seem like they aren’t a big deal, but our thoughts can be as powerful as our actions. If your “thought train” keeps running on an angry track, it gets harder and harder and harder to see the person through any lens other than anger, frustration, or disgust. Jen and Jess were trying to help us see how we could get our “thought trains” running on a different set of tracks…. a set of tracks that reinforce love instead of anger. From the very beginning, the challenge is to set your thoughts down a different track. So, let’s say you’re Brennon, you might think: “Melanie forgot to turn the lights off again. She doesn’t care.” Brennon is an environmental scientist. It drives him bonkers when I have all the lights on in the house and forget to turn them off when leaving the room I was in. Now, a different train of thought might be, “Melanie must have a lot on her mind right now since she keeps forgetting.” Or, “Melanie knows I care about this and she’s doing the best she can.” This kind of thinking puts your thoughts down a different track – a track of love, compassion, and grace.
We can feel justified and a bit righteous when our “thought trains” are going back and forth down the angry track. But, the more often we’re angry, the more harm it does to our relationships in the long run. It not only harms relationships, it harms us. I think that’s what Jesus was trying to get at when he said, “You have heard it said, don’t kill. But, I say, being angry at someone is just as bad.” He’s drawing us to the root of the law and the basic intent, and desire, that God has for us.
The “thought train” tracks can relate to thoughts we have about ourselves, too. “No matter what I do, I’ll never be good enough, smart enough, skinny enough, rich enough….” Sometimes, our anger and hatred is directed at ourselves. Isn’t Jesus inviting us to tell ourselves something different – to love ourselves even as we love our neighbor and love God? Isn’t Jesus inviting us to offer ourselves the same compassion and mercy that God has for us?
Our “thought trains” can be pretty powerful. The United Methodist Church will have its General Conference this spring, and delegates from all over the world will come together. They’ll do things, like worship and pray together. But, they will also have mean-spirited debates, arguing over who is welcome and who isn’t welcome in the church. My email box is starting to pile up with articles and editorials about what should happen and, every time I read one, it puts me on this negative track of disgust. My “thought train” is riding on the disgust track and my critical thoughts about the whole thing sometimes don’t just stay in my head, I say them out loud. And, others hear me. I need to watch it,because I feel righteous in it. I think I’m right to be disgusted and critical because I want the global church to be better than it is. I want it to be more welcoming and gracious. But, expressing disgust and criticism isn’t exactly gracious, either. Maybe I have to find a different way to think about it – to insist on the welcome and grace that I wholeheartedly believe in, regardless of what happens at General Conference. I can try to be those things that I believe God wants from us instead of falling down the black hole of disgust.
I don’t know what turning the other cheek and walking a second mile, carrying the bags of the privileged, looks like today. I know how to do anger. I know how to do cynicism. Those are easy. I’m still working on how to do love. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. What does that look like today? I asked that question at our Wednesday night Bible study, and it was met with silence. It’s hard to envision what that looks like today! But, then one of the participants sent me a link to a BBC news article about Pakistani Christians who are being jailed in Thailand as illegal immigrants, even though they are officially identified by the United Nations as asylum seekers. However, the UN doesn’t have the personnel to address their cases! Their situation is awful and unjust. The article about their situation ends with a quote from one of the unjustly jailed men who says, “Jesus said to us, ‘If someone troubles you, don’t ask for curses for him, instead, you should ask for blessings for him.’ So, we ask for blessings for the UN.” He sits in his jail cell asking for blessings on the people who have kept him jailed by not doing their job. That’s what Jesus was talking about. It transforms the whole way we look at the world and live in it.
The laws are all about the outer world – what we do to people and our actions. The antithesis, Jesus statements in this part of the sermon on the mount, instead, are all about the inner world – our thoughts. Jesus is trying to transform the way we think, to cultivate an inner life that is based on love instead of anger or hate.
Think about the train tracks of your thoughts. Which are the tracks that have deep ruts that you automatically go down? And, think about how you develop new ones – new tracks that align with these words of Jesus.
We have lots of opportunities to practice this right now. It is so easy to jump on the anger, fear, and hate tracks when listening to the news these days. But, we get the chance to take a different track. With God’s help, may your deeply embedded tracks of thought run along love, compassion, and hope.