Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
“Moses said ‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.’” If you obey the Lord your God, then you shall live. Moses, speaking about the commandments and other laws, says that they are the way to life with God. He holds them up as if they are a simple choice set in front of us. As if we are looking in the window of a pastry counter. Will you choose the plain, raised, glazed doughnut or the chocolate cake doughnut with sprinkles? Will you choose life or will you choose death? Only if living our life was that simple. If only the choices were always so clear. Where is Moses when I need to make a decision? Where is he to point out which pastry leads to life and what other confection leads to death?
Then Jesus comes to us and he ups the ante. ‘Yes you have a choice before you, but you cannot even look at or think about the wrong doughnut without death.’ Yes a murderer is liable for judgment but if you are angry with your neighbor, you are also living in judgment. He speaks of murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing; why stop there; where are all the other commandments?
I don’t know if these were a random selection off the menu of sinful entrées but there does seem to be some order in which Jesus speaks of these commandments. He starts with the most extreme and obvious and moves to the more subtle. Murder is obviously wrong and though the definition, country to country, varies a bit, from what I can tell there is no country that allows the outright killing of someone without cause. It seems when we live together in a society, we know that unprovoked killing is simply wrong and it makes our society unstable. Jesus goes from murder to adultery; adultery leading to divorce, and finally swearing falsely. Our attention wants to stay with the bigger, grander sins and then by the time we get to swearing we want to overlook it. But I wonder if this “little sin” is actually the key to this passage. Could the prohibition of swearing be the reason that Jesus didn’t need to list all the other commandments?
Swearing, in this case, is not the use of foul language but the desire to convince others by bolstering our words. I swear on my mother’s grave; or on my honor… or I swear to God… Imagine back in a day when more of the economy was based on trade and barter in which we may have the proverbial used camel salesman who is eager to sell you the prefect camel. He swears that this camel is only two years old. It can carry a bigger than normal load and obviously you can see how well it has been cared for. Just look at its shiny toe nails.
The Reverend Rachel May says this about the camel trader, when using a similar example. “The swear took on false hood not at the point I failed to tell the truth but at the point I told you what I told you for my personal gain.” Whether I was exaggerating or just lying about the quality of the camel; when I put my personal needs and desires above your wellbeing and the camel’s, that is when I fell into sin.
Today we still swear. We give sworn testimony in court. At times, when we need to bolster our statements, we will often offer some sort of swear. Again, the Reverend May wonders, what if the prohibition on swearing was less about swearing and more to prevent us from setting in motion things that end in conflict. We are typically unwilling to deal with the conflict that would come by simply stating the truth and so we swear to pressure others and cover our tracks. Because I swore to you that this was a good deal you are more hurt if something goes bad with the camel. It is because we do not want to deal with small conflict that conflict can escalate into larger ones, like murder. Even divorce is often a result of not dealing with smaller conflicts until the damage is irreconcilable. Isn’t this clearly the impetus of this passage from Matthew? “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” This desire for us to reconcile has the same urgency that we tell our kids when they hurt someone on the playground. Go and tell them you are sorry. We expect our children to drop what they are doing and make amends. As parents, we know that this often is only half-hearted on the child’s behalf. But we are trying to instill in them the importance of reconciling before problems get out of hand.
Paul steps into a situation today in which the Church of Corinth is fighting. The people are fighting over whom to give their allegiance to. They say, “I belong to Paul…I belong to Apollos.” This was the same complaint Paul had in the first chapter of this letter. This infighting bothered him so much that Paul says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” Our allegiance is not to any one person or one party, our allegiance is to Christ. How can we pledge ourselves to one party as if they could do no wrong? How can we be blind to what our party is doing when it is run by imperfect human beings? We pledge allegiance to our country, not party. There are Christians that would say pledging to our country is an anti-Christian sentiment. They say that we can only pledge allegiance to Christ and not country.[i] For how can we make an oath of our loyalty to anything but God? I would push back on this thought.
First, we must try to follow Christ as our leader, Lord and Savior. After all, God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is above all. Yet our country is not about any one individual. Our country is not the president. It is not the house or senate. I would even say that our country is not the government. Our country is the People much as the Church is the people. It is not the building, the organization, or the leadership. When we pledge allegiance through God, through Christ, are we not asking Christ to be a part of this group; to guide us as participants in this group, to ultimately follow His will.
As we start to look at sub-groups or smaller groups within the larger I think we tend to begin to follow leaders more strongly. Our interests focus on smaller collectives and not the larger group as a whole. If we put our party first then we are putting our party above the whole group. I’m not saying that we cannot have party affiliation or that it is wrong to identify with one party more than another. But if we walk lock step with our party and are unwilling to look at the group as a whole than we may not be giving room for Christ to be part of the conversation. After all, Christ is bigger than any party. This is where we have our voice to dissent from our party. This is where we can protest not so much as a sign of approval or disapproval of the party but as a sign of where we believe Christ is leading us.
Dissent, confrontation, and disagreements have all been part of the Christian movement before Christianity existed. We cannot be so focused on our leaders that we are unwilling to let Christ lead us or that we miss the point that it is Christ that we follow for he is the one who leads us. If you are unwilling to let God into your decision process then where is “In God we trust.” Or as Paul says, then “are you not merely human?” The choice is in front of you; life and death. As you look into the display case ask yourself, am I merely human or am I also spiritual. If I am also spiritual, where is Christ in this decision? For in following Christ we have life.