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Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2014

On the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, socially awkward scientist Sheldon Cooper does not know what to do. His neighbor Penny has just said she will be bringing him and his friends little Christmas gifts. Instead of being grateful, Sheldon interprets this announcement not as a gesture of friendship, but as a burden. Now he has to go and get a gift for Penny that is just the same value as hers, so she will interpret correctly the level of their relationship. A gift that is too big or too little would be disastrous. So Sheldon’s friends take him to a bath and beauty store where he buys several sizes of gift baskets. That way, when he sees what she has brought, he can choose the appropriate basket and return the others. Penny brings him what she interprets as a modest gift, a signed napkin from Leonard Nimoy, one of Sheldon’s heroes. Sheldon is awed by the gift and interpreting it as a great present, he ends up bringing her all the gift baskets and even giving her an awkward hug. Interpretation of relationships is important.

Jesus is interpreting relationships in his words to his followers. The Sermon on the Mount has opened with a section about how they are blessed and accepted by God and are now salt and light to the world. Jesus tells them that to respond to God’s gift of love and be the blessing they are called to be, they have to have more righteousness than the scribes and the Pharisees. They have to obey the commandments more fully, to love God and neighbor more completely. The way they learn to do that is to listen to Jesus, because he is the fulfillment of the law. He is the ultimate revelation of how the law should be observed.

In this part of his sermon, he interprets four topics – murder, adultery, divorce and oath swearing. He digs deep into these laws to let the disciples know what they say about the attitude of the heart and mind as well as the action that should or should not be taken. 

Jesus is concerned about human relationships and how they are shaped. In the kingdom community, these relationships are to be shaped by reconciliation, respect and integrity. These characteristics are so important for the kingdom life that Jesus uses a huge hyperbole – telling his disciples to cut off their hands or pluck out their eyes if they are the cause of sin, so they can still be part of the kingdom.

Jesus begins with reconciliation and the topic of murder. Of course murder is prohibited, but the emotion of anger, which leads to murder, is a sin too. Jesus is not talking about having an angry feeling – we can’t help our emotions, but about what we do with them – the nursing of anger, the bearing of a grudge, the feeling of contempt. These are all liable to judgment just as murder is.

In both religious and civil life, disciples must work for reconciliation above all else. Even in the midst of offering a gift at the altar, if your brother or sister has something against you – even if it is not your fault – you need to go and be reconciled and then offer your gift. In civil law – again even if the problem is not your fault – you need to be proactive about reconciling with your accuser. Human relationships are not supposed to be alienating; they are supposed to be supportive.

The act of adultery is of course forbidden, but now lustful thoughts cannot be allowed to linger. The word for lust in Greek is the same as the word for covet, so you are not to covet your neighbor’s wife, to want her badly enough to seduce her or take her forcibly and cause a break in your relationship as well as the woman’s. Lustful thoughts lead to sinful deeds. A woman is not a possession to be exploited, but a person who should be treated with dignity and respect. Jesus’ comments on adultery are not new law but a deeper interpretation of the old law. In other words, it is not what goes in the mouth that defiles, as he says elsewhere, but what comes out of the head and heart that cause endless problems. Note that Jesus is speaking to the men here, reversing the patriarchal society’s emphasis on blaming the woman for enticing the man. In the kingdom of God, relationships should not be damaged by sinful fantasies or actions.

Jesus’ teachings about divorce are quite stern. Marriage, the most intimate of relationships, was created by God and intended to be lifelong, each partner supporting the other in good times and bad. The partners were to value their spouse above all others and work for the good of the relationship, no matter what happened. Jewish law gave men permission to divorce their wives by handing them a certificate of divorce. The conservative school of thought said it could only be given for unchastity, while the liberal school believed a man could divorce his wife for anything, including burning dinner or not keeping the house clean enough. Jesus puts the burden of responsibility on men here too, as only men could get a divorce. Men who turned their wives out in the street were keeping them from being provided for, as they were considered a disgrace to their families if they were divorced, and also causing them to be adulteresses if they remarried. Again, reconciliation must hold the upper hand. As Jesus was the great reconciler of humans with God, Jesus’ followers demonstrate kingdom values by reconciling with neighbor and especially one’s spouse.

Bearing false witness is another commandment Jesus takes on. In his time, oaths were common, and people were encouraged to take them to underscore that what they said was true. But in the kingdom of God, people were to practice integrity, not to swear by something to help people believe that what they said was true. All they had to say was yes or no to give their honest word.

In the in-breaking kingdom of God, people were accepted and blessed before they did anything, and then they learned what to do to express their gratitude for the blessing. Their lives were to be shaped by acts of reconciliation, mutual respect and integrity. They were not to base their conduct on the general ethic of the day, but upon the law as interpreted by Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God and God’s purposes for humanity. God would help them live up to these high standards.

What do we shape our lives around? Is it the soap operas and their multiple sins or is it the commandments to reconcile, not to murder by character assassination and not to commit adultery even in the mind. Even if we do not live by the egregious standards of the soap operas, do we subscribe to political apathy, overwork, gossip or lying? Are we shaped by mutual love and support or the alienation we see between countries and individuals? Are we out in public being noticed for “doing love” or do we think it’s a nice idea for others but not for us? That which shapes us determines how we grow – toward God and neighbor or away from God and neighbor.

In some ways, our culture has changed since Jesus’ day and in some ways it has not. The murder rate in this country is still horrifically high. We would put bullying on the list of things that can literally lead to murder. We are more liberal about allowing divorce because we believe in God’s overarching principle of loving relationships and when that cannot happen, we allow people to go on to other relationships that will hopefully be more loving. Women are still blamed in many rape cases for enticing men. The Washington Post says one modern example of marital intimacy is the keeping of a joint email account by more than 20% of American couples.

Our culture has changed, but the nature of our discipleship has not. We are always to seek reconciliation with others, to treat one another with dignity and respect as children of God and to have the integrity to speak the truth. These are kingdom values and we are kingdom people. So the next time you experience anger, attitudes of judgment, lust or the desire to tell a lie, remember to let go of those feelings and instead be salt and light to the world.

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker