“Making Things Right” Colchester Federated Church, February 12, 2023, (Matthew 5:21-37) Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Someone once compared being a Lectionary preacher to going on a blind date every week because often the text will surprise you (and sometimes you will want to leave halfway through dinner).  At first glance this is that kind of text that’s not the most uplifting to hear in worship.  It made me want to say, “Check, please!”  I doubt that anyone is going to needlepoint or do some adult coloring pages with the words: “and if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away.  It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”[1]

But let’s not abandon the text just yet.  Remember that this is still part of the Sermon on the Mount—some of the most important teachings that Jesus shared with his followers.  As a reminder, the Sermon on the Mount begins in Matthew Chapter 5 and goes through Chapter 7.  We went from the Beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful) to the challenge to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world last Sunday.  In this morning’s text, Jesus is teaching about the law of murder, the law of adultery, the law of divorce, and the law of solemn pledges in this section of the sermon.

There are some themes that emerge.  The CEB Study Bible relates that some of these examples Jesus is using demonstrate the importance of not acting with hostility toward others and the importance of seeking reconciliation when relationships are broken.  We are called to make things right with one another the best that we can.  That can be really hard to do.  Some of these teachings are hard to hear because Jesus makes them even more stringent for his followers than other Jewish teachers at the time. 

For instance, take the law of murder.  Jesus reminds his followers of the commandment to not commit murder and that all who do will be in danger of judgment.  Though Jesus takes the law of murder a step further, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”[2]  Jesus ties practices of worship to the law of murder in this section of the sermon.  He introduces the radical idea of making things right with one’s fellow believers before genuine worship can take place.  Jesus says, “First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.”[3]  Can you imagine how putting Jesus’ teaching into practice would transform a community of faith, especially a community in the midst of conflict?  To truly believe that worshiping God in Christian community cannot be genuine unless relationships with one another are made right?

In making the law of murder more expansive, Jesus is deepening the meaning of the commandment.  He wants folks to understand the harm that anger can cause in relationships.  It’s not just about not killing another person.  It’s about how we treat each other.  Jesus is saying that we can’t even worship God in a heartfelt way if we are holding grudges against one another in a community of faith.  It seems to me that Jesus is trying to make people understand the depths of the harm that we can cause one another.  He wasn’t being literal in this section of the sermon when talking about tearing out one’s eye or chopping off one’s hand.  Not really sure how Biblical literalists get around this text, but I personally take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally!  The bottom line is that Jesus is using this symbolic language to make us understand the serious nature of his teachings and the harm we can cause each other.  Our words can heal, and our words can wound.  Our actions can heal, and our actions can wound.

Or take the law of divorce.  Jesus reminds his followers that whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.  That process is laid out in the 24th chapter of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.  The truth is that men could divorce their wives on almost any grounds.  The way the law was written was that the man could write up divorce papers, hand them to his wife, and send her out of his house.  Though Jesus says to all those gathered before him, “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”[4] 

Do we see what’s happening here?  In making the divorce procedures stricter, Jesus is protecting women from mistreatment.  Imagine how this teaching would have sounded in a highly patriarchal culture—to allow for divorce only in cases of sexual unfaithfulness.  It limited what men could do in matters of marriage and divorce.  It protected women at a time when women were beholden to men in a way that we are not anymore thankfully! 

So, making things right.  Forgiveness.  Reconciliation.  Protecting the vulnerable.  Taking the harm we can cause one another seriously.  Meaning what we say.  All of these are themes emerging in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.  At first glance, we might shudder to think about the law of murder, law of adultery, law of divorce, and law of solemn pledges.  Though all of these teachings were obviously important enough to Jesus that he included them in the most important set of teachings he delivered to a large crowd.  Overall, the teachings get to the idea of right relationships and the power of relationships.

Our world and our society are in the midst of great change.  People have started to re-examine our lives and sometimes to switch up our priorities.  Life is short.  We’ve been reminded of that these last few years, and sometimes reminded in painful ways.  At the end of the day, our jobs cannot be the entirety of our lives.  Folks are learning the importance of having some semblance of a work-life balance because we’re people and not machines.  Our relationships that we have with one another are often what keeps us going.  And Jesus was preaching about the importance of right relationships two thousand years ago, if only we would have the ears to hear and the hearts to understand.

These days the research is quite staggering in looking at loneliness and social isolation.  Relationships matter.  In the United Kingdom there is now a Loneliness Minister charged within the government to tackle the issue of loneliness.  Seriously.  It’s important to note that this position was created in 2018—not too long before the Covid-19 pandemic began, though the work certainly took on added meaning because of the pandemic.  The UK government began the #LetsTalkLoneliness campaign to address the issue of loneliness and help people emerge better from Covid lockdowns.  Some of what the Minister of Loneliness suggests doing is to address this societal issue that affects our country too (and I’m quoting here from a Press Release).  Some of the advice is:

  • Check in with a neighbour, recognising that some people will be keen to get together in person once possible, while others might be more cautious.
  • Keep in touch with friends, family and neighbours – for example calling someone or writing a letter, asking how they feel about getting out and about again, and considering whether going together would help both of you feel more confident.
  • Set a routine with online activities, regular tasks or by volunteering. Rejoin groups that might not have met for some time, and think about how you can welcome others back, especially people not feeling very confident.
  • Help out through volunteering with local groups or by offering a regular conversation to someone feeling isolated. In many cases you will still be able to do this over the phone or online, if you prefer.[5]

In the end, humans are social creatures.  We do not do well when we’re isolated from one another.  It ends up that Jesus knew that too.  Why else would he tell people to make things right with one another before offering our gifts to God?  Why else would he call on people to treat one another with dignity and respect whether in a friendship or a marriage?  Let us truly love one another, as God has always loved us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:29, CEB.
[2] Matthew 5:22.
[3] Matthew 5:24.
[4] Matthew 5:32.
[5] Press Release “Loneliness minister: “It’s more important than ever to take action,” June 17, 2021,  https://www.gov.uk/government/news/loneliness-minister-its-more-important-than-ever-to-take-action

Photo by Matt Sclarandis on Unsplash