A sermon for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Jesus said, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. If you say, ‘You fool!’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Pretty strong language, and for anyone who has indulged in social media, the consumption of news and opinion journalism, or had a conversation lately, language that is liable to make us just a little uncomfortable.
It’s probably worth remembering that we are still listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – that seminal address to his disciples and early followers that began with the Beatitudes: blessings for the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the lost, and the lonely. This is the same Jesus, and this is the same day, the same hour, the same message that he is preaching, believe it or not. This message will continue even into next week. We have stumbled into the middle of his sermon today, and that in itself might give us pause to remember just who it is who is speaking to us, and just what his framework for speaking is.
His framework, of course, is the overarching, overwhelming love of God, which redeems and refreshes God’s people; which receives and reflects their devotion; which engages and affirms their worship. This love, steadfast, merciful, and all-encompassing, is the context for Jesus’ difficult words about anger, adultery, and oath-taking.
It is as those called and fashioned to be salt for the world and light for the nations that we hear his admonitions for righteous living, and his commandments for our common life together.
Jesus is addressing those whom he has just blessed: the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure of heart. He is exhorting these blessed disciples to prove their blessedness in the way that they live together, and in the way that they live with the world. They are not to repay blessings with curses, but they are to live within the law of the Lord, loving God and loving their neighbours with all of their being: body, soul, words, hearts, and minds. They are to live out their blessedness by becoming a blessing to the world: salt for the earth, light for the world.
We hear a lot of noise lately, heat and light, sound and fury, sometimes with little sense. We hear the hurled insults flying like bricks between those even whom we trust to work together for the good of the people as a whole. We know that such noisiness is not helpful, nor is it loving, nor is it godly. We try not to get caught up in it, but it is difficult to know how to stand against the sound of the storm.
Jesus has some advice: tell the truth. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Do not bluster, do not brag. Tell the truth, says our Way, our Truth, and our Life.
Don’t share fake news, or alternative facts. Do not repeat rumours, but deal only in truth. Luther, in his Small Catechism, puts gossip and slander in the same category as murder, since it kills a person’s character, and assassinates trust between those who share its poison.
Tell the truth.
Furthermore, Jesus says, do not let your lust, your greed, your restlessness undermine the faithfulness of your relationships with God or with one another.
This teaching is hard, and it can be hurtful to those who have undergone a divorce; but read in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, it may be less about the rules themselves than it is about the way that we treat one another.
In the context of Jesus’ time, when marriage was more transactional than the way in which we tend to use it, and set side by side with the warning against lustful looks, the teaching about divorce defends against treating people as disposable goods; against treating women as objects only of desire; against the conspicuous consumption of those whose very lives become commodities to the rich, the powerful, the predatory.
Jesus is explaining that we may not treat as disposable, or as less than human anyone who is made in the image of God. We are to demand justice for the powerless, the vulnerable, the poor. We are to remember that we are made in God’s image, and to look upon each other with respect, with all of the godliness and good that we can muster. Remembering that Christ himself became human, became our brother, we are to seek and serve that Incarnation of the image of God in all people, loving our neighbours as ourselves.
Which brings us back to anger, injury, and insult.
We know that we live in divided and divisive times. Our political context is fraught with anger and insult. It overflows into our news streams, our coffee shops, our conversations, poisoning the word supply. If only, we think, we could all live by Jesus’ instructions, to love God and one another, to refrain from anger and insult!
If you want to know a dirty little secret, though, it turns out that Jesus himself, later in Matthew’s gospels, uses that exact word to express his anger against his brothers in faith, the Pharisees. Not to mention that time he yells at Peter, telling him to, “Get behind me, Satan!”
So remembering that Jesus himself called the Pharisees blind fools, and Simon Peter, Satan, we might gently reframe our own judgement of ourselves and of one another.
Refraining from angry insult does not have to mean acquiescing to every foolish opinion, nor does it exempt us from arguing against injustice and immorality. It is not about making nice, and it is not about speaking peace where there is no peace. We hear, often, “Judge ye not” (Matthew 7:1) as an instruction to shut down argument, but moral theologian Stephen Holmgren has another take on that instruction:
It is usually quoted in situations where a person or group is admonished not to criticize the behavior of others. However, it is likely that the kinds of judgments that Jesus forbids are assessments of the final state of another’s soul. … This is quite a different matter from using reason and reflection to assess the structure and moral character of acts that we witness on an everyday basis. – Stephen Holmgren, Ethics After Easter (Cowley Publications, 2000), 143-4
In other words, giving up angry insults does not mean giving way to unjust agencies, nor appeasing immoral opinions. It does mean that we base our arguments and our judgments on the foundation laid out by Jesus: love God, love your neighbour as yourself. Deal in truth. Remember that every person is made in the image of God, and treat them accordingly.
In this way we can be salt for the earth, and light for the world. Grounded in truth and framed by the gospel, we can resist the noise, the fury, the storm of meaningless sound.
If we act as those who are blessed to know that we are loved; if we act as those who know the truth, that we and every one else is made in the image of God; if we will remember that we are blessed to hunger and thirst for righteousness, then we have nothing to fear from Jesus’s strong words and hard challenges.
For he has already called us blessed.