Year A, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
How about we start with the Psalm: it’s so nice and simple and straightforward.
Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the Lord!
Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!
Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.
Our Psalm this morning is the first section of the longest Psalm in the whole collection, Psalm 119, an extended and elaborate song of praise to God’s holy law. These verses make it sound so easy: Do the right thing. You know right from wrong—people who loved you explained all that when you were just a little kid. And anyway, there are rules—God’s rules. Just do the right thing, because there are consequences.
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
Don’t break the law, and you’ll be fine! It’s as simple as that! Walk the line; stay on the straight and narrow; don’t get into trouble. There’s a direct connection between your behavior and the outcome for your community: “ … if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. … I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
Except that, if it were that simple, our lives would be very different; and also, the Bible would be a much shorter book.
Even our little snippet of Psalm 119—this song of praise for the beauty and simplicity of God’s law, and the joy and peace that comes from following it rightly—even these few verses we sang this morning, reveal that it’s not so simple.
You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.
Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes! …
… I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.
God wants us to keep the law … we see how admirable and just it is … yet somehow we can’t seem to keep it. We’re lazy, irritable, timid, greedy, mean-spirited, vengeful. We break promises, fail to care, and then tell lies to save face. We manipulate people, and hurt those we love. Then we look honestly at ourselves and cry out in frustration: why is it so hard? What’s the matter with us? God promised that if we keep the law, we will prosper: yet not only can we not seem to avoid breaking the law, time and time again; but also we begin to suspect that God’s response is unconnected to our behavior. The consequences don’t seem to fit our actions. We see so many good people suffering, and so many lawless, unprincipled, scornful, and hateful people seeming to do just fine.
Does God really care? Is God really on the side of right? Or are we all so messed up that God is equally angry even with those of us who are trying hard? “I will keep your statutes! I will, I will! I promise!! Just do not utterly forsake me,” prays the Psalmist. Nope, it’s not so clear and simple; the Bible knows that, and that is why the Bible is such a long book.
The Bible portrays a human condition in which from the dawn of our history as God’s beloved creatures, made in God’s own image, we abuse our freedom, pervert the order of God’s creation, and find ourselves alienated from God in a world where we must work and plot and compete in order to have enough and feel safe. The Bible portrays God as responding to this alienation by establishing a law: even now, do this, and you shall live. It tells sagas of faithful endurance, heroic deeds, and mighty deliverance; it staggers through chronicles of bumbling kings and palace intrigue; it laments through terrible records of conquest and loss. It attempts, desperately, to find a moral thread in the story: a clear pattern of consequences in which those who do right will prosper, and those who do wrong will fail.
But ultimately, every story, every attempt at explanation, is incomplete, and unsatisfactory. Too often, the law and the rules just do not work the way they are supposed to. At the end of the Second Book of Kings, when the Kingdom of Israel has already fallen to its enemies, as a consequence of its evil ways, the Kingdom of Judah finally comes under the rule of a righteous, God-fearing king, Josiah. “Before him there was no king like him,” says the author, who is thought to be connected to the Book of Deuteronomy, and therefore deeply committed to the idea of the righteous nation, under a righteous ruler, worshiping the One God in orderly, law-abiding peace. “There was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him. Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath …” and in just a few more years, Jerusalem was attacked and besieged, and Josiah’s son was captured, tortured, and carried away to Babylon in chains.
And so it goes. After several generations in captivity, the people return to Jerusalem and in a burst of reformist zeal, they rebuild their Temple and renew their covenant with the Lord. Yet they still remain trapped in this seemingly endless cycle of corruption and reform, war and peace, national liberation and humiliating conquest and oppression. Good and bad kings come and go; nothing seems to change. The clear, simple commandments of the ancient days seem long ago and far away: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live … Happy are those who never do any wrong, but always walk in God’s ways.” Now, weary and disillusioned yet still claiming the name of the One God, the people begin to focus their hope and yearning on the promise of a future king, the Lord’s Anointed One, the Messiah, who will come in the power of God’s disrupting Spirit, break the cycle of futility, and somehow bring a deeper renewal to the covenant people.
Into this religious and political ferment comes Jesus, with a message both old and new, both familiar and disturbing. The section of the Gospels we have been reading, the “Sermon on the Mount” as told by the evangelist Matthew, is a long, challenging summary of this message. To set the context for today’s selection, let’s backtrack a bit into last week’s.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. … For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
And then he launches into a series of re-interpreting the law, with the pattern, “You have heard that it was said ... But I say to you ...”
We are told that one of the things people noticed right away about Jesus, is how he taught them as “one who had authority”—as one who knew exactly what he was doing and was not afraid to show it. Also noticeable is that Jesus does not tie his breathtakingly lofty ethical demands to a system of consequences. He does not promise either that God will reward those who follow his directives, or that long life or prosperity will follow as a natural consequence.
Yes, he speaks of “entering the kingdom of heaven, which many have interpreted as meaning “get to heaven when you die.” But it is far more likely that this “kingdom of heaven” refers to the beloved community of God’s people, living in God’s ways—regardless of time or place, regardless of whether the political system around them has caught on or not, and regardless of any expectation of “success” or tangible reward. It is about catching a vision of a new way of being, and getting on board with it purely out of a kind of enraptured delight and love for the one who has enacted it and shown it to us.
So, says Jesus, “You have heard that it was said in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ … But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, … if you insult a brother or sister, … if you say, ‘You fool,’—you will be just as liable to judgment. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all … ”
This extension of the Law’s prohibitions is an ancient rabbinic technique, called “building a fence around the Torah.” All laws have the tendency, by defining what you must not do, to suggest that anything else you may want to do is OK. The Law says I must not kill; all right then, no problem, I’ll just say really awful things about that person behind their back, and fantasize about the possibility of them getting hit by a bus. The rabbis countered this tendency in human nature by specifically extending the features of the Law to cover every possible variation or analogy. Thus when the Law forbids the cooking of young animals in their own mothers’ milk, the rabbinic tradition extended this to forbid any dish containing both meat and milk—indeed, any contact between utensils used for meat and those used for milk.
The fence that Jesus builds around this piece of the Law leaves no ground outside for us to argue over. For Jesus’ aim is to shake us out of the longstanding human tendency to bean-count—to disarm our tendency to look for loopholes, allowances, and ways out. We are only too ready to acquit ourselves on technicalities; to seek to manipulate God into having to reward us because we think that’s what God promised—even though our actual goal was to avoid really doing what God wants.
This may seem to upset our modern therapeutic notions of what we can control and what we can’t. “Feelings just are,” say so many inspirational posters and internet memes. “No one can control how they feel. The sun doesn’t apologize for being bright and rain doesn’t say sorry for falling. Feelings just are. They come to you on their own. To say to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t have this feeling of anger!’ makes as much sense as saying to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t have these brown eyes.’ In both cases, you have no choice.”
But note: Jesus does not forbid his listeners to have the feelings; he admonishes them not to consent to them, which, by the way, is also what any good therapist or counselor will go on to say. We may not be able to help having certain feelings, but we can choose not to act on them, not to wallow in them, and above all, not to project our hostility or lust or objectification or suspicion onto another person—not to hide behind the accusation, “Look what you made me do.”
In today’s culture this is extremely topical. Let me share with you a social media conversation that’s been making the rounds among some of my churchy friends. The original post reads, “My favorite Bible story is when instead of telling women to dress modestly, Jesus tells his dudes to avoid lust by plucking their eyes out.”
“What story is that?” reads the first comment.
Someone helpfully replies, “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.”
Then the commenters start to take off, with imaginary conversations between Jesus and one of his listeners: “Jesus, how can I avoid sin when all these hussies keep revealing the fact that they have bodies?!”
“Hmm, tough call bro. Have you tried gouging out your eyes so you don’t have to see all those bodies anymore?”
“And how can I avoid, like, an accidental slip of the hand when … they’re dressing like that?”
“Cut it off”
“Cut it off. Your hand. If it’s a problem, stop having a hand.”
Jesus’s Way of Love is not about calculation or consequences; it is not about fear of punishment or hope of reward—not even hope of a heavenly reward. It is about being so enchanted by the wonder of God’s life lived out among us in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, that we long to reorder our lives to be near him, to be like him, to live in his ways; to build, with his help, a prophetic community that is loving, liberating, and life-giving, because there is no need to fear, no need to bean-count, no need to try to manipulate or compel God to reward us for managing to stick to the straight and narrow, for keeping out of trouble and avoiding occasions of sin.
We will fall short, often. Like the young church in Corinth, we have our jealousies and quarreling, sometimes petty, sometimes horrifying—if not in this particular congregation at this particular time, then in many other of our communities and at many other times. And yes, there will be consequences, some of them tragic, some stupid, some horribly wasteful. Yet we are to follow in love, in the faith that the one consequence that will not happen is that God will give up on us or cast us out.
Let us pray.
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.