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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Murder Adultery Divorce Lying

Epiphany VI - February 16, 2020

St. Martin in the Field Episcopal Church, Selbyville, DE

This passage from St. Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) is part of what is known as The Hard Sayings of Jesus. No surprise there, right?

Jesus is on the Mount, just outside of Capernaum. Capernaum is on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Simon Peter lived, along with Andrew, James, John, and Matthew. 

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and lived in the small, mountainous hamlet of Nazareth. As an adult, he lived in Capernaum where he began his public ministry. He seems to have mostly stayed with Peter and his family, in a home right next to the Synagogue.

The Sermon on the Mount, of course, is what we know as The Beatitudes. 

“Blessed are those who morn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”

Jesus continues to turn things upside down and fill people with hope about this life and the next, but suddenly, his words take a sharper turn.

Now, Jesus is talking about difficult things – murder and adultery, divorce and lying - hard things. He raises the bar on all of them, saying that what you consider in your mind is every bit as bad as whether or not you actually commit the act.

Have you ever been angry with someone? Well, says Jesus, you will still be liable to judgment. If you insult them or slander them or call them names, it is just as bad as if you did murder.

And adultery? Well, we all know that former President Jimmy Carter even admitted that he had lusted after other women and was guilty of committing “adultery in his heart,” just as Jesus said. 

Or, as one of my married friends once said after I admonished her for admiring a handsome man walking by, "Just because I'm on a diet doesn't mean I can't look at the menu."

Indeed, Jesus says if your eye wanders or your hand does something it ought not, you should pluck out your eye or cut off the offending hand.

Jesus also had something to say about divorce – and remarrying someone who was divorced. Vows made on earth are vows made in heaven and your earthly certificate doesn’t matter a hill of beans to the heavenly court of judgment.

Even lying doesn’t escape the judgment of God, says Jesus. You don’t need to swear an oath. Your word is your bond. Just let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.

So, how many here have passed this test?

Let me be the first to say that I have failed on all four counts. I’ve been angry and thrown around a few insults. I have lusted in my heart. I have been divorced and remarried. And, I have not always kept my word.

Guess I’ll be seeing some of you in hell.

As one of my favorite monks once said to me about this passage, “Don’t worry, my dear. We’ll be so busy shaking so many hands with so many of our friends we won’t even know we’re burning.”

So, is that it? Is simply being human enough to get us into hell? Is there any hope of getting into heaven? Why in heaven’s name is Jesus setting such impossible standards that he knows we can’t possibly keep? Why does he seem to offer such hope in the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount and then snatch it away again with this ‘hard sayings’?

Well, I have some ideas about that.  I think it has to do with another piece of wisdom he once gave.

I think it has to do with “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” And, “Judgment belongs to God.”

Let me explain: 

There’s a very wise teaching that holds that “we see in others what we hate in ourselves.” 

In a landmark study at the The University of Alberta in Canada, some people were told that they were angry. When asked to assess another person as angry or not, the participants who were told that they were high in anger were more likely to view the other person as angry.
These results were replicated using dishonesty. That is, when participants were told they were dishonest, they rated other people as more dishonest. Furthermore, participants who rated other people as dishonest were least likely to rate themselves as dishonest (compared to people who were told they were dishonest who were not given a chance to rate others' honesty).

Put differently, when people were lead to believe they had a negative trait, they were more likely to see this negative trait in others. In doing so, they were less likely to think they had the trait themselves. 

In other words, by seeing the other person negatively on a trait, people came to have a higher regard for themselves on that trait.

Earlier studies had shown that when our self-esteem is threatened (like when we are told we are unattractive) we are more likely to degrade others. 

If you tell a person – especially a young person or a child – enough times that they are dumb or incapable, they begin to believe it.  

These studies have been done for years, but I suspect Jesus knew all this about the human condition way back when, before there was even a discipline known as psychology. 

It seems to me that Jesus is leveling the judgment field. Don’t judge a murderer if you have known murderous anger in your heart. And, don’t judge someone who has committed adultery if you have lusted after another. 

Don’t judge someone who is divorced because they have broken a vow. And live your life so righteously that you don’t have to swear on a stack of bibles so that others will believe you. 

Live your life so that people know that your ‘yes’ is yes and your ‘no’ is no. 

To see in others what we hate in ourselves is very human. We do it all the time. It’s part of what we call ‘projection’. 

One of my favorite authors is a woman named Anne Lamott. She takes this human trait to another level when she says, “You can be quite certain that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

So, let me tell you a story told to me by one of my colleagues. My priest friend knew, in his heart of hearts, that he had a complicated relationship with alcohol. At least, that’s the way he expressed it. 

Another person would say he was an alcoholic. He would not say that, of course. Other people were alcoholics. Like, his father. Not him. They were weak, he thought. Deficient. Not him. He was strong. He could drink great quantities of alcohol, he said, without embarrassing himself.

He used to keep his empty beer and wine and hard liquor bottles in the basement of his city rectory, hidden under some tarps, until recycling day. Then, he would bring them out to the curb late at night. Sometimes, he would put them in with his neighbors’ recyclables, which was easy to do in the city. 

He didn’t want to be judged, you know, the way he judged others.

Everyone knew about “Father” and his drinking but no one said anything because, well, he was “Father”. And, everyone also knew what Father thought about alcoholics. How he thought 12-step programs were a waste of time. He thought alcoholism was a moral weakness, a character flaw.

Some people believed that Father might be right. Maybe it was a moral weakness. After all, he seemed fine. Wasn’t he? He was a priest. He should know. And, God would judge the alcoholic.

Then came the night of the snowstorm – a real Nor’easter hit the City. The wind was howling and the snow was wet and heavy and piling up fast. Father had already gone to bed when there came a knock at the rectory door. This happened quite often in his city church and rectory. 

Very often, it was one of the drunks in the neighborhood. He always sent them away. But, tonight was different. Even Father found compassion in his heart for this drunk caught in the middle of a Nor’easter.

He got the man some clean, warm clothing and let him sleep in one of the small guest rooms. As he was checking on the man before he, himself, went to bed, the man had a question for him. 

“Would you hear my confession, Father?” asked the man. 

“Of course,” answered the priest, trying to rise above his disdain for the man who vaguely reminded him of his father.

The man confessed that he was an alcoholic.

“Well, that’s obvious,” said Father, his voice dripping with disdain. 

“It’s a terrible disease. I’ve been battling this most of my life,” he continued, “I know God will forgive me, I just hope my family will, eventually.”

Maybe it was the late hour. Maybe he was just tired, but Father said he heard himself say, “Well, what makes you think God will forgive you?” 

As the words came out of his mouth, he regretted it and apologized. 

The man looked stung but said, “Oh, it’s okay, I understand.”

“No you don’t,” said my friend, “I know better. I’m a priest.”

And, the man looked at him, straight in the eye, and said, “So am I.”

In that moment, my friend said that he came face to face with his own hypocrisy. 

He thought his position as a priest protected him from alcoholism. 

He thought it made him better than others. 

What he saw in others – and judged them harshly for – was what he hated most in himself.

It’s a sobering story, isn’t it? On every level. 

Next time you find yourself judging someone, try to suspend judgment and, instead, ask yourself what that person touches in you.

As my friend, Howard, often says, "Some people use scripture to determine what love is, but Jesus uses love to determine what scripture says."

We all have choices in life. Indeed, one of the choices for readings for today is from Sirach (15:15-20), which I think sums up the lesson of today’s Gospel. I’ll close with part of it (15-17) here:

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
God has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.

Or, as Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”  

And, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”   



RENZ said...

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Renz,

I think that's exactly the point Jesus was trying to make. Thanks for reminding me of that Native American wisdom.