As Steve Mueller put it this week:
When does the good news sound like bad news?
…In today’s readings.
They are tough… Jesus is doubling down on the commandments which we often interpret as restrictions…..but
When I was in college, a professor posed to us restrictions. He said, If you ask a stupid question, I will impose a restriction on you: your work. He said, if you ask a stupid question in front of the entire class, then I will impose a restriction based on that for all of you. For instance, we were in a class making 3 D models with paper and someone asked if we could use scissors… so that’s what I’m talking about…
But he said, if you ask a serious question about your process I will give you freedom to explore it.
That is what Jesus is doing for us in a way: How do you process the commandments?
When we first hear these readings, it is hard not to cringe. Jesus brings up Murder, Adultery, Divorce, Swearing. Most of us here (I’m assuming everyone here) is free of the first one.
But the others: not so much.
In the Episcopal church we do not consider the latter three as grounds for exclusion from communion or participating fully in our community. Many of us are divorced. My husband was previously married.
When I sat down to look at the readings, I thought as my mother in law says. “oy vey;” this would’ve been a better week to have invited the guest preacher!
So how are we to wrestle with these teaching from Jesus?
If we go over the collective readings today, they are about
“choosing" life. What does the flourishing of God’s kingdom look like? What does the flourishing of God’s people look like?
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying and holding fast to [God].
We are not talking about living forever, but rather what makes our life sanctified? Holy and set apart for true living!
Our lives are holy. We are all made in the image of God, and yet we each have one precious life. And each of us is “ruled” by something (the highest power: God, or our appetites and drives, you name it)!
In this week’s Gospel Jesus doubles down on some of the “rules” in order to emphasize God’s commandments as offering health and life. It is a tough teaching. But Jesus takes these commandments, what seem like restrictions and puts them in the context of a thriving life for the entire community.
What is new in this teaching, is that Jesus expands the definitions of the commandments for us. He pushes us to take these foundational teachings deeper.
Jesus relates anger itself to murder. While we may not commit actual murder, Jesus is equating anger, insult and swearing with murder. The similarity being the fruit of all of these is imprisonment: The lack of life.
Jesus is speaking to the ease at which we let anger fuel us; Rule us! Name-calling, “fool!” might just feel like a release…but what feeling does it really create in you, and what mood do you project? That’s the “hell and the fire” he speaks of…Our moods are contagious. And they have the power to imprison us… and others.
Instead Jesus offers: “First be reconciled to your brother or sister… Come to terms quickly with your accuser.”
We are not responsible if others will not reconcile. We cannot control what others do… but we can control how we respond. Integrating that understanding will offer us freedom and life.
Jesus is asking more from us than simply following an external law so we don’t get in trouble. He asks us to internalize some of it; And that makes us consider: What does “rule” us? He is asking us to look inside and transform or hearts, and minds; our inner lives.
Jesus takes adultery into a new level, by saying forget about the external law. If you entertain thoughts that objectify another, that actually is a form of violence. It is not life-giving.
While the religious leaders had agreed to accepting a certificate for divorce, it’s important to think what that meant for the people of the time. Men could divorce their wives leaving them destitute. Jesus’ point is a matter of justice rather than simply morality. Solo women were often in grave danger in the first century. That’s why there are so many lessons about caring for the widow and the orphan.
Jesus takes the commandments and expands on them by asking us to consider the spiritual health and wellness of ourselves and our communities. These are not moral codes by which we are simply judged by our peers. He expands on them showing the shape of a healthy and just and righteous community for all.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of this work, as a whole, while they are quarreling. The justice, the health of the community, the family of God is for all - and attributed to all. He says, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose.… For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
The commandments may sound prescriptive, but if we engage them on this deeper level that Jesus asks of us, we may come to find that they are life-giving rather than simply rules to be judged by on the human domain in legal indictments or even gossip. From Moses’ time until today they remain true in that bigger sense of truth. They were always designed for human flourishing not as a way to punish us.
While we fail at some of the commandments regularly… Jesus’ insistence on them as foundation for God’s community is food for thought…
How might interpreting them anew in the context of your daily habits, and then practicing them make you flourish? How could this be life-giving for you, for your family and community?
Freedom from imprisonment is incremental. Anger may not feel the same as murder… but we know how our anger imprisons us in cycles of dissatisfaction, frustration, pain. How it may imprison others through this cycle of negative energy that is not life-giving.
Paul speaks to the Corinthians saying that their community is still acting out of the “flesh”. He is referring to the ailments that come from human nature.
To have a higher power, to have God in our lives as the ruler (although it sounds old fashioned) offers us freedom from our addictions and our predilections in the form of life!
The commandments are restrictions designed to help us thrive.
In my art class incredibly creative solutions came out of those students who worked within the limits of the restrictions. It was challenging and even exciting, incredibly rewarding and spirit-building.
What’s your spiritual process? Working with the commandments, ancient knowledge which has come to us through the millenia…may be exciting again…your spiritual life can be creative and rewarding.
The most important thing to remember as Paul reminds us: is that
God is life,
and we are all the field:
And it is a field of spiritual exploration that waters and grows the kingdom.