Old Testament: Deuteronomy (30:15-20)
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 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. But 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; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
The Response: Psalm (119:1-8)
1 Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the Lord!
2 Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!
3 Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.
4 You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.
5 Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!
6 Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.
7 I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.
8 I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.
The Epistle: 1 Corinthians (3:1-9)
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
The Gospel: Matthew (5:21-37)
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 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; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘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, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The past two Sundays, our gospel readings have consisted of the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, taken from the gospel according to Matthew. Today, we move into the next section, one that is often referred to as “the six antitheses”: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” We heard the first four of these today and will have the other two next week.
The word “antitheses” is actually a misnomer. Jesus’ teaching, as I mentioned last week, does not contradict the Torah, the teachings of the Law and the prophets. Instead, it extends them, it deepens them, it strives to reach to the very heart of these ancient biblical teachings.
In listening to them, we need to be aware both of Jesus’ intentions and of his use of rhetorical devices. These words of Jesus, for example, are not meant to be interpreted literally – no tearing out eyes or cutting off hands! Nor are they intended to set down legal statutes, but rather to hold up gospel ideals and to encourage Jesus’ followers to strive for those ideals. Some of his references might seem to be a bit strange; “swearing by Jerusalem” or “swearing by your head” is not exactly a big problem or a hot topic today; but at the same time, much of what Jesus has to say here is just as pertinent to our place and time as it was to his.
The first topic that Jesus addresses certainly is: anger. There is, of course, a constructive anger that leads to positive action. St. Augustine of Hippo once observed: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Jesus in the gospels, for example, is pictured as being troubled and angered when he confronts situations that cause human suffering. Then he utilizes that anger to heal and to bring new life. That is a positive and constructive type of anger.
But there is also another kind of anger, one that is debilitating and dehumanizing. We see far too much of that kind in our world and in our society today. Certain politicians (who will go unnamed) almost always appear to be angry. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. And their whole approach to power depends on their making use of their public position to raise the level of anger and resentment in others. They do it mostly by raising the level of fear in others and then using that fear to manipulate them. Unfortunately, that tends to be a very effective method of getting attention. Talk radio hosts have used it for years to build their audiences and their careers.
Those whom they succeed in reaching find themselves increasingly irate, not only about what is really going on in the world, but about things that are not actually happening, but that they fear might happen. They gradually come to enjoy being angry, seeing themselves as the innocent victims of others, looking for an opportunity to strike back at those whom they blame, rightly or wrongly, for their current situation. In the past century, we witnessed the devastating effects of that kind of victim mentality and the anger it engenders in Nazis’ and Fascists’ approach to Jews, in Stalinists’ and Maoists’ approach to capitalists and so-called “counter-revolutionaries,” and in white supremacists’ approach to African Americans, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and others.
The great 20th-century, and now 21st-century, preacher and writer, Frederick Buechner, has observed (Context, December B, 2010): “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” Anger like this, anger like we see increasingly on-display in our society is a consuming flame: when we give into it, it consumes others, and it consumes us as well.
Tragically, that type of anger is not limited to the secular sphere. It sometimes burns between and among members of the church as well. That is what Jesus is primarily addressing in today’s gospel reading. When Matthew has him talking about being “angry with a brother or sister,” that is a designation that refers to fellow Christians, to members of the same community of faith.
We have seen this sort of destructive anger, and the angry words and condemnations that accompany it, on display in churches of various denominations over the past several decades. It has arisen in less-than-civil, and in no-way-Christian, fights over civil rights, the place of women in church and society, and in the full acceptance of people of various sexual orientations. Today we find it more often in disagreements over politics, as civil discussions become noticeably uncivil, and angry words are exchanged. These kinds of conflicts, and the less-than-well-chosen words that sometimes accompany them, arise more easily when what we say over the phone, by email, or through the ever-increasing variety of social media gives us the distance to say things to one another that we would never say if we were speaking to each other face-to-face.
Jesus’ warnings about anger, about insults, about verbally denigrating others are strong, and I suspect that he meant them to be. They are things carefully to be avoided. And when we have given in to using them toward and about one another, we then need to take the initiative to work for reconciliation.
For ultimately, reconciliation is what God’s work in Jesus is all about: reconciling all sorts and conditions of people so that all of us together recognize our common humanity and our common role as children of God. That is God’s intent for the world. As today’s Eucharistic Prayer (2) puts it: “Bring us with all your saints, from every tribe and language and people and nation, to feast at the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world.” Preparing for that banquet is God’s work — and ours.