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Last Sunday's Sermon: The Letter of the Law or the Spirit of the Law

The Gospel Reading

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.”

The Sermon

The Letter of the Law or the Spirit of the Law

There is a lot going on with this extension of the sermon on the mount. Jesus once again explains to us that just obeying the law is not enough. He tells us that for every misdeed there is something leading up to it. He says what goes on in our hearts and minds is of much importance.

Yes, murdering someone is bad but even the anger leading up to the murder is bad. If you control your anger then the thought of murder and the murder itself will not happen. If you do not have lust in your heart, the act of adultery is unlikely to happen.

When I taught students with emotional disabilities there was a phrase I would use frequently in working with other teachers. I would tell them to catch behaviors at the onset. In other words, I would tell them not to wait until a fight had broken out but to be sensitive to behaviors that take place before the fight. It might be something as simple as a look from one student to another. Then, is the time to intervene and not when blood has been spilled. The more experience a teacher has the more they become sensitive to those seemingly insignificant behaviors that preclude the big event.

We can do the same with ourselves. We know what things we think before we act. I went to the doctor this week and he gave me the bad news that I had gained nine pounds. I immediately made excuses like: that’s just my winter weight or I have trouble walking so I can't be as active. Plus, my exercise equipment is way down in the basement.

I think that is what many of us do when when we are about to do something we shouldn't be doing. We rationalize it. If I say someone makes me angry, I have to realize that it is really my choice to be angry. If I tell myself I will just have one piece of candy to tide me over until supper I need to stop and realize I can wait for supper. One piece of candy usually turns into five or six. Besides, food seems to taste better when you are hungry.

Jesus talks about divorce and says it is unacceptable. Marriage was different in the first century. A man could divorce a woman by simply writing a certificate saying he was divorcing her. If this happened, the woman was left with nothing. Today, if a divorce takes place in America the couple divide there property. In the first century the woman WAS property. Jesus also qualified his statement by saying that if the woman was unchaste then divorce was acceptable. I have to add my own qualifiers as well. If a spouse is being abused either physically or mentally or the spouse is endangered in any way it is important that the relationship end. Our God is a loving God and I cannot imagine God rigidly telling us to stay in abusive relationships.

The other statement in this gospel reading has to do with plucking out your eye or cutting off an appendage if it is an occasion of sin. Jesus was clearly making a point. He was stressing the importance of leading a holy life. I really doubt that his followers were plucking out their eyes, cutting off their tongues. or removing a limb. In the middle east overstatement is a common way to make a point.

When I was in India, I attended a court proceeding. It was well attended by about one hundred fifty people. I read in the local paper the next day about the event, and the reporter said there had been fifteen hundred in attendance. I mentioned this to an Indian friend who was also there and he told me that it is common for reporters to add a zero to the numbers in order to make them seem more important.

Jesus was making a point. Change the way you think and you will be less troubled by sin. As you think, so you will become. You choose.


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