This is a Gospel lesson that strikes a chord. These are words of Jesus, some of which we’d just as soon not talk about.
The setting of our Gospel lesson is a mountain in Galilee. It is very early in Jesus’ ministry; in fact, this is Jesus’ inaugural address, known as “the sermon on the mount,” which has comprised our Gospel lessons for the past three weeks. Jesus had very recently called his first disciples. We read that crowds came from all around Galilee and as far away as Jerusalem to hear Jesus teach. Jesus’ message was fresh and real and relevant. We can imagine his listeners were spellbound by this fresh understanding of the foundations of their faith.
Among this crowd, the large percentage were Jewish, steeped in the Law of Moses – the Ten Commandments. They would have been familiar with the words we read from Deuteronomy in our first lesson. These are the last words of Moses spoken shortly before his death. Moses affirms the reality of God’s judgment, yet these words are the expressed expectations of our loving Father – love the Lord your God, walk in his ways, observe his commandments, live and become numerous. In this, you choose life.
Over the generations, these Commandments and the image of God had been adulterated with hundreds of specific add-ons rules and regulations that had been enacted under the directions of religious leaders. For many gathered to hear Jesus’ message, God was a legalistic wrathful God whose demands were beyond their reach. The bar was forever being raised; God felt inaccessible to them.
Centuries after Moses final speech, Jesus’ focus, we notice, is not so much on the legal aspects of our sinful actions, but on the anger and the brokenness that precipitate these harmful and deadly actions. Jesus is saying that there are all sorts of laws on the books that address murder and divorce and adultery; but these laws cannot legislate the fractured human relationships that culminate in these actions, and cannot reduce the compounded damage to human relationships that results from these harmful acts. It is toward the anger and brokenness that we should turn our attention.
Jesus was eager to redirect the people’s basic misconceptions of God, their misconceptions of God’s Law, and their misconceptions of how God’s law is intended to guide our human relationships. And, Jesus’ words are fresh and real and relevant to us in the same way they are for his first century audience on the mountain. In opening ourselves to God’s guidance in our human relationships, as Moses instructs in his last days, we choose life. In choosing to foster relationship by loving God and our neighbor, we choose life.
These actions Jesus highlights in our Gospel lesson are not infractions for which we can pay a fine and move on. I would wager that there is no one in this audience who has not been hurt directly or indirectly by divorce, and the hurt goes on for years, perhaps a lifetime. All of us would hope for an ideal world where all marriages were happy and healthy. All of us would agree that Jesus is right to maintain the goal for this human standard though we would agree that in far too many cases, divorce is the only answer or beyond our efforts to prevent. Regardless, it is the brokenness we are called to address.
Jesus’ message is that it is not so much that God punishes us for our sins, but that it is our sins that punish us. We are not punished for our sins; Jesus took that punishment for us. But, we are punished by our sins. We are punished by the compounded brokenness that we inflict upon our relationships. When we hurt one another; we choose death. Jesus is teaching us to choose life.
Jesus is eager for those in his audience and for us to understand that, yes, God’s judgment is real, but that God is, first and foremost, a God of mercy – a God of second chances – third, fourth – God is a God of mercy.
Choosing life as Moses instructs us, we choose to follow God’s commands; we choose to seek God’s guidance in mending broken relationships; we choose to transform the pain of our past and present brokenness into healthy growth toward happier healthier God-centered relationships – being merciful to ourselves and merciful to others as God is merciful to us.
Our baptism is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God’s mercy; as Episcopalians, we acknowledge our one baptism for the forgiveness of our lifelong sinfulness. As we share in the baptism of others into the Body of Christ, we experience again and again the flowing waters of God’s cleansing mercy, washing away the deep pain of our sins; choosing life.