Jesus seems to be on a bit of tear this morning… He seems to be saying “let’s take the various demands of the law of Moses and up the ante. For example, you know you should not commit adultery – but I say if you’ve even looked at another person, you have already committed adultery.” It sounds like trouble for those of us who are human.
We tend, these days, to think of adultery as a crime of unfaithfulness to a wedding vow – and that either person can commit adultery. But that is not the original understanding of this commandment, nor was it the understanding at the time of Jesus. Adultery was a property crime – specifically a crime by one man against another man. Messing with another man’s wife, his property, was the crime. We no longer tend to think of wives as property, thankfully. And we tend to think that a man can have only one wife. But the Law of Moses thought differently about these things…
So perhaps we need to think in greater depth about what Jesus is really saying.
It sounds like Jesus is going from law to hyper-law. It is no longer enough to follow the letter of the law; we must go way above and beyond the letter. We must engage the loftiest spirit of the law. It is not enough to refrain from murdering someone; we are not even allowed to be angry with someone…
I can admit right up front that I will fail at that requirement. Saying that I will never be angry at another person would be yet another violation of the law… it would be a lie, bearing false witness.
So, if Jesus is supposed to be giving us good news – the Gospel – I am missing something. In this reading from Matthew, Jesus seems to be taking the already high bar of the law and raising it to new and extreme heights – heights I know I cannot attain.
But let’s hold that thought for a moment and head over to Ireland in early Medieval times… Ireland did not have the social and political cohesion of much of the rest of Europe. Societies, and therefore the Church, in most of Europe tended to center on cities – where both government and church power were concentrated. Ireland, on the other hand, was largely rural and without major cities. This meant that Bishops were not particularly powerful. And much of the church was decentralized, led more or less by monasteries. Monks, like Patrick, were also Bishops, but they were, first and foremost, monks.
There were priests and deacons, but they, too, were likely to be monks first and foremost. And when I say “monks” I should really say “monks and nuns” for Irish society held women very much as equal. This spread into the way the Church was structured – there is reason to believe that the exclusively male structure of the Roman Church was not nearly so exclusive in Ireland. In fact, there is some reason to believe that women may have held the post of Bishop…
In this casual sort of church, much of the pastoral care of people fell to monks and nuns rather than to priests. The hearing of confessions, which was not anything like the formalized rite of today, was something that monks and nuns had to undertake.
Monks and nuns, just FYI, tend to like things organized around a rule… So, these Irish monks and nuns began to build guides, rule books for those hearing confessions. Books known as the Irish Penitentials began to appear.
Now the Irish were second to nobody when it came to sin… though my Irish ancestors might beg to differ. And so those monks and nuns had lots of sins of various descriptions to deal with – some quite petty and some quite shocking.
The Penitentials became vast lists of every horrible thing you might do along with a detailed description of what you should do by way of penance. It starts to look like those nasty monks and nuns sat around all day thinking of ways other folks were getting up to no good and developing complicated ways of atoning. No doubt modern psychology would tell us that there was some projection going on… and others would note that some vicarious gratification might have been part of the equation too… But this is not the best way to view the penitentials.
It is true that the Penitential lists were vast, but the message was not how in danger your immortal soul was, but that there was literally nothing you could do, nothing you could even think about doing, that could not be forgiven. God’s forgiveness, like God’s love, knows no bounds. This is not a license to sin with abandon. It is a license to live our lives in love rather than in fear.
Baz Luhrmann in his film “Strictly Ballroom” has a wise character quote an old Spanish Proverb: “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” It’s a great proverb, but it apparently neither old nor Spanish… rather it is the wisdom of Baz Luhrmann himself. Nonetheless, I’m pretty certain that Jesus would like this proverb. Jesus does not call us to live in fear.
Jesus calls us to live in love… fully alive in love as St Irenaeus might put it. I’m not sure that comes through loud and clear in this particular bit of Matthew, but in the larger context of the Gospels we know it to be true. So, we must keep it in mind.
Consider the last illustration: “You have heard it said in ancient times that you shall not swear falsely.” But Jesus goes in a bit of a surprising direction. It’s not that you must not swear falsely, it’s that you must not swear at all. Just say yes if you mean yes and no if you mean no. Nothing further is needed or helpful. Imagine how differently our politicians would speak if they had to live according to this direction… But then also imagine how differently we might speak…
Sometimes our speech becomes more complicated because it is merging into poetry. I’m all for that. But too often our speech becomes more complicated because we are trying to hide something, trying to make our meaning obscure. The Military uses terms like “friendly fire” and “collateral damage” to obscure the fact that we shot at our own soldiers or killed innocent civilians.
Let our yes be yes and our no be no… There is nothing “friendly” about being shot at… no matter who is pointing the gun.
This passage from Matthew fits into a wider understanding of the Gospel and of scripture. We do not understand it in the neat, little package from today’s reading, but if we read it in the context of all that Jesus said and says, it makes more sense. And we can further understand it in the context of the Irish Penitential.
Jesus is assuring us that we are all, without doubt, going to fall into sin. In this passage of Matthew, he has spelled out a number of serious sins that we, almost certainly, will commit. Adultery, murder, and speaking ill of God’s other children are top of the list. This could make us “hopeless sinners.”
But the assurance of the Irish Penitentials is that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven. The Irish didn’t invent that… it comes from Jesus. God’s forgiveness is understood to be infinite. Sinners we may be, but hopeful rather than hopeless sinners. The early prayer books of the Church of England contained the rather delicious phrase: “Miserable Offenders”. Even the Methodist Church in which I grew up retained that phrase… The problem is that the word “miserable” does not mean what we think it means. It comes from the Latin word Miserere – have mercy. Miserable offenders are able to receive God’s mercy.
This is not the message we hear in Deuteronomy, however. At the time the law is being given, it is more or less binary. We can choose to keep the law and live or break the law and perish. The author of Deuteronomy encourages us to “choose life.” I’m afraid it is a choice we would make under duress – which in a legal sense is not really a choice at all.
We do not follow Jesus under duress. Following Jesus is an act of love – reflecting the fact that Jesus first loves us. And Jesus continues to love us. I have become convinced in my time in a Monastery that it is much harder than it sounds to accept that Jesus loves us… loves me. But it’s the truth.
We all struggle with feelings of being unworthy. We all struggle with the notion that God might love others, but not necessarily us. They might be miserable offenders, but we are unmiserable… not able to receive mercy. And this passage from Matthew, taken all by itself, would seem to encourage these notions.
But God does not show us mercy because we are worthy. But God does not love us because we are loveable… God loves us because God is love… Our loving response is to receive that love and share it with others… all others… even those we are inclined to dislike. For in the eyes of God we are all no better and no worse than each other.
Part of our task as followers of Jesus is to begin to see as Jesus sees, as God sees. Our vision needs to become heavenly. As we begin to see in a Godlier way, we will surely live in a Godlier way and our lives will be more filled with love.