Is today one of those days you’re really glad you came to church? You’re in your peaceful place. You’re surrounded by familiar faces. You sing the familiar music. And then you hear the reading from Matthew today and I don’t blame you for thinking “wow! I don’t know how glad I am that I am at church today.” It’s too late to escape now. Readings like this can make us squirm. We (okay, maybe I) don’t always like to hear the gospel readings and Jesus’ thoughts on such topics as murder, conflict, adultery, and divorce. We don’t often like hearing about the things of which we have first-hand knowledge. I’m not saying any of you are murderers, of course. But I am guessing all of you know someone who is divorced (maybe as a result of adultery), and all of us have gone through conflict at least once. These are uncomfortable topics. Why does Jesus even bring this stuff up?
We need a bit of a clearer picture of what is going on here. Let’s refresh our memories as to the setting and surroundings of today’s Gospel reading. This is a continuation of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. He is still trying to teach his disciples what it means to follow him. This means they needed to start thinking about what it means for them personally to be a disciple, but also what it means for other people to be disciples as well, and ultimately, what it looks like to be disciples while also being in community. The disciples must have been overwhelmed by everything Jesus was telling them. If you’ve ever been in day one orientation for a new job, I have to wonder if the disciples had that same feeling.
And Jesus isn’t playing around. He brings out what we may often think of as the “heavy hitter” sins. Murder, adultery, divorce, and taking oaths (which is a strange one to bring up with the others). Jesus uses a lot of repetition in this reading. We hear him say “you have heard that it was said….” and then he goes on to talk about a commandment and he says “but I say to you…” Jesus knew that this was no longer going to be a community where everyone thought alike. Not everyone was going to be Jewish. There would be Roman soldiers and gentiles as well. The disciples are starting to get a fuller picture that they will not be disciples by themselves. They are going to be disciples with others in community.
It’s also good for us to remember that the Bible is a living, breathing document. The things we read today are just as relevant for us as they were for those first disciples. Additionally, it’s good for us to remember that God created us to live in community and to be in relationship with one another. And, as strange as it may sound, being in community, living with and for one another as disciples is a little counter cultural to the American way. We have phrases like “look out for number one” or “I’m gonna do what is best for me.” Even in religious circles you may have heard phrases like “I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior” and other language like that. But let us not forget that God has proclaimed to be Immanuel: God with us, not God with me. And what this means is that when you are a disciple (as we all are) we are responsible to one another and for one another.
When was the last time you did something and before you did it you thought “I wonder how this might reflect on my fellow disciples at Elvira Zion?” That thought doesn’t usually enter our mind. At the same time, how often might we have let one representative of a group or organization make up our minds about the entire group? (For example, having a bad experience with one wait person and so you no longer even go to that restaurant.) The face, personality, and actions you choose to show to the world can speak very loudly about who you are. But, it also speaks to the people you keep company with and are affiliated with. What that means is that everything you are, everything you do, everything you don’t do is not only a direct reflection of you, it is a direct reflection on each and every person that sits around you each Sunday. Now, if that doesn’t make you feel the weight of being a disciple, I don’t know what will.
See, God’s law (as it is spoken about in these verses) is a good thing. The law is meant to help us with our boundaries, and ultimately, help us to live a fuller life; the life God has intended for us. So, the commandment says “do not murder” but Jesus says (paraphrasing) “hey! Before it even gets to that point, don’t even have an argument with one another. And if you do, be reconciled to one another before coming to the altar.” This is why we pass the peace. We are making peace with one another before coming before God and receiving the body and blood of forgiveness. The commandment said “do not commit adultery” and Jesus says (again, paraphrasing) “don’t commit adultery, sure. But don’t even look at a woman with lust.” And why? Because living in community means valuing every member of the community. This means we look at one another as whole human beings, and not just sexual conquests. The commandment says “if you get a divorce, you need a certificate of divorce” but Jesus says (paraphrasing yet again) “stop using the law as an excuse to divorce.” And what is really at the heart of this is caring for the least around us. In Jesus’ time, women who were divorced were seen as less desirable. Men could ask for a divorce for any reason they wanted. But, many times, divorce came when a woman was barren and could not provide for a male heir. In Jesus’ time if you were a barren divorced woman, your fate wasn’t good.
What does all of this mean then for those of us who are now currently disciples (that’s all of us, by the way)? Well, the good news, first of all, is that we’re not alone in this. Being a disciple is something that is done in community with others. We can never accomplish ushering in God’s kingdom in the here and now on our own. We need help from one another to lift one another up, encourage one another, and to work with one another. And we’re going to receive a lot of pushback because society has taught us for the longest time that the only person we should watch out for is ourselves. But that isn’t what God had intended for us. Jesus is revisiting these laws as a reminder to all of us to watch out for and care for those on the margins. God’s ultimate command for all of us (besides having no other gods) is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbor if we’re only concerned about ourselves.
I know this is hard, friends. On the surface to call ourselves “disciples” seems easy, almost a badge of pride and honor. But, when we start to look at what it actually means for our lives, we realize how difficult it can be. Being a disciple means being aware of what our individual actions say about our corporate community. Being a disciple means that we are aware of, advocate for, and care about those on the margins that are often forgotten by this individualistic society. Being a disciple means being on the side of justice and mercy when those working against us are crying for the hard arm of the law. But, again, we are not alone. We have another another, fellow disciples, to help us in this journey. And we have God; who again, is Immanuel, God with us.