Ironically, at a time in the lectionary when Paul is talking about feeding his listeners gruel, Matthew gives us some words of Jesus that can be best described as a plate of ribs. There's some meat in His words, and we could be chewing on those bones for some time. In theological speak, this passage of Matthew is often called the antitheses. By that, theologians mean that Jesus is making some significant changes. One of the unfortunate consequences is that some people, upon hearing the term and how the section is described, assume that Jesus is somehow the antithesis of the torah, as if grace and torah were somehow standing in opposition to one another. To be sure, Jesus is making some changes, and the changes are not without significance. Jesus' changes and the authority with which He speaks them serves as the beginning of some of the opposition which will be raised against His ministry. So, what is happening? Essentially, Jesus is pointing out just how perverted we have become, when it comes to keeping God's instruction.
The key to Jesus' instructions, lies in the “you have heard it said in ages past.” One of the problems Jesus has with the religious authorities of their day is the burdens which they place upon the very ones they are called to tend. In many ways, the people of Israel were very much like us, or at least like the children in our midst. They were always looking for ways to get around what God had instructed, or at least get by with the minimum effort required. And, far too often, the religious elite were willing to oblige. Their willingness, however, often left the people misled. Jesus' teaching, by contrast, are given to place His disciples and us back upon the path directed by God. For example, in dealing with oaths, the Pharisees and religious elite had given the people of Israel permission to trick the Gentiles with whom they had dealings. In the ANE, one was expected to keep oaths. If one swore an oath “by (fill in your god here),” one had to keep the oath. Failure to keep the oath was to run the risk of dishonoring the named God and incurring his or her wrath. In that sense, Yahweh's instructions in the torah were typical. If one of His people swore an oath by Him, that oath had to be kept. As His people and tied to His honor, Yahweh simply did not allow His people to dishonor Him by being oathbreakers. The way around this religious prohibition for the religious elite was to change the object by which one made oaths. While one could not trick a gentile by swearing an oath by Yahweh, there was, they declared, nothing wrong with swearing an oath by heaven, or by the crown, or their mother's grave and not keeping that oath. The breaking of an oath sworn by something other than Yahweh did not carry the moral weight of the oath sworn by God. All these other oaths could be broken with impunity.
Jesus, of course, reminds them of the point of oaths and of how they should be seen by those around them. One of the requirements of God's people in the torah was that they would be truth tellers. Other peoples might lie and mislead, but God's people were always to remember whom it was that they served. Yahweh, the creator of the heavens and the earth, was their God; and they were His people. Just as He was righteous, they were called to be righteous. That meant, among other things, that they were not supposed to lie nor break any oaths. Might not people take advantage of their seeming naivete? Of course. But the expectation was that God would bless them for telling the truth and representing Him well in all things. Jesus' remarks on oathbreaking reminds us and them of that simple truth. Our yesses should mean yes, and our nos should mean no. It is that simple. Instead, we find ourselves so misled, so perverted from His teaching, that we accept and expect all kinds of games. Who here does not check the fine print? Who here does not think that way to determine whether a politician is lying is simply watch and see if his or her lips are moving? And who here thinks that the truth is even mostly told in the courthouse, though every witness takes an oath? And let's not get started on religion. Well, maybe one question: Who here thinks that televangelists are always telling the truth when they get “words from the Lord?” Yes, when left to our own devices and abilities, we begin to accept and expect any number of lies. Considering that we serve a God who demands righteousness, could we be any more misled?
Or consider Jesus' teaching about divorce. This antithesis will make lots of us squirm here. I remember one of my first sermons here being on Ephesians and all that goes with God's teaching on marriage. Here, Jesus reminds us that we have been told one thing but that God meant for something else. Marriages are meant to be lifetime commitments. Are they hard? You bet. Are there lots of difficulties? You all know that there are. And yet, except for unfaithfulness, Jesus reminds us that we should not divorce. What's worse, the Son of God declares that anyone who marries someone who is divorced commits adultery, a clear violation of one of the Ten Commandments. How perverted are we? How misled are we from God's righteousness? How many of us have remarried here claiming to love the other, claiming to be in a good relationship, arguing to others and ourselves that this is true love, claiming to want what is best for our partners and yet acted the very opposite. By ignoring God, by doing what we want anyway, we have endangered the eternal prospect of the very ones we profess to love. God's teaching on adultery is easy to understand, and still we go ahead and remarry because we love them.
And society, in this instance, is even more misled. For the last week, I have noticed a commercial for a movie that is to be released later. The premise is that the wives give the husbands the opportunity to act on their lust. The money scene in the previews is the husband's response to being caught “totally checking her out” by his wife. Rather than reacting sheepishly for having been caught and apologizing to his wife, he asks his wife if she thinks the girl in question noticed. Think of that. He is worried about the other girl's feelings rather than the feelings of his wife. And we are expected to laugh at the situation; we are expected to find it amusing that he would be more concerned about the feelings of the one he checked out rather than the wife he betrayed.
Of course, the simple antithesis for us to keep in Jesus' teachings in this section is the prohibition against murder. Thankfully, as far as I know, none of us here have committed murder. Yes, we have a few who have served in war and either killed or contributed to the death of enemy soldiers, but those are not covered under the torah prohibition of rasah . Jesus refers to the deliberate, willful, plotting to take the life of another human being. We can all wipe our foreheads and let out a big sigh of relief. We might be oathbreakers and liars, we might even be adulterers, but at least we are not like those murderers. Then He shows us once again how far we have gone astray.
The prohibition against murder, according to Jesus, was rooted in the fact that everyone was created in the image and likeness of God. And the fact of that likeness has other implications, He informs us. Ever call someone else an idiot or moron? That counts me out as I have to go through that four way stop out front multiple times a day each and every day of the year and face the wonderful signs of universal respect (the finger) or hear the words of love expressed (cursing) by those in too much of a hurry to obey the law let alone avoid hurting other. Ever get angry with someone and then work to take away their dignity? As a country, we are great at this sin. Ask any descendants of any enemy we have ever had. Talk to a Muslim about our reactions to them in the aftermath of 9/11. Maybe, in this day in age, in light of what happened in Arizona, we should talk to politicians. Or better still, how many jokes do we tell at the expense of lawyers? The fact is, we are far better at insulting and dishonoring those created in the image and likeness of God than we would like to believe.
I commented at the beginning that it was a tough reading. While Paul was using gruel as the image of his offering to the Corinthians, Jesus was giving us something akin to ribs. There is all kinds of meat on these bones. The more we turn them over and look, the more there is about which for us to think. The more we look at ourselves the way God sees us before we accept His offer of salvation, the more we probably do not like what we see. And, were this all that was in Jesus' teaching, we would go away more than a bit sad. Jesus has just taught us that we curse Him and make fun of Him when we curse and make fun of others. Jesus has just taught us that we are being very selfish and risking the souls of those we claim to love when we insist upon remarrying. Jesus has just explained to us that we are sometimes liars and oathbreakers. He has just explained to us that things we find funny and amusing are things which are simply cruel to others and dishonor Him. Can you imagine how disfigured we would be were we required to cut off hands, gouge out eyes, or cut off other offending members such as our tongue?
But, as always, Jesus never leaves us condemned. Though He certainly could leave us to our own devices, to wallow in the sins to which we are blind, He comes to save. But, like those who meet here a dozen times a week to deal with their addiction to alcohol, He first has to let us hit rock bottom and recognize our own need. Buried in today's lesson is a quick reference to the fire of hell. The word which is translated as such is genna . It is the word from which we get Gehenna, but it comes from the Hebrew ge ben-hinnom which means valley of the son of Hinnom. It probably means nothing to most of us gathered together here this day, but you might remember its significance were you to study the books of Kings and Chronicles.
Back during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, Israel had fallen so far from their calling as God's people that they had turned to the worship of Molech. The worship of Molech, a pagan god of sun and heat, was particularly loathsome to God. You see, to end cold spells, worshippers would sacrifice their children to Molech. Now, sacrificing your child would be horrific enough, but the manner in which a child was sacrificed to Molech was gruesome. The children had to pass through fire to get the warmth and sun for the parents. Can you imagine burning your child alive to get the sun to shine or to end a cold snap? No wonder God found it to be an abomination. So misled, so perverted was Israel that her kings even began to worship Molech. Think of that for just a second. It was bad enough that the Scribes and Pharisees had twisted God's word in the Talmud, a kind of Hebrew cliff notes, to justify the practice God declared abominable, but even the king, the one charged with following God and teaching Israel to follow as well, had decided to sacrifice his children to change the weather. Can you imagine?
Now you can probably piece together the story. Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed their children in the valley of Hinnom (ge ben-hinnom) to change the weather and get the blessing of Molech. Once Josiah, perhaps the best king ever in Israel, ascended to the throne and read the torah, he began to tear down the altars and other signs of worship of false gods. In particular, Scripture notes that he defiled the valley of Hinnom. Although we are making an educated guess, it is thought by many that Josiah killed all the false priests, gathered up all their trappings, and burned them all in the valley, reducing everything to ash. Such a misuse of fire would obviously have offended Molech, were he real, and frightened his followers who would have assumed Yahweh was reasserting power in the heavens given the events on earth. Fortunately, this valley was fairly close to Jerusalem. The valley became so synonymous with defilement that Jerusalem began to use it as a dump. Eventually, over time, the valley began to fill in with trash and offal and everything else tossed out. So, fires were started to burn what was thrown away and reduce it to ash. Now you know the image chosen by Jesus to describe Hell. It is like the worst burning, stinky, nasty dump you could ever imagine, with a touch of cultural disgust tossed in for good measure.
To us, however, the story that Jesus brings to mind as well as the seasons which we are in ought to drive us to our knees in thankful praise. You see, we are not unlike those who have come before us. The Bible is full of stories of people who have become so perverted, so consumed by the own desires, so twisted in their logic that they began to do things which God forbid. Even kings, the ones charged with leading His people in righteousness, forgot who they were and who it was they were called to serve. And often, when we try to save ourselves and improve our situation, we simply make things far worse than they were to begin with. But, having reflected a few moments about what He has taught this day, how would you ever go about making yourself righteous before God? What could you do to atone for just the things He brought to mind this day? What could you possibly do to make yourself worthy to be in a right relationship with God? And we really only talked about a few things. Imagine how our view of ourselves would change were we to see everything that He sees? Now you know why some people might be driven to abominable acts and to redefine them as God’s will.
And yet, the solution to our problem is to be found in a baby. Our restoration begins to become possible again with the birth of a very special baby, with the birth of God becoming fully human, with the birth of that baby that when He grows to adulthood chooses to save rather than to condemn. All He asks of us, all He demands of us, is that we accept His offer and work on our behalf. The rest, the salvation and the sanctification of each one of us, is up to Him.
We gather this day in celebration of a baptism. We gather as a community giving thanks for the work that God is about to begin in Joshua. But we gather as well as a people with a memory. During that baptism, each one of us will be reminded of our own pledge to accept Him as Lord and to follow where He leads. We will gather and give thanks that we have died to ourselves and been raised to new life in Him and with one another. Most especially, brothers and sisters, we gather as a community of faith in joyful celebration of the fact that the one who knew us best, our Father in heaven, still found us worth the terrible cost of the cross. We gather knowing that we worship all kinds of Molechs in our lives, and still He chose to save us rather than condemn us. We gather to fortify ourselves and to remind ourselves of who we were by ourselves and of how others feel about themselves when they do not know His love. And we gather to remember that we, too, are a sent people, a people sent out into the world to proclaim His love and salvation to all who serve Molechs today, but would accept His invitation if they only knew His story and truth!