Matthew 5:21-24; 33-37
So many labels.
We are named this, that, the other thing.
We are told what we are capable of or not capable of. And we bring all of these experiences into our relationships. We bring all of this into community.
These labels, these stereotypes—they hinder us from fully expressing ourselves and sometimes they even keep us from connecting to others. I would argue that the divisiveness we experience in the world occurs because we too readily accept the labels given to us, and too readily apply labels to other people. The divisiveness begins in each one of us, as we seek to balance how we see ourselves with how others may see us. It is not easy, for sure, but essential work we all must do. Because if we don’t know, love, and accept ourselves as we are, and if we too often accept the labels given to us, we will find it difficult to have meaningful and positive relationships. It will be more difficult to be part of a community.
This individual work I will call self-reconciling—the work of getting to know yourself apart from societal, religious, and even family labels. Discovering how to love and accept yourself as you are, raw and unfiltered. That self-reconciling, in my experience, leads to reconciliation with others, in community.
Jesus of Nazareth spoke a lot about this type of reconciliation, within ourselves, and as part of a community. His quite famous “sermon on the mount” includes such identity metaphors as salt and light, and of course, the beatitudes–the affirmation of the marginalized as part of God’s reconciling work. We are looking at the latter part of this speech in Matthew’s Gospel, and this time Jesus shifts to a conversation about the Law.
What is the law? Plainly speaking, it was and is the Mosaic Law, the precepts and rules from the Torah; in other words, the first five books of the Old Testament. For Jewish folk in Jesus’ time, the Law was of utmost importance. It defined the behaviors of individuals, and also how people related to each other in community. Jesus, in the Gospels, interprets these Laws as Rabbis were prone to do. In his interpretation, however, was an underlying theme new to many: laws were only good insofar as they valued and protected people.
In other words, it was not about who followed the laws more religiously. It was about how people’s lives were affirmed and embraced—that people had a right to be part of a safe community in which they could be themselves.
Please keep in mind that for Jesus, the Scriptures were not ending points that were God-words and therefore a done deal. Instead, the Scriptures were more like beginning points from which to re-form them. Jesus moved away from the authority of the written words in order to truly honor the spirit of the teachings themselves.
Each time he says “but I say to you” Jesus is placing a comma where others had placed a period.
The Scriptures were not dead and set in stone. God was still speaking through them—to people in the current age, and thus they should be interpreted in that age.
Thus, Jesus runs down a list of various laws and rules that his audience would have seen as hot button issues: marriage and divorce, murder, repayment of debts, adultery, and oaths [making vows/promises]. But in each case, Jesus focuses less on the letter of the law and more on what the spirit of the law was about—affirmation and reconciliation in community. A quick breakdown of the issues at hand:
Murder. It is not enough to just say that we shouldn’t kill each other. The point is in the valuing of another. People’s lives matter. Rather than prohibiting violence against another, this law is actually about wanting the best for others, actively seeking their well-being, affirming who they are, and even taking risks to do so. No one should go to a church or worship or do anything so-called religious before reconciling with others and loving them as they are. Can you imagine what it would be like if we actually committed to this? Then it wouldn’t be about how many times you attend worship or educational classes or how many committees you serve on or any of that stuff. It would be about reconciliation with others and seeking the best for our neighbors.
Marriage and divorce. So easy to get caught up in morals here, but that’s not Jesus’ take. Instead, this law is about certain individuals being mistreated, in this case, women. Females were considered property in Jesus’ time. The rules for marriage and divorce were completely one-sided in favor of males. But the spirit of the law is about the valuing of persons and thus prohibits us from objectifying them or treating them as lesser. In blessed community, we value each other fully and consider ourselves to be of equal value and therefore deserving of protection and affirmation. In 2017 the spirit of this law is absolutely relevant. Still there are far too many people [who say they are Christians] who are fighting against and in some cases blocking the affirmation of two men or two women who wish to marry; and others who refuse to recognize the beauty and full humanity of transgender people. And females still experience objectification and are considered property. This is not what beloved community stands for.
Part of the reason why “religious” folk keep hanging onto laws that denigrate and divide people, says Jesus, is due to our spending way too much time arguing about oaths.
The formal swearing of oaths in court is something familiar to all of us. But have you ever thought about how much people swear oaths in churches? You want to join a particular faith community [or even attend a Christian school] and you must swear an oath. You must swear that you believe a particular list of things, a doctrinal statement, etc. For Jesus, oath-swearing was for people who didn’t trust each other. You say pious and hollow words. It has nothing to do with how you treat people.
And yet, in beloved community, oaths are unnecessary, because people speak the truth to each other, trust each other, and love each other honestly. I encourage you [and myself] to focus less on the labels we are given and the labels we give; I challenge you to focus less on rules and more on community.
How will we as a community value and affirm others?
How will we tackle the culture in our communities that devalues some because of their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or social status?
How will we continue to build beloved community?