The path of healing into Christly love hurts, but leads to life; the path of not healing into Christly love also hurts, ourselves and others, and leads to death.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year A
Texts: Matthew 5:21-37; Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Healing hurts. There’s no way around it.
A good doctor will tell us this. If your heart has five blocked arteries, your sternum needs to be opened, veins from other parts of your body cut out and grafted onto your heart, bypassing the blockages. A good doctor will tell you this is going to hurt, a lot. A good doctor will tell you if you don’t do this, you won’t find healing.
Today Jesus gets to the heart of loving our neighbor as ourselves, the fulfilling of God’s law. But Jesus uses such a graphic metaphor for what this will take, we shudder at the words. Obviously he doesn’t want us to cut out parts of our body, but we wish he hadn’t said it at all.
But Jesus is saying the truth: the path to healing hurts. He’s being a good doctor. He’s saying we need to be prepared for what it will cost us to follow Christ’s path. Things as dear to us as our eyes and hands will need to be cut out of our lives to find the healing of loving God and loving neighbor. Healing hurts. There’s no way around it.
Jesus interprets God’s law as comprehensive.
He taught that God’s law means to change our hearts, make us new people. So we, and all the world, would find God’s planned wholeness and healing. Saying the whole law of God is fulfilled by love of God and love of neighbor, on the one hand made it very easy. It’s simple to remember: love God, love neighbor.
On the other hand, it made it very hard. Jesus describes a fulfilling that covers everything. “Love God with all you have” leaves no room for anything but God as the center of your being and attention and devotion. No self-idolatry, no wiggling around what you’d rather do instead of what God asks of you. “Love your neighbor as yourself” likewise is complete coverage. There are no circumstances where Jesus envisions an answer other than love for those who are our neighbor. And here and elsewhere, Jesus makes it clear this category covers everyone. No exceptions.
Jesus pits himself against the legalists, the defenders of God’s law.
“You have heard it said . . . but I say to you,” is his line.
He takes on the Fifth Commandment. “You shall not kill.” That should be easy to keep. Except from the beginning God’s people parsed this, distinguished between murder and killing, and said the commandment was against murder. The Church parsed it and said killing in war isn’t breaking the commandment, if the war is just. And spent centuries arguing about when war is God’s will.
Jesus destroys that argument by saying physical killing is the lowest bar. He assumes all killing is against God’s will, and goes deeper. Christ says even anger, and insulting, and mocking, break this commandment. If my making fun of someone breaks the Fifth Commandment, there’s no hope God supports any taking of human life.
He takes on the Sixth Commandment. “You shall not commit adultery.” That also seems easy. Except Jesus speaks a word millions today still don’t understand, that at the heart of the human problem with sexuality is our objectification of other people. Christ says if you lust after someone in your heart you’ve already broken this commandment.
Christ says to straight men, and men in general, “you’ve got a serious problem. You view women as objects, and as sexual objects, and that is destructive and leads to death.” He says how we view others and think about them is as powerful as how we actually treat them. Because it affects how we treat them.
Whenever you have a written law, you can find ways around it: What really does “kill” mean? Surely there’s no harm in a little fantasy?
But God’s law is intended to bring life. The only way it can is if it utterly changes our hearts: cracks open our sternum, replaces the way our hearts and minds work.
That’s going to hurt. No loopholes, no gaps, no excuses. This is major surgery, and makes his metaphor about eyes and hands seem tame.
Now do you see why Jesus says following him is like losing your life, it’s taking up a cross?
But why go through this pain, then? Well, have you seen the world?
A world that believes God wants us to kill others has given us endless destruction that flows across this earth. Anger pulses through our culture today, unfiltered, explosive, and endangers us all. Social media and public discourse are hamstrung by personal attacks and mockery, insults and name-calling. (And we’re no better if we indulge in the same things toward those we dislike.) Life has little value, respect and care for others is absent at the highest levels, and across the breadth of our nation.
Do you really want to tell Jesus he doesn’t understand the problem?
2,000 years after Jesus told men not to objectify women, that problem couldn’t be worse. Ask any woman about her experience in the world, at work, at school, whether she has experienced being demeaned, treated as an object, been leered at, experienced sexual harassment. Most will tell you they have. And statistics suggest that one in four women in this country have experienced sexual assault, including rape. Twenty-five percent.
Do you really want to tell Jesus he doesn’t understand the problem?
And these are just two problems Jesus points out. He applies the same prescription – full, unfiltered love – to every aspect of our lives. If it isn’t anger or lust, perhaps for you it’s pride, or greed, or self-centeredness, or apathy, or many other things. Anything that keeps us from fully loving our neighbor hurts others in this world. That’s the truth Jesus needs us to see.
Look, we want to follow Christ because, as Simon Peter said, he speaks words of eternal life to us.
We hear hope in his words, a promise of God’s love and grace, we see in his death and resurrection our future after we die. We want to be with him. But Jesus needs us to know that he could have forgiven us and brought us to heaven without dying on a cross.
He went to the cross because he lived the life of love of God and love of neighbor that God means for all of us, and we killed him for it. He walked a path of pain and suffering because he was showing healing and life.
If we don’t like the way the world is, and wish God would do something, let’s not pretend the Son of God ignored it. Jesus’ words today – and we’ve only looked at half of his examples – show Christ saw to the heart of the problems of the world and showed a path out of them.
It’s just a hard, painful path. That’s why we hesitate.
We hesitate because our culture tells us the only good life is a pain-free life.
The culture of consumer products is designed to offer results without pain, life without pain. We hear we deserve the best, and it will be easy to get. We’re told suffering of any kind should never happen, and for life to be good, we need to be free of any pain.
But that isn’t true. Any parent, anyone who’s cared for a dependent loved one, knows how hard that can be. There’s inconvenience, frustration, pain, suffering. Our own needs get set aside because love demands it.
Any person who’s gone through 12-step recovery will say the same. There is deep pain and suffering working through recovery from addiction, the pain of letting go of control, of admitting wrongs, of seeking to amend them, of living one day at a time.
But the end result for both is life. Pain and suffering aren’t in and of themselves to be avoided. Healing is painful. All healing. Anyone who’s found life and health can tell you that.
But not seeking healing is also painful. Consider those blocked arteries: surgery will be exceedingly painful, but a good life is possible afterward. Avoiding surgery will eventually kill the heart, while the pain of the illness continues. If we don’t face the pain of changing, then we’ll keep causing a different pain, hurting people in the world.
So which do you want? If we want a life where we never feel pain, where no one can hurt us, and we don’t have to change, the only way is if we become cruel, selfish people who inflict a great deal of pain on others. The only way to life and love involves vulnerability, and vulnerability involves pain. There’s no way around it.
Thank God Christ is a good doctor. He tells us the truth so we can decide.
We have seen the eternal love of the Triune God in Christ’s words, actions, death, resurrection. We have found hope in Christ’s assurance that we are beloved children of God, and have God’s Spirit within us bringing new life to birth.
Today Christ says this new life is going to hurt. There will be things we need to let go of, things that cannot stay in you or me, that will be painful to face. It will even feel like we’re losing our life, Christ says. But what a gift to know this ahead of time. I would much rather know the truth so I can make the right decision, than deceive myself that there will be an answer that won’t cost anything.
So our last word today is from Moses, who says, “Choose life, that you may live.” And from Jesus, who says, “Choose love, that you may be love.” This is the path we want to walk, in God’s love. Hard as it is. Because life and healing are on the other side. And, since Christ walks with us, they’re along the way, too.
In the name of Jesus. Amen