Jesus’ way, the way of Christ, is a way of life: choose it – even though it’s hard – and you will know God’s life abundant.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year A
Texts: Matthew 5:21-37 (adding in 17-20 from last week’s Gospel); Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Choose life,” Moses says.
Standing before the whole people of Israel, preparing to enter the land promised them by God, Moses tells them, “you’re going to have choices ahead.” Choices that lead to life, to blessing. Choices that lead to death, to curses. Following in God’s way is choosing life. Choose that, Moses says.
So does Jesus today. This section of teaching is one that many would rather not read or hear. It sounds harsh and daunting, it activates all sorts of guilt that people would rather not have to look at or hear about on Sunday morning. These teachings have the reputation of both being read legalistically or simply ignored when inconvenient.
But today’s Gospel is full of Good News. Jesus says again and again, “Choose life.”
Here is life, Jesus says:
Life is found when people appropriately deal with their anger, and don’t discard others by insults or hate. Life is found when people reconcile and don’t discard difficult relationships. Life is found when people of faith don’t take each other to court, discarding trying to personally solve the problem. Life is found when all people are valued for who they truly are, not objectified as something to be used, whether that’s sexual lust or other similar ways of discarding a person’s worth. Life is found when people remove the things in their life that hurt others and themselves. Life is found when men can’t discard their wives in divorce with a simple certificate and throw them out of the house, the specific injustice Jesus criticizes here. Life is found when people’s word matters, and they can simply say “yes” or “no” and be believed, they don’t have to swear on something to convince others they’re trustworthy.
Can you see the good news here? Jesus describes a community where every one is of value to every one, where no one is discarded like old trash. Each of his examples speaks of relationships that are broken when one person doesn’t see God’s face in the other, doesn’t honor the other.
Jesus says, can you see why God’s way is better life? Can you see the joy of a community that followed these words?
But we set up barriers that keep us from choosing Jesus’ life. Here’s one: we say, “Jesus teaches these things knowing that we can’t do them.”
The idea is that Jesus sets God’s standards so high here no one can attain them. People love to claim this. (Some go on to say Jesus does this so we know we need God’s forgiveness at the cross.)
This flimsy barrier collapses under the merest touch of logic. Half of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ teachings, and all four Gospels claim Jesus spent the majority of his three years of ministry teaching his followers what it was to follow him.
What good teacher gives lessons that have no application in the students’ lives? Why would Jesus take such care to lay out in detail the life of God’s reign, the life of following Christ, thinking no one could actually do it? It’s nonsense. And Jesus never, ever, says, “I know you can’t do this, but I’m going to tell you to do it anyway. You’ll be glad of it when I die on the cross for you.”
Everything in this chapter is something you can do. Right now. (And if your particular besetting challenge isn’t anger or lust, then you can work on what is yours, whether it’s pride or greed or envy or fear or whatever – Jesus talks about them elsewhere.) You can choose life, and choose to act as Jesus says here. It’s well within your grasp.
So, having that wall knocked down so easily, we quickly throw up a second barrier: We can’t do this all the time.
We’re not perfect, we say. We’re never going to be 100% reconcilers, or peacemakers, or lovers of enemies. We’re going to try and we’re going to fail. This chapter can’t be done.
Again, just a little push blows this barrier over into the dust. Surely if you are kind half of the time it’s much better than never being kind. If you control your anger once, and refrain from hating once, that’s surely much better than never. If you were raising a child, you’d understand that child might sometimes struggle to be good, but you’d delight when you saw progress, wouldn’t you?
Well, as Jesus says, if you and I know that much, how much more will God? Of course God understands that if you choose this, if you follow Jesus’ path, you’re going to stumble sometimes. You’re going to fail. But the point is to choose this life, be a follower. Then even when you stumble, you’re still on the right path, the path to abundant life.
A little anxious now, we erect another barrier: but if I fail, God won’t be pleased.
God knows I might fail, but will God be happy if I forget these ways, if sometimes I don’t do them?
This barrier cost a lot more to knock down. Jesus gave his life to take this one away. The holy and Triune God faced death on a cross to prove once and for all that you and the whole creation are worthy of God’s love. Nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ, that’s unchangeable truth. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean.
So, when you stumble or fail as you choose life, the way of God, you are still loved, forgiven, blessed. You are God’s precious child. Nothing, nothing can take that from you. Jesus will go on in Matthew’s Gospel to say that it is the will of his Father in heaven that not a single one will be lost. Not one. That means you, too.
Choose life, Jesus says. Take this path. I’ll forgive you when you fail, and help you back up.
We’re running out of building materials, but we try another barrier: Jesus frightens us in these verses because he threatens us with hell.
How can we trust we’re forgiven, we say, if Jesus says those who don’t do these things are liable to the hell of fire?
Well, Jesus has already answered that on the cross, and by proclaiming God doesn’t intend to lose anyone. But Jesus in the Gospels also doesn’t seem to understand hell the way Milton and Dante shaped it, eternal damnation, and in this section he doesn’t even use the word hell. He speaks of the “Gehenna of fire,” a burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem where the poorest of the poor lived on the edges. Literally hell on earth. It may be Jesus is repeating Moses: if you don’t choose life, you choose death. A life where you rage and hate and insult is a hellish life to live. A life where you keep doing the things that harm you and others is a hellish life to live.
But even if Jesus means hell after death, according to Jesus – who is, remember, the Son of the eternal and Triune God, so he gets to make this decision – according to Jesus, God’s plan is that the population of hell will be exactly zero.
So, Jesus says, choose life. Follow this path without fear of punishment when you fail, without fear of falling out of God’s love. There is literally no way in hell that could happen.
Our last, desperate barrier is left for you to ponder.
Because the only thing that can keep you from choosing life, seeking to follow Jesus as he commands today, trusting that this will be a life abundant, a life of God’s grace, a life of reconciliation and peace between you and your family, and this community, and, if it spreads to the world, even between nations, the only barrier left is this: what if you just don’t want to do this?
What if you want your faith to just be trusting in God’s love, and knowing that you will live with God after you die? Both are truths to cherish.
But what if you don’t want God to change you, you don’t want to have to look hard at your life and make different decisions in following Jesus? What if the problem all along has partly been that you want to go on doing whatever it is you do?
Every single one of us likely has moments where we put up this barrier. I have. So just hear Moses again one more time, and then ponder what you’ll do. Moses says: you’ve got choices that lead to death and choices that lead to life. You are God’s beloved, nothing can change that. So, choose the path of life, so that you can live.
In the name of Jesus. Amen