The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Last week, in our Gospel reading, Jesus said,
'Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished... For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
And then Scripture continues immediately with what we heard today.
Jesus takes four rules/laws and seems to up the ante. The law says no murder; I say do not even get angry. The law says no adultery; I say do not even look at someone in lust. The law says here is how you divorce; I say do not divorce and do not marry someone who is divorced. The law says no swearing falsely; I say do not swear at all, just let your yes be yes and your no be no.
This is a tough Gospel. I don't know about you, but this doesn't sound much like Good News to me. I suspect that every single one of us here would be condemned for at least one or two of these heightened violations of the law. And many of us, myself included, are guilty of all of them.
So, how do we make sense of this Gospel? Where do we find the Good News?
Well, we could simply ignore this passage. I suspect a lot of us have done so over the years.
It is quite tempting as the preacher; there are other good lessons.
We could downplay it all, and mine for little nuggets of Gospel gold in there. Like, we could point out that Jesus is clearly using hyperbole when talking about plucking out eyes, and what he means is to stop using people as objects. We could point out that Jesus himself gets angry when he turns over the tables in the Temple, so maybe we should not take his command to not be angry as an absolute, but start looking at ways that there is good anger and bad anger, and he is referring to the bad kind here. We could point out that Jesus is suggesting that intention sometimes matters as much as action.
We could point out that divorce in that era was completely a male decision, and often left women destitute, and so Jesus' command was good for women in its era. Our social context is different today, so this rule from Jesus shouldn't be taken as a timeless absolute, but should remind us to make sure our laws around marriage and divorce ensure that all are cared for in the process. We could point out that Mark and Luke give no exceptions to the divorce command, but that Matthew here gives one, the exception of unchastity, opening up the door to our own list of exceptions, like physical and verbal abuse, domestic violence, addiction, or even a marriage that no longer is a marriage, where the divorce is not an end to the marriage, but an acknowledgement that the marriage has already ended, that the marriage has already died. That has been the Eastern Orthodox position on divorce for over a thousand years, and we Anglicans/Episcopalians changed our position in the mid-20th century.
We could point out that Jesus himself does in fact abolish some laws, the dietary laws for instance, and the laws on how to punish people. And we could point out that the apostles abolish a bunch more as soon as Jesus is gone, like circumcision, and most everything else. We could point out that this speech from Jesus goes on for several chapters, and in a couple of chapters, right before he finishes speaking, Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)
Yes, we could do all of that, searching for the nuggets of Good News as we downplay the intensity of what Jesus says. But when we do, I think we miss out on a richer truth here. We can make all of these laws much easier to swallow, or we can simply accept that we cannot attain them. That when Jesus points out that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," he is telling the truth. If we try and play this game of our being righteous enough, flawless enough, worthy enough, on our own, of our own volition, we will fail. There will always be some way that we fall short of the mark. We cannot attain the kingdom of heaven by our own will. We cannot enter the kingdom of heaven; we can only be brought into the kingdom of heaven by the grace of God.
Grace and grace alone is the entrance. "O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace,” we prayed in today's Collect.
The way of the Pharisees and Scribes is a fool's errand, trusting in our own strength instead of God's strength. Do you remember who Jesus says does make into the kingdom? Not the Pharisees and Scribes, but the prostitute and the tax collector and the sinner. Those who are condemned by these very laws that Jesus seems to strengthen. Those who have no option but to throw all of their hope on God.
And so the question before us today, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is this: Where do we set our hope? Who do we trust to get us into the kingdom? Do we rely on ourselves and our strength, as the world so often teaches us, and therefore, have to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and the Scribes? Or do we rely on God and God's strength, as Jesus teaches us, and therefore, can fall safely on the grace and love of God? Amen.