The Gospel of Matthew this morning may sound like a “do this/don’t do that” list, as does the passage from Deuteronomy we read. It is the kind of Biblical passage that might turn people off from coming to church at all. Nobody likes to be reprimanded, not at work, or home and certainly not at church. However, if you look at the Gospel text in its historical context and search deeper into the meaning, I believe it is a prescription of love and g
uidance for all of God’s people. What do I mean by that? Take verses 21 & 22 for example:
"You have heard that it was said…'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire."
It’s put in strong language that we are not supposed to kill each other, right? That’s #7 in the 10 Commandments and I think we have wrapped our brains around that one pretty thoroughly. Even so, sadly the sin of murder still persists. Jesus’ thoughts went even deeper. Jesus asks us to be mindful not to kill the spirit of the people in your life, especially not by using scripture against them.
At Conference a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to study with the esteemed theologian and Franciscan Priest, Richard Rohr who is a prolific religion author and has many followers via his Directorship of the Center For Action and Contemplation. Rorh considers the proclamation of the Gospel to be his primary call and he does so in a funny and extremely knowledgeable way. According to Rohr, The Bible is a document created by people, inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach and guide us and is most properly and effectively interpreted as metaphor, allegory and example. (So, by the way do Walter Bruggemann, Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, Amy Jill-Levine and many other notable theologians.) Though inspired, Rohr says, the authors of the Bible never intended it to be read as literal fact but rather as a way to consider God’s redeeming and loving presence in our lives. Society has changed since Jesus’ time and so our interpretation and understanding of the Bible and God has grown, changed and is flourishing in the living word. For instance, a few weeks ago, we talked about the passage in the Gospel of John, which named Jesus as “the Word.” That doesn’t mean the person Jesus was a bunch of letters written down as words. We interpret “the word” as the being or spirit of Jesus with God since the beginning, which became the embodiment or Incarnation of God guiding us. “The Word” is a metaphor and a very apt and helpful one.
We are blessed by an opportunity to read the New Testament scriptures in an educated light while still appreciating its inspirational nature. Consider these two verses: 5:27 & 28
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
It sounds like the author was addressing men, in particular, and to every woman who has a male partner – It’s true! Of course we all know checking women out will continue and nobody here expects anyone to pluck out an eye, as it says in v. 29. You may be the unhappy recipient of a black eye, but that’s another matter altogether. Verses 31 and 32 deal with divorce and it’s true that divorce is not something we should take a great deal of joy in. But what if you are in an abusive relationship and you are tormented and your child mistreated? I’ve been there and came to believe God would never want me, nor anyone, to be in that situation. Jesus would advise protecting yourself and your children. In Jesus’ time, it was acceptable for a male to be divorced if his wife was unfaithful, but it was not okay for a woman to be. In many ways, women of that time were entirely dependent upon men and so a divorce meant a woman’s ruin. Because of that some of the Jewish divorce laws were intended to provide protection for vulnerable women.
In the 21st Century, however, women have social capital, education and legal status to make it on their own – (can I get an Amen!) I don’t think we want to go back to a time when women had 2nd class citizenship. There are people who persist in thinking feminism and equal rights for women are not beneficial to our society and would like to curtail it. I could not disagree more, which is why I participated in the Women’s March on January 21st. Equality, love and acceptance of all of God’s human creations are at the very foundation of Christianity.
Matthew’s text delineates guidelines that may not be appropriate for today’s world, however, it does stress that we should operate in the world in a way that is caring and loving of others because that is the nature of God’s realm which Jesus represents. We are asked not to judge others but look to ourselves in what we do right or wrong. We ourselves, with God’s grace, are the only ones who can judge us in any way. We have no idea what is going on in the life of another. That person who seems glum, bored or dismissive may be in a bad relationship or some other challenges. Just look at Bill Belichik… and you love him, right?
Speaking of love, it is Valentine’s Day on Tuesday and I thought we could identify some of the mythical gods that have contributed to our complicated cultural understanding of love. Everyone knows the Valentine's Day heart with an arrow through it, belonging to Cupid, the winged nude who fires his arrows into the hearts of humans, causing them to fall hopelessly in love. Aphrodite was a goddess of love, fertility, and beauty. Aphrodite never had a childhood but rather was born as a desirable woman and the term “aphrodisiac” is derived from her name. Zeus feared that the male gods would fight over her and so arranged for her to wed Hephaestus. Hephaestus was an unattractive god, but he was an asset, as Aphrodite’s infidelity did not bother him. He was simply overjoyed at her beauty. Eros was a god of love and sexual desire. Born of Aphrodite and Aries, Eros’ power resided in his arrows, which incited feelings of passion and an overwhelming feeling of “love at first sight.” The image of an arrow piercing a lover’s heart is symbolic of the pleasure and pain that lovers can tell you hurts and feels good at the same time. Sigmund Freud refers to Eros in his discussion of the human libido, which is the creative energy that one invests in personal development, or sexual drive. The word “erotic” is derived from Eros. Anteros, brother of Eros, was the Greek god of requited or mutually returned love. He was equipped with lead arrows used to avenge unrequited love. Plato wrote about Anteros and believed that a lover who was inspired by beauty is full of divine love. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, just a sense of wholesome right caring and compassion for another that is returned.
On the subject of love Richard Rohr writes,
“there is a love that seeks the spiritual good of others and there is a love that is seeking superiority, admiration and control for itself, even and most especially by doing ‘good’ and (sacrificial) heroic things. Suicide bombers are sacrificial, resentful people are sacrificial, a manipulative mother is sacrificial, all codependents are sacrificial, a phenomenon so common that it created its own group called AlAnon” (Richard Rohr “Breathing Under Water” 2011 Franciscan Media, Cincinatti, pg 22).
This sacrificial co-dependence is not love.
An important role our church can play is to nurture a feeling of real or compassionate love for one another, otherwise known as agape. In this upside down, agitated time we live in, can you think of a better reason to keep a church alive and active? We’re not here merely to keep the building standing, we’re here to practice love! God is love and we are here to worship the one true God, rather than gods of Greek myth or the gods of modern day consumption. I hope you will continue to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives and join together in compassionate love, through Jesus the Christ. Amen.