Welcome to the Gray

Jesus continues his lesson to the disciples in this sermon on the mount. We first encountered the Beatitudes, the blessings of God. Then last week discussed how Jesus’ viewed himself as a fulfillment of the Jewish Law Code, Torah. Today we see a new rhetorical tactic. Jesus quotes the Judaic Law, then he offers a new interpretation. “You have heard it said that way...but I say to you this...” Let us hear now what Jesus has to say.

Matthew 5:21-37

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, '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.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

"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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Holy One.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great Ruler. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Teach us to choose blessing
and life rather than death, O God,
so that we may walk blamelessly,
seeking you
through reconciliation with all of your children. Amen.
Men, how many of you have had your wife ask while looking in the mirror, “Does this dress make me look fat?” By the sound of the laughter I suspect that most of you have enough wisdom to answer regardless of what you really think, “Of course not, Honey! I don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re gorgeous.” Women, how many of us have asked our husbands questions with impossible answers? 
Or how about this one, your grandchild offers you a self portrait that looks more like someone threw-up finger paint. How do you respond? “Wow! What a fabulous artist you are. Thank you so much.”
So what about these little white lies? Are they wrong? One of the Ten Commandments is, “Thou shall not lie.” Yet all of us are guilty of this simple excursion away from God’s code of ethics. Is this wrong?
When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he carried on the tablets general dictates about behavior. Keeping Sabbath, Preserving Life, and Honoring God formed the crux of these new rules.
The Israelites were just freed from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh, and they needed practical guidance during their desert wanderings to the Promise Land. This law code was offered in a particular context for a specific people group. 
Fast forward a few hundred years and we arrive at our Gospel Lesson today. Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, having just told his disciples that he is the fulfillment of the Law—not the end of it. Naturally, he begins to reinterpret the well-known commandments, explaining this idea of fulfillment.So he touches on a few hot topics: murder, sex, divorce, and swearing/taking oaths. 
You have heard it said, “Thou shall not murder. But I say to you, why would you ever allow your anger to get to that point in the first place?” How can sacrifices in the temple be authentic, if they are offered with hard hearts? How could the ancient Israelites testify to God’s goodness when their inner conflict trumps that of Rome’s? Jesus is drawing a familiar but antiquated law into his first-century context. Instead of the law generally stating “do not murder.” Jesus moves into the crux of the matter. Deal with your anger. Do not let arguments and grudges fester. Ask for and offer forgiveness. Then murder won’t be an issue.
Then he tackles adultery, lust and divorce. “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, betrayal is more than sex and secrets.” Again, we see him turning to something that every Jew on the hillside that day would have understood. It was not about jabbing out one’s eye or literally cutting off a hand because we might sin with it. Instead, Jesus redefines what it means to lust or express infidelity. Jesus radically brings concern of women into this conversation. We tend to lose this in our own contemporary context where women are clearly apart of the adultery and lust conversation. Further, “You’ve heard it said ‘“Whoever divorces his wife let him give her a certificate, but I say, don’t divorce unless there is infidelity.” In the first century men could divorce their wives without cause or reason. They received a certificate so that they were not wrongly murdered for adultery, but they lived the rest of their lives without care. Jesus was saying, “Stop leaving women by the roadside when they no longer suit your needs.” He did not want men to cast aside their “property” of wives without regard with their well-being.
So often the Jewish people in the New Testament get a bad reputation in light of situations like this. We tend to view their religion as rigid and uncompromising, as if it was a black-and-white approach to otherwise complex life scenarios. A harsh mix of dogmatic rules and inconvenient lifestyle practices. But I think we miss a really important part of Jesus with this mindset. On the contrary, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law brings it back to life for his followers. Jesus keeps it relevant. He considers the cultural setting of his followers, and he helps them make sense of something ancient. In other words, Jesus reminds the disciples that the Law is about life. Torah was given to the Israelites for protection and connection with a life-giving God. 
Through the fulfillment of Jesus, the Jewish people were reminded of this truth. The Ten commandments are not meant to answer every question we have today in twenty-first century America. If we turn with legality to a law code that was composed for a specific people group thousands of years ago, we get into trouble with major misunderstandings. The same is true even if we rely on Jesus’ new interpretation in the first-century. 
You have heard it said, “Thou shall not lie.” But I say to you, “Men, choose life! Tell your wife that indeed, she is thin and beautiful. Grandparents give life to your grandkids! Praising those abstract portraits. Choose life! Choose it for yourself and your marriage and your family.” 
When Jesus shows us how he fulfills the law, he gives us permission to understand the work of God in our cultural and timeframe. So, it is not about Jesus teaching things that are wrong, nor does it mean we have to understand Jesus literally. Jesus welcomes us to the gray areas of life, and says, “Even here, you can experience abundant life under the reign of God.” Jesus gives us room to discover liberation in the limbo of everyday.
So as we get caught in situations where these is no clear right or wrong, consider what is best for preserving relationship with the people we serve and love. Instead of approaching conflict with uncompromising certainty, is it not gentler and more productive to consider the deeper causes of the conflict? We must ask, “What gives life?” If there is no guidebook for how to navigate a certain scenario we might ask of our options, “What gives life?” 
Let’s consider two situations in our culture today. Divorce is quite common. 50% of all marriages end in divorce, right? Does this mean that we are outside of the covenant of God’s law? Well, if we take Jesus literally, it does. But we are rejecting that interpretation, remember? Otherwise we would all be without our eye and hand and on our way to a burning hell for calling a friend foolish. However, if we follow Jesus’ example, we can discuss divorce with a modern perspective. 
We have under our belts the nineteenth amendment, the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s, and continued breaks in the corporate glass ceiling. Women no longer need protection as a divorced person because they are no longer a piece of their husband’s property. Though divorce still has a negative connotation, it does not need to. Of course it is devastating and heartbreaking when relationships fail. And there are ongoing negative impacts of broken marriages that children must unfairly endure. On the other hand, when an abusive marriage further destroys the spouses, or when children are caught in ongoing verbal cross-fire between their parents the family does well to ask, “What gives life?” And if there is more abundance outside of the marriage, then perhaps divorce is the best option. Not the perfect one, but the most life-giving in that particular place at that particular time. Do you see how Jesus sets us free to respond to life in ways that enhance it rather than bind it up with rules? 
Where else do we need to confess that life is not a black-and-white representation of good or bad, right or wrong? In what areas of gray, can we experience growth and choose life while still serving the law of God? How about church? There is no right or wrong way to do and be church. How we act as church on Taylor Blvd. in South Louisville can and should be quite different than how surfing wine drinkers in Northern California might experience church. If Jesus were sitting here with us today, how might he expand the Ten Commandments even further to empower our church to choose life. How can Lynnhurst church offer life to her community? How do we express our faithfulness as a contemporary church? There are lots of ways...but perhaps that is another sermon for another time. I invite you to think on this more. 

Ultimately, we have a choice. Just as the Deuteronomy Lesson we heard today also indicates. We can choose life or death. We can choose to cling tightly to an ancient law code–either Moses’ or Jesus’ —that ultimately will result in death for us contemporary followers. Or we can choose life. We can find ways to imagine God’s law in the context of our community. We can continue enlarging the reign and love of God for all people. It might get murky at times, and it does not erase the pain or trauma of no clear solution. But in the end, the Law and love of God always gives life. Lynnhurst, let us together choose life! 

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