21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.f 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Here we see Jesus in the role of reinterpreter and revealer. Jesus clearly reinterprets the approach the people of God are to have to the law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeatedly says “you have heard that it was said” but “I tell you”, quoting both Biblical law and its then-orthodox interpretation and suggesting that instead of this letter-of-the-law approach, something very different is required: coming to see and live out the principle behind it. In this way, Jesus is revealing. It reminds me of the scene I saw in a movie once, a film about people in an old West movie. In the midst of the supposed heated fighting, the two dimensional backdrop of a Western city, the façade, fell down, and a hilarious scene ensued. Jesus is letting the façade of religion fall aside, to the reality underneath. Yet instead of the reality being just play-acting, a deeper pattern of life exits which the law of Scripture points toward.
This deeper law, like the law of nature, is less a set of rules to be followed and more a rhythm, like the movement of the sun, the passing of the seasons. Like the law of nature, this rhythm is the rhythm which, when we move in harmony with it, gets us in touch with the life-giving principle, what Hildegard of Bingen called the veriditas, the greening life-instilling presence of Holy Spirit.
So Jesus both tears down and builds up our approach to the Biblical command do not murder. It is easy to not actively murder someone yet to allow a life-stealing root of bitterness, hatred, or rejection of another to take root in our hearts. Yet the principle behind the law to murder is not just about not killing another person. Staying alive is not always a mercy; just sit with people slowing dying of cancer and you will see physical life, though precious, is not the only aspect of life of worth. Life is also about quality of life, quality of relationships. This law is also about a principle God has woven into the fabric of reality of the value and worth of all people.
If I begin to treat you and view you as anything less than a beloved child of God of infinite worth, have I not begun to also in small or big ways tear down your sacred worth in my mind? If I forget you are someone’s child, parent, lover, spouse, friend and turn you simply into a category by which the world might judge you – just one of those, no longer seeing you as a person but a gay, a disability, a this or that race, an insert-pejorative-for-your-gender here… I too am failing to live out the principle behind the law.
In fact I think there are ways we can undermine the value of another’s life by degrees. If I bully you and those I deem like you, if I humiliate you, if I pressure you and those I deem like you out of my community or school or workplace or church, don’t I do this? One reason for the high risk of suicide among LGBT youth and certain groups of people with disabilities is exactly because of how people either passively maintain or actively put up such barriers to full inclusion in the life of the community every day. When we maintain attitudes of mind personally and systems in society in general which devalue children of color by putting them on a class to prison pipeline, and by overlooking their deaths at the hand of our police, do we not also share in failing to live out this principle of valuing of life?
Reading right now with a group at my church the Pope’s recent encyclical on the environment, I wonder if we need to also think of the way we kill others by degrees in terms of our wasteful and destructive culture of possession, technology, and throwing away. When we pollute this earth, it is often the poorest and most disadvantaged that end up breathing the dirty air, drinking the dirty water, living in lands poisoned by our excess. We kill such children of God by degrees by our failure to limit ourselves and live a live more whole and in harmony with creation.
I have to admit, when I begin to think of all the ways I fail to fully live out the principle of valuing life, valuing others, and how our society does, I begin to get overwhelmed. With language of fiery hell and standing in judgment in this text, I can begin to become frightened. Will I ever get it right? Yet I have to remind myself: Jesus is not tearing down the façade of the old law to build up a new law under whom we will be legalistically crushed. He is instead pointing to the rhythm that brings light that beats in the heart behind the law, a living way of grace we are invited into.
Viewed in such a way, you and I will never fully arrive but only be in journey. I remember at the end of college some friends and I taking a salsa dancing class. The first few times I went, I tripped on my own feet. It was embarrassing. But my friends did too. The teacher reminded us that is how you learn to dance. The next time, I got better.
Jesus is showing us the steps, and we will trip over our feet at first. We won’t ever fully live it out, but by seeing how vast and deep this principle is, seeing how far we are to living it out, we can become freed to slowly change our patterns, one step at a time.
To me this process of being shocked into awareness so we might begin the inner and outer journey of transformation is a beautiful reflection of what one early Christian community remembered Jesus as saying when they said he told St. Thomas, “He who seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he is troubled he will be amazed, and he will reign over the All.” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 2). Whether an authentic saying of Jesus or not, this quote beautifully pictures the process of spiritual transformation. As we seek deeper knowledge of life, it will necessarily make us troubled as we see how divergent our life is from the pattern of life God calls us to. But this opens up to new possibilities of living that amaze us, and by looking at this distance we are made able to embrace a pattern of life that rises above the ways we’ve known.
So knowing we will not fully get there, let’s learn to embrace the path of life, to become people who value others, especially those we struggle to, and all of life more fully.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,