Father Nicholas Lang
The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Friday was Valentine’s Day. It is a big day for the economy in the U.S. According to Hallmark, more than 163 million cards are sent on this holiday. Florists, chocolatiers and restaurant owners do very well on this day. The heart—it is the quintessential symbol of this observance. Valentine’s Day is all about the heart. And, strange as it may seem, so is the Gospel we heard today.
When I first perused it last week, I wished that we were not a liturgical church with a fixed lectionary for preaching. I would have gladly passed on this text and chosen something more upbeat, comforting, and far less challenging than one that speaks of the mess of mangled limbs and plucked out eyes, adultery and murder.
This section in Matthew Chapter 5 is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus makes a series of statements in his discourse—"You have heard that it was said..." followed by "But I say to you..."
“You have heard it said.” Who, exactly, was doing the speaking in that case? We have heard it said by whom? By those who went about reminding people of all the rules and regulations they had to follow, that would be the Pharisees, the face of religious law-enforcement in the Hebrew community. “You have heard it said,” implies “by the Pharisees.”
So Jesus offers sharp contrasts but neither erases nor discounts the teachings of the law, using traditional and familiar teachings on murder and adultery as essential grounds for building his case for a higher standard of morality. Jesus intensifies and radicalizes these teachings, extending them into almost every area of life.
No longer do the commandments against murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, they become entryways into the understanding of internal feelings as well as external behaviors of one's life: anger, ridicule, defamation, false generosity, arrogance, and alienation among these. American short story writer Ambrose Bierce wrote in his famous “Devil’s Dictionary”: “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
Perhaps one of the most radical aspects of Jesus' extension of the law is his internalization of it, so that not only behaviors, but attitudes and emotions fall within its scope. Jesus connects the dots from outward acts to internal orientation. It is one thing to behave properly. It is another thing entirely for one's heart to be focused on love.
One important disclaimer: This Gospel is not an indictment of those who are divorced, those who have made the difficult decision to leave relationships that were unhealthy, abusive, stifling, even life-threatening. God is not happiest when we are most miserable.
Jesus offers a more far-reaching ethic, a realm of God ethic, one already hinted at in the list of beatitudes preceding this discourse. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart--all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart. The righteousness of this newly launched kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life yielded to God and neighbor.
But what do we do with this gruesome eye and arm stuff? Even the most conventional biblical literalists agree that Jesus never intended his followers to pluck out their eyes or saw off their hands. Yet his reframing of morality exposes the easy concessions we make. People may applaud themselves for not committing murder while they ruin someone’s reputation by nasty gossip or by some mean-spirited post on FaceBook.
People can pat themselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet create unhealthy relationships with work, sports, an addiction, or the internet that prevent their honoring the relationships that should take priority in their lives. What Jesus is doing here is shifting our attention from the “big sins” of which we typically are not guilty to the orientation of our hearts that we need to cultivate.
Matthew is the most Jewish gospel written by a Jew for a Jewish community. This text is a full-throated engagement of Jesus with his heritage. This is a family conversation, Jesus adding his wisdom to the wisdom of the ages and in the midst of this discourse, Jesus makes two very significant points: the law is an impossible taskmaster.
None of us is capable of complete and utter fidelity to it without the grace of God. And this is the Good News—we have that grace. We have it, no matter who we are or what we have done. We have the love of God, through no power of our own, not because of who we are but because of who God is.
Edgar Allen Poe was one of my favorite authors when I was in high school. Apropos for
Valentine’s Day, his short work "The Tell Tale Heart" is a macabre story of a man snuffing out the life of another and burying him under the floorboards, then hearing his heart pounding in his ears. I hear a heart beating throughout Matthew’s passage, a telltale heart.
Valentine’s Day is all about the heart and so is this Gospel. You may recall the commercial for Capitol One credit cards that asks, “What’s in your wallet?” This morning Jesus simply asks, “What’s in your heart?”