The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. Do you remember making cards for our parents, cutting big hearts out of red construction paper and decorating them with sparkles. It is, after all, a big day in the U.S. According to Hallmark, more than 163 million cards are sent on this holiday. The heart is the classic symbol of this holiday because Valentine’s Day is all about the heart. And, strange as it may seem, so is the Gospel we heard today.
But let’s start with a little story about confession because, after all, the passage from Sirach sets the stage: “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin,” and what Jesus seems to be talking about in the Gospel is sin.
A retired man went to confession and told the priest, “I have to confess that as an employee of the lumberyard I stole from my employer every day for 40 years. I would take boards, nails, tools…anything…every day for forty years!”
The priest was taken aback by this. “You mean to say you stole all that stuff every week and never confessed your sins for 40 years?” “Yes, Father, that is true. I’m so sorry. What will my penance be? The priest replied, “For something that big you will need to make a novena.” “Well, if you give me the plans, I’ve sure got the lumber.”
This section in Matthew Chapter 5 follows the Beatitudes and 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..."
He 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. 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.” And when Jesus speaks to “swearing,” he’s not talking about what we might utter when we stub our big toe. He’s referring to bearing false witness against someone—perjury.
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. Our God is not happiest when we are most miserable.
What do we do with this gruesome eye and arm stuff? Even if only a small portion of Christians followed through with what Jesus suggests here, we’d run into mangled faces and folks with missing limbs all over the place. People in the pews would look like the cast of a horror movie.
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 social media. 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.
“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.”
Matthew’s is the most Jewish gospel, the one most likely 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. During this Epiphany season, we claim once again that we have a living God, come to life among us. And because God is in the midst of us, you and I stand here on holy ground.
Edgar Allen Poe is one of my favorite authors. Apropos for Valentine’s Day, his short work "The Tell Tale Heart" is a gruesome story of a man snuffing out the life of another and burying him under the floorboards, then hearing his heart pounding in his ears. When I read this Gospel, do I hear a heart beating throughout Matthew’s passage, a telltale heart? A life lessons message to guide us on our journey?
People don’t generally get to the point of committing murder or grand larceny or slander without first experiencing a long sometimes painful journey of the heart that leads from peace to violence or happiness to misery or intolerance to hatred or compassion to judgment. Jesus points to the core issues of the really bad deeds. Today Jesus says, “Pay attention to your heart. That’s where it all begins.”