Sermon for 6th Epiphany
Law and Gospel
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -
We are doomed. We are lost.
It is easy to have that reaction to today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew. The text tells us that anger leads to God’s judgment, that insult leads to Hell. The text tells us to make peace with those who accuse you of something or risk jailtime and that lust is the same as adultery. The text tells us to cut off your hand, cut out your eye, and to not swear ever, at all. And I haven’t even mentioned Jesus’ seemingly terrible words about divorce!
At our clergy text study this week, one of our colleagues suggested that this might be a good weekend NOT to follow the lectionary, the assigned Bible texts for this Sunday, but to read and preach on something else. I admit that my first reaction was to ignore most of what is in this text and preach on forgiveness, as both Vicar Sharon and I did with the children in our Preschool this week.
However, truth to tell, we are NOT doomed. We are NOT lost.
As with every Bible text, context, understanding the place and times of Jesus’ teaching, is very important and is most important to understanding this text. For example, in a time when women were considered no more than men’s property, Jesus’ words on divorce, which may seem very harsh to us today, were actually helpful and hopeful to the women of his day – Jesus proclaims that a man can no longer divorce his wife just by saying “I divorce you” three times – that was actually all it took the in Biblical times. And that a man must have real, not casual, rationale for divorce. And that divorce is not something to do just to marry another.
Looked at in context, all of this text is really about protecting vulnerable people. Jesus tells us to control our anger, seek reconciliation, settle arguments quickly, honor our spouse, and watch our language with others.
This text is about the contrast, the tension if you will, between God’s law, God’s standards for us all, and God’s Gospel, God’s love and forgiveness for us all. We Lutherans emphasize both of these, although we most often come down on the side of the Gospel, God’s love for us all, rather than the Law.
If you have been here at Mt. Olive for any amount of time you know that I put most emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness. I do this partially because I have found over the years that people are pretty hard on each other and themselves and, generally, do not need to be reminded about how bad they feel they are. I well recall a member of my first congregation who proudly told me that a former pastor’s preaching had made her feel “this small” (indicating a tiny space with her fingers) and she said it like that was a good thing!
In contrast, at first glance, this text from St. Matthew’s Gospel appears to come down heavily on the side of law, but, as scholar David Lose suggests, if we take another, a deeper look at it we may get a better understanding of God’s law and a clearer picture of the God we worship. Lose suggests that there are three related elements of the law that stand out as deserving attention.
First, the law is given always as a gift. The Ten Commandments, which capture the essence of God’s law and are referenced by Jesus in today’s text, the Ten Commandments are life’s little instruction book, God’s gift to help us get more from this life. It is interesting to note that the Commandments are given after God has already declared that Israel is God’s people. This means the law is not the means by which to become God’s people or to earn God’s love, but rather a gift given to God’s people because God loves them.
Second, the law is given to strengthen community. The “you” in Matthew is always plural. The law isn’t about meeting our individual needs but about creating and sustaining a community in which all of God’s children can find nurture, health, safety, and blessing. The logic behind the biblical focus on community is simple. When you’re looking out only for yourself, it’s you against the world. When you look out for the others in your community, and they in turn look out for you, it’s the community together that faces the challenges, setbacks, and opportunities the world offers.
Third, the law comes as a gift to strengthen community by orienting us to the needs of our neighbor. The law, let’s be very clear, is not meant to remove the neighbor and his or her needs from our view or concern, but rather draws us to our neighbor more closely.
Scholar Rolf Jacobson has suggested that evangelist Joel Osteen’s best-selling book, Your Best Life Now, would be closer to a biblical view of this world if it were titled, Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now. “You are your neighbor’s best life now” is what Jesus is talking about in this text. Jesus is trying to help us avoid seeing the law as merely drawing moral boundaries. Jesus is trying to alert us to our responsibility to care for those around us. One can too easily discriminate, injure, neglect, or speak poorly of a neighbor all the while saying, “I have kept the commandment because I have not murdered.” In today’s Gospel Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being.
Dr. Lose shares a story that I believe captures how the law – including the laws contained in today’s readings – reveal the parental heart of a God who wants nothing more than the health and happiness of God’s children. Lose’s friend, Frank, was about eight years old when he started arguing with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. In response, Frank reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!”
The law is God’s gift to protect and care for God’s children. God cares deeply for all of God’s children. Through God’s law, God says to us, “No, you cannot hoard everything. No, you cannot discriminate and exclude. No, you can not violate and exploit. Because, that other person, she is my daughter, because that other person, he is my son.”
Students lodging with Martin Luther once asked Luther what was Luther’s image of God. Luther responded, “When I think of God, I think of a man hanging on a tree.” Of course, Luther was referring to Jesus hanging on a cross.
In the cross of Christ we see God’s love poured out for the whole world. We are reminded that God will go to any and all lengths to communicate just how much God loves us so that we, in turn, may better love one another.
We are not doomed, we are lost not. We are forgiven by God. We are loved by God. And, with that love and forgiveness, God calls us to love and forgive others. Today and every day.
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
February 12, 2017