SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
O God, the strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Do no swear at all…Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Matthew 5:34-37.
Back in my college days I recall a rather heated argument over the propriety of Christians taking oaths. A young Mennonite woman, who was a friend of a friend of my roommate at Concordia Lutheran College in Portland Oregon maintained, on the strength of this and other New Testament texts, that Jesus’ admonition applied across the board to all oaths-whether administered in court, required by the armed services or as a condition for practicing law. My roommate, a staunch confessional Lutheran as ever there was, took the opposite view. He conceded, of course, that Jesus does not encourage us to speak oaths in the regular course of ordinary conversation. That only cheapens the practice in cases where it is required, such as those very instances in which my Mennonite acquaintance would have felt compelled to refrain. He pointed out that Jesus was asked to swear by the Most High and declare whether he was indeed the Son of God and responded (though whether his answer “so you say,” can be viewed as an averment is open to debate).
Since that time, I have sworn oaths to uphold the constitutions of the United States, the State of New Jersey and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the course of my legal practice, I have witnessed by affidavit the execution of numerous documents and signed thousands of Certifications under penalty of perjury. I can’t say I have lost much sleep over any of that. Though I have never given this issue much serious study, I suspect the oath is not really what is at stake here. The question is, who is invoking it and why? If the state or anyone else requires an oath from me, the intent is to make it clear to me that the matter on which I am being questioned is of grave importance. Moreover, I am being reminded that my failure to testify truthfully exposes me to legal penalties. I am on notice that I had better be careful of what I say and how I say it. But is my obligation to speak carefully, truthfully and accurately any less stringent in the absence of an oath? Shouldn’t my speech always be as though under oath? I think that is perhaps what Jesus is getting at here.
We seem to be vaguely aware that there are times when absolute truthfulness is demanded and comfortably convinced that, in most cases, a rough approximation will do. I frequently hear people say, “Look, I’ll be perfectly honest here,” and I would like to reply, “So what have you been for the last ten minutes?” The assumption seems to be that “less than honest” is perfectly acceptable most of the time. Why else would you need to announce in the middle of a conversation, “OK, listen up, I’m about to tell the truth for a change.” Jesus warns us that “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” Matthew 12:36. How many of those haven’t I spoken in my six decades? More common by far than any deliberate falsehoods on my part are comments made based on untested assumptions, unreliable knowledge and the hearsay of people I hardly know. Most of what I pass on in this way is innocuous. Nobody’s reputation will suffer if it turns out an accident I remember hearing about somewhere took place in Cliffside Park rather than Ridgefield as I might have related it. Yet I cannot help feeling that inattention to accuracy in small matters can lead to toleration of inaccuracy in slightly more important matters, thereby paving the way to a larger indifference to the truth. The medieval monastics were sensitive to the dangers of careless and unregulated speech. They tended to extol silence as the default behavior in for a Christian community. The Rule of St. Benedict admonished young novices as follows:
“Let us do as the prophet says: ‘I have said: I will keep my ways so that I will not offend with my tongue. I have guarded my speech. I held my peace and humbled myself and was silent, even from speaking good things.” (Ps. 39:1-2). Here the prophet demonstrates that if we are not to speak of good things, for the sake of silence, it is even more vital that we not speak of evil lest we sin, for we shall be punished for that as sin. No matter how perfect the disciple, nor how good and pious his speech he rarely should be given permission to speak for: ‘In much speaking, you shall not escape sin’ (Prov. 10:19). The master should speak and teach; the disciple should quietly listen and learn. No matter what must be asked of a superior, it must be done with humility and reverent submission. We always condemn and ban all small talk and jokes; no disciple shall speak such things.” Meisel, Anthony C., del Mastro, M.L. (translators) The Rule of St. Benedict, (c. 1975 by Meisel & del Mastro, pub. by Doubleday & Co., Inc.) p. 56.
I can’t help thinking that the monks were onto something important here. Before we learn anything about what it means to be human or understand anything of the Creator’s character, the Bible tells us that we have been made in God’s image. The Bible is sparing when it comes to more than metaphorical imaging of God. About all we learn from the first chapter of Genesis is that this God speaks. Perhaps that is all it means to be made in God’s image. We are the animal that is endowed with speech-the very tool by which God fashions the universe. The monks understood, rightly I believe, that such a powerful instrument as the tongue should be used sparingly, with great care and seldom until one has acquired the art of listening and learning.
I wonder, when did silence become awkward? When did it become a social obligation to “make conversation”? When did we decide that “small talk” is worth talking about? When did we find it necessary to pipe insipid music into doctors’ offices and hotel lobbies to fill up every last silent crevice with noise? What would life look like in a world where everyone understood that each word is spoken in the presence and under the judgment of God?
Here’s a poem about the limits of speech and the power of silence.
The Beginning of Speech
The child I was came to me
a strange face
He said nothing We walked
each of us glancing at the other in silence, our steps
a strange river running in between
We were brought together by good manners
and these sheets now flying in the wind
then we split,
a forest written by earth
watered by the seasons’ change.
Child who once was, come forth—
What brings us together now,
and what do we have to say?
Source: Written by Adonis and published in Selected Poems, (c. 2010 by Adonis, published by Yale University Press and translated by Khaled Mattawa). Ali Ahmad Said Esber, who writes under the name of “Adonis,” is an Arab poet, translator, editor, and theorist. He was the oldest of six children born to a farming family in Syria. He got his earliest education from his father who taught him to read and encouraged him to memorize poems. With the help of a presidential scholarship, Esber enrolled in a French high school and then Damascus University, where he earned a BA in philosophy. During this time he began writing poetry under the name of Adonis, the Greek fertility god. He was arrested and imprisoned for a year in Syria for political activity deemed subversive. Following his release, Adonis moved to Beirut. Among his accomplishments is receipt of the first ever International Nâzim Hikmet Poetry Award, the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression’s Bjørnson Prize, the Highest Award of the International Poem Biennial in Brussels, and the Syria-Lebanon Best Poet Award. In 1983 he was elected into the Stéphané Mallarmé Academy. Adonis currently resides in Paris. You can read more about him and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This lesson is for people on the brink of a new frontier. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.
The Book of Deuteronomy is connected with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is rather a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood. More than likely, the Book of Deuteronomy is the product of a few authors working with various ancient traditions brought together by the final author/editor into the single canonical narrative we have today.
The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead.
It seems we are always on the frontier of something. Seniors in high school look forward with anticipation to June which holds for them a new existence, whether in college, the workforce, the armed forces or, sadly, the increasingly challenging search for work. Embarking on married life is a similar departure into unknown territory. Those of us beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging bodies understand that we finally will face the ultimate frontier where we will be compelled to rely upon the steadfast love of our Good Shepherd more than ever before. Each frontier holds both promise and threat; possibilities and temptations; invitations to faith and the danger of unbelief. In each instance, we are faced with life and death decisions. Whether we are the children of Israel at the border of Canaan, the nation of Judah picking itself up again after years of foreign domination, or churches here in the Meadowlands struggling to understand how to be the church in a society that no longer needs the church; God’s people are always at the edge of some new frontier. Moses’ admonition: Chose life. Vs. 19. Cleave to God; obey God; trust God. Remember both who and whose you are.
Moses promises prosperity and wellbeing for the people should they choose obedience to the covenant and destruction should they disobey. As noted in last week’s post on Psalm 112, this testimony is true as far as it goes. The commandments were given to order life around faithfulness to God and love of neighbor. In a community shaped by these commands, faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. But no community is ever so thoroughly shaped by the covenant that it is free from injustice. Moreover, when the people of God are thrown into historical circumstances where the covenant community is shattered and the covenant no longer carries any weight, this simple equation breaks down altogether. This is what Walter Brueggeman would call the “state of disorientation” where faithfulness results not in blessing, but in suffering, persecution and even death. Brueggeman, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. The Books of Ecclesiastes and Job as well as many of the lament Psalms afford a corrective, reminding us that very often the faithful suffer grievously even as the wicked prosper. The ultimate test of faith, then, comes when faithfulness seems ineffective, futile and even counterproductive. It is precisely this sort of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible with no less than 176 verses. It is also just two chapters away from the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117, which is a mere two verses. So much for Bible trivia.
Like Psalm 112 from last week, Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. However, instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the first section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph.” The next section has each verse beginning with the next Hebrew letter, “beth.” So it goes for twenty more sections through the rest of the Hebrew alphabet ending in the letter “tav.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.
Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.
I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40. Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”
The first eight verses of Psalm 119 making up our reading begin with a proclamation of blessing for those who walk in the Torah of the Lord. This is a good reminder that genuine prayer arises out of our covenant relationship with Israel’s God into which us gentile folks come through baptism. It is only because God speaks that prayer is possible. Prayer is always responsive. It does not presume upon unfettered access to God as a matter of right, but seizes upon God’s commands and promises as grounds for praise, petition and lament. It is for this reason that the Psalms are the best possible resource for learning to pray. Reading one every morning and one each night is the best medicine I know. That said, I think it is permissible to break up Psalm 119 into a few days.
Last week in I Corinthians 1 and 2 the Apostle Paul was contrasting the spirit of divisiveness at work in the Corinthian church with the Spirit of God who forms in the church “the mind of Christ.” I Corinthians 1:10-17; I Corinthians 2:14-16. In this Sunday’s reading Paul goes on to explain that he has been unable to address the Corinthian church as spiritual people because they are still people of “flesh.” Like nursing infants, they are not ready for the solid food of the “hidden wisdom of God.” I Corinthians 2:6-8. Here it is worth noting that Paul uses the Greek word for flesh (“sarkos”) to describe people whose minds are dominated by worldly ways and, more specifically, the sort of divisiveness and strife that characterizes pagan culture in Corinth. This “fleshly” thinking is informing the conduct of the congregation, preventing it from growing into the mind of Christ and functioning as Christ’s Body.
Many misguided criticisms have been made of Paul for disparaging the human body and the physical world with a dualistic theology valuing spirit over matter. Paul does no such thing. In fact, Paul’s favorite expression for the church is “the Body of Christ.” This is not the sort of expression you would expect from a world hating gnostic! How could someone holding the body in contempt simultaneously speak of that body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit?” I Corinthians 6:19. When Paul speaks critically of “the flesh” he is not disparaging the human body or the material world. He is instead referring to an attitude, outlook, worldview dominated by selfishness and the will to power.
Paul points out that the apostolic witness is united in its testimony to Christ. The focus should not be upon the individual apostles who have ministered at Corinth. Just as the apostles, Apollos, Cephas and Paul work in concert, one evangelizing for Christ, another nourishing for Christ; so the church ought to be living in harmony through Christ. At the end of the day, the one who plants, the one who waters and the one who reaps can each be replaced. It is God who gives the growth. Paul is laying the foundation here for his extensive discussion of the church as the Body of Christ and the unity in love necessary to sustain it, all to be presented in the coming chapters.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus goes on to explain what he meant in last week’s reading when he told his disciples that, unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. He does so by taking the Ten Commandments and turning them up on high heat. For the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus will be employing the same formula repeatedly: “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.” Jesus will finally point out that all the law and the prophets boil down to love of God and love of neighbor. But that is no slackening of the law. To the contrary, love demands even more than the letter of the law can deliver.
The Commandment forbids killing. There is a good deal of literature in which Old Testament scholars bicker over whether the commandment should be interpreted “Thou shalt not kill” or whether it should be rendered “thou shalt not commit murder.” But Jesus renders that sterile debate moot. So far from taking a human life, the disciple must not even harbor anger or engage in name calling. Vss. 21-22. Moreover, it is not enough merely to hold one’s peace. A disciple is under obligation to seek reconciliation with a person s/he knows to have a grudge against him or her.
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Vss. 23-24. The sacrifice envisioned here is not an obligatory one, but a voluntary one expressing devotion or thanksgiving and the desire to draw near to God. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 232. The point made here is that devotion to God cannot be divorced from the disciple’s relationship to his or her neighbor. As will be made clear in Jesus’ parable of the last judgment, God is rightly served chiefly through caring for one’s neighbor. Matthew 25:31-46.
Next Jesus addresses the commandment against adultery. It is noteworthy that the focus here is exclusively on men. This is because, technically speaking, adultery was a crime of one man against another. A woman was regarded as in some sense the property of her husband and, as such, not an independent agent. That would not necessarily make her blameless by any means, but the assumption seems to be that the male bears primary responsibility for the crime and for its prevention. In a culture such as our own where women are increasingly on a par with their male counterparts in all areas of life, the injunction against lust and the responsibility for adultery attach to them as well. That said, there remains a significant power imbalance between men and women leading to abuse ranging from verbal sexual harassment to rape in numerous venues. Perhaps, then, it is premature to adjust the focus of this text overly much.
A word or two about “lust” is in order. Lust should not be equated with sexual attraction. It is rather a ruthless desire to possess and control with no recognition of the rights, needs or welfare of the other. Instead of building up and supporting faltering marriages, lust preys upon them. Indeed, it is the nature of lust to exploit the weak and vulnerable. While rape is the most blatant and ugly expression of lust, it can also masquerade as love and compassion-such as when a pastor, counselor or therapist sexually exploits a parishioner/patient.
Lust is not limited to sexuality. Indeed, our culture’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods from iphones to the latest clothing is perhaps the most destructive form of lust in existence. Our opulence is leading to the relentless exploitation of our planet and the poorest and most vulnerable communities inhabiting it. Given the danger lust poses to the bonds of trust and faithfulness needed to sustain community, it is not surprising that Jesus calls for extreme measures to prevent its taking hold.
Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture, Jesus’ treatment of the subject makes for some uneasiness in the pews of just about every congregation. When attempting to interpret this passage in our present context, one needs to keep in mind the status of women in Jesus’ day. As previously explained, a woman was typically considered in some sense the property of a man. If she was unmarried, she belonged to her father. If married, to her husband. The means of self-support for independent women were few and not enviable. A woman divorced from her husband and rejected by her father was in a plight as desperate as the woman widowed without grown children to support her. Therefore, to divorce one’s wife usually consigned her to a life of abject poverty-or worse. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus did not look kindly upon casual divorce and remarriage as it constituted a thin legal gloss for adultery and abandonment. There is, we must acknowledge, a difference between such casual divorce and a divorce in which both partners agree or are made to take responsibility for each other’s financial well-being and that of any children of the marriage.
That having been said, there remains every reason to support marriages and discourage divorce. Unfortunately, efforts by religious groups to preserve marriage have frequently focused on making divorce more difficult. Resistance to so-called “no fault” divorce was strong in the 60s and 70s. The failure of marriages, however, has less to do with laws facilitating divorce and more to do with the breakdown of community resulting in young families having to locate in areas where they are virtual strangers left to struggle with family pressures on their own. Extended families, affiliations with church/synagogue, stable neighborhoods and social organizations fostering friendship and support are now the exception rather than the rule for many young couples. Economic insecurity and unemployment add to these strains. We need to recognize that failing marriages are not the cause, but the symptom of a failing society and address the disease rather than focusing on the symptom.
“Do not swear at all…” Vs. 33. The fact that you feel the need to take one indicates that you know your word is not trustworthy enough and that you need to invoke the threat of divine punishment in order to make other people believe what you are saying. Jesus maintains that, since a disciple is aware that every word spoken is said in the presence of God, an oath is not necessary. No speech should ever be anything less than truthful.
Truthful speech is a habit of the heart. It is not an inborn trait. In fact, deception is our default behavior. The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves to assuage guilt, justify hurtful actions and rationalize plans that we know deep down are selfish, self-serving and destructive to others. In my former life as an attorney, I listened to hundreds of people lie under oath. Most of them would probably have passed a polygraph test with flying colors. That is because when we tell ourselves a lie often enough, we begin to believe it. It becomes the truth for us. The same thing happens collectively. When a lie is repeated again and again and again on television, radio and over the internet, it gains traction no matter how demonstrably false it might be. Advertisers and political campaign managers realize this and have made productive us of it. Honesty is an empty virtue among people who have lost the ability to discern the truth.
Nobody understands the difficult art of learning to tell the truth better than a recovering addict who has gone through a twelve step program. Regaining and maintaining sobriety requires an unflinching commitment to telling the truth in the company of people equally committed to that goal. The fact is, we are all addicts to the lies we tell to comfort ourselves. What we need is to be accepted into a community dedicated to truthful speech where our lies can be laid bare and rejected; where through repentance and forgiveness we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and our God as he truly is. That community is called church.
There are more sermons in this gospel lessen than one can shake a stick at. It is best just to choose one and run with it.