Matthew 5: 21-26 follows the most memorable teachings in the Sermon of the Mount, the Beatitudes, and the Sermon goes on for another two whole chapters. Tomorrow’s reading will continue the warnings that you don’t have to actually do something to be in sin. Anger is murder. A glance is adultery. And in this #me-too era, when even a comforting hug can be misinterpreted, if this injunction is followed to its illogical conclusions, we would all be wearing burkas and hiding behind screened windows. And, finally, we are told not only to love our friends (that is easy) but love our enemies. Love our enemies as God loves us all, for God is perfect and we should reach for that impossible goal as best as we can, in desire and in prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide us. However, in this reading we are told we must try to effect change in another (given the caveat that God is the author of all change). If someone has something against us, we are enjoined to initiate the reconciliation. If their accusation is just, there is moral sense to this. But what if it is not. We are told that we have to cross the other’s boundary which may be built on hate or envy or jealousy or greed, and leveled against us, transferred to us. In other words, we need to make amendments for something we may not have done. Even if we try, that doesn’t always work, now does it.
We believe that we are bonded together in the Holy Spirit, and frankly, there are times when I don’t want to be part of a big messy family. A big broken dysfunctional family. At home. Or workplace. Or school. Or parish. It is particularly hard in the parish, because in this post-Christian area, unlike the so called “real world”, we are expected to somehow struggle through the petty jealousies, the hidden biases, not only racism and gender differences, but ethnic and cultural disparities because of voice tone or how close we stand to each other. And when a difference flares up, an unexplored dislike leading to unwarranted conclusions or false testimony of an incident or conversation, the unity of the body can be shattered. In some cases, the gossip and accusation can lead to a mob, and death. The trial and execution of Jesus is a good example.
The Sermon on the Mount, especially the Antithesis, this part and the parts which follow, is intended to deepen the morality of the Mosaic Law. It doesn’t take adultery to be unfaithful. It doesn’t take a curse, when a mild Raca/idiot will do, and anger will stand in for murder. For many in the Church, these have become ways to legitimize oppression, not grow in love to accept each other, or to encourage forgiveness, one broken soul to another. We have substituted happy smiles, shallow small talk, and insincere laughter for actually caring. It is safer. It doesn’t open up hidden places, cross personal boundaries. And for all of that we say we seek bonds of community as the Body of Christ, we are losing membership at an alarming rate. How does this call to deeper love, understanding, forgiveness feed the diminishment of the Church? It is hard. I would warrant if all of us knew what secret insecurities and perceived, mostly imaginary, threats yielded hidden feelings of being hurt or abused there would be nobody at the altar rail. Would trying to work towards radial reconciliation between two broken souls yield love and understanding? Perhaps, but often these built up images of each other are too painful to face or require too much self-confession and humility to change. Aren’t there times when holding back “Idiot” comes at a price of an insincere smile and being “nice”? There are three responses to the Sermon, as near as I can tell. Change the expectation that families, church or blood, are going to be open and honest and abide in love. That yields a community of small talk and smiles. Or, second, declare it all hypocrisy, a farce, and leave. Or the third, actually follow Jesus and accept the other as fragile, broken, and forgive, even if you are driven to loss, humiliation, and even being driven out of the parish or home. Or to the Cross. This passage, and probably the whole Sermon, has been used by biblical literalists as a tool of oppression, judgement, and punishment. Is that what Jesus had in mind with all the warnings about being tried before the Council? He, himself, was victim of such literal understanding of the Law. And how many floggings, stonings, imprisonments do we read about in the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles. Did he reform the Law or create a new rigid Law?
In the “real world”, we have tools to protect ourselves, to get even. Harsh words, counterattacks in kind, gathering social allies. But Jesus knew this, and we are specifically told not to fall for any of these Satanic ploys. Keep your oaths simple. Yes or no will do. No long fancy speeches to influence others or prayers to impress them. In Jesus’ very juicy Jewish and Gentile world, a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world, perhaps tamping down the melodrama and intensity of feelings and actions made sense. But we live in a cold cubicle world, one which has fled by droves to movie superheroes, fantasy books and games, mind numbing concerts, a kind of wishful thinking for something which touches the heart, kindles the imagination, awakens the soul. When we should be that thing. The hard way, understanding and forgiveness as Jesus lived and taught, is not a trick, something to be won in a few devotional talks or sermons. It takes time, suffering, misunderstanding, pain.
Once we realize that these injunctions are almost impossible to follow, we can fall back on Luther’s solution. Faith alone. If we wish to follow the spirit of the Sermon in a devout desire to live a righteous life, perhaps we need to loosen the legalistic bonds which it commands. Maybe a wistful glance at that married person, recognizing in it a kind of love and respect without succumbing to inappropriate wishes is okay. Maybe an occasional outburst of “You idiot,” is safer than holding it all in. I’m not sure how we can keep our parish structures without the rules laid out here, or the modern version in the form of spiritualized business models to keep the peace. Humans are passionate animals, and we create a lot of rules intended to curb our freedom, and where that fine line is between community and oppression, I don’t know. I do know that the Spirit lies within us, guiding us in God’s mercy and love. And I do know the danger of using the Spirit as a club against one another. And hypocrisy is its mother. That is beyond simple sin. That is blasphemy. Perhaps Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon can be summed up as love your friend and enemy alike (Mt 5: 44). Be humble before one another. Forgive. And embrace, delight in, and learn from the different ones. They, too, walk in God’s love and are bonded to us in the Spirit.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.