Jesus taught character, not rules

Today’s gospel reading offers multiple, important sermon topics: anger, violence, adultery, divorce and oath taking.[1] Instead of focusing on one topic, or all of them (think a two-hour sermon), I want to consider the passage as a whole, equipping you to interpret if for yourself.

Christians generally adopt a misguided approach toward this reading, mistakenly seeking to discover specific rules for governing human behavior from God. More broadly, Christians frequently characterize Jewish and Christian ethics as divine command ethics, God issuing a set of commands by which people should live.

An interpretation more faithful to Jesus begins by situating the text in its historical context. Jesus’ contemporaries regarded him as a rabbi, a teacher of Judaism, not as God incarnate issuing commands. What Christians regard as “law,” Jews then and now believe are instructions on how to live constantly mindful of God's loving, life-giving and liberating presence.

Imagine each of the four topical sections in the reading summarizing a discussion that Jesus had with ten, twenty or more people. These conversations would have included questions, answers, arguments and repartee. Our synopses omit the conversations’ presumably rich texture as well as most emotion and humor. And, we no longer hear the humor in the little remaining levity – cut off your hand if it offends or poke out your eye if it causes sin.

Each synopsis starts with Jesus saying “you have heard it said,” acknowledging not only his hearers’ illiteracy, which limited them to hearing and not reading the Scriptures, but also reflecting Jewish belief that the Torah requires constant reinterpretation. In good rabbinical style, Jesus metaphorically and expansively interprets each saying.

For example, Jesus tacitly equates anger with murder. He exhorts his hearers to reconcile with those at whom they are angry before offering a gift in the temple, that is, before worshiping. Taken at face value, Jesus is telling Jews not to get angry at dishonest tax collectors, exploitative Roman occupiers or unscrupulous landlords. A Jew, who heard Jesus and wished to worship in the Temple without being angry, would need to sublimate righteous anger at exploitation, oppression or mistreatment under a fa├žade of equanimity. Alternatively, Jesus is not issuing rules but describing the character of a person who is mindful of God and molded in God's image. Such a person tries to live at peace with others, enjoys healthy relationships conducive to mutual flourishing, and yet gets angry at injustice.

Further along in the gospel reading, Jesus appears to equate lust with adultery. Jimmy Carter, in an infamous Playboy magazine interview, when asked if he had ever committed adultery, replied affirmatively because he had occasionally lusted after a woman who was not his wife. Carter subsequently endured much ridicule from those who did not understand his reply. Interpreting Jesus’ teaching literally means that the biological roots of our sexual drives inescapably causes us to sin. Furthermore, a literal reading will result in numerous severely maimed Christians. Conversely, we ignore Jesus’ teaching at our own peril, a result tragically evident in “Me Too” movement stories of women degraded, robbed of their personhood and physically debased.

More realistic, faithful interpretations begin by historically situating the text. We know that gender does not determine personhood. Thus, we rightly hear Jesus speaking to all persons, not just men. We also better understand human biology and psychology. Persons of all sexual orientations experience physical attraction to some other humans. Jesus seeks to shape human character, that we may be constantly mindful of God and molded to respond to God's image in each person we encounter. Jesus is teaching that every individual is equally worthy of dignity and respect; healthy relationships require fidelity and trust.

Jesus emphasized actions, not belief. He sought to shape human behavior by encouraging people to develop habits – sometimes called virtues – that promote mindfulness of God and Godly living. For me, today’s gospel evokes six words that name sets of habits or virtues: justice, peace, fidelity, respect, honesty and integrity. You may choose different words, even a different number of them. After two millennia of Christian discourse, no widely agreed catalogue of virtues, or even the number of them, exists. Thirteenth century Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas provided the best-known catalogue. He identified seven virtues basic to Christian character: the four cardinal virtues of justice, courage, temperance and prudence and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

Ash Wednesday is in ten days. The reading from Sirach enjoins us to choose life or death, and to choose whether to lead a more faithful life.[2] Reflect on today’s gospel. Ask yourself in what way you want to become a better, more Christlike person. Choose a discipline of giving up or taking on a single practice that you hope will become a habit, part of being a more virtuous, more Christlike person. Practice that habit daily for the forty days of Lent. Then do it for the fifty days of Easter. Research suggests that genuinely acquiring a new habit requires eighty plus days of consistent effort. This year, may we each respond affirmatively to God's call to become a more virtuous person. Amen.

Sermon preached the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 16, 2020
Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Matthew 5:21-37.
[2] Sirach 15:15-20.


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