A Provocation: The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany: The Second Sunday in Black History Month: Matthew 5:21-37

Matthew 5:21-37
5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’

5:22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

5:23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,

5:24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

5:25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.

5:26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

5:30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

5:31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’

5:32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’

5:34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,

5:35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.

5:36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.

5:37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is this so difficult?
  • Why did men force women into adultery (v. 32)?
  • Why do we want to say more than “Yes” of “No?”

Some Longer Reflections:

“If you say, ‘You fool….'”

There is probably enough to think hard about just in these few words, enough to occupy us, enough that we do not need to go any further.

There is a lot in the remainder of the scene, but first we have to get through these few little words.

It is impossible to read Facebook, or a political article in the newspaper, or listen to the news (no matter whether you prefer what the President calls “fake news” sources or what others call “Faux News,” fair and balanced though it trumpets itself to be) without hearing someone comment on the insults they have suffered in political circles in the past year.

And everyone knows the cause of the problem.

It’s Them.

It doesn’t matter who the Them is this time.  It is always Them.

I’m kind of getting to like being called a snowflake, if only because it’s not as disgusting as some of the other things that the trumperoids have been calling their opponents over past years.

There, I did it again.  And I enjoyed it.  To be sure, I avoided calling anyone a literal “fool” (though I did refer to Them as “trumperoids”), so maybe I still pass the test.

Or not.

Perhaps this would be a good time to launch a carefully argued analysis of the role of insults in the current political world, or to offer an indictment of the politics of disdain.  I could do that, as could maybe everyone who reads these Provocations.  We have all heard it.  We have, many of us anyhow, participated in it.  And we have all thought about it with some pain.

There are things to be said and studied.

I was recently reading a collection of essays that I found extremely helpful.  The title of the volume is Conflict or Consensus in Modern American History, and the essays (by prominent American historians) explore the question of whether U.S. history is primarily a story of essential agreement or of continuing, unresolved conflict.  There is a good case to be made on the several sides of this question, and the essays take up the argument in early colonial times, in late pre-Revolutionary times, and in era after era up to the time of the Civil War.  (That’s volume 1.)

The essays are worth reading, if only because all of the writers, even those that argue that there has been a general continuing consensus that has characterized American political life, all of the writers note the reality of sharp conflict back through our national history.  If you want to read the book, you will have to find it in a good library, or hope for luck with used book re-sellers.  The volume was copyrighted in 1968, and is long out of print.

If you think back on it, 1968 was a good year for such a volume to appear.  That was the year of the Prague Spring and of the battle of Khe Sanh.  It was the year of the Tet Offensive and of the My Lai massacre.  People who watched the evening news or read news magazines saw images of the riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago or of the execution of a Viet Cong operative on the street in Saigon.  (If you want to see the image of the execution, you may go to http://www.famouspictures.org/vietnam-execution/)  It was the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated.  It was also the year that Robert Kennedy was assassinated.  In 1968, Frederick Douglass had only been dead for 73 years.

In 1968 the question of whether consensus was even possible was definitely up for grabs, and not for the first or last time.  Political violence and even political assassination have been abiding presences in the history of this nation.  We will gain nothing if all we do is yell about who started the violence, who shouted the first insult, who killed the first political opponent.  Everyone already knows it was Them.

But Jesus’ words offer a good place to start.

Whoever says to one of Them, “You fool, shall be liable to the hell of fire.”  We should fix the translation here.  The word is not “hell,” which brings with it a theology that is both vicious and vindictive.  And non-biblical.

The word in Greek is Gehenna, which may refer (according to some rabbis) to a garbage dump where trash (and infected corpses?) were burnt.  If this is the relevant reference, a person consigned to the fiery Gehenna is useless or even a source of contagion that must be eliminated.

Or it may refer to a valley in which children were sacrificed to deities.  If this is the reference we are to imagine, the person sacrificed is either offered to a foreign deity to to a God who fails to intervene, unlike what happened in the case of Abraham and Isaac (the Akedah, in Genesis 22).

Or it may refer to the practice of the Roman Tenth Legion (Legio X Fretensis) of cremating corpses in the valley of Gehenna during the siege of Jerusalem during the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.  If this is the anchor for the image used in Matthew (and I think this is the most productive possibility), then the note is one of fruitlessness and failure, and the death of the person who calls his brother a moron (another translation of the Greek word in this scene) is linked with all the other pointless and irretrievable deaths that Jews suffered at the hands of their enemies.

Here is a question: how is consigning a person to any of these fates any different from calling your brother a fool?

That is, for me, the interesting question just now.

Perhaps Jesus is covered by the “Jesus Clause,” you know: the interpretive escape clause that allows Jesus to get away with things that would be questionable if anyone else did them. (For instance, telling a mother who asked him to heal her daughter that he didn’t do favors for dogs; see Matthew 15:21-28.  Or his words to his mother and brothers when they came to talk to him: Who is my mother?; see Matthew 12:46-50.  Commentators regularly commend him for valuing his obligations to the kingdom of heaven more even than his obligations to his earthly mother, conveniently forgetting that in Matthew 15 Jesus specifically condemns such a reading of the order of obligations.  There are more.)

But if Jesus is not covered by the “Jesus Clause,” then we have to consider that possibility that he finished this little discourse, only to realize that his own words had just bitten him.

That happens.

It happens to me.  It happens to you.  It even happens to Them.  And at least some of Them are as embarrassed as you are.  Or as Jesus must have been.  Or should have been.

So maybe that is the spiritual, social, political, and human exercise for this week, the Second Sunday after it seemed clear that the President did not know who Frederick Douglass was.

I’m not suggesting that we give him a pass, or that we give him more time.  More time to do what?  Eliminate all environmental protections?  Foment a war with Australia, for Pete’s sake?  Or play into the hands of actual enemies who have been saying for years that the U.S. is at war with Islam?  Heaven help us all.

I’m not saying any of that.  We have real responsibilities in this complicated real world we live in.  And some of those responsibilities require us to resist effectively.  But I am saying that we ought to listen to the words that came out of our mouths when we called one of Them a moron, or consigned Them to Gehenna.  Either way we are caught.  Just like Jesus.

Maybe the point is that you should be aware, in the midst of our efforts to make things better, that it is easy to make things worse.  We are going to need allies in our effort to act responsibly.  Some of those allies might even come from among the ranks of Them, whoever they are.

As Jesus points out repeatedly in the rest of this little scene, it is frightfully hard to actually do things properly.  We often end up making things worse.  Maybe this is a week to step back, not from resistance and responsibility, but from our panting enthusiasm.  Maybe this is a week to take a breath.  Maybe this is a week to listen to ourselves, and then look for words and actions that offer better prospects for carrying out our responsibilities in the midst of very real complications.

If I am reading correctly, even Jesus had to do that.

2 thoughts on “A Provocation: The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany: The Second Sunday in Black History Month: Matthew 5:21-37

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