Sermon for February 12, 2023, 6th Epiphany (A): The fulfillment of the law (The Rev. Deborah White)
I received a jury summons in the mail this week – but don’t you worry about me missing work, because I never actually make it onto a jury. No one wants a former forensic neuropsychologist expert witness in their jury box. The one time I made it as far as the preliminary group, the defense attorney asked if I became a forensic psychologist in order to help people or because I found criminals interesting. Being that neither of these reasons was correct, I hesitated and asked if I could answer the question in my own words. “No,” he said, “pick one or the other.” “Well,” I said,” I guess it’s because I find criminal behavior interesting.” He apparently didn’t notice that I had made a subtle change from “criminal” to “criminal behavior,” because he quickly turned to the judge and said, “move to strike this juror.”
The truth is that I didn’t consider such questions when I chose my clinical specialty. All I knew was that working with people who acted in extreme ways told me a lot about human nature - and long before I became a psychologist, I was interested in understanding why people do what they do. What I learned in my years as a reporter, social worker, psychologist, and now, a priest, is that human behavior simply falls on a bell curve - one that runs from utterly depraved to astoundingly virtuous. It turns out that the ingredients that create monsters are exactly the same as the ones that make up saints; it’s just a matter of degree.
God knows this better than any human observer. Our Creator recognizes that all human beings struggle with anger, lust, and hypocrisy – just as all people have the capacity to radiate kindness, compassion, and mercy. God is the ultimate historian of human evolution, having experienced with us how factors like social context, socioeconomic status, and personal history influence the likelihood that we will act on either our best or worst ideas and feelings.
This is one of the reasons that our holy scriptures are a crucial part of our worship. They tell us stories of people who struggled with their human nature long before we did, and remind us of all of the ways that God has attempted to help us with that struggle. Beginning with the ten commandments, God provided human beings with laws designed to lead to happiness and social stability. We were told that choosing to follow them would, as our psalmist repeatedly enthuses, lead to happiness not just for individuals but for the entire community.
The same is true of the parables, sayings, and example of Jesus. Today’s somewhat disturbing gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount, which is famous for listing blessings, or beatitudes. But in this section of his instruction, Jesus fiercely condemns those who perverted Jewish law to punish the least powerful and most vulnerable among them. He tells them that no one other than Jesus himself can perfectly fulfill the law – and to make his point, he extrapolates several of the commandments to their ultimate degree. Do they think they are pure because they haven’t committed adultery? Well, guess what? They have sinned simply by thinking about it. Maybe they haven’t killed anyone, but by divorcing their wives without just cause, they have robbed them of the resources they need to stay alive and safe. By presenting his followers with an impossible standard of behavior, Jesus reminds us that we all fall short in managing our lesser thoughts and emotions. We all cause separation from God and one another. We all sin. That’s why we need to be spending our energy on repairing our relationships with others instead of trying to prove that we are better than them.
Of all of Jesus’s lessons, this one seems to be one of the hardest for his disciples to learn. Indeed, in our New Testament reading we find Paul trying to teach his people that by fighting among themselves over which of their leaders was the best, they were losing sight of the teachings of Jesus. The Corinthian church was splintered into factions and Paul knew that the “wisdom” of the world – the cares and confusions of their age – would destroy it if they did not understand that whatever their differences were, the foundation of their belief was the same– love among and with all people. When we hurt and judge one another, we tear apart the church itself. We are in this together.
This is still a radical idea. We live in a time and a culture in which we are told that it is alright to mock someone if we have good reason, that truth is a relative concept, and if someone’s not completely in agreement with us, then they are our enemy. That is the “wisdom” of our age. But God’s way is different. God does not belong to one person, one culture, one community, or one religion. The holiness codes, the words of Paul, and most especially the words of Jesus, exist so that we know how to live together.Salvation comes not from our ability to follow any set of rules or dogma, but from our likeness to God and our relationship with Jesus.
We cannot fulfill the law - and we do not need to try because Jesus has already done it. What we are asked to do is to follow his countercultural way of love - to be other, as he was. It is this “otherness” that makes us a community. It is this otherness that makes us part of the divine. By all means, Jesus tells his followers, respect the ancient rules that will help you live together. But that is not enough. It is not enough to be a law-abiding citizen. It is not enough to “do your part.” We must, as one body, transcend the limits of our human thoughts and emotions to behave as the divine human Jesus did.
To do this we must recognize and acknowledge that we cannot, as secular humanists believe, behave ethically and responsibly based on the strength of our personal integrity. We need God. Our scriptures show us over and over that human beings are unable to live together merely by trying to be good. History shows that it is, in fact, fatally arrogant to believe that our own “inner strength” is enough to combat the ignorance and evil that is as much a part of us as our innate goodness. The only way to transcend our humanity and share in God’s holy perfection is to live the way that Jesus has identified for those who truly love him. And the bottom line is this: You cannot truly love God unless you love your neighbor - all your neighbors - of all colors, races, genders, and beliefs. That means that sometimes we will have to love people not because they believe as we do, but despite what they believe. We are to hold in our minds the statues and commandments given to us not by society but by God. We must reach inward and draw on the spark of divinity that lies within us to love our neighbors zealously, fiercely, and without fear until we all can see God in ourselves and one another.
It will not be easy. Turning a blind eye to the sins of others may feel as if we have plucked out our own eye. Pulling back our hands to resist pointing at the sin and hypocrisy of others may feel like we have cut it off. But making such sacrifices is the way of Jesus- the way of love. If you would be a part of it, then step out of the jury box and give God your word that you will walk humbly with Jesus - and let that word be, “Yes – Yes, Yes, Yes.” AMEN.