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12th February 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
10 February 2017

Readings

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy is about restoration, if the people remember the blessings and curses during their exile, then Yahweh will restore their fortunes.  In the passage we read we are told that God has set life and death before the people, blessings and curses. The choice is surely to choose life so the people and their descendants may live.  Maurice Andrew writes that the astounding thing is that the present people had chosen death but it was still possible for them to choose life.  Verse 19 calls appealingly ‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live’. [1]

Matthew 5: 21-37

In this section Jesus extends the scripture by interpreting its ethical and societal implications for human living.  Worship with un-reconciled relationships is not possible.  Disputes are not condemned but the outcome should be reconciliation rather than judgement.  In talking of adultery and marriage the language is male focussed. [2]  Households and marriage in this society are patriarchal and Jewish wives could not divorce their husbands. 

Sermon

The choice between life and death seems to be a strange choice to be offered in our reading from Deuteronomy when our bodies and our subconscious minds are genetically programmed to choose life.  Fear drives us away from anything that threatens to hurt or kill us.  Some atheists have even suggested that religion evolved to overcome our fear of death, our fear of non-being.

But in one of Shakespeare most famous lines Hamlet asks the question ‘To be or not to be.’

Hamlet wrestles with the feeling that his existence is so wretched that complete non-existence might well be decidedly preferable.  Sadly we know that is a very real question for many people.  It is almost a logical question for people with painful terminal illness and is what the euthanasia debate is all about.  It is an extremely sad question when it is asked by so many young people as a result of bullying or, like Hamlet, their life just seems impossible, complicated or unbearable. 

We associate courage with acts of bravery in war or rescuing someone, moments where there is an obvious risk of death but to the hero the goal of that action makes the risk worthwhile.  We would assume that a rational person would not leap into a raging river but a courageous person may well do so to rescue a child that is being swept away by the torrent. 

That is an act of courage and, as Jesus suggests, it can also be an act of love.  ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13)

On the other hand German protestant philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich suggests that courage is needed to choose life.  In his book The Courage to Be Tillich presents anxiety as the primary modern psychological epidemic resulting from a loss of meaning in life.  He supplies courage as the antidote. Courage is the strength to affirm one’s own life in spite of the fact that life will inevitably end, that it may seem to have no purpose, and that people are destined to carry great burdens of guilt for not being perfect or ‘acceptable’ in their own eyes.[3]

That indeed is a far more rational and deeper justification for religion and very pertinent to the options of choice in our Deuteronomy reading. 

We do make choices about life and death and those choices are not as obvious as they may first seem.  The reading links those choices to choosing Yahweh or worshiping other gods which is perhaps outside the choices we assume we make.  We do not make ourselves stone and metal idols to worship but as John A. T. Robinson pointed out in Honest to God we do make mental images we worship.[4]  Our world is full of ideologies that have gripped, and continue to grip, people in our recent history. 

The vision of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist government was so focused on a utopian socialist state that leadership were prepared to murder a significant proportion of the population in order to make a fresh start.  The idea that the ends justify the means is one of the very toxic creeds that continue to cost innocent lives in our world today.  We have invented the term ‘collateral damage’ to hide the reality that innocent men, women and children are killed in bombing raids.

The insistence that the market should be completely unfettered by regulation or government intervention is another false god of our world that causes untold misery and slavery.  The trickledown theory is another false god that moves wealth from where it is most needed to where it is most accumulated.

In contrast to such false gods our Deuteronomy reading asks us to choose Yahweh who has become God we recognise in the Risen Christ.  Furthermore we are told that making that choice is life giving.  That raises two questions. 

How is choosing God life-giving and how do to we choose, love or befriend a God we cannot see or touch?  Metal images are a physical presence we can look at, touch, and they are an asset to the tourist industry.  The mental images in our own mind are likewise individually accessible and have the advantage of behaving the way we think a god ought to behave.  Diana Butler Bass gives the answer to this dilemma when she writes:

Friendship with God can be mystical and individual, but it is also communal and corporate—every major faith asserts that friendship with God is strengthened through friendship with our neighbour.  .[5]

In that understanding choosing God is indeed the same as choosing life because friendships and more practically loving relationships are life giving.   We are a communal species and we have a better chance of survival in communities.  Furthermore communities thrive when there are strong bonds between individuals within those communities.  There is even recent research that says people live longer within loving relationships.  

It is therefore understandable that the God who gives us life is the God we find in loving relationships and within community.  Bass further adds that:

Ultimately, spiritual authority rests in the voice of God, the voices of community, and in our own voices.  It is a harder path to hear answers than to ask someone to give us an answer, but it is the path that many people have embarked upon[6]

It is in an effort to smooth that harder path and support our connection to the divine through loving relationships that Matthew brings us today’s section from the Sermon on the Mount.   Jesus takes the laws from his tradition and expounds what was used to condemn people.  Jesus extends those rules into strategies for loving relationship building in his time and place.  Unfortunately humanities quest for false gods has simply focused in on these expanded texts in order to judge people rather that liberate them.  As words have changed through translation and time today’s text has become alternative facts that shut down the community’s effort to make a loving and Godly response to people’s individual circumstances.  People’s propensity for being told rather than the more difficult task of listening to hear the voice of God through our relationship with others has turned what was intended as a guide for living back into a set of rules.  That was not Jesus’ intention and if we look at his suggestion that we can’t worship God if we are harbouring a grudge against someone close to us that becomes obvious.  That suggestion is not only self-evident it also shows Jesus’ liberating and loving original intention. 

But if our mental image of the divine is a harsh punishing judge we can rob ourselves and others of life for the sake of our own self-righteousness. 

Jesus makes reference to the fact that these verses are based on ancient laws in verse 21 and goes on to say that merely restraining from murder is not enough, we must control our anger.  Most psychologists would agree with him.  We can completely ruin our lives by nurturing resentment for a past wrong, perceived or real.  Time and time again people are questioned by the media outside a courtroom and asked if they now feel they have closure.  Usually they don’t.  Finding closure is not as simple as wreaking vengeance on a perpetrator.  That is why vendettas last for generations.  Resolving conflict and working to remove injustices that cause conflict is a far better and more Godly approach.

As we read through the gospels we continually find Jesus criticising people’s judgmental response to others.  Typical of that was the woman caught in adultery in John 8:3-11.  In that episode Jesus said ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (John 8:7)

Jesus’ instructions in this section of the Sermon on the Mount are in line with that episode from John’s gospel.  At the time of Jesus adultery was a crime that one man committed against another and the woman was punished.  Women were regarded as chattels so adultery was a bit like car conversion were the car often gets the blame for being in the wrong place, or not being locked up.  There are places in the world today where men are forgiven for rape because the woman was not locked in her house.  Even in our world women are still blamed for being available.  

There is an obvious direct connection to the woman caught in adultery and in today’s section.

You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’  (Matthew 5:27,28)  That certainly explains why nobody could throw any stones to kill the woman in the episode in John’s Gospel.  This response recognises that, like all animals, most people are attracted to the opposite sex.  Rather than condemning women for that attraction people should honour the commitments people make to each other and look for reconciliation when things go wrong.  Like his comments on murderous intent Jesus is looking for life-giving responses rather than judgmental life destroying responses.  Unfortunately, instead of recognising Jesus’ response of putting a traditional rule in perspective by highlighting species protecting instincts, the church has accepted the expounded rule as a new rule that includes thoughts as well as actions.

Certainly in my lifetime there have been people in youth ministry who used these verses to gain control of young people by having them continually repentant of lustful thoughts.  Without those thoughts however humanity could well find themselves in the same predicament as the kakapo, booming all night with very little to show for it.

Jesus’ response to divorce is very similar and critical of rules that, in a society that treats women as chattels, men are allowed to divorce but women are not.  Certainly Jesus stresses the seriousness of a marriage commitment but each section of the gospels must be taken in the overall Gospel theme of forgiveness, reconciliation and new beginnings.  Jesus’ overall plea in this section we read today is to be loving rather than judgmental.  Jesus calls us to accept a vision that is life giving for individuals and for community.  In accepting Jesus Christ and the vision of life he presents to us we are freed from the anxieties that are life limiting.

Rather than judge others through arbitrary rules Jesus calls us to loving relations with others  

Through our relationships with others we build a loving, life supporting relationship with a loving God who gives us the courage to choose life, God gives us the courage to be.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p.168.

[2] Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),pp.143-150.

 

[4]John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (London: SCM Press 1949) pp.125,126.

[5] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening.  (New York 2013: HarperOne), p.128

[6] ibid.

 

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