Choose life!

Matthew 5:21-37

In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus gave his disciples their marching orders: they were to be “salt of the earth,” adding an essential seasoning to the world by preaching the Good News of God’s Kingdom. They were to be a “light to the nations,” extending righteousness, that is mercy, justice, love and covenant loyalty to a world in great need of hope (Matthew 5:13-20). It’s what we were made to do… the vocation that God has set before us. What happens if we fail in that vocation?

In today’s reading from Hebrew Scripture, God is speaking through Moses to the Israelites as they lay encamped in Moab, east of the Dead Sea, near the end of their forty-year wilderness sojourn. Soon they would cross the Jordan River into Canaan. This is the last time Moses would address the Israelites—it would not be long before he would be “gathered to his people,” leaving Joshua to take them the rest of the way to their Promised Land. And the gist of Moses’ message was this: The word is very near you. Love God and walk in his ways. Observe his commandments, decrees, and ordinances… and you will be blessed beyond measure (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Absent is any language of “thou shalt not….” We needn’t worry about a rulebook filled with hair splitting and prohibitions. When we truly commit to loving God and walking in his ways, the “thou shalt nots” take care of themselves.

Similarly, in our Gospel passage today, Jesus teaches that a simple, legalistic approach to determining whether or not a particular behavior is in keeping with God’s will for his people may not get us into the Promised Land. It’s not enough not to murder… it’s not enough not to verbally insult or degrade others. Love shows no hostility. Loving God and walking in his ways requires us to love others… at all times, and at all costs… just as Jesus loved us. It’s not enough for us to outwardly “grin and bear it,” while we inwardly harbor malice or resentment against another. Such ill feelings cannot help but become a canker on our souls, inevitably constituting a barrier between us and the one who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. We must be fully reconciled to our brothers and sisters, just as Jesus was fully reconciled to the cross.

And then there’s adultery. We’re not even to think about it. That’s a tough one, isn’t it? Perhaps this is one of the greatest pitfalls of our human condition: the primal urge to indulge in the forbidden fruit of intimate, physical relationships that have not been sanctioned by God. Just look at the news of the day… most any day. And look at where it gets us. But here’s the thing: love is never selfish… or predatory. Everything we are and everything we do should build up and reflect our covenant relationship with God. How is it possible that lust and broken promisescould ever serve that end? And if they don’t serve that end, what end do they serve? Even the mere consideration of an adulterous relationship means that we just might be willing to put something above God, and God’s will for our lives… and that, my friends, is idolatry.

Then, finally, there’s the bit about swearing oaths. Neither Hebrew nor Christian tradition prohibits oath making. In fact, an entire chapter of the Mishnah (the Hebrew Oral Torah) deals with rules governing proper oath making. In both Jewish and Gentile spheres, an oath, whether secular or religious, invoked the deity to guarantee the truth of what was said… or to punish the oath taker if what he said wasn’t true. That which was confirmed by an oath could be taken at face value to be true. An “unsworn” statement didn’t carry the same weight. This distinction remains operative in our own society today: while lying is generally considered to be shameful and in poor form, lying under oath is a crime. So, what was Jesus going on about? We live in world where oaths are necessary to make sure folks do what they say they are going to do… and don’t try to get by with anything they ought not to do. Right? God (or the Law) will get them if they mess up. Right? But Jesus, as he so often does, points us towards a different world and a different reality: a reality in which love for God and love for neighbor overwhelms our human predilections of fear and mistrust of “the other.” A world in which love is unconditionally truthful, without any need for oaths or other protestations. A world where love and reconciliation and covenant loyalty become the hallmarks of human relationships. What kind of world would that be? This is the reality of God’s will for us. This is the reality of the Kingdom.

The gates of the Kingdom… those of everlasting life… are open to us. But like the Israelites sitting poised to enter their Promised Land, we must make a choice. Each of us must choose between life and death… between blessings and curses. And I’m pretty sure Moses’ advice to us would be the same as it was to the Israelites three-and-a-half millennia ago: “Choose life!” he would admonish us. Love God. Walk in his ways.That’s a pretty-loaded set of requirements, isn’t it? How can we possibly love like Jesus? And give of ourselves like Jesus? And die to sin like Jesus? The truth is that we can’t. We humans have been mired up to our necks in sin since our fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. It’s in our nature. But there is an even greater truth… and that is that our sins are forgiven before we ever even have the chance to ask. That’s the new Grace we’ve received through Christ Jesus. But Grace doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of recommitting ourselves every day, every hour, every minute, to living our lives more fully in God, through Christ. We may not always know the right thing to do, or the right thing to say or whether the decisions we make are pleasing to God, but we can take comfort and counsel from the words of Thomas Merton when he prays… “the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you.” (see Merton’s A Prayer of Unknowing)

Friends, God is for us! He’s had a plan for you… and you… and you… for each of us, since before we were born. He sent Jesus to show us the way… the way of life that leads to joy and abundance… the way to the Kingdom. Life and death… blessings and curses. It seems so simple, and yet… the way of sin can be so seductive. Which path will we choose?

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