The Law of Neighbourliness

Matthew 5:21–37


Preaching is a dangerous business.  Politeness informs us that we shouldn’t talk religion and politics in public but if we’re going to talk about Jesus, as all Christian churches should, his teachings are almost always religious and very political.  It’s also very risky because in any church, the preacher is not the only one who has opinions about what the Bible stories mean and often, those opinions don’t line up.  We all have our own biases and so often, what we want the Bible to say, what we expect the Bible to say, or even believe about the Bible, really isn’t what the Bible says at all.

Then there’s the practice often called proof texting.  This is taking individual verses from the Bible out of context to create proof for one’s point of view.  If we don’t want women to become ministers, we can use a few verses from Paul’s letters to support that view, but that also means ignoring all the other places where Paul praises the strong leadership offered by women.  

All this means that disagreements about the Bible are inevitable and the preacher, if they’re honest, isn’t always right.  The best we can do when exploring these words is to give each other the benefit of the doubt, a pit of patience, and remember that when we’re talking about matters of faith, we’re all just scratching the surface, we’re all on a wide spectrum far between absolutely right and wrong.

Today is one of those readings that could easily be misunderstood if it’s taken out of context.  It can also be pretty hard to hear these words because it touches some pretty personal and maybe even raw nerves.

We’re continuing our journey through the Sermon on the Mount.  A few weeks ago, we heard the Beatitudes upending our expectations of who is blessed.  Last week we heard that we all carry a bit of God’s grace through the metaphor of salt and light; we heard that we are to bring out the flavour of life and be a light for all those who need a path through the shadows of life.

Today Jesus is reexamining some of the laws that any of his listeners would be very familiar.  He starts off by talking about anger and violence.  Sure, we’re not supposed to murder but Jesus talks about the danger of anger and grudges, how we should seek out reconciliation.

Next, Jesus talks about lust, divorce and adultery.  Jesus tells us that to act out our lustful impulses is wrong but so is even looking at another with lust is bad.  Jesus goes so far as to say that we’d be better to pluck out our eyes and chop off our limbs rather than give into lust.  This would be a horrific reading to any teenager.  I don’t think there would be many people that would be able to navigate puberty without going completely blind and having all their limbs lopped off.

Finally, Jesus is talking about making oaths – don’t do it.  We should let our words speak for themselves – if you say yes, mean yes.

 Now, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to do a bit of a Bible study here as there are several things in this reading that can be misunderstood.  First, several times Jesus says, “you have heard it said… but I tell you…”. Some have assumed that this is Jesus replacing the Jewish law which has become redundant with Jesus.  No.  Jesus is not replacing but enhancing.  Jesus last week just said that not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass away until God’s reign becomes a reality.

Jesus also seems to be talking about hell as a punishment for some of these transgressions.  This might just be a bit misleading.  It’s a bit of an unfortunate translation in most Bibles but the word Jesus actually uses for hell is Gehenna.  Gehenna isn’t a place we go after we die but an actual physical place.  It was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.  The reason is was a dump was because years ago, the land was desecrated by worshippers of the god Moloch.  This is where children were burned alive as sacrifices.  Since something like that is brutal for property values, it was turned into Jerusalem’s nuisance grounds.  It was cursed, it stunk, and because dumps create a lot of methane, it likely caught on fire.  When Jesus is warning us about hell, he’s literally telling us to not throw ourselves into the trash.

The other misconception with this reading is that this could be seen as a very rule based way of thinking.  This is just about as close as Jesus gets to talking about human sexuality and so people have jumped on this as a real family values sanctity of marriage, anti divorce, pro male domination kind of reading.  I think this is to completely miss the point of what Jesus is trying to tell us.  

All through the gospels, Jesus challenges the ridged, legalistic leadership that’s coming from the temple.  In fact, the only people Jesus ever turns away are those who fail to understand that the law is here to serve us, not us serving the law.  When Jesus says, “you have heard it said,” this is what he’s doing, he’s challenging his listeners, including us to look deeper into the law and see the reason, how the law serves humanity, to have a more sophisticated understanding than lazily adhering to the letter.

Time and time again, Jesus tells us that the purpose of the law is to create and sustain healthy relationships.  The relationships we have with God and with our neighbours.  To paraphrase, “you have heard it said that you shall not murder, but I say that if your anger, your grudges, your debts, your comfort and greed breaks your ability to be in relationship with God or your neighbour, you are just as guilty.” 

And as far as divorce goes, in Jesus time, men could divorce a woman and this meant that the woman’s status, wealth, community and future ended.  For so many women, divorce was a death penalty from which they had almost no control.  So maybe what Jesus would say today is, You have heard it said that you shall not divorce, but I say that if any of your actions betrays or abuses your family, or leaves them without the security of community, you are just as guilty.

Therefore, I don’t think we should be tempted to water down this reading to make it a bit more palatable.  Actually, the more I reflect on this passage, the more difficult it becomes.  Following the law is actually pretty easy but what Jesus is talking about, the law of neighbourliness is much harder.  I’m pretty certain that I’ve never killed anyone but has my quest for cheeper prices contributed to the suffering of slave labour sewing my $5 tee-shirt?  I’ve never had a divorce, but have I always treated my spouse with all the love and respect I can muster?  I try not to lie, but have my words always conveyed truth to the best of my ability?

And just because Jesus wasn’t talking about hell in the eternal torment after we die and I’m sure he’s exaggerating when he tells us to maim ourselves, he is still telling us that to break these laws of neighbourliness carries extreme consequences.  No, I’m not going to cut off my leg but when we deny the inherent humanity of people around the world, we’ve often ended up in war, where lives are lost and too many come back with broken bodies and spirits.  Yes, Jesus is talking about the Jerusalem nuisance grounds, but because we are turning from our relationship with God’s holy creation as well as future generations, we are turning our planet into a stinky, burning garbage dump in which we are sacrificing our children to the gods of complacency and greed.

God’s law is a gift of God’s grace.  God’s law is the law of neighbourliness  It is meant to bring us all closer together as one holy family.  Be ready to dig deeper into this gift, find the spirit of the law and joy of the community this law builds.  God’s law leads us from the garbage dump all the way to God’s realm.