It is often odd to say “The Gospel of the Lord” when I conclude my reading. Gospel means Good News. That’s the whole point. Matthew 5:21-37 is full of demands, though. Contrast that with our First Reading, Deuteronomy 30: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments… God shall bless you.” That’s a demand, too, but at least it offers a good outcome. God wants me to prosper! I can be prosperous if I follow the Law. If that sounds difficult, bear in mind we don’t really follow biblical law. Wanna eat ham? Fine. Wanna wear a cotton/polyester blend? It’s cool. Wanna work Saturday? Go for it. We only follow the laws we like. The Law is customized for me. Finally, I’ve found a religion that says what I’ve been saying all along: the whole universe revolves around me.
Such a religion makes the Law sound good and the gospel sound bad. Last week I stood up for the Old Testament in the sermon, and I am not about to say it cannot contain good news. Rather, I want us to look closely at Matthew 5:21-37, difficult as it is, because it is the good news today. The question is, “For whom is it good news?” I would imagine that the judgment against the angry is good news to you if someone is angry at you; that the promise that litigants will win their court cases is good news to you if you’ve got a legitimate grievance; that the prohibition on complicated oaths is good news if someone has cheated you on technicalities. “You swore on your mother’s grave you’d do this!” “Yeah, well, technically she’s still alive.” It is good news to people who are being hurt. If we see that, I think we have to ask, “If we find this so unsettling, are we, perhaps, on the offending side?” The religion of personal advancement will not permit us to ask that, because it says that faith is our path to personal gain and happiness. But Jesus wants us to be concerned with other people.
Concern for the Other does not come naturally to humans. (Does for most other animals, but not for us: we’re “special.”) In 1974 Garrett Hardin, a biology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, famously wrote that Earth was not, as contemporary environmentalists claimed, a spaceship requiring collective care for the ecosystem; rather, Hardin said, Earth was a bunch of lifeboats, the wealthy nations of the world, floating on an ocean teeming with desperate swimmers (the poor) each trying to get onto a lifeboat. The boats were near capacity and needed that spare room in case their populations increased, and even if they offered their spare room to the needy it would hardly make a dent in the population of desperate swimmers. The only solution was not to let in any swimmers. Let them die, so that we might live. Hardin couched his argument in ecological terms. Nature couldn’t take any more poor people who breed uncontrollably and consume recklessly. It was our moral duty to our children and to Nature to let the poor die. His essay, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” was still required reading when I was a college junior 25 years later. Its philosophy of self-preservation is attractive to many. What I will give Hardin is that he acknowledges that his proposal contradicts Christianity. A religion that revolves around me likewise contradicts Christ. The words of Christ draw us out of ourselves for others.
As hard as Jesus’ words today are, let’s examine them. Maybe the hardest of his words are those about adultery and divorce, especially today when divorce has become common. Matthew has this quirk where he doubles things. When Matthew is hard, look for where he repeats himself and see if that helps. In Matthew 19, Matthew doubles the divorce commands of Matthew 5. Some Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” Jesus says, “Genesis clearly states that God made people such that they get married. So, let’s not try to undo what God has done, eh?” The Pharisees reply, “Ah, but why, then, did Moses command us to give a certificate of divorce?” Jesus says, “It’s because he knew you were hard-hearted. But I’m telling you, if you ditch your wife because you’re bored or want another, you are causing a whole myriad of sins.” This is a shocker, so his disciples joke: “Man, it’s hardly worth getting married, then.” Jesus replies flatly: “You know, if you can accept unmarried life, go for it.” They don’t have a response.
The scene expands Jesus’ comments a little, especially with that phrase “hardness of heart.” In Jesus’ day, women were less than human. They were always at fault. If a man and woman committed adultery they were both guilty but the woman was at fault. If a woman was assaulted, it was her fault. Jesus’ words shocked the disciples because Jesus blames the guy. Women, to them, were dangerous sub-humans. As such, they were property. They depended upon a man for security and protection. Once married, they became the husband’s property. If the husband left her, kicked her out, shacked up with someone else, whatever, the woman was helpless. In response, the Law in Deuteronomy 24 required a man in such situations to give a certificate of divorce, freeing the woman to remarry. She could seek a new protector. She was still nothing. She was trying to climb up to the status of being property. That was the reality to which the Law said, “She’s a human being. You have to treat her like one.” So when Jesus says, “It is because of your hardness of heart that you can get a certificate of divorce,” he is saying, “I know what’s going on. You’re thinking only about you. That woman is a human being!” Jesus isn’t talking so much about contemporary divorce as he is about community in general.
All of Jesus’ difficult demands today share this common theme: they call upon us to look outside of ourselves. They call us to see the humanity of others. If we want to retain Hardin’s lifeboat metaphor, Jesus’ words call us to look beyond the lifeboat. A year after Hardin’s essay was published, William Murdoch and Allan Oaten published a response suggesting this. Both were, like Hardin, biology professors at U Cal Santa Barbara. (Those must’ve been some interesting faculty meetings!) Murdoch and Oaten note that Hardin’s lifeboats barely interact, whereas in the world countries interact all the time. They also note that the rich lifeboats got to be rich lifeboats in part by encouraging the poor desperate swimmers to grow cash crops instead of food, or to sell raw materials cheaply. The rich lifeboats are rich in part because they’ve propped up governments among the swimmers that look out for the lifeboats’ interests. And unlike lifeboats, the countries of the world cannot simply float away from the problems they cause. (They’re on Earth; there’s nowhere to go.) In other words, they have to look beyond themselves or they won’t survive, and part of that looking beyond the self will require acknowledgement that they’ve cause a fair percentage of their neighbor’s problems.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount call us to look beyond the hulls of our lifeboats. Jesus says, “The Law is not there for your personal advancement; it is there to protect you from other people and to protect other people from you. God wants you to see other humans as humans. God wants to soften our hardness of heart.” And then, Jesus calls us out of ourselves. It is the only path to life; turned in on ourselves, we die. And we cannot call ourselves out of ourselves. We need someone to draw us out of ourselves. We need Jesus. Jesus calls us out of ourselves. If the incarnation means anything, it is that God is another person. God is a person just like I am; God is not me. God is another person, coming to me as one who is weak and despised, and whose very being weak and despised places them above me, places me at their service. That doesn’t mean I have to be an extrovert to be Christian, or that I have to be fond of everyone I meet. It means that God shows me everyone’s humanity, and calls me to show that humanity to others.
One of the ways God does this is through our liturgy. We sit and stand, turn and move, call and respond, sometimes get splashed in the face. And we sing and read and shout and hear words that call us out of ourselves. Trinity is a community that does worship well and is focused on social justice, and it is no coincidence: those two things go together. Self-centered worship produces self-centered outreach, and social action is Christian (as opposed to a secular political agenda) only when that social action is rooted in the gospel enacted in worship. Our sister in Christ, Cheryl, gets this. She might not put it this way, but worship and music as she has coordinated them call us out of ourselves to make some noise on Jesus’ behalf and to see that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Cheryl has stewarded this gift and nurtured this gift. God has used Cheryl to call us out of ourselves. It’s an emotional day, and we thank God for Cheryl because she’s Cheryl. But we also thank God for the priceless role Cheryl has played in Jesus calling us out of ourselves to live in the good news. It is often odd to say, “The Gospel of the Lord,” after a reading like today’s. It is especially odd today: believe it or not, this gospel is NOT the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Cheryl. It is odd, and it is good! It is good news, out of ourselves and into the life God wants for us.