Relational Integrity

Matthew 5:21-30
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

In a gated country club neighborhood in Tampa a couple of weeks ago, a soccer mom named Julie Schenecker did the unthinkable to her talented, well-respected children 13 and 16. They were “mouthy” she said in her confession. We shudder with horror at a mother who could be so sick and so violent and then cover them with blankets. And Jesus tells us if we are angry with a brother or sister, we are liable to the same judgment as a murderer? Whoa!

Then he goes on to say that the flicker of lust running through your mind when a good-looking body walks through the room is the same as adultery. What does Jesus mean with these analogies? When he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” he is connecting with the Ten Commandments and other law which his Jewish followers would have understood. He then turns the law, such that no one can boast of perfection. No one can judge another. He calls the disciples to look beyond the letter of the law to the meaning behind the law.

He teaches about relational integrity, about the fulfillment of the law, not cheap obedience. At first glance, it seems that Jesus is making it even more difficult to follow the rules. However, the teachings of Jesus in the gospel passage for this Sunday are not intended to create more external laws. They are not intended to create self-loathing and despondency. He is showing us the way to transcend legalism with love, with integrity. The gospel is not as much about rules, as about relationship. Relational integrity – the law of love.

Hear this week’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 5:21-37 (NRSV)

21 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'
22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.
23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.
26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'
28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Now hear The Message translation by Eugene Peterson:
21 "You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.'
22 I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother 'idiot!' and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell 'stupid!' at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
23 "This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you,
24 abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.
25 "Or say you're out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don't lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you're likely to end up in court, maybe even jail.
26 If that happens, you won't get out without a stiff fine.
27 "You know the next commandment pretty well, too: 'Don't go to bed with another's spouse.' 28 But don't think you've preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.
29 "Let's not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here's what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile.
30 And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

How many times have we judged a murderer and not considered our own mis-management of anger? Anger is a legitimate emotion. Anger needs expression, but dispassionate, careful expression. Anger is like a deadly chemical. If you have a dangerous substance in a container and the container is open, you know better than to sling it around carelessly. No, instead, if you need to dispose of a deadly substance, you would carry it carefully to the trash or sink or some other safe place and dispose of it. This careful management of anger must be practiced repetitively. From the time we are young, through the teen years and early adulthood, and even to old age, we are called to practice self-control and care-filled expression of anger. And when we blow it, we need to beg forgiveness for our weakness.

Speak your truth assertively, not aggressively, with intent to improve the relationship. Anger mis-handled is a deadly fire, whether someone is killed literally or whether a relationship is dis-figured or destroyed. “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.” So says a Chinese proverb. And it is true that being patient for a moment, breathing and allowing God’s Spirit to enter your spirit more fully, will allow you to deal more creatively with your anger. There is not a person here who has managed anger well in every circumstance. You’ve lost your temper and said things that were damaging. Or you’ve held your tongue but let bitterness creep in and destroy your spiritual life. “Anger repressed can poison a relationship as surely as the cruelest words” Dr. Joyce Brothers

Anger management begins with your healthy relationship with God, where you know you are accepted and loved and forgiven. In that secure place, you can breathe deeply of God’s Spirit and discover the self-control to love and forgive others, while expressing your anger in ways that are fruitful, not fateful. “When you are offended at any one's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.” (Epicletus, Greek philosopher)

Jesus speaks of being angry with a sister and brother, meaning the family of faith. “Who is my brother or my mother but those who do the will of my Father in heaven” Jesus says in the Gospels (Matthew 12 and Luke 8). So for Jesus this new life in the Spirit of God requires treating people with utmost respect and dignity – not just obeying law, but fulfilling the intent of the law. The letter of the law says do not murder but the intent of the law is that every person be given the love, dignity, and respect of a child of God.

The essential teachings of Jesus challenged the way the Pharisees had replaced the essential interiority of a relationship with God and a covenant written on the heart and not in stone (Jer 31:31) with external legalism. The church took the Gospel of those challenges by Jesus and sometimes turns them into external legalism once again! Jesus came to restore our inner being, so that our outer behavior would be a true sign of an inward relational integrity. But we are still tempted to just look at the external rules, the law. Oh, how we love the law, especially when we can point a finger at others.

We fluctuate between wanting to live according to the love of law or the law of love. Sadly we impose the love of law on others as we see them breaking rules that we consider ourselves capable of keeping, and then we want others to use of the law of love with us. Because after all, we have our excuses for why we behaved irresponsibly, so they should understand our circumstances.

The Peace Prayer, attributed to St Francis’ of the 12th Century says it, O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In our Couples Enrichment Class we were reminded of this week of the value of listening with true effort to understand – by clarifying, by paying close attention with eyes and ears, body language – by caring enough to attend to the one who is talking. And the talker being respectful enough not to talk constantly but checking with the listener to see if it is a good time to talk. How many relationships could be improved simply by the desire and the sincere effort to understand first, rather than to be understood!

Now moving on to the adultery challenge of Jesus in this passage, let me tell you the story of Saint Martinian of the 5th Century, who had lived alone for 25 years but one night in a storm, allowed a frightened prostitute in for safety. Then she began to seduce him. He did not pluck out his right eye, but he made a fire and then stood in it to avoid being tempted. This radical act of courage apparently not only guarded him from temptation but transformed her life as well.

I must admit that for years, I as a woman, not nearly so tempted by sight as most of you men, have always felt a certain self-righteousness regarding this verse about lust. But as I worked on the sermon this week, I wondered if Jesus’ word to people like me would be some sort of challenge about the infidelity of criticism. After all, a critical spouse can little by little do as much damage to marital health as a wandering eye. How many people – male or female – can sustain love when their spouse is never pleased, never affirming of anything? Seek to love, more than to be loved. Tomorrow’s the big love day – the feast of St Valentine, but for so many people, it will be about receiving love more than giving love. Seek to understand, not to find fault. Give affirmation tomorrow to someone – to a spouse or to another family member or to someone in this church family. Give the gift of affirmation or the supreme gift of forgiveness.

Jesus must surely be sad with how quickly we want to take people to court to resolve conflict. “Come to terms quickly” Jesus says before you get to court. Understand your accuser’s accusations. Be humble enough to receive them and learn from them. Understand your brother or sister’s ridiculousness and refrain from calling him or her stupid. Understand the bad driver on the road and be merciful. Have you not made a careless move before and cut someone off accidently? Be merciful toward a woman like Julie Scheneker because you understand that mental illness is complicated and that raising teens is often like mixing dangerous chemicals. Extreme care needed. Judge not, but seek to understand. Yes, use the court system when it is truly needed but try to resolve conflicts in better ways.

After all, God, our loving Creator, made us all to be loving, kind, and forgiving, just like Jesus. We are all created with the capacity to pray as Christ did from the cross he did not deserve “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Lord, forgive Julie Scheneker, for she knew not what she was doing.” Forgive my wife or husband, my brother, my daughter, my neighbor, my fellow church member, for they know not what they are doing. Help me to understand, more than be understood.

Let us pray: God, you tell us not to come to You with our offerings until we have made peace with those who might have something against us. So we pause now, as we should every Sunday when we hear the assurance of forgiveness and share the peace with one another. We pause now to ask you, “With whom, Lord, do we need to make amends? To whom have we been unkind? Unforgiving? Unfaithful? Critical? Hurtful? We give your Spirit time now to bring healing, as we breathe in the power and love your forgiveness. We thank you for receiving us as we are and desiring more faithfulness from us, while you pour out your faithful love on us. Speak to us now and show us the people with whom we need repair relationships…. We begin today by praying for them, you would heal them and that You would pave the way for our reconciliation. We will not rush into reconciliation casually, but prayerfully, asking for your guidance, making covenant to pray to you daily for the healing of this relationship. Give us the courage to seek the help of pastors, spiritual directors or mental health counselors who can guide us toward resolution in our troubled conflicts. Give us the courage to work actively and prayerfully with sincere humility and integrity to build the reconciliation you desire. Through Christ, our Savior, who forgave us our sin as he entered it with us and for us. Amen.