The old man and the cats…

Tear it Out and Throw it Away: A Sermon on Matthew 5: 1-37

Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC
February 12, 2023

In the 1974 film The Three Musketeers, our heroes find themselves surrounded by the Cardinal’s Guards, a body of soldiers as lauded as the musketeers themselves, as loyal to Cardinal Richelieu as Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan are to the King.  The two rival forces break out into a pitched battle between them, except for two.  Aramis, who plans to become a priest when he has served his full in the musketeers, invites his adversary to kneel with him in prayer, and as they cross themselves, Aramis invokes “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” only to immediately slash at the Guard opposite him.  It’s a moment of black comedy, harsh and stark.

Not unlike the disturbingly comic moment in the film, today’s Gospel reading does not feature “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”  Quite the contrary; this reading features Jesus himself directly claiming authority to tighten the responsibilities imposed by the law on his followers. Now last week’s reading ended with Jesus stressing that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  So we’ve got *That* going for us.

The structure of Jesus’s exegesis of the law is itself important.  He revisits four of the Commandments, in parallel structure, each time beginning “You have heard that it was said,” and each time following it up with “But I say to you,” and then finding within the ancient rubric a living truth, one that requires a fuller approach, a deeper living out of the commandment at issue.

He begins by bringing out the seemingly obvious: “You shall not murder,” he tells us, saying “whoever murders will be liable to judgment.”  But then he goes deeper, saying to us that if we are angry with a brother or a sister or if we insult a brother or a sister, or even if we call another a “fool,” we will be liable to the hell of fire.

In her 1987 article “Spirit-Murdering the Messenger: The Discourse of Fingerpointing as the Law’s Response to Racism,” the African-American law professor Patricia Williamd coined the term “Spirit-murder.” She described the psychological and emotional effect of casual, everyday racism as “devastating, as costly, as psychically as obliterating as robbery or assault,” and as so “deeply embedded in culture as to prove extremely resistant to be recognized as a form of oppression.”  

More recently, Bettina Love, a professor at the University of Georgia has argued that “Spirit murder” is a death that is built on racism and intended to reduce, humiliate, and destroy persons of color.”  A series of harassments, strip searching and even assaults of students of color by school instructors exemplify the humiliations and othering that can be as psychologically and spiritually destructive as physical violence.[1]

Williams’s concept of spirit murder I think can illuminate Jesus’s condemnation of anger, of insult, of degrading our brothers and sisters.  The stripping away from another human being of their dignity, their place in society, can be experienced as violence, especially if it comes from the socially powerful against those with less status.  Jesus reminds us that when we are approaching the altar—when we are presenting ourselves before God—we should ask the question: Have we failed in love, in respect for each other—and if we have, as I know I have on occasion, shouldn’t we make amends to those we have harmed, or hurt, or rejected?  

In the next couplet, Jesus reminds us of the Commandment against adultery.  He then reframes the subject: “But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  

D. H. Lawrence, of all people, had a strong sense of how such deliberate invocation of desire could create obsession, even shared obsession, as he summarized Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
“And he first thing she does is seduce him,
and the first thing he does is to be seduced,
And the second thing they do is to hug their sin in secret, and gloat over it, and try to understand.”

Of course, being Lawrence, he had to make the woman equally complicit, but that is actually true to Hawthorne’s novel.  Hester does have agency, at least to begin with.

         Jesus firmly rejects divorce, except for on the ground of unchastity.  However, as Susan Howatch, in her novel Glittering Images reminds us, Jesus was raised in a culture in which people communicated important truths by the use of striking word-pictures and expressions, statements that we could call hyperbole.   She also points out that there were two schools of thought on divorce, one under the teaching of Hillell, and the other of Shmaii.  Under Hillell’s school, the law allowed men to divorce their wives for trivial reasons, and that Jesus’s teaching in this area was criticizing the lax attitude if the school of Hillell by a heavy underlining of the teaching of the stricter school of thought.  And the way he phrased this criticism was in the Middle Eastern way: fortissimo—loud and clear—not pianissimo, by British understatement.  While both schools of thought allowed for divorce, Jesus was not speaking as a lawyer; He was attacking the morality of divorce sought for trivial reasons, and he did this by emphasizing the sanctity of marriage. (Glittering Images (1987), pp 92-93).  

         Finally, we come to the making of oaths.  In this last couplet, Jesus tells us that it was said that we should not swear falsely, but keep our oaths.  But Jesus says to us that we should not swear or make oaths on anything belonging to God—including ourselves, because, as St. Paul notes in the reading from First Corinthians, we do not belong to ourselves, but to God.  

         How do we unify these threads from Jesus’s new teachings?  Well, let me remind you that we are a people of Resurrection.  As the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explained, the law, unlike God, will never love us back. We literally can’t satisfy its demands. 

She writes that You can tell the Law because it is almost always and if-then proposition—if you follow all the rules in the Bible then God will love you and you will be happy.  If you lose 20 pounds then you will be worthy to be loved. . . .  If you live a perfectly righteous Green eco lifestyle then you will be worthy of taking up space in the planet.  If you never have a racist or sexist or homophobic thought then you will be worthy of calling other people out on their racism and sexism and homophobia.  The Law is always conditional and never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as if it will save us—as if it is Gospel, then there can never be flourishing.  Under the Law there are only two options: pride and despair.  

When fulfilling the “shoulds” is the only thing that determines our worthiness we are either prideful about our ability to follow the rules compared to others or we despair at our inability to perfectly do anything.  Either way, it’s still bondage.

The Gospel, Pastor Nadia continues, is not an if …than; it is a series of becauses, linked just as the couplets in the Beatitudes we have just read are.  

As she puts the becauses, because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God;  and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and becauseGod loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge  thereforetherefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free.

Neither a jot or stroke of the Law will pass away, we heard last week.  And that is true.  But because we are a Resurrection people, that fact is not death to us.  Because our God—our Christ—has given himself for us.  We are not our own saviors.  That power, that wideness of God’s mercy is beyond what we can do or accomplish.  

Even in the cynical world of The Three Musketeers, grace can be found.  When Cardinal Richelieu’s henchman Rochefort, played by Christopher Lee, fails in a mission, he admits that he hates the Cardinal.  Charlton Heston as Richelieu, mildly replies to him—“I love you, my son—even when you fail.” That response shows that even the scheming Cardinal  can grasp the meaning of grace and love—and that we all of us need it. 

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

[1] Bettina L. Love, “How Schools are ‘Spirit Murdering’ Black and Brown Students,” Education Week, May 23, 2019.

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