“Choose Life”

Epiphany 6

February 12, 2017


Text:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

    In his final address to the descendants of the former Israelite slaves in Egypt before he died and they crossed the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land, Moses said:  “I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now:  I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you.  Now choose life--so that you and your descendants will live--by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him.  That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors:  to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

    Today one often hears “Choose Life” used as a slogan by those who are opposed to the practice of abortion.  It is not my purpose today to address that particular issue.  It is my intent to remind us that choosing life is about far more than that.  Moses himself makes that quite plain.  He tells the Israelites that “choosing life” means loving God, obeying God, and clinging to God.  It means that our lives are to be centered in God, living in right relationship with him and with others by treating them according to his teachings.  Choose life--live fully for God.

    Our psalm today, the opening verses of the lengthy 119th Psalm, reinforces this.  If we are to be truly happy and blessed in this life, if we are to choose the life that God intends for us, we need to live according to God’s teachings.  We need to seek God wholeheartedly.  Choose life--live fully for God.

    But then we get to the New Testament readings for today, and things start getting interesting, don’t they?  Today’s Gospel lesson makes a lot of people squirm, and with good reason.  We often believe we are justified in being angry with others, and think that certain people deserve to be called idiots and fools because of things they think, say, and do.  We can’t imagine Jesus meant we should literally maim ourselves when body parts cause us to sin.  We find his comments on divorce harsh.  We take oaths often, and may find it puzzling that he speaks against that.  

    In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly begins his comments by saying, “You have heard that it was said…”, and then speaks about what people have heard saying by beginning with “but I say to you….”  Each time he does this, he goes behind what is often said as popular wisdom and fleshes out deeper implications.  He goes from the outward appearance to the heart of the matter.

    “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, ‘Don’t commit murder’...but I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment, and everyone who calls another an idiot or a fool is in danger of condemnation.”  Jesus recognized that murder is not an isolated act.  Anger lies at its root, coupled with the judgment that some people don’t matter (which is what we imply when we call another person an “idiot” or “fool”).  So how does Jesus want us to choose life?  He wants us to seek forgiveness  and reconciliation with those who have something against us because they believe we have wronged them, before they do violence to us.  Notice this is different that being forgiving of others, which Jesus does tell us to do elsewhere in the Gospels.  This is about the situations where you and I need to be forgiven.

    In the present circumstances in which we live, it has become very easy for us to put down people with whom we disagree.  This behavior is carried on by people all the way from the average person trying to make their way through life up to the highest officeholders in the land.  It is very easy to do.  It is also very hard for many people to admit they might be wrong about something, as if being wrong somehow makes us less valuable as human beings.  Yet Jesus calls us to a much higher standard.  Jesus tells that sometimes we are wrong.  Sometimes we do the wrong thing and hurt others, even though that may not have been our intent.  He calls us to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those we have wronged.  Choose life--live fully for God.

    Next Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Don’t commit adultery.’  But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Again, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter.  The problem is not only with our outward behavior.  What drives that outward behavior is what goes on in our hearts and minds.  Even that, he is telling us, can be harmful to our marital relationships.

    Jesus’ comments about cutting off body parts that cause one to sin need to be seen in that light.  You see, eyes, hands, and feet cannot cause one to sin.  It is our mind that causes us to sin--and you can’t cut that off without killing yourself.  And that is not how one chooses life.  We choose life by seeking God’s forgiveness and God’s help to make our thoughts and our actions pleasing to him.  Choose life--live fully for God.

    Next comes Jesus’ comments about divorce.  Most people today find these comments harsh.  And many pastors, including me, find this to be one of the most fearsome texts in Scripture to preach about.  

    First of all, we need to understand that Jesus was speaking to a context that in many ways was very different than it is today.  In Biblical times, love was not the primary reason for getting married.  Although couples who married did often grow to love each other, the primary reason for marriage was to strengthen economic, social, and in the case of the ruling class, political ties between families, and to produce offspring to carry on the family name and inheritance.  Marriages were arranged by families; they were not the result of any kind of dating or courtship. Love did not become the primary reason to marry even in European and American societies until sometime in the 19th century, and in many other parts of the world most marriages are still arranged by families and carried out primarily for economic and social reasons rather than for love.

    The rules for getting a divorce were also different in Jesus’ time on earth.  Back then, marriage and divorce were not regulated by the government.  In Jewish society, they were regulated by the rabbis.  To get a divorce, a man had to go to the local rabbi and secure the right to issue his wife a certificate of divorce.  Now the rabbis of the time disagreed on what constituted legitimate grounds for divorce.  The Hebrew scriptures simply say a man can divorce his wife if she displeases him.  Some rabbis held that the reason for the displeasure had to be something serious, such as marital unfaithfulness.  But others said a man could divorce his wife for any reason of displeasure--even for not being a good cook.  In addition, women did not have the same rights when it came to divorcing their husbands.

    Jesus also was talking about this subject in the light of his understanding of the text from the creation story in Genesis where it talks about man and woman becoming “one flesh” through sexual union.  Jesus saw that bond as not appropriate to violate, because he believed God means that bond to be permanent.  He allows an exception for sexual unfaithfulness because in that instance the “one flesh” bond has already been violated.  He does not speak to the many different reasons divorces happen today.  And the notion that the bond is meant to be permanent also explains his opposition to a divorced person remarrying.

    Now I believe God does intend marriage to be a lifelong bond.  But I also understand we live in a world where what God intends and what actually happens are often two different things.  When there is a divorce, it is often the end result of things that have already been happening in the marriage that are not what God intends.  It is not always sexual unfaithfulness.  Sometimes it is abusive behavior of one spouse toward the other.  Sometimes the relationship dies for lack of attentiveness.  God does not intend these things to happen, either.  But sometimes they do.  And even when a marital relationship does end in divorce, God does offer forgiveness and the opportunity for a new beginning.

    As for the remarriage issue, I have known many couples over the years where one or both spouses had remarried following a divorce, and it was evident that God had blessed the new marriage.  The couple was choosing life, seeking to live fully for God in their current relationship, and blessed others in so doing.  

    Then Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago:  ‘Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord.’  But I say to you that you must not pledge at all.  You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne.  You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool.  You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king.  And you must not pledge by your head, because you can't turn one hair white or black (obviously said before the days of hair dye).  Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.  Anything more than this comes from evil.”

    We have undoubtedly heard someone say that they swear on a stack of Bibles that we will keep our promise.  But to swear that way, or to swear by God, or heaven, or earth, or anything else beyond ourselves, is to try to guarantee our promises by means of something or someone we do not control.  If we are people of integrity, we don’t need to do that.  We should keep our promises simply because that is what we do.  When we choose life by living fully for God, we will live with integrity.  We will be as righteous and good in private as we are in public.  We will stand up for what is right and good, even when it is unpopular.  We will do our best to keep our promises to do the right thing.   

    And then we come to 1 Corinthians.  Paul wrote this letter to a church that was badly divided into factions.  People were saying, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Cephas (that is, Peter),” “I belong to Apollos,” even “I belong to Christ.”  Paul told them they were behaving like unspiritual people, not like spiritual people, which is another way of saying they were not choosing life.  They were not living fully for God, but for themselves.  Paul reminded them that these divisions are not what God intends.  He pointed out that both he and Apollos were co-workers in growing the word of God among them.  Paul had planted it, Apollos had watered it, but God gave the growth in building the church up as the people of God.

    The church is still full of factions.  It used to be we talked about the multiplicity of denominations.  And that’s still a thing, although there are more and more churches that don’t belong to any larger organization.  But there are also factions within churches and denominations--liberal vs. conservative, social justice vs. evangelism in particular.  Much of Christianity seems to be every bit as polarized as the political culture in our society.  This is not a good thing.

    To choose life by living fully for God in this context, I believe, requires a different way.  It requires a way that respects and honors our brothers and sisters in Christ even when we deeply disagree about some things.  Some wise individual has pointed out that a bird can fly because it has two wings.  This is to suggest that the opposites actually need each other to counterbalance each other, to remind each other that there is more to God’s work in the world than one’s own narrow perspective.  

    Choose life--live fully for God.  Let us be faithful in loving, obeying, and clinging to God, which leads us in turn to loving each other, loving our neighbors, and even loving those we regard as enemies.  Amen.

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