If we took these two readings literally, we would think that heaven and earth were reporting to God about our bad behavior, that anyone who has a dispute with another should not be in church, that divorced people are damned, and a lot of us would be walking around with only one eye or one hand. I heard once of a man who literally cut off his right hand and threw it away, as this Matthew text recommends. (He must have been chagrined to discover the whole concept of metaphor.) So let’s unpack these texts and some of their metaphorical possibilities.
I love this passage from Deuteronomy, but I also find it problematic. Choose life, love God, follow God’s ways—absolutely this is a great idea. But I struggle with the implications of the “if/then” structure: If you follow God’s rules and choose life, then God will bless you with abundance, long life, health, etc. Which leads to the thinking that if your life is not going all that well, it must be your fault: You must have chosen death somewhere along the way instead of choosing life, because surely God would not revoke a promise. That’s the kind of thinking that has children believing they must have caused their parents’ divorce—it must be my fault. It’s the kind of thinking that undergirds the Prosperity Gospel: If I am doing well, it’s because I am following God and God is blessing me with great wealth—God wants me to be wealthy. (You know, like Jesus.) And those poor people have messed up, they must be choosing death, so it’s on them to get right with God—who am I to help them if God has decided they are not worthy?
This if/then thinking is also a way of trying to control God. If I do these things, then God will guarantee me those things. It doesn’t work that way.
So yes, I love the general principle that if I follow God’s path, if I center my life in God, life will be better. But we don’t control God, and we can’t be thinking of ourselves as righteous and still hang onto any sense of humility or the need to help those in our midst who suffer.
So we can choose life, choose God, and still run into adversity. That is just true. Sometimes it is of our own doing, a natural consequence of choices we have made. We choose to smoke or drink or whatever, and we get addicted. We recognize that we have an anger management problem but don’t deal with it and then wonder why we have no friends, why the marriage is falling apart.
And sometimes bad things just happen. They just do. The house is burgled, the child gets sick and dies, the job gets downsized. This Deuteronomy text isn’t talking about those times. It’s talking about how, every day when we wake up, we have choices to make about our day. Will we choose kindness? Will we choose to exercise and eat right? Will we choose to share our gifts and talents with the world or to hide them? Will we choose reconciliation and a path toward forgiveness?
These choices face us as individuals, but they also apply on the societal level. Will we choose to live in community in ways that look out for the widow, the orphan, the elders, the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, and so on? Will we choose to educate all of our children, to provide health care for everyone, to welcome immigrants, to pay fair wages? Will we live with liberty and justice for all not just as pretty words but as guiding principles for our national policies?
Deuteronomy tells us to be in right relationship with God and good things will follow. Not necessarily easy things—sometimes doing the right thing is really hard. I saw a movie this week in which, at one point, a character was faced with the choice of having enough money to make her whole family well-off for life, or helping a dying woman right in front of her. She couldn’t have both. The hard choice is to forgo the wealth and help the woman, even if she ultimately dies. What would you do? And if you chose the money, could you live with yourself? Would the price be your soul? Which choice is about choosing life?
In the reading from Matthew, Jesus is also telling us to choose life through right relationships, but he gets more specific. The structure of each teaching is the same: “You have heard that it was said . . . ,” referring to rules in the Old Testament, “but I say to you. . . .” He takes the teachings of the Old Testament, such as what we just read in Deuteronomy, and makes them even harder. He raises the bar even higher. “You have heard that it was said” do not kill—straight out of the Ten Commandments, right?—“But I say to you” don’t even let your anger fester. Deal with your conflicts. Don’t bring your offering to God if you haven’t made every effort to settle your disputes.
Wow, that seems pretty impossible, especially in such divisive times as these. If we can’t worship God unless we’ve resolved all our disputes first, the effect could be that we can’t ever worship God. Surely that is not what Jesus meant.
And yet we are to make that effort. Twelve step programs say to make amends to anyone you have harmed as a result of your addiction. That’s what we’re talking about. Those children who never knew if you would come home drunk or sober. Make amends. The spouse who had to take on extra work because you couldn’t hold a job. Make amends. At least acknowledge and apologize. Don’t come to church all pious and righteous when you know you’re having an affair. Deal with the secrets, the lies, the failures, so that you can worship God with a clean heart.
I don’t hear Jesus literally saying don’t get a divorce. What I hear Jesus calling us to is commitment, to show up with our best effort for all of our relationships. Then if they don’t work, they don’t work, and the most honest and authentic and healthy choice you can make is to end the relationship. Get the divorce. But don’t say you’re happily married while you’re sneaking off to have an affair because the marriage is so not meeting your needs. Live above-board.
I once heard a story of a couple where the man worked with clients and listened deeply to their needs in order to know how best to give them the product they wanted. The wife was at home and tried hard to keep the house clean and in good shape. When the husband came home, he would throw his coat on the couch instead of hanging it up. Not a big deal, but it really bothered the wife, and she would nag him to hang up the coat. At some point when their relationship was struggling, the man decided to listen deeply to his wife the same way he did with his clients. What he heard was that throwing his coat on the couch was a way of disrespecting all her work and devaluing her. Because he loved his wife and did want to show his respect, he hung up his coat. A simple thing, but often those little nagging problems are about way more than the little problem. And if we love each other, we learn to listen, and we change. We’re committed to the relationship.
And then there’s that recommendation to chop off your hand if it causes you to sin, which I mentioned earlier. Of course this is metaphorical language about temptation. If that one drink is going to undo months of sobriety, steer well clear of it. If that game site—or porn site—on your computer is going to tempt you away from the real work you need to be doing, take that site icon off of your computer. Remove the temptation. If that co-worker’s desk with the bowl of chocolates is going to wreck your diet, find a different route through the office, or some strategy to avoid her desk.
All of these teachings—about anger, lust, divorce, temptation, and swearing oaths—are about being honest in your relationships, being committed to working out differences if possible, being your word, being trustworthy in all that you do. If you say you will be someplace at noon, you are there five minutes early, not 15 minutes late. (Check and see if I make it to the Church Board meeting right at noon today!) If you say you will have the report done on time, it’s done on time—or you have communicated that it will be late, and when it will be done. If you promise fidelity to your spouse, you are faithful, and you are committed to working out differences when they arise—as they do.
What happens at the societal level if we commit to resolving disputes, being open and honest and authentic, value our relationships not just between individuals but between whole communities, whole nations? Maybe we end up choosing life by building bridges instead of walls, building up schools instead of building up the military, teaching conflict resolution skills instead of arming our teachers against mass shooters.
So where does this put us? If we choose life, if we follow these teachings with Jesus, it means that we show up with our whole selves to our relationships with God and with each other. We show up as our authentic, honest selves. If that means we show up as lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, trans, non-binary—that’s our authentic self, our honest identity, and we bring that fully to God. If that means we show up with all of our secrets—our addictions, affairs, financial scams, conflicts—we don’t try to hide those from God anymore but instead seek forgiveness from God and from all whom we have harmed. We take the consequences, start over, and do better.
Because what we know from our experience of God throughout the Bible and throughout our lives is that when we bring our whole, honest selves to the relationship, when we confess the places where we haven’t been honest, God loves us just as we are in that broken place and opens a pathway into healing and wholeness. Jesus is saying that when we let arguments drag on, when we don’t commit 100% to making our relationships work, when we have affairs, when we promise “yes” but really mean “no,” then we cut ourselves off from God and each other. But when we confess, when we learn to communicate authentically, when we work to resolve disputes, when we show up for our commitments, then we are choosing life that is centered in God. Then we are honest with each other.
It’s not easy. Sometimes resolving a conflict or confessing to the mistake or resisting temptation is really hard. But when we center ourselves in God rather than our own desires, we are choosing life, for ourselves and for our community.
Last week Michael Dowd said our civilization has passed the peak and is about 30 years into a decline. During such times, people tend to get rigid, angry at losses, pulling up the drawbridge and filling the moat. Michael invited us to live into post-doom space, to be looking for resurrection and new life. Jesus invites us to be kind, committed, honest, authentic, caring—even in these difficult times. Choose life, choose post-doom joy and hope and love. May we be God’s people in this way always. Amen.