Law of Love

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 12, 2022
Matthew 5:21-37

Because I’m curious sort of guy, I started reading the municipal code of ordinances for the city of Galveston. Have you seen this document? It’s unbelievable. It goes on for pages and pages about all sorts of things I had never even dreamed of. Look, I know Episcopalians complain about parts of the Bible. It’s too long, it’s too boring, it’s just a bunch of rules. Well, you ought to try read the municipal code. The Bible is an adrenaline kick compared to that thing.

I mean, there is a whole section about who may or may not use sidewalk chalk. I get it, those laws only exist because someone has broken them. But the tedium is overwhelming. In the section on animals, the city code defines “animal” as a “warm-blooded animal.” So, I guess snakes aren’t animals. Which means I can call them monsters, because that’s what they are. And if you live downtown like I do, and the Mardi Gras festivities keep you awake, just go ahead and read the ordinances about Mardi Gras. There’s a whole paragraph on the use of silly string. And legally, I learned there is a difference between a float and a mini float, and just reading that you will help you fall asleep. This is the law.

So when we get to this long teaching from Jesus, do we read it like we read the law? On the face of it, it reads like Jesus is a city manager laying down the law, replete with details, caveats, and loopholes. In this section Jesus covers anger, forgiveness, adultery, divorce, and lying.

To talk through this, I want to focus on the last section. You can read it again with me. “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’” Let’s stop there for a second. We call Jesus ancient, but he calls other people ancient. I always just chuckle at that. Perspective is a funny thing. Jesus goes on, “But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word by ‘Yes, Yes,’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

It appears that, among some circles, swearing didn’t count if it wasn’t a vow to the Lord. That is awfully convenient. Oh, sorry, I had my fingers crossed so it doesn’t count.

Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not falling into that tired old trope that ancient Jews were just a bunch of legalistic snobs. That, I think, is a bad reading of the text. 

Because I think there is a darker, and more sinister underlying assumption to what Jesus is talking about. The assumption is that everyone lies. The assumption is that we live in a world of deceit. Think about it. When you show up for jury duty you have to get “sworn in.” The only reason they’re making you raise your right hand and swear in is because they assume that, if you didn’t swear in, you would probably be lying to get out of jury duty.

So what Jesus is doing here is undercutting the whole rotten system. The very fact that we do swear sometimes shows that we lie often times. Do not swear on anything, Jesus says. Instead, there is a better option. And that is to tell the truth, always. “Let your word by ‘Yes, Yes,’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” 

And what’s more – is that Jesus imagines a community, a group of people, who live together in such a way that there would be no need to lie or deceive. I think that Jesus is imagining a community in which oaths or vows or swearing is not needed, because we would all trust each other to tell the truth. The old German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way, “Thus disciples of Jesus should not swear, because there is no such things as speech not spoken before God. All of their words should be nothing but truth, so that nothings requires verification by oath. An oath consigns all other statements to the darkness of doubt. That is why it is ‘from the evil one;” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 70, quoting Bonhoeffer 2001, 129-130). This community, this people of the truth, is called the Church. 

That’s how, I think, we need to read this whole passage and all these laws that Jesus gives. We need to read them in the context of the Church. The assumption is that groups of people will fight with each other and hold grudges. So Jesus says, “that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” And he instructs us to be reconciled before coming to the altar. Because Jesus expects brothers and sisters in Christ are to live with each other in mutual love. We may not always agree, but we can live in peace. Or, the assumption is that we will lust after others, but Jesus imagines a community of commitment to each other. The assumption is that marriage is just a financial contract between two people. But instead, Jesus is imagining a community in which women would be protected, so that if they were abandoned by their husbands, they would not have to marry another man for financial support, because the whole community would take care of her. 

I do not think that Jesus is simply giving us a new rule book. No, he is calling together a new community. One that will be built upon mutual love and forgiveness and reconciliation and care. And in that community, those old assumptions of lying, lust, and resentment will not even be possible. 

So what’s the point? Well, the point is freedom. In Christ, you are free to live in a community that does not have those evil assumptions. In this community, you are free to speak plainly because only the truth will be spoken. As a brother or sister of Christ, you are free to love each other, and to reconcile your differences. In the Church, we are free to take care of each other. Or, as only Jesus could put it, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

You know that the Galveston municipal code, well, it looks pretty much like every other municipal code in the country. Though we may think we are, we’re not actually all that different. But we, the Church, can be different. 

Because even though Jesus gives us these laws, what he gives us mostly, is freedom. We are now free to live in love, in peace, in contentment. And the love that we share with each other as disciples of Jesus will expose the lies, the deceit, the coldness, and the hatred of the world. Because we will be different. Jesus didn’t climb a mountain and give this teaching just to give us new laws. Jesus wasn’t tortured, and executed, and risen from the dead to prove to us that we’re supposed to follow these laws. No, what Jesus did was to call together a new community. The Church. Brothers and sisters who live under the law of love, and by this love, the world will know that we follow Jesus.

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