Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“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.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the 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 be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
The hit Broadway show, Hamilton: An American Musical, tells the story of the rise and fall of founding father Alexander Hamilton. During a song midway through the first act, Hamilton is speaking with General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton is telling Washington about his dreams of fighting for his country and making a name for himself through selfless acts of heroism and even martyrdom. He is not afraid to die in battle and wants to go out to lead the troops. Washington has continually resisted Hamilton’s requests because he sees his gifts in other areas (i.e. writing, military strategy, etc.).
What Washington says to Hamilton here is instructive for us today: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder” (Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Right Hand Man”).
Both Jesus and the Law in Deuteronomy are clear: there is a way of life and a way of death. The way of death is the path of least resistance. It is easier because it involves following our own whims and desires. But the way of life is challenging. It is the path of sacrificial love for God and for other people. It’s hard, but it is also good.
Moses says, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. … Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19b-20a).
Following Deuteronomy faithfully Jesus does not teach blind morality (Do’s and Don’ts). The Law requires deeper engagement than simple moralism. Jesus analyzes and refashions the Law. He gets past the simple rule and asks us to think about the implications of every Law.
The Law is not a set of stand-alone instructions that can be followed passively. Every Law asks us a question. If the Law says, “Do not murder,” then what is the way of life and the way of death? If the Law says, “Do not commit adultery,” then what is the way of life and the way of death?
It’s easy for us to slip into a very harsh and unforgiving mindset when we think about morality and ethics. If I sin in this way or that way, I am a failure and I am in deep trouble. Society will condemn me and God will condemn me.
Now, the problem with murder, adultery, divorce, and lying are not simply that they are against God’s commandments. They are against God’s commandments because they put us on the path toward death. They lead us to harm our neighbors instead of love them. They breed distrust and discord. These are human behaviors that destroy communities. These are behaviors that do not give life.
So Jesus points not to the actions themselves (as bad as they might be), but to the root causes. Murder doesn’t come out of nowhere. Murder comes from the seeds of hatred and anger that we allow to brew and fester within our hearts. Likewise, adultery is not an isolated sin. Adultery is the result of all kinds of other smaller acts of lust.
We imagine retaliating against an enemy or we imagine illicit passions, and we allow these thoughts to stay. We entertain them and welcome them, and they build a home in our hearts. These thoughts lead to attitudes of indifference to the suffering of others. Because when I am caught up in hate or lust, who is the most important person in that equation? Who am I focusing all my energy toward? Myself and my own pleasures! Hate and lust make us to go numb to the damage we cause to our neighbors.
So instead of harping on specific rule-breaking, Jesus teaches us to be on guard in all areas of life. It’s not about avoiding evil, but pursuing good. We are blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness. God is calling us to be more reflective and to question ourselves harder than any simple checklist.
We need to question ourselves when anger or lust rise up within us. They are usually signs of unhealthiness in our souls. Anger and lust come from restlessness and dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our lives. They are often petty, self-serving ways of responding to the troubles of the world.
Rather than protesting injustice and channeling our anger into positive actions for change, we can sit back and say to one another, “You fool!” Rather than doing the hard work of caring for our spouse or partner -- listening, eating together, tending each other’s wounds, serving one another -- we can look at someone else on a screen or in real life for momentary escape. Pursuing the way of death is easy, but to chase after life is much harder.
The anger and lust we wrestle with are symptoms of our deeper need for God. For there is a Balm in Gilead to heal our sin-sick souls. Jesus offers life and healing when we are so often inclined to turn toward death.
In Matthew 5, Jesus reminds us that God’s Law is the way of life, so long as we engage it with all our hearts and minds and strengths. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and comes to complete it, not to overthrow it. The Law reveals to us our sins and provides us opportunities to repent.
All Jesus is doing here is challenging our narrow interpretations of the Law. He says it’s not good enough to follow the letter of the Law without looking for guidance from God’s Holy Spirit. It’s not good enough to not to murder; we have to love our neighbor. It’s not good enough not to commit adultery; we have to love our spouses. It’s not good enough not to swear by the Temple; we have to tell the truth.
In giving good, just Laws, God actually offers grace. It is a gift to receive limitations that help us become more whole people. It is grace not to be angry or to lust or to divorce or to lie. These are the path for loving neighbor and loving God. These are the means of seeing and communing with God.
In the Law we receive God’s loving gift to humanity: that God loves us too much to leave us the way we are. Instead, God invites us to transformation and restoration. God calls us into new life. God invites us to be more than simply human; God invites us to become who we were created to be. God calls us to become a new creation through Christ, loving God and loving neighbor with everything that we are and everything that we have. Amen.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel. "Right Hand Man." Hamilton: An American Musical - Original Broadway Cast Recording. Performed by Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., and the Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton. Atlantic Records. 2015. Digital.