‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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.
It’s a happy coincidence that two days before the annual Valentine’s Day salute to love, we should be digging into a gospel reading that gets to the heart of relationships but which, granted, isn’t exactly expressed in terms of chocolate and roses and poetic sentiment. Indeed we’re at risk of hearing Jesus’ teaching this week as a weighty obligation that no normal person could hope to attempt, much less achieve. When the gospel throws language of hell and assorted juicy advice our way – you know, friendly little bits like gouging out eyes or cutting off limbs, we do tend to tune the whole thing out just a bit. And that’s unfortunate, because hidden amid all that hyperbole and grotesque imagery is a very important piece of advice for us and for the whole world, summed up in just two memorable little words … and those words are: Be reconciled. Be reconciled. Make things right between you.
Last week, as you may recall if you were in church, the central message of the gospel lesson about our being salt for the earth and light for the world, was that what we do, matters. Today’s is simply a logical and explicitly personal extension of that – to say that our conduct within our relationships also matters. Healthy relationships, in fact, are a key component in the Kingdom of God…. and making things right between each other, I think we would all agree, is a key component of healthy relationships. Thus the advice: be reconciled.
Some elements of popular culture suggest that the family is the primary building block, the foundation of society, but after years of working with people in various capacities, I’d probably argue that healthy relationships in all human groupings and communities – family and Church included – are the real foundation…. relationships founded on mutual respect and a desire to work toward the common good, for starters. To most of us this concept seems like a no-brainer – but how very often we hear instead about international peace talks that break down over an inability to look beyond historical issues and events; we witness the culture of pettiness and accusation and now ‘alternative facts’ that inflames so much North American political discourse; and in church circles, we’re sometimes known to tiptoe around difficult people or situations rather than risk rocking the proverbial boat. Indeed, often the way around a problem is to simply ignore it and hope it goes away, which, of course, it rarely does. You have to wonder if Kenneth Boulding wasn’t right when he said in his poem The Conservationist’s Lament: “The evolutionary plan went astray by evolving man.” And by man, of course, he meant humanity. As a species, we do seem to be invested a little too much in keeping conflict alive and often find ourselves unable (or unwilling) to take whatever steps are necessary to promote healing among individuals and nations.
I think that, as a Teacher, Jesus really understood the human heart. He understood that the impact of unresolved anger, disloyalty and betrayal between people could have devastating long-term effects on the individuals involved … and so he called his followers to a higher standard of behavior – to be agents of dignity and respect – and to the specific awareness that it’s incumbent on us to initiate and hopefully smooth the way for reconciliation wherever it is needed and may be possible. That’s not to say that reconciliation is always possible – we know that it isn’t. Marriages fail, people make irresponsible choices, and sometimes in the chaos of life it’s all we can do to make it from moment to moment without feeling responsible for everyone else’s well-being on top of it all. But in the midst of this, I believe that Jesus simply asks us to be aware of our role in creating or perhaps perpetuating whatever chaos might exist, and then to be agents of God’s reconciling grace whenever and wherever we can. Sometimes it’s up to us to make the first move, whether we feel it’s justified or not.
When I was thinking about this, I remembered something I witnessed many years ago. A friend of mine, a very organized and competent person, offered to convene the annual parish fundraising dinner when at the last minute the regular organizer was unable to do it. The day of the event rolled around and it was going off without a hitch, and my friend was feeling great about it….that is, until one of the matriarchs of the church approached her at the dinner and in front of a large group of people accused my friend, in loud tones of self-righteous indignation, of neglecting to set up a ride for her to get to the event….and then flounced off before my friend had a chance to respond. Unbeknownst to my friend, it had been the custom that each year, someone picked this woman up to bring her to the dinner – and no one had told my friend that it was part of the convener’s job to make sure the ride was looked after. So – on one hand we had a person who felt slighted because she felt that she had been overlooked, and on the other we had my friend who was on the receiving end of a very public verbal attack for forgetting something she wasn’t even aware of in the first place. When she talked to me about it at the end of the evening my friend was still seething with anger and embarrassment at being on the receiving end of an unjustified and vitriolic verbal assault. She didn’t really know what to do … but… to my great and continuing amazement, the next day in church, when it came time for the passing of the peace, I saw her go straight for the matriarch in question and apologize for not setting up her ride. I have to tell you, I was speechless at the time, and have called that situation to mind often since then – because my friend demonstrated that sometimes – not always, but sometimes – reconciliation is more important than being, technically speaking, in the right….and sometimes, when feelings are hurt on both sides and there’s the potential for escalation (you know, that’s when we play the game of whose feelings are hurt the most)…sometimes the best way out of a conflict is to simply decide not to contribute to it any longer – and to seek a way out of the impasse instead of perpetuating it. Sometimes it pays to swallow a little pride.
Jesus calls us today to inspect our human relationships and to work for reconciliation and healing… not just within our own families, our friendships and our Church, but out in a world where justice and equality are wanting….and he suggests that the first step on the way forward is an honest look into our own hearts and a willingness to create newness within; to be willing to be reconciled, even if it might mean admitting – at least occasionally – that we’re wrong. For healing, compassion, and reconciliation the world over we pray as we together say Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams