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. . . 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 grounds 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 the custom of the diocesan staff to begin our meetings with a reflection on the gospel text for the upcoming Sunday. So last Tuesday, we read the passage you just heard. Normally our conversation is lively and animated, but not this time. It was jarring to hear Jesus speak in such harsh and condemning language. For some, myself included, his words touched a nerve.
I wonder if you had a similar reaction as the text was read.
In a mere fifteen verses of Jesus’ most famous sermon–known as the Sermon on the Mount–Jesus has painful things to say to all of us. Could this be the same Jesus who said in other contexts, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” and “I have come not to judge the world, but to give life to the world.”?
Hyperbole is the word we use to describe an extreme exaggeration to make a point, and Jesus spoke in hyperbole a lot. He said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Jesus liked getting people’s attention, but if taken literally, his hyperbolic statements can be dangerous. Then again, if we simply dismiss them, or explain away what biblical scholars aptly call Jesus’ “hard sayings,” we miss the growth that comes when we are challenged by truths that we don’t want to hear or are taken to those painful places within us where we are in need of God’s healing grace.
What could be more troubling and offensive than hearing Jesus encouraging us to cut off offending members of our bodies to avoid sin?
I am quite certain that Jesus wasn’t encouraging us to do bodily harm to ourselves for the sake of spiritual purity. Nor do I believe that sinful thoughts are the same as actual deeds. His blunt point is that sometimes it’s best to avoid situations that cause us to sin, and we know that this is true. We know it’s best to stay away from certain circumstances that lure us into behavior or deeds we will later regret. So stay away from them, he counsels us. To do so can feel as hard as cutting off a limb because there is a part of us that wants what is not best for us.
Jesus was adament that our thoughts can be dangerous, which we also know is true. If acted upon, our unchecked thoughts can lead to real pain. Moreover, inner integrity requires self-discipline, which isn’t the same as having an internal police officer monitoring our every thought, but is rather a gentle, yet firm, daily practice of choosing life.
Jesus goes on to say harsh things about divorce, which touches a nerve for a lot of people, myself included. My parents divorced when I was an infant. This was in the early 1960s when divorce in this country was still a scandal. The Episcopal Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce in those years was patterned on this very passage and the notion that any divorced married man or woman remarries, is committing adultery. Remarriage after divorce was rarely permitted in The Episcopal Church, and my mother, as a young divorcée, was in essence told that she could never marry again.
I vividly remember the time when one of my mother’s friends who was also divorced became engaged to another man. The priest of our congregation told her that if she remarried, she and her new husband would be committing adultery. This woman, whose name was Linda, was initially devastated, but then she had a realization–one of those epiphanies in life that gives one courage. Linda mustered up her courage and told our priest that he was wrong, that she fully intended to re-marry, and she felt confident that God had led her to this new relationship. If he didn’t want to preside over the ceremony, she would find another priest who would. To his credit, our priest realized that Linda was acting out of great faith and he agreed to the wedding.
There’s no need for us to hang our heads in shame for the fragility of our marriages. Long-term intimate relationships are among the most humbling and audaciously hopeful human undertakings. How could we not fail at them? Surely Jesus understands that. On the other hand, Jesus espouses an undeniably conservative relational and sexual ethic, one meant to protect women in the patriarchal society of his day in which men had all the power. There is a word for us here, holding up the importance of living a vowed life, and persevering in relationship when times are hard.
For me, the most painful part of this passage is in the first few lines, about reconciling with a brother or sister before approaching God’s altar. You see, if I were to leave my gift at the altar and not return until I am fully reconciled with my brother, I don’t know when I would be back.
I’m not speaking about “my brother” in the universal sense. I mean my flesh-and-blood brother, my half-brother to be precise, who has chosen to keep me at arm’s length. He surfaces from time to time, as he did recently when his mother died. We had a sweet reconciliation, or so I thought, but he withdrew again, choosing to live his life apart from me.
I wish I could say that my brother is the only person who comes to mind whenever I read or hear these words, but he’s not. I’m 63 years old. I’ve made mistakes and hurt people deeply, and people have hurt me. By God’s grace and with a lot of love and forgiveness, some of those relationships survived, but others didn’t. Everytime I hear Jesus’ words about reconciliation before coming to the altar, they are the relationships that come to mind.
I’ve learned some things about reconciliation, in success and failure, that I carry with me.
I’ve learned, for starters, that reconciliation requires forgiveness. If you can’t forgive another person, if that person can’t forgive you, or you can’t forgive yourself, reconciliation is impossible. It is possible to forgive someone without reconciling, that is, to release another person from the burden of your hurt and disappointment, move on with your life and let that person move on too, but not continue in relationship with one another. I learned this from an elderly woman in the parish I served as rector who was robbed by a young man she had befriended from her twelve-step group. With bruises on her arm and face, she looked up from her hospital bed and said, “I forgive him for what he’s done. But I don’t want to see him again.” I knew both statements were true: she needed no restitution or even an apology. But as she was in her eighties, with limited energy, she chose not to invest any more in that relationship.
Reconciliation is only possible when those involved are ready to forgive one another and move forward together. You can forgive alone, but you can’t reconcile alone. It’s a painful realization, to be sure, because if someone doesn’t want to be reconciled with you, there’s nothing you can do. Trying harder to make things right often makes things worse and you have no choice but to let that person go, at least for now. But when both parties are able to forgive and want to move forward together, reconciliation happens, and sometimes with remarkable ease.
Reconciliation also rests upon the kind of personal growth gained through suffering. I’m speaking now of the suffering of the wounded, who don’t deny or discount the pain endured, but nonetheless work hard to grow large enough inside so as not to be defined by their wounds. Reconciliation rests on solid ground of maturity and compassion that living through painful circumstances affords.
The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers comes to mind here: Joseph, as you recall, was deeply resented by his brothers, who were jealous of his favored status in their father’s heart and irritated by his arrogance. So his brothers threw him in a hole and slave traders carried him away. Joseph suffered greatly as a result, and yet over the years he grew through his suffering. He matured in sensitivity and compassion and he learned to use his gifts for good. Through a series of events set in motion by his brothers’ hurtful deed, he found himself in a position of power, so much so that his brothers, who had long assumed Joseph to be dead, were dependent upon him for their very survival. In the moment when he could have lashed out at them in anger, he said instead, “Out of what you intended for evil, God has brought great good.” Joseph no longer needed to hold onto anger or hurt. He was grateful for how his life had turned out and the person he had become through suffering. (Genesis 37-45)
Guilt and shame have no place in a reconciled relationship. There’s no longer need for retribution or restitution. The debt has been paid, and not by the perpetrator, but by the grace of God, serendipity of life, and hard work of the one refusing to be defined by another’s transgression. The balance of power in the relationship is completely reset and reconciliation takes place on that solid ground.
I’ve also learned that reconciliation takes a long time, and that the initial work of it is done apart, as the one wounded grows stronger and heals, and the ones who have wounded also heal from the pain of having hurt another so badly. The healing required on the part of the wounding one is harder than we realize. Often the ones resisting reconciliation are those who have caused the most pain. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her memoir The Spiral Staircase, “It is always difficult to forgive the people we have harmed.”1
Yet when the work is done, and people meet as two who have grown stronger in the broken places, reconciliation is a wondrous thing. It signals a fresh start, yet with all the hard-won benefits of having come through the hardest thing and prevailed. It changes you in ways that are hard to describe, and it gives you hope for the world.
What I know for myself is that I want to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation whenever I can. That requires me to take responsibility for my part in the pain and hurt others experience, including my personal behavior and the unearned privilege of my place in this society as a white person. I need to own these things and make restitution whenever I can.
If you, like me, are hoping for reconciliation with one who doesn’t want to reconcile with you, you know well that the path is a lonely one; but it is a path–of prayer, acceptance of what you’ve done, and of the other person’s right to choose not to forgive or be in relationship.
If you, like me, are in need of healing from wounds sustained by others who hurt you, you know that path is a lonely one; but it is a path–of prayer, openness to healing that comes from unexpected places, and a willingness to grow through suffering.
Perhaps we’re on both paths at once. On either path, or both, this I know: we are not alone. God’s grace is there to guide and heal us, so that, one day, here–or on the other side of death–when the gate of reconciliation opens to us, we might be loving and brave, and walk through it to meet the one waiting on the other side.
God’s compassionate and healing presence is what I hope to leave you as you consider any of Jesus’ hard sayings. Allow them to touch the tender places in your lives and dare to engage God honestly in ways that allow you to both speak your truth and receive grace and mercy where you need it most, and the strength to choose what the life-affirming path God wants for you.
1Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).