Given in response to Matthew 5: 21-37.
Thank you to Helen for that New Testament reading. This one’s a real doozy. That’s the scholarly term. Helen asked if I was in the habit of preaching the lectionary and I said, “yes, I preach the lectionary.” I should’ve checked the contents first.
First of all I need to point out, it would be irresponsible if I failed to point out, that under no circumstances should you actually pluck your eye out. That would be crazy. And normally I try avoid making definite statements about much of anything, but I can also advise that you shouldn’t cut of your right hand, either. You learn these sorts of things when you’ve been in seminary for almost 3 years.
Alright. Probably the most honest way to deal with a text like this one is to acknowledge that if anyone else besides Jesus had said this stuff then we wouldn’t feel any need to seriously consider it. But because it’s Jesus and because Jesus is somewhat important to the Christian tradition we feel compelled to offer up some type of explanation. Sometimes what happens is that Jesus has his heart in the right place but then he goes a bit overboard. That seems to be what’s happening here. He’s trying to make a point so he exaggerates. Sometimes a parent will say something like, “if you don’t clean your room by tonight you’ll be grounded until you’re 18.” And they’re saying it to an 11 year old so generally the assumption is that they’re exaggerating a bit. But the point is they’re really serious about it. That’s one way you might try to understand what Jesus is up to in passages like these. He’s not being literal so much as he’s trying to raise the stakes.
And of course most of this sounds pretty unrealistic. For example, Jesus says Everyone knows its wrong to commit adultery, but now I’m saying don’t even think about it. Trouble is, you don’t always choose your thoughts. We sometimes say things like “it occurred to me…” or “it happened to cross my mind…” And what both both phrases indicate is that the thought presented itself, it’s not as if you willingly chose to conjure it up in your mind’s eye. What’s probably more practical than saying don’t even think about it is the advice I often get while meditating. They’ll say, “if a thought occurs to you then you should acknowledge the thought but don’t grasp onto it. Acknowledge it but don’t judge it or mull it over, just let it go.” Well, Jesus says don’t even think about it, so he’s not terribly practical here but he is setting the bar pretty high.
I’m most interested today in the last few verses of the reading. Do you recall what Jesus says about oaths? “You’ve 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 or by the earth or by Jerusalem. Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” He’s saying, basically, don’t lie, speak plainly, say what you mean. If you’re not in the habit of lying then you shouldn’t need to take oaths. So just say Yes when you mean Yes and No when you mean No.
I’m interested in those verses because they seem out of place. Jesus gives a bunch of instructions that are exaggerated, hyperbolic, more or less impossible, and then he says “Don’t lie.” And I know some people have a hard time telling the truth, and I also know about those conversations regarding the morality of lying–maybe in some cases the right thing or the best thing is to lie, like if you’re hiding refugees and their lives are in danger. But on the whole I don’t think the advice about oaths and lying fits with the rest of the passage. It’s not nearly as demanding and I think if I had to take one of these admonitions seriously, meaning literally, then I’d definitely pick this one. Pluck an eye out, cut off a hand, don’t take oaths. Uhhh, I’ll go with the thing about the oaths, please.
Well, as it turns out, this whole business about the oaths and plain speech might be a bit more difficult than I was thinking. Let your word be Yes if you mean Yes and No if you mean No. Speak plainly. Tell the truth. But then, some speech isn’t true or false. In fact, some speech isn’t concerned with truth at all. Some speech skirts the truth, changes the topic, obfuscates. Some speech is much more concerned with leaving an impression than conveying true information. I’m not sure if they had a name for that kind of speech in the ancient world, but we call that kind of speech B.S.
I understand there are some college students in attendance, so if you’re unclear about the precise meaning of B.S. I’d recommend you find one of them after the service. (I know the former-students of older generations don’t know anything about this sort of thing but I’m sure the current students could fill you in.) It’s getting towards the end of the semester and your professor starts talking about that term paper you were supposed to start on 2 months ago. The professor says what I’m looking for is a level of engagement with the sources that demonstrates a high level of understanding, and what I want most of all is a strong thesis; make an argument. But the thing with arguments is that they’re a lot easier to make when you care about something, and sometimes you don’t actually care about this stuff. So what do you do? If you’re clever you know how to write the argument as if its the most important thing in the world. And later on you get to tell your friends that paper was B.S. but it was elegant B.S. and I got an A.
And it’s not just students. Sometimes you’ll be at a panel discussion or watching a debate somewhere and the participants are spouting off about how much respect they have for one another– “I am thankful and honored to be in the same room as my most esteemed colleague Mr. Smith”– And you can just tell that they hate each other’s guts. It’s important, though, to keep up appearances. It’s important to play the sort of roll that’s expected of you even if you don’t believe in it.
Here’s an assignment for the week: try to keep an eye out for speech that’s not false but also isn’t true. In other words: look for people who are playing a role that they really don’t believe in. I think if you’re perceptive you’ll notice a lot of frivolous B.S.–most of it’s harmless. But occasionally you’ll see someone trying to play a role, and you’ll notice that they’re doing a very poor job. They’re wearing a forced smile, they’re eyes are sad, dull. Something is wrong. Someone will ask if they’re okay but you can tell exactly what answer they’d prefer to hear and you can actually see their sense of relief when they hear “Fine, I’m fine, really.” Everyone says, “Well, he must be fine. He just said so.” And often times no one cares that it’s clearly an act. They’re willing to pretend he’s playing the role well, leaving the right impression, even though this is obviously some very sad and soul-sapping B.S.
I remember learning somewhere, in class or while working as a chaplain maybe, I learned that people who are grieving, people who are having a hard time, they find the performance of wellness far more draining than actually dealing with their pain and grief. And they find at most turns people willing to cheer on the whole charade. Saying, “cheer up and you’ll feel better.” Advising them to “fake it ‘til they make it.” Repeating again and again, “pull yourself out of it.” But it turns out they were never in it at all. They were trying the whole time to play a role, trying to seem like they’d dealt with the pain instead of actually dealing with it. And all the while people are saying Cheer up, Smile, Get over it.
And so, I need to take back what I said earlier. It can be difficult, dreadfully difficult to speak plainly. Think of how rarely you hear someone say “No, I’m not fine, not really at all.” If I say Tell the truth, speak plainly, Yes for Yes, No for No; and if I also say no B.S. and no playing roles you don’t believe in, well, suddenly that seems like a tall order. And it is difficult, admittedly, but it’s not impossible. Because even with so many people saying Smile, Cheer up, Get over it, there is still an alternative witness to be spoken–the Christian witness, Our witness.
Our witness sometimes sounds like a reminder that you don’t need to get over things yourself. No, we’ll move through it together.
Our witness is always saying that we want to hear your plain truth even if it’s not a happy truth.
And our witness speaks most of all about a God who pulls Jesus through, even through the grave. And every time we’re gathered is a reminder: The God who pulls Jesus through is pulling all of us through as well, restoring us somehow–we know not how–but somehow nonetheless.