“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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. 33 “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.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Several years ago my mom was coming to Denver to visit us for a couple of days. The day of her came and I grabbed my keys to go to the airport and pick her up. “Where are you going?” Lois asked. I rolled my eyes, exasperated, and said, “to pick my mom at the airport.”
“What!?” she asked me as the lasers coming from her eyes were boring holes through my soul.
“I told you my mom was coming.” I began to feel a little bit sick.
“Uhmm. No, you didn’t.”
“Oh, sure I did!” I replied as lightly as possible, suspecting that this is not going to end well.
“No… You. Did. Not…”
This was not a good day in our marriage. Do you think my lack of consideration affected Lois? Do you think it would have helped if I had said, “I’m the only one going to the airport. It doesn’t affect you at all”? Do you think her mood afterward affected me?
We are suffering from a delusion. This ruse is now so deeply embedded into our psyche that it sounds strange to even identify it. But it’s a misconception nonetheless. The big lie is that we believe it’s possible to act alone. But it’s not possible. Because everything we do affects those around us. Everything others do affects us. We sink or swim together.
Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount in this third week by taking the Law of Moses and turning it toward relationships with others that we affect. He’s really saying that we are all in this together; we need to be doing this for each other.
Instead of feeling righteous as an individual because I haven’t murdered anyone this week, Jesus understands the Law to be about how we live together, because everything we do affect others. So it’s not just that I haven’t committed murder, and therefore I’m fine—regardless of how you’re doing—but that I’m accountable to you for your well-being also. So if I take out my anger on you, or call you a name, or hold a grudge, or look with lust, or lie to you, I’m affecting you. Whether I’ve committed murder or not. Jesus is pointing out the reality that we cannot simply live for ourselves, because if we aren’t lifting up those around us, we’re sinking ourselves too.
When he says to cut your hand off if it’s causing you to sin, he’s not literally telling us to run your arm through a table saw. He’s pointing out that we cannot be righteous alone. Therefore everything we do affects everyone else. So we need to quit just looking out for ourselves and our own righteousness, and take seriously the fact that we sink or swim together.
It’s the same thing with the divorce verses here that so often catch us up. It’s not about feeling guilty because I’ve gone through a divorce. It’s pointing out that relationships affect each of us and we can’t simply take them for granted. What we do affects others. We sink or swim together.
This is true not just in families, but in all communities. As a congregation, like it or not, we sink or swim together. When one ministry disregards another, or one part of the congregation resents another, or one group believes they are above the rest of the church, we are all hurt. In our attempts to lift ourselves up over others, we end up pulling everyone down. That’s what Jesus is pointing out. If we are only concerned about our own righteousness, our own place in the church, our own ministry, our own preferences, the congregation as a whole cannot benefit. And we all stand to lose. We sink or swim together
Doesn’t it make sense, then, that God is constantly calling us to care for the least, the lost, the victims, the helpless, those pushed to the edges? As a country—as a world—we are only doing as well as those at the bottom. As God’s children, we sink or swim together. We cannot claim godliness or righteousness when any of our brothers and sisters are starving, uneducated, ignored, or left out.
We are thinking about helping out LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service) for Sundays in Lent. Watch for information about how you can help lift up the lowest among us. But as disciples of Jesus, we know that we cannot rise above the most vulnerable among us. We sink or swim together.
I read a story David Lose posted that brings this all home for me. A little boy got into an argument with his younger sister. It escalated until the boy pinned her down and was ready to punch her. Their mom came in, saw what was going on, and told him to stop. “She was wrong,” he yelled. “Besides, I’m bigger and I can do what I want to my sister.” “No you can’t,” replied the mother. “It doesn’t matter who’s right or who’s wrong. She’s my daughter.”
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter who’s stronger, who’s more righteous, who claims to love God more. God reminds us we are all God’s children. We are here not for our own individual righteousness, but for those who are most helpless, weakest, and most vulnerable. Since we are all God’s children, it doesn’t matter who’s more righteous and who’s less. I can claim nothing just because I haven’t murdered someone. My own righteousness—and yours—our righteousness is tied intimately to the fate of refugees, and the poor, and Blacks and Hispanics, and the LGBT community, anyone who does not have a place at the table. We sink or swim together.