The readings for this Sunday include Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:13-37.
In the Genesis reading, Moses is giving a speech to the Israelites before they prepare to cross the Jordan into the promised land. He offers a promise and a warning: live by the rules God has given you and your descendants will live long and well in this land; ignore these rules and the consequences will be very unpleasant. For individuals to live well sustainably, they need to live in mutually respectful and caring communities, and the Israelites have been given rules designed to foster this kind of community.
Our reading from Matthew is a collection of sayings. The first is about being salt and being light: to be a healing, preservative, flavour enhancing presence, and to brightly and boldly share their experience of God. We serve ourselves, others and God well when we openly work for healing and for enhancing the life of our communities. Being boldly open about our Spirit-inspired understandings and observations provides opportunities for others in the community to make choices helpful to everyone in the community.
In the next saying, Jesus claimed he was the fulfillment of the law, that we are to take everything in the law seriously and carefully. This is one of those hard parts of the Gospels: it seems to contradict other parts of the gospel in which Jesus challenges some of the traditional laws such as not talking to un-related women or permitting his disciples to gather food on the Sabbath. Some possible clues for resolving these conflicts are found in the following sayings.
Following the saying about the law, he claimed that being angry is as bad as murder, which makes most of us murderers, and directed his followers to put reconciliation with others more important than even worship.
Following the one on anger is the even tougher one about divorce and lust and adultery. The idea of ripping out one’s right eye if thinking lustful thoughts or cutting off one’s hand to avoid committing sin seem extremely harsh, but it brings us back to the comments about fulfillment of the law. If particular laws, such as the one about writing a letter of divorce to legally end a marriage, permit individuals to act in ways that seem contradictory to God’s intentions, then they are not legitimate laws. Instead of seeing fulfillment of the law externally, following the rules, Jesus set getting our internal thoughts in order contribute to fulfillment of the law. In a society where many people go through divorce, this whole section seems extremely narrow. If we hear these words as being spoken in a context where women had limited say in most situations about who their husband was to be, they lift up the status of women from property to be exchanged between men to status as real people not to be exploited at the whim of others. This was a society where women could not initiate divorce very easily. This part is still a difficult section which challenges almost everyone.
Finally there is the passage banning oaths. This is one where some Christians have to say when asked to swear an oath, restrict what they can say to simple yes or no. Jesus saw the use of oaths as a tool used for evil in the world.
As tough or strange as some parts of our reading from Matthew are, they point out ways of being that build healthy communities.