12 February 2017

When the choice between right and
wrong turns into a crisis moment

‘Leave your gift there before the altar’ … the High Altar in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 12 February 2017,

The Third Sunday before Lent.

11.15 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30: 15-21 (or Sirach 15: 15-20); Psalm 119: 1-8; I Corinthians 3: 1-9; Matthew 5: 21-37.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sometimes, the Lectionary throws up the most amazing and challenging readings for Sunday mornings, with some surprising coincidences.

These Sundays we are reading through the Sermon on the Mount. And this morning, just two days before Saint Valentine’s Day [14 February 2017], we come face-to-face with Jesus as he talks about hot topics such as lust and love, adultery and divorce, anger and murder, swearing and lying, truth and deceit, heaven and earth.

In this reading, Christ outlines a number of commandments from the Mosaic law and identifies ideals that transcend this law – ideals to be pursued, to hold before me, if I am to ‘enter the kingdom of heaven’ (verse 20).

Christ first examines the sixth commandment, with particular reference to anger, linking inward malevolence to the outward act of murder (verses 21-26). He then looks at the seventh commandment, once more linking spiritual disposition with the physical act of adultery (verses 27-30), as well as commenting on divorce (verses 31-32). Finally, he examines the third commandment as it relates to truth-telling (verses 33-37).

Because of the way we often read this passage, these words tend to make Jesus sound very judgmental. We hear him say ‘you will be liable to judgement,’ when the words he uses, τῇ κρίσει (ti krísei), mean we will face a crisis, we will be subject to crisis.

Making the choice between right and wrong, between good and evil, is a crisis moment that leads to judgment, whether it is in personal relationships, in the courts or before God (see Deuteronomy 16: 18).

And we start making the choices, we start creating and responding to the crises, in our lives, in our own hearts.

Gandhi is often quoted as saying we must be the change we want to see in the world.*

Christ is not saying I should forget about the law and the prophets. He is saying that I need to get to the heart of what the law and the prophets are saying, to look into my own heart, to challenge my own motives, my selfishness and the way I think when I constantly put me first.

If we want to challenge the great calamities and disasters in the world, we need to begin to change in our own hearts.

Barack Obama put Gandhi’s words in another way: ‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.’

In this reading, Saint Matthew also provides two short illustrations of what Christ is saying. They are parables not about my own rancour, but about the rancour I provoke in others. It is not enough that I should control my own temper; I must not provoke others to anger either.

There is a common way of avoiding apologising in this society. We say things like, ‘If what I have said has offended you …’ Or, ‘I am sorry if you take offence at what I have said.’ This is not an apology. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It makes the offended person guilty yet again for taking offence when I am the cause of, the source of an injury or insult.

The first mini-parable (verses 23-24) encourages me to deal with the offence I cause someone else even before I approach God in prayer.

I ought to sort out the problems I create with others, rather than blaming them for how they feel, before I come into the presence of God. He says, ‘if you might bring your gift to the altar’ (προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον). The ‘you’ here is singular, so this teaching has particular application to me, to me singular, as an individual. I cannot escape it or explain it away by saying it has general application.

The new altar or Ara in Syracuse was the biggest altar of its kind in Magna Graecia, and 450 bulls were slaughtered there at the annual Panhellenic feast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The altar here (θυσιαστήριον) is the altar for slaying and burning victims and sacrifices. It refers to the altar that stood in the court of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, to the altar of incense that stood in the sanctuary or the Holy Place, and to any other altar or place of solemn act of sacrifice.

The fire of this altar is in sharp contrast to the fire of hell or Gehena (εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός) earlier in this reading, the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem where there was a constant burning and stench with the smoke and the smell from dead corpses, human and animal.

In a very poetic way, Christ is saying that all our worship stinks unless we are truly forgiving and truly loving. And I can only be so if I put aside my resentment and my own judgmentalism.

So often in this society when people are caught doing something wrong, exposed in public for doing what is unethical, the response is ‘I have done nothing illegal.’ We create a chasm between what is permissible and what we ought to do.

The Law can never legislate for attitude, and the law can never ensure we behave ethically, still less that we love one another.

In Saint Matthew’s account this morning, Christ is not speaking about the worshipper who has been offended by another person, but about someone who has been offended by the worshipper who has already arrived in the Temple (verse 24).

I might consider this happening when I have already arrived in Church, prepared to be present at Morning Prayer or the Eucharist. The peace we share at the Eucharist is not marginal, it is compelling, bridging the gap between receiving Christ in the word proclaimed and receiving Christ in the sacrament.

The second parable (verses 25-26) encourages me to deal with someone who thinks I have offended them before it gets to court. Christ tells me to be well-disposed to my opponent, to come to terms quickly, to settle matters while there is still time.

I am being reminded that thinking about doing something that offends or abuses someone else is as bad as doing it. Because, once I think about doing something, it changes my relations with someone else. Instead of seeing them as someone made in the image and likeness of God, I start seeing them as an object. Whether as an object of my lust or my anger matters little, for all I think of is how they can serve my desires rather than how I can serve them.

Even a man who refuses his wife a proper divorce, claiming he is obeying the traditional law, is in fact turning her into an object to control, and for other men to control and abuse. Now that puts Christ’s teaching on divorce in a more radical light than the Church has been ready to contemplate traditionally.

In these two mini-parables, Christ speaks of the crucial importance of taking any necessary measures to control any excessive passions that flare out of control (see also Matthew 18: 8-9; cf Mark 9: 43-48).

How we resolve the tensions between command and capacity, between disposition and love, is found in Saint Paul’s words this morning. He is convinced that by the grace of Christ’s Spirit we can indeed live as God would have us live.

In this morning’s reading, Christ proposes standards that go beyond external ways of behaviour but challenge how we feel in our hearts. He suggests that if we do not keep an eye on our feelings and thoughts then we cannot control our actions.

Whether or not you are looking forward to Saint Valentine’s Day later this week, you know too that your own heart has been broken many times, not because you have failed to love, but because you love.

So, live in the Spirit. Love God, love one another, expect to love and be loved by others. Amen.

The reliquary with the remains of Saint Valentine in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* Gandhi said: ‘We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.’


Almighty God,
who alone can bring order
to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity:
Give your people grace
so to love what you command
and to desire what you promise;
that, among the many changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave Jesus Christ to be for us the bread of life,
that those who come to him should never hunger.
Draw us to our Lord in faith and love,
that we may eat and drink with him at his table in the kingdom,
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Matthew 5: 21-37:

21 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐ φονεύσεις: ὃς δ’ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει. 22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει: ὃς δ' ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ, Ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ: ὃς δ' ἂν εἴπῃ, Μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός. 23 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, 24 ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου, καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου. 25 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχὺ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετ' αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ, καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ, καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ: 26 ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.

27 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Οὐ μοιχεύσεις. 28 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ. 29 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. 30 καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.

31 Ἐρρέθη δέ, Ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ, δότω αὐτῇ ἀποστάσιον. 32 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ μοιχᾶται.

33 Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως: μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ: 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ: μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως: 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν. 37 ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ: τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.

[Jesus said:] 21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22 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. 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.’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge of Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group (Limerick and Killaloe) and Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was prepared for Morning Prayer in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, on Sunday 12 February 2017.

No comments: