February 12, 2023
Corrie and I have been watching a quirky, endearing Japanese show on Netflix called Midnight Diner. The premise is a bit far-fetched, at least from a Western perspective. It’s set in a diner that is open only from midnight to 7 am. It’s run by world-weary man probably in his late 50s who is called Master by his customers. There’s only one item on the menu: pork miso soup. But he’ll make anything his customers request, as long as he has the ingredients, and sometimes, they bring him ingredients to make a favorite dish
There’s a recurrent cast of characters: misfits, a gangster, sex workers, a non-binary bar owner, among others. Each episode may focus on one of them, or on new customers who come in and bring their problems with them. As the series progresses, community is created around the stools, and around the food the master cooks. The brokenness of the world and of human lives is on display, but so too are the tentative attempts to heal that brokenness and the relationships that emerge around conversation and good food. The episodes always end with a brief description of the food item that was featured. And some of them are quite surprising: I never knew that potato salad was a thing in Japanese cuisine.
We know that community is hard to build and easy to break. We’ve all experienced its blessings and felt the pain of the brokenness. We may even have been reminded of that brokenness, the brokenness of our relationships as we listened to today’s gospel reading with its hard words about hate, reconciliation, divorce, and adultery.
In fact, one of the key themes in Matthew’s gospel is life in community—“where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Elsewhere Jesus expresses his concern for the weakest and most vulnerable—“the least of these” and cautions his followers not to act in such a way or to offer teaching that might cause the little ones, the vulnerable, the weak in faith, to stumble.
Today’s gospel is a continuation of our reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week’s reading ended with the ominous statement, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Today we are presented with a series of antitheses. Jesus seems to be quoting Torah as he says, “You have heard it said of old…” and then he offers his own interpretation, “But I say to you…”
These antitheses—you have heard it say of do not murder, but I say to you… show Jesus working with Torah (the Jewish law). There’s a common assumption among Christians, going back centuries, that Jesus put an end to the Jewish law—that the Jewish community of Jesus’ day struggled to live by the hundreds of narrow prescriptions in the law laid down in the Pentateuch, were oppressed by its demands, and sought freedom from it—a freedom preached by Jesus Christ, Paul, and early Christianity.
Well, it’s not quite so simple as that. In fact, that common understanding is wrong on two counts. It’s wrong concerning first-century Judaism, and it’s wrong concerning Jesus. We know from first-century sources as well as from earlier biblical texts that that the Mosaic law was perceived by Jews as a good thing. Our psalm today expresses that idea:
“Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the laws of the Lord.”
Throughout the Psalms, there’s a consistent sense of joy for the law and that continued down through Jesus’ day. There is ongoing development in the understanding of the law in Judaism and by the first century, the Pharisees were seeking to broaden the law’s influence and range. They were applying the Torah to everyone, not just to the priests. While we may think of that as increasing legalization, it was also in a very real sense, a democratization of the law. It applied to everyone.
In addition, the Pharisees’ sought to provide guidance concerning the law to every aspect of life. What is murder, for example? The Pharisees provided ways for people to understand the connection between every day activity and the central precepts of the law, in order to preserve the law’s integrity. The Pharisees, and the rabbis after them, called this effort “building a wall around Torah.”
Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus doing very much the same thing. “You have heard it said of old, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Like the Pharisees, Jesus is offering instruction to his listeners about how to interpret Torah. He’s answering the questions, What is murder? What is adultery?
And think about the way we generally approach such questions. Both in the legal arena and in our own personal moral reflections, we’re likely to try to find ways to interpret actions so that they aren’t judged the more serious offense—thus, instead of murder, people are charged with reckless homicide or manslaughter.
Jesus is doing just the opposite: What is murder? Jesus says, it’s not just the act of killing someone, it’s being angry, or hating, or ridiculing someone. Jesus is intensifying the law, sharpening it, and internalizing it. It’s not just our outward actions that matter, it’s our inward dispositions and inclinations as well. We all know that it is not only acts like murder that fracture community. We have seen in the world around us how hatred and disparaging language breaks down community; how easy it is to go from violent language to violent action, and how violent language is ultimately dehumanizing.
Jesus is pointing to the deeper significance of the commandments, and the relationships, the communities that lie beneath them. Sure, murder is wrong, but isn’t hate that leads us to deride fellow human beings as “fools” equally problematic? If our relationships with our fellow human beings are broken, is not our relationship with God also broken? If we are called to reconcile ourselves to God, how can we not want to reconcile with fellow humans? To think about reconciliation, being at peace and harmony with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, before coming to the altar, may have us thinking in new ways about justice.
Our criminal justice system is organized around punishment. It often continues to punish people long after they have completed their time in prison. Wisconsin is notorious both for the high percentage of African-Americans in the criminal justice system as well as for its broken and punitive pardon and parole system.
It profoundly reflects our values that we view certain people as less than human, as threats to the social order. We would rather have them spend their lives in prison than explore ways of helping them flourish. We would rather punish them for minor offenses and police their behavior than do the hard work of creating a society in which their lives have value and to which they can contribute their gifts and skills.
To be honest, it’s easy for us to allow our views on punishment and retribution in larger society affect the way we think about our personal relationships, our relationships in the church, and our relationship with God. When we are in conflict with another person, we may rather want to see them punished or suffer than do the hard work of talking through the conflict, seeking resolution and reconciliation. We may rather see God as the punitive judge who is likely to punish us for our sins, and who we hope will punish those who have wronged us, than as the merciful, loving One who embraces the penitent sinner.
The vision that Jesus is beginning to describe in these verses is of a beloved and loving community, in which individuals can flourish and where trust underlies all relationships. It is the vision of a community, reconciled to God, that does the work of reconciliation in the world. It is the vision of a community bound together by love, not united by fear of common enemies, or by the power exerted by authority. It is the vision of a community that witnesses to God’s love and mercy, and works to restore all human beings to relationship with each other and God. It is the vision of such a community to which we are called. Drawn to that vision, may we make it our own.