Ethic of Neighborly Love

Ethic of Neighborly Love
Matthew 5:21-37
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2023

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a sibling, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a sibling, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your sibling has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your sibling, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with them, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.

“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.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you. Okay, so I was technically following the letter of the law. My parents had told me to stop touching my brother. So I followed the law. Like a good son, I did not break my parents’ rules. But somehow my brother was still annoyed and my parents were getting upset at me. What had I done wrong?

It seems like Jesus is dealing with a similar set of problems as my annoying boyish self. Moses had given good and helpful laws to the Jewish people from way back when. Jesus lived his life by these laws saying in just the previous verses to our passage today that not one dot or stroke of the law would be removed. Jesus is not wanting to reject the law as this passage has sometimes been misinterpreted. Instead, Jesus is teaching us about the spirit of the law. 

This focus is on the laws of God that help govern and care for our relationships with one another. Jesus is not making more laws. Jesus is trying to install an ethic of love and care for our neighbor, as Jesus clearly highlighted throughout his life. 

So first, Jesus looks at the question of murder. Okay, everyone thinks this is wrong for the most part. So when Jesus says that anger could also lead to condemnation this seems a little intense. I want to pause and say that Jesus is not saying that anger is wrong. Jesus clearly gets angry later in the gospel and flips some tables and whips some people taking advantage of the poor. So if it is not anger that is bad, it seems to be how anger shapes our actions. Jesus talks about how anger can lead to insulting others and breaking relationships. So from the most extreme breaking of relationships with murder to the more regular breaking of relationships through our words, Jesus highlights that reconciliation is needed. So much so that Jesus says that reconciliation is more important than worship! This follows in line with the prophets who would decry worship that was done while the worshipers also kept some in poverty and oppression. So Jesus wants us to know that we need to keep an ethic of love and care for our neighbor more than checking off the worship attendance list. 

And then Jesus really dives in the deep end. Jesus continues his extrapolation of the law and engages adultery in his context. This one has been really misused in patriarchal societies to trap people into abusive marriages. And that interpretation is harmful and should be discarded. But I think that misses out on the ethic that Jesus is wanting to instill in his disciples. If the ethic is care for other humans, then is Jesus wanting people in abusive relationships to stay? Absolutely not. In fact, Jesus seems to single out men in their treatment of women in his society calling out lust. I believe Jesus continues teaching about his ethic of love of neighbor to condemn the way his society treats women more like property than children of God. This teaching of Jesus reinforces the dignity of women. Jesus’ ethic built on the law requires care and worth for all human beings and calls us to live out those values to make sure all people flourish. 

Jesus then moves to the idea of vows. It seems clear that Jesus wants us to keep our word. In Jesus’ day a person’s vow was as important as our paperwork is today. You can’t do anything today without signing something: paying with a credit card needs a signature, moving into a home or apartment has a ton of paperwork, getting a new job has you fill out lots of forms. Back then the community value was on keeping your word. And if you did not keep your word, you would lose credibility in your community, the community you needed to survive. It would break the relational bond between people.

Sometimes when we read these intensifications from Jesus, we might hear them as a checklist to accomplish. But actually they are meant to lead us to flourishing! They are not meant to trap us in a legalistic framework but instead expose us to an ethic of concern for our neighbor. They are not meant to privilege the law, the written words over and above human relationship. Instead they are a path to right relationships with God and neighbor and the earth and even ourselves.

What rules do we live by today? Work 40 hours a week? Make sure to hoard wealth? Call the police when you see something suspicious? Ignore the homeless person on the corner asking for money or help? Avoid the poor neighborhoods in town? Make assumptions based on clothing or language or skin color? Do not ask others for help? What other rules can you think of that might need to be changed, discarded, or intensified? Do these rules lead to the flourishing of life or to the destruction of relationships? This is the ethic that Jesus is calling us to, an ethic that cares for our neighbors flourishing. We must live toward this ethic and not let culture or law or anything else be used as an excuse to stop this loving ethic. Let us go and live this law of love. 

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