Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37
There is a lot to unpack here—particularly in the Gospel, but also in our reading from Deuteronomy today. But, Beloved, I am not going to tell you what to hear or understand today—well, not exactly. Instead, what I hope I do is to give you a tool to use whenever you are reading/hearing Scripture. A key that can unlock some deeper understanding, some relevant threads to your everyday life, your daily discipleship as followers of this Way of Love. And that key is knowing who your God is. By that I mean, how do you see God?
Do you understand God to be a God of retribution or reconciliation? Retribution means payback, generally it means punishment for an evil deed, a bad act. Reconcilation, of course, is all about mercy, grace, and forgiveness. It is the process of mending, restoring, and putting things to right.
How you hear today’s readings reveals who God is for you—deep down in your DNA.
If God is a God of retribution, then when you hear the reading from Deuteronomy, you hear a threat. If you choose well, then you will be rewarded, and if you choose poorly, God will exact punishment on you and you will not live long. Better get it right, Beloved.
If God is a God of retribution, then in the Gospel you hear Jesus spelling out things in black and white—absolute answers to situations in life—and divorce is off the table and you better mean what you say or God is going to get you.
This God of retribution is a popular God; it is how the Hebrews understood God; it is how many Christians today understand God. It is the God of much of American culture.
But I want to invite you to consider understanding God differently. This is a shift that I myself had to make the longer I followed Jesus, the deeper I moved into my relationship with God and took deeper dives into the Word and held it up to the life, ministry and death of the Christ. The God I know is a God of reconciliation and transformation. This God doesn’t exact punishment for bad behavior because our bad behavior exacts its own punishment. This God isn’t continually watching to catch me when I get it wrong, but continually holding me and catching me when I do get it wrong so that I can stand back up and try again.
This God isn’t interested in figuring out who should be in and who should be out; this God loves and includes all. Without exception. Providing as many chances as we need—in this life and for eternity—for us to come to realize just who God is and how much we are loved, how much we are Beloved. This God gives us as many times as we need to know that we belong, that we are an integral part of the restoration of all Creation. In fact, this God of reconciliation refuses to accept an eternity without me. Without you. Without any one of us.
Beloved, let that sink in. Marinate in that. God can’t bear to go on without you, but God does continue, with openness and receptivity, to invite us to return until each one of us is finally gobsmacked with the truth of just how precious we are, just how precious each bit and bob of Creation is, just how precious every single human being is to the Creator.
So, with this God in mind, we can hear that the reading from Deuteronomy is simply Genesis 1 and 2 all over again—declaring God provides us a choice. We can live as God desires us to live—the Way of Love—and have a full, abundant life (abundant not in possessions, but an abundance of peace, wholeness, wellness) or we can choose our own ways and suffer the consequences of self-centered choices. Again, God doesn’t exact our punishment, but our choices and the choices of others certainly do.
We hear this again in Jesus’ message today. Jesus isn’t transgressing the Law, the Torah, Jesus is transcending it—radicalizing it. In the Lutheran way of understanding Scripture, this is the difference between Law and Gospel. Law is often a black and white, absolute and literal reading of the Word. The Gospel gets at the Spirit—the lifegiving truth that is within the Word—transcending the letter of the Law in order to hear the liberating, loving, and life-giving Good News.
Yes, murder is against the Law, but Jesus is calling us to look at the root of it–our anger, our hate–and calling us to deal with the root–to move toward the tending and restoration of reconciliation. This is not a call to simply end murder, but also to put an end to hostility that kills relationships, that kills possibilities and collaboration, that kills our unity and at-one-ment.
Yes, adultery is a sin, but in Jesus’ day it was a sin only a woman could enact, for she was the man’s property–as were her children. Adultery was about a man’s exclusive right to a woman. Radically, Jesus isn’t addressing women when he speaks of adultery; Jesus is talking to the men and their behavior. And Jesus calls people to the root of the issue, yet again: the intention of the heart. You see in Scripture God is good and evil is anything that opposes God’s will, God’s way of love. So Jesus says when your heart begins to wander from your covenanted promise to your partner—either due to what you see (the eye) or what you do (the hand)---then you must stop immediately. Reconcile that relationship. Which, Beloved, we know might mean that the relationship is restored to a new start with lots of work rebuilding trust OR it might mean that the relationship is ended well. With lots of forgiveness and reparation of wounds. Reconciliation doesn’t come in one kind, but many—and it always leaves whole and well humans behind, not desecrated bodies.
That’s why Jesus says what he says about divorce. In his time it was a man’s right to divorce a wife—leaving her without security, no home, no future. It was using divorce as a means to desecrate another human. Retributive rather than conciliatory. Jesus calls us to a different way. Telling us over and over today: Tend to your relationships. Make Forgiveness, grace and mercy the center of your promises and relationships—not punishment. Not vengeance. Not payback.
How we understand who God is completely colors how we hear and enact the Word, this Good News. If God is simply my God, then the Good News only needs to be Good for me. If God is the God of all, then the Good News needs to be Good for all people.
If God is a God of retribution then God is a judge waiting to determine if we are good enough. If God is a God of reconciliation then God is Love waiting for us to see and know we are the Beloved and we are enough. We are worthy. That all people are enough and all people are worthy. And God allows us to choose between the two. Because to force our hand is not love, but tyranny. Love demands choice.
And here’s the thing: God cannot be both a God of retribution and a God of reconciliation. We cannot hold both as truth. Retribution negates grace and grace refuses retribution. God cannot be both. So, Beloved, who is the God you follow?
Let’s end with this prayer by Padraig O’Tuama of the Corrymeela Community:
God of Reconciliation, You demand much of us—inviting us to tell truths by turning toward each other. May we leave our trinkets where they belong and find our treasure by turning towards each other. Because you needed this. Because we all need this. Amen.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.