How to Stop Harming Relationships

A sermon based on Matthew 5: 21-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 16, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Over the last three Sundays the Lectionary has presented gospel cuttings from sections of Jesus’ amazing and powerful Sermon on the Mount. We have been reading the sections as our lessons and I have been preaching about them. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago we looked at The Beatitudes and considered how Jesus taught a reversal of earthly powers’ scripted oppression by using heavenly power’s script of love that blesses the least among us and those who work to end their oppression.
Then last week we looked at the part of Sermon on the Mount where Jesus asserts that all of us seemingly ordinary people are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We learned we are salt and light because we are all in actuality not ordinary, but extraordinary. Every human is precious in God’s sight and in most of humanity and creation’s sight too. We matter, much in and with our existence.
This week our Lectionary lesson provides us with more words from the Sermon on the Mount. They are words of Jesus’ which at first glance appear to be about four separate topics: anger, adultery, divorce and swearing oaths, but really there is one main topic: relationships. Jesus is focusing on relationships and the primary reasons they go awry and what we are to do to about it. Relationships, as I mention often are what religions are about, so it should not be a surprise that Jesus hones in on it.
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before that during my last months at Eden Theological Seminary I was in the St Louis airport waiting for a flight to get to my ordination exam in Oregon. The exam is a tough one and I was going over things in the airport when the Holy Spirit decided to stop in and give me a pep talk through the Dean of the Seminary. She bumped into me as she headed for another flight. The Dean was none other than Rev. Dr. Deb Krause who in few months (I am happy to say) will take over as the first ever female president of Eden Theological Seminary. When Dean Krause saw me at the airport she invited me to a café and bought me a cup of coffee. As we sat and chatted the Dean advised me that for ordination exams the trick is to remember “it is all about relationship.” She’s right. Jesus’ Way is about how we relate to God in everything including every person. Most of the Bible is about that.
In the section of The Sermon on the Mount before us this morning. Jesus is preaching on how to keep human relationships from going awry and how to fix them when they do, aiming toward peace. Jesus starts with farthest edge of the spectrum of awry-ness, murder. He points out that the law for ages has aimed to stop murder. Referring the Sixth Commandments he says “You have heard it was said to those of ancient times ‘You shall not murder’. . .” Jesus also points out that “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” The liability for murder laws are also found in the Torah. Jesus treats these laws as an effort to legally curb anger at its worst; and asks his followers to not simply stay within the laws’ outer net but to go beyond the letter of the law to the very heart of its intent. The intent is to stop anger’s harm. The intent, as Jesus lays it out, is peacemaking, working to achieve well being of others. Thois part of the Sermon on the Mount is about stopping harm and reconciling harm in relationships when we miss God’s aim for us. (“Sin” means to miss the mark God aims us at.)
We heard in the lesson that Cindy read so well that after Jesus addressed the worse side of anger– murder– he addressed what we might think of as the lowest form of anger in play, sibling insults. Jesus does this to make the point that anger played across the spectrum from murder on one end, to petty insults on the other, all of it, needs to be avoided. And while there may be no earthly legal consequences for most lesser harms that humans’ anger causes, Jesus claims there are severe cosmic consequences. He tells us that all anger is judged, and that anger resulting in harm of any kind results in a judgement of liability. Jesus puts it like this
“I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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.”
After going to both ends of the spectrum Jesus then addresses anger in the middle, anger that is not petty or criminal, but is serious enough to lead to lawsuits. His point is that anger manifesting itself in any harmful way even if it is not unlawful, is wrong, it wrecks relationship. It damages the well being of self and others. In Jesus’ theology what we do to others, we do to God. Harming others, harms God. All such harm is sin. To use car accident concepts, whether we total a person with anger, or fender bend them with anger, or just nick them with anger it’s not good. Period. Any level of damage to a human is an unacceptable mistreatment of the very image of God we are made in.
Jesus then tell us what to do with anger and harm– even threats of harm:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Jesus does not just mean a literal debtor’s prison, but can be heard to also mean the prison of hate and broken relationship that the sin of harmful anger of any degree sentences us to. It’s important to note that anger itself is not the issue. Things in life can make us angry, even God and Jesus get angry in the Bible. The issue is not just anger. The issue is harm caused by anger, any and all anger. Jesus teaches anger causes us to be liable for judgment. We are judged whether we handled anger correctly. Correctly is to do no harm with it; and if miss that mark, we are to fix any harm done.
On a human harm scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is petty insults, and 5 is causing lawsuits, and 10 is murder, all of those harms– 1 to 10– mistreat God in the victim of the harm by destroying or adversely affecting relationships. So all harm is unacceptable. We are not to do any harm, and according to Jesus if there is any harm –ANY HARM– we are liable and cannot be right with God until we pursue reconciliation and right the wronged relationship.
And this obligation to right wronged relationships does not just apply to harm caused by anger. And, so, Jesus goes from anger based harm to betrayal based harm in relationships. He moves from the 6th Commandment to the 7th Commandment, the prohibition against adultery. Jesus starts again at one end of the spectrum and leaps to the other end so we know it’s the whole swath of harms caused by infidelity to relationships that are unacceptable to God.
Adultery is an act that shatters humans and relationships with betrayal. God intends marriage to be a union that is honored and respected, the well being of the relationship and each person in it is supposed to always matter. So harm to either person matters, even threats of harm matter. To make this point Jesus jumps from the adultery end of the spectrum all the way over to the lustful thoughts end of the spectrum where – to most folks surprise– even the slightest unspoken wisp of adultery in the mind results in not just concern but judgement that has severe consequences. Then as with anger, Jesus brings up the middle of the spectrum, harmful divorce, which while allowed without punishment by man, carries by God the very same consequences as adultery because of the harm done. So in Jesus’ teachings it is not just the act of having a harmful affair that is betrayal, but also harmful divorces and harmful thoughts.
All levels of harm with betrayal, like all levels of harm with anger, are unacceptable. On a betrayal issue scale of 1 to 10, with 1 as lust, 5 as divorce, and 10 as adultery, all of the harms from 1 to 10 mistreat God and the victim of the harm by destroying or adversely affecting relationships. So none of it is acceptable. We are not to do any harm, by being unfaithful. None. We need to stop betrayal that harms and aim once again toward peacemaking, working to achieve well being of others.
The last item Jesus addresses is harms by not telling the truth. He starts with false swearing. Taking an oath in Jesus’ day, like today invoked God’s judgement to guarantee what is said is the truth. Before I get to more about untruthful words, if you think about, Jesus has been doing this spectrum thing with the bigger relationship umbrella he addresses. He starts out with anger in its various manifestations at the far edge of the spectrum of relationship harm, and then he moves to betrayal in the middle and he finishes up with not telling the truth. Anger is 10 on the big scale, betrayal is 5 and lying is 1. In Jesus’ preaching no matter where the cause lay on the scale, they all result in harm, and any harm is unacceptable.
Getting back to untruthfulness. Lying harms relationships. It harms people. It misses the mark of peace God aims us at. It is a kin to betrayal because it denies truths which breaks trust, which cheats people which hurts others and relationships. In the final section of the lesson Jesus refers again to a Commandment, the ninth prohibiting bearing false witness.
“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.’
When we violate a sworn oath with untruths it causes harm. It is such an onerous thing to do to relationships with others and community that perjury is a crime. But all lies that hurt – criminal or not– are unacceptable to Jesus and God because they harm relationships. This is true whether it is false swearing by anything related to God– whether it is heaven; earth; community; or ourselves. Consequently untruths whether sworn upon a Bible or crossing our hearts are wrong. Period. Jesus walks his followers through this
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.
Jesus wants our words to always be so honest that every “Yes” and every “No” stands alone as trustworthy. We should live so trustworthily that swearing oaths formally or informally are not needed. Jesus says “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” It makes sense, there should be no level of trustworthiness to what we say. It should all be truth– all be trustworthy. Period. On the scale of falsehoods perjury may be a 10, and fibs a 1 to humans, but to God all harmful lies are unacceptable. We are not to do any harm!
And according to Jesus if there is any harm –ANY HARM– we are liable and cannot be right with God until we pursue reconciliation and try to right the wronged relationship. Throughout our days, we hurt one another with anger, betrayal and untruths in many ways. Harming others is sin. It misses the mark of peace, of well being for all that God aims us at. To right the wrong of such sins Jesus teaches us to work on fixing the harm with reconciliation. He tells his followers over and over again to forgive and ask for forgiveness.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches what has become known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” A prayer we say every week which includes God “forgive us” as “we forgive.” Most of us tend to pray this in terms of forgiveness of debts and trespasses. Jesus basically meant that there is a debt owed from our trespassing over the line and sinning. What we owe is fixing the harm. Whether anger, betrayal, lies or some other misdeed is the cause, harm to another is a sin. To reconcile those sins we need to participate in the process of forgiveness, which is not forgetting but reaching a point where as victims we let go our desire for harm to the wrongdoer.
As wrongdoers we must work on forgiveness to try to bring us to the point where we right the harm done. Forgiveness can take a long time, but it always ends in seeing the other as human and desiring their well being, so that the harming ends. It fixes the relationship that was broken as best we can. Jesus teaches two basic things in our lesson that we can do to aim and re-aim for the peace God aims us at. Both relate to relationship
ONE: Do not hurt others;
TWO: Fix the hurt caused by not following number One.
To help heaven break in we are to work to achieve the well being of others by not harming them . . . and to fix harms when we do.
In the prayer that Jesus taught heaven breaking (“God’s Kingdom come”) in is directly related to our work on the harm in our relationships with others. So we ask God to forgive us, as we forgive others. May we not harm others. And if we do, may we fix the harms we cause and work for peace. AMEN.