February 16, 2020: It’s Not Enough to be Polite

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses a teaching form that was common among rabbis: ‘amar (pronounced aw-mar) was a term that meant “said” or “uttered,” but was used in this form to mean “interpreted.” The rabbi would quote a common interpretation, or popular belief, and then redefine it. The contrast is a teaching tool. “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.”

We should really pay attention when Jesus says this, because often he is going to rock his listeners’ assumptions. In this passage, Jesus is addressing issues of personal integrity at a deep level. It is not good enough that we simply refrain from murdering another; if we nurture the kind of anger in our hearts that might cause that action, we have already sinned. It is not good enough that we don’t actually commit adultery; if we have been playing with it in our hearts, we need to repent and be forgiven. Jesus is pulling the rug out from those who pretend to self-righteousness. All have sinned, all need to seek forgiveness, to rid ourselves of the self-delusion that we are somehow better than others, or that our sin is somehow “less bad.”

It’s not enough that we are polite and civil with our brothers and sisters in church; if we know that we have a difference that undermines the relationship, we should take care of that before making our offering. Jesus is quite hard on the easy divorces of his day, where the male could walk away from a spouse easily and without consequence, often leaving her in desperate poverty. The woman, of course, had no such right! Integrity must be seen there —and we should say what we mean, and mean what we say, not fudging, unless there has been an oath or vow.


John Jackman, pastor, Trinity Moravian Church,
Winston-Salem, North Carolina