February 16, 2014 | The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
February 16, 2014
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
What does it mean to live “the good life”? To many, a quick answer would center on leisure, luxury, aesthetics and beauty, lifestyle, comfort. (I wouldn’t mind having these things myself!) To think of “the good life” in this way is to think about a pleasant life, one of ease and loveliness. Another way is to think of “the good life” as one that embodies and inhabits goodness, however the liver of the life in question understands that. If goodness equals luxury to a person – if the moral quality of goodness equals costly possessions and lifestyle opportunities – then such a life is certainly a “good” one to that person. The texts of the Bible, both the Hebrew and Greek testaments, together were written over the course of many centuries, leaving us with instructions on the “good” life that are both simple and complex. At their heart they tell us to define what is good about our lives (and all things) in terms of our relationship with God. The good life is the life that defines itself by having God as its reference point. The good life is the one in which goodness is understood through continual conversation with God’s word. Every human being is encouraged to live the good life, and is provided with a divine code of ethics as a roadmap. For those who want to follow, this is all easy, right? It’s like being given the answers to the test. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” It is very difficult, depending on the situation, to discern what is good. It is very difficult, even if we are sure what is good, to commit to doing it. Living the good life can turn us away from things we very much want for ourselves, including what is popularly considered “the good life.” Our text from Deuteronomy reminds us with some force that living a good life is a choice – it is our choice. It is a choice that we make in a very large way for our lives’ trajectories and it is also the tiny choices we make throughout each day. “Choose life!” exhorts the Deuteronomist, having just summed up the commandments for holy living. “Choose these things!” he implores. If I asked for a show of hands this morning of those who would prefer to choose death, no sane hand would be raised. If I asked us to consider privately if there are ways in which we do choose death, I imagine we would each admit to ourselves that there are.
Our verses for today from Matthew’s Gospel are on this theme as well. You may now be thinking, “Really, Alison? These requirements to pluck out your own eye and cut off your own hand are invitations to the good life?” In fact, they are! Let’s start with the fact that Jesus was engaging in a bit of hyperbole – then and now, exaggeration can help to make a point. Jesus, in these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, is referring, just as is the Deuteronomist, to the Law of Moses iterated in the Torah. He is not trying to take away from the teachings on divorce, the swearing of oaths, etc. (which the Torah permits); rather, he is trying to expand our moral understanding about what they require us to do, and how we then should live – how we should live the good life, a life centered on the good: the goodness life.
His teaching on anger is his expansion on his commandment not to murder. “Don’t simply not murder,” he says, “don’t let your anger accumulate to anything close to the point where you would do violence!” It’s not enough not to murder someone – don’t think you should be congratulated for that. Your real obligation is to nip in the bud your anger – or the complaint that someone else has against you. Stop these things as they first arise. Your commandment isn’t to forgo murder; your commandment is to forgive, to reconcile, to confess to any wrongdoing, to restore and to deal fairly. This is the goodness life.
Jesus then addresses the commandment to avoid adultery. As with the prohibition on murder, Jesus says, “Don’t even go near the feelings that would lead you to it.” Address the causes of your anger, and address the causes of your lust. Never look at anyone as a sex object. If you look at all people only as bearers of honor and respect, you will never break either the commandment against adultery or the covenant you have made with your spouse. Regarding all people with honor and respect is the goodness life.
Christ’s instructions on divorce are made to the men who are listening to his sermon. At that time, women were not allowed to initiate divorce, even if the husband was violent, insane, or missing. Jesus tells the men, “if you divorce your wife, make sure to give her the legal certificate by which she can prove to others that the union was dissolved.” This certificate today is called a “get,” and while in Orthodox Jewish communities a wife can initiate a divorce, the husband still has to provide the “get.” If he doesn’t, the woman is not legally divorced. These women are known as “agunot” – “chained.” They remain legally married to men who may be violent, insane, or missing. Jesus says, “The Law permits you men to divorce, but if you must do so, set your ex-wife free.” This kind of decency is the goodness life.
Jesus then refers to the law’s permitting of swearing oaths. We do it too – we “swear to God,” we swear on so-and-so’s grave, we put one hand on a Bible and raise the other hand in the air. We promise with our swearing of oaths that we are telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. We swear oaths as assurance that we won’t lie. Jesus says: just...tell the truth. Be honest at all times. Let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” If you are a person of demonstrated honesty, no one will even think of asking you to take an oath and neither will you think to offer one. This kind of honesty is the goodness life.
Jesus’ words in this passage feel so sharp, so uncompromising, so negative. It’s actually not what he is telling us not to do that is challenging or interesting, it’s what he is implicitly telling us to do: forgive, reconcile, deal fairly, have integrity, honor all people, refuse to objectify, speak honestly, honor your commitments, free yourself from vengefulness, use your power to liberate others rather than to chain them. This is the goodness life. To do otherwise is to choose death, but to live in these ways is to choose life.
Our lives are so complicated. They involve anger, vengefulness, legal disputes, marital challenge, questions of honesty and intent, the attractiveness of people other than those to whom we are covenanted. Jesus knows this, and he tries to teach us how to choose life in the midst of it all.
For myself, these obvious ethical questions are easy to identify, even if they aren’t always easy to get right. I see them as the opportunities that they are to make a conscious discernment about the faithful way to live. More challenging for me are the many “regular” days in which I am not faced with ethical choices, those lovely days of doing good work, enjoying my family and friends, and tackling practical issues as they arrive. What does it mean on a blessedly regular day to choose life?
The Chapel fellowship group has been considering the texts for today in our last several meetings; and I shared with that group my own daily challenge to myself on how to choose life. Maybe it will spur some helpful thoughts for you. Three and a half years ago, I preached to this community the day after returning from a trip with students to Nicaragua and Honduras. I told you about seeing a young man through the bus window, very quickly, as our group’s bus left the main garbage dump in Managua, Nicaragua. We had been there to meet with people who lived in the dump – who built shanties there, who ate the edible food refuse they could find, and who tried to earn pennies from also finding recyclable materials. The young man I saw at the dump’s entrance looked about 15 years old; he was seated on an upended bucket, flipping through a newsprint magazine, but he wasn’t reading the magazine (it may have been upside down – I’m sure he couldn’t read). He was looking around with such hope – hope of seeing a friend, or maybe a relative, or maybe an opportunity to earn a few coins. His face was so intelligent, so kind. He looked so much like my own beautiful son, only a couple of years older. His black hair was brown with dust and dirt; his clothes were grimy. I’ll never know his name, and I’ll never forget him – so full of hope and promise, as cherished a child of God as any other – immiserated by economic, political, and social forces that left him picking for rotting lettuce. Every day since I saw him, I ask myself, “What have you done today – even the most infinitesimal thing – what have you done that is in solidarity with that young man?” Seeing his face helps me to be honest with myself. He is my plumb line. Being in solidarity with him, and a few billion human beings like him, is what it is for me, to choose life. How would you define choosing life every day?
Let us keep the commandments, certainly. Let us make the ethics of our lives conform to the Gospel. And also, let us each discern what “choosing life” means for the largest and smallest of ways in which we go about our days.
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 356-361