In civilized society, when a person commits a crime, that person has wrongfully taken something from society. Property. Life. Something. And therefore that person owes a debt.
But who determines what is owed?
Through Moses, God gave a command that what is owed is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That was a limitation on what is owed. In other words, no more than an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Most modern societies today recognize that even this limitation is somewhat primitive. Barbaric, even. So instead, in our society, the criminal is ordered to serve time in jail or prison. The criminal’s debt to society is repaid by serving time. Once society feels the debt has been repaid - once the debt has been satisfied - then the criminal is set free.
Murder is a crime that involves violently taking the life of another person. It is the most extreme form of violence, the most extreme crime. How can that debt be repaid? Some say it can only be repaid if society takes the life of the person who committed the crime. The death penalty is the most extreme punishment for the most extreme crimes.
In today’s scripture passage, Jesus says that anyone who is angry, anyone who entertains violent thoughts toward another (whether or not those thoughts become actions), anyone who speaks any words of insult toward another, is just as guilty as the one who commits murder. And the debt owed to society by any person who does any of these things is the same as the debt owed to society by the one who commits murder.
Anyone who is angry with their brother or sister is in danger of judgment. Anyone who says to their brother or sister, “you idiot,” will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. Anyone who says “you fool” will be in danger of the ultimate punishment.
So if you call someone a name, if you insult someone, if you even think, “oh, I wish that person would go jump off a cliff,” your thoughts and your words are just as bad as if you had gone out and killed the person; and the debt you owe to society is just as great.
These are difficult teachings...
Great religious teachings do seem extreme at times. In the Quran, it says that the one who kills a single innocent person is as guilty as if he had killed all of mankind, and that, for the one who saves a single innocent person, it is as if he had saved all of mankind.
Most of us have not killed anyone directly, and yet the government that acts in our name has certainly killed many, including many who were innocent. I don’t think we can completely consider ourselves innocent on this issue.
And certainly, we cannot consider ourselves innocent on the issues Jesus talks about. Even the best among us have had moments of frustration, with family members, with drivers on the freeway, when our thoughts and our words expressed our anger and our ill intentions. So our debt to society is - according to Jesus - the same as if we had actually committed murder.
That’s a big debt.
I’m reminded of a story I heard by someone - I forget who - who had been given the task of driving Martin Luther King, Jr. to a speaking engagement. As they were driving along the road, a car approached from the other direction with its high beams on. In frustration, the driver of King’s car flashed his high beams back at the oncoming driver. King then commented how he shouldn’t have done that, that flashing his high beams in anger at the oncoming driver was an act of violence, and all acts of violence were to be avoided by the one who wished to live with peace.
Flashing your high beams at someone, calling them an insulting name, just thinking malevolent thoughts toward them - all are acts of violence. All are as if you had actually carried out the most violent acts toward them. Your thinking toward them, whether you put those thoughts into action or not, is violent, and therefore you are guilty, and you owe a debt to society.
This is true even if the other person was at fault initially, like the oncoming driver with his high beams on. I suppose that means it’s also true if your least favorite politician comes on TV, and you respond by calling him names or wishing bad things to happen to him. It doesn’t matter how terrible a person he is or what debt he owes to society, if you say “you idiot,” “you fool,” if you ridicule him or wish for his demise, you become as guilty as him, and your debt to society is just as great.
That’s a difficult teaching! Impossible, really. We all are guilty, and we’ve all accumulated a lot of debt. How can we possibly repay it all?
Jesus goes on. He speaks about adultery. If you commit adultery, if you cheat on your spouse, you have done a terrible thing, and your debt is great.
But most adultery doesn’t begin with sex. Most adultery begins with a simple thought, a simple longing, and Jesus knows this. The path to infidelity is a long series of little baby steps. Most people don’t jump off the cliff into a sea of unfaithfulness. But as you’re walking down the path, taking those baby steps, where do you stop? Where do you draw the line? How far is too far?
Jesus says even that first baby step is too far. If you take that first baby step, it’s as bad as if you had just jumped off the cliff into the sea of unfaithfulness.
And what about divorce? Attitudes about divorce have changed many times over the centuries, but Jesus compares it to adultery, and says that divorce is either the result of adultery or the cause of adultery. Most of the people I know who have been divorced, they got divorced for good reasons, and everyone involved is probably better off because of it. Yet divorce is just another area in which we have failed to live up to perfection, another area in which we humans have fallen short of what is ideal.
And that, I think, is the whole point. We humans fail. We fail to live up to God’s expectations. We fail to live up to our own expectations. We have spoken insultingly, we have thought violently, we have taken baby steps in the wrong direction, we have broken vows and promises.
And therefore we all owe a debt.
What is that debt? What is it that we owe? What is it that is required of us, to make things right?
Jesus showed us. Jesus showed love. Jesus showed forgiveness. Jesus showed compassion.
Now, the story of Jesus is a long and fascinating story. Most of you know all about Jesus, but in case you don’t, the love Jesus had for people was greater than any love the world had ever seen. His love was too much for some people. His love, and his compassion, were RADICAL. His love and compassion led him to stand in solidarity with those who were denied love, denied opportunity, denied rights.
And it was his love that pays the debt.
We in the church often say that Jesus paid our debt by dying on the cross. But I think it’s more accurate to say that Jesus paid the debt by how he lived… by how he loved.
Some in the church say that God requires the death of a person as payment for sin. And I know, even scripture says that. But scripture says something else, too. Scripture talks about love covering over a multitude of sins [1 Peter 4:8]. Scripture talks about love being the one debt that is owed [Romans 13:8]. And if we were to read a little further in Matthew, where Jesus talks about all these sins, we’d read him commanding his followers to love, to let love be perfect as God’s love is perfect, loving even enemies, and forgetting about all that “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” stuff [Matthew 5: 38-48].
So it is love that pays the debt. God demands that we show love and compassion and forgiveness as payment for our sins. Love is the only thing that will satisfy the debt we owe to society and the debt we owe to God.
If violence and death are offensive to God, then it makes no sense to say that more violence and death are needed to pay the penalty for the violence and death we have caused.
Love is the pathway to life. Love is what is required.
Love leads to justice. Love leads to reconciliation. And what is justice and reconciliation? They are doing what needs to be done to put things right.
Jesus paid the ultimate price. I do believe that. But the ultimate price wasn’t dying. The ultimate price was living a life of perfect, complete love. Those who felt threatened by love killed him, yet love lived on.
As today’s scripture reading shows, living a life of perfect, complete love is not easy. Even though it is our calling, we cannot do it perfectly. Fortunately our God also loves us, and forgives us, and has compassion on us … and, through Jesus, God reconciles us to him. Through Jesus’s love, God makes things right again.
Love is the answer. So keep trying. Keep living in peace. Keep living in love. Keep striving for perfection. This is your calling.
Because it is love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Of all the spiritual gifts given to us by God, the greatest is love.