"Following the Rules of the Road"

6 Epiphany.A.20
Sirach 15:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

Larry Patten writes: “As a young adult, I once groused to my mother about my father’s double standard on speeding. When Dad was a passenger and noticed that I’d crept over the speed limit, he’d loudly clear his throat as a warning. That guttural noise was often followed with, “Have you looked at your speedometer?” Okay. Fine. Dad caught me speeding. But what about those times he ignored the limits? Since infancy, I’d been an occupant in cars that man steered. My father often exceeded the posted limits! Mom replied, “Your father’s a very law-abiding citizen….except when he doesn’t think the laws apply to him.” Oh.

Today’s lesson from the Book of Sirach concludes: “For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action. He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.”

And yet, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that a good number of us (myself included), resemble Larry’s father. We fudge a little, we see the lines and we adjust them to our liking. The yellow light appears, and we speed up. Goodness, this is Massachusetts, the light turns red and we speed up. Posted speed limits, yield signs—these are suggestions, we reason, surely, given our supurb judgment and excellent driving ability, there are times the rules need not apply to us.

Yet driving, like life, is a communal activity, isn’t it. At any given moment, a good number of us are on the road and the globe together. The “rules of the road” so to speak, are there—not to impede us on our journey, but to ensure that we (all of us) get to where we are going safely and in one piece. The same goes for the 10 Commandments. We all know this---right? But the thing is, when I get in my car and turn on the ignition, it’s all to easy for me to think I’m on a solitary journey—one person, just me, or myself and my family, going to wherever I need to be. The rest of the people out there—they don’t really cross my mind…unless, of course, they get in my way, at which point I proclaim, in a loud voice: “Does that person think they own the road?”
Today’s reading from Sirach and the Gospel of Matthew are a corrective to this way of thinking. At first glance, we read the gospel and think—really? Could Jesus seriously mean all of this? This is impossible! But take a closer look at what our Lord is doing. Jesus, here, he is intensifying the law. Yet, I don’t believe he’s doing this simply to make us shake our heads in confusion and despair. He’s doing so to help us avoid seeing the law as merely drawing moral boundaries—and, instead, alerting us to our responsibility to care for those around us. Think of it this way---Life, like driving, isn’t a solitary activity, it is a communal endeavor. Listen again to what our Lord says: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But 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….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.” The focus here is upon community. Jesus is telling us that we have a responsibility to care for those around us. He’s saying that it’s no good to discriminate, injure, neglect or speak poorly of a neighbor all the while reasoning, “I have kept the commandment because I have not murdered anyone. He’s saying that by caring for our neighbor (even the neighbors we don’t like), we are strengthening a community that can serve as a blessing to the world.

The demands of Jesus’ interpretation of the law that are set before us in the Gospel underscores how each of us, indeed, all of us, have fallen short of fulfilling the intention of the law. Today’s gospel lesson shows us how gifted we humans are in the art of rationalization. We reason, quite brilliantly, how certain rules don’t apply to us—whether it’s a farmer dumping waste too close to a stream that feeds into drinking water; a contractor using sub-standard materials; a person fudging on their taxes; an individual purchasing items made by prisoners in a foreign labor camp and the one wearing a diamond mined by slaves; a cable for the television connected illegally; a mutual fund heavily invested in fossil fuels and the snub of a person whose presence is uncomfortable for us. We rationalize how we simply didn’t know, couldn’t know and cannot possibly be aware of how everything we do affects everyone else. And yet—here in the Gospel, Jesus is reminding us that we are, in fact, responsible—and, therefore, we are guilty before God as well.

So, what do we do with this? How do we cope with a Gospel that, in essence, has painted us all with the dirty brush of sin? How is this Good News? For myself, it’s the same kind of good news you discover when faced with a diagnosis you didn’t want to receive. The building inspector arrives and tells you that you have a world-class infestation of dry rot. The mechanic looks at the car and declares you need a new head gasket. The doctor comes into the room and gently places his hand on your knee. It’s bad news—all of it; but now you know what you’re facing. This is the kind of bad news that reminds us that as much as we might want to believe that we are the ones who have ultimate control over our lives; that the one who knows us best, and loves us most deeply really does have our best interests at heart. What’s more, it’s our God who helps us in the moments when we realize that despite our best attempts to stay on the road, we have still managed to steer the car into the verge.

And, it’s moments like these—truly, when we realize how much we need those around us; and how we cannot fix the problems we face without their care, wisdom and skill; and how life can indeed become intolerable without the support of a loving community. And that is the point, isn’t it, of being mindful of how everything we do affects everyone else. So consider the great and wondrous blessing that God has given us—by calling us to this worshipping community of St. Paul’s; by surrounding us in our lives with friends and family; and, most importantly, by gifting us with Himself and his great love—not only for us, but for all those around us—and, indeed, for this world in which we live. Think of it this way—God has gone to any and all lengths, even dying so that we might live, all to communicate just how much God loves us so that we, in turn, may better love each other. That’s good news. Perhaps, in our better moments, it might help us to keep our hands from the horn and instead of cursing the person driving ten miles below the speed limit, we might say a prayer for them instead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.