Now that we have Valentine’s Day behind us, we can talk about the real rules of engagement. No, I’m not thinking about a “directive issued by a military authority specifying the circumstances and limitations under which forces will engage in combat with the enemy.” I’m thinking more about how Jesus radicalized relationships and that changes the rules of relational engagement.
I’m at the place in Matthew’s gospel that talks about anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. Good stuff for keeping it real, in case you ever wonder if the Bible is relevant. In fact, Jesus is updating the relational operating system in this section. The old relational operating system was “You have heard it said.” Jesus updates it with, “But I say to you.” People grumbled then and they’re still grumbling today about it. Just like when you’re notified it’s time to update your computer operating system.
Here’s the passage for those who are interested. The rest of you can skip down past the italicized text, but you’ll be missing out on lots of exaggerated, gory images.
“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; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 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.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, 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.’ But I say to you, 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. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. ~ Matthew 5:21-37
I know this a lot to digest, but let’s look at the bigger picture that is here for us. First and foremost, Jesus is all about recasting, re-interpreting, and re-imagining what it means for the living Presence of God to be among us. And that includes the Scriptures. Jesus would never, ever have said (as the bumper sticker proclaims), “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” Jesus would have said, “The point is not to be faithful to the Scriptures, but to be faithful to the living God who continues to be present among us.”
Both Jesus and Matthew are taking the Scriptures and re-casting them for a new moment. I love the idea of thinking of moving our thinking of Scripture from a noun to a verb. It’s the same principle as googling. Google (noun) is the company. Google (verb) is “search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google.”
Scripture is accounts of how God is really present among God’s people. The stories of creation, Moses leading the people out of captivity, the poetry of the Psalms, wisdom of Proverbs, and the prophetic visions are all ways of scripturing God’s Presence in different times and contexts. The whole point of Scripture isn’t the written account, but the real incarnation of God’s word through God’s people through various times, places, and circumstances. It’s God’s real engagement in real people in real times.
What is it that Jesus is trying to get us to see in these before-and-after examples of anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths? Basically, he’s telling us that with the new operating system (God’s incarnation in us) is about mastering the temptation to judge, condemn, and dismiss the value of others. It’s being people who model reconciliation as a way of life, people who are overcoming the power of lust, people who value their marriages even when times get tough, and people who are known for being true to their word.
When we break it down like that, we see and understand the new rules of engagement. The question for us now is will we engage under these new rules, in this new way?