Jesus Builds a Fence

Matthew 5:21-37

One of the things we love to do when we go to Kauai is to take the long drive from Princeville down to the south side of the island and then up into the mountains.  We usually make a stop at Spouting Horn to stretch our legs and enjoy the plumes of water that geyser into the air as the waves surge against the rocks.  Sometimes you can also see sea turtles bobbing in the surf there, which is always kind of exciting.  

When we get to the town of Waimea, we turn mauka and take the road that goes up to the Waimea Canyon lookout.  We like to take our time at the lookout because Waimea Canyon, which is also called “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” is truly beautiful and thought-provoking, and inspires a sense of wonder and awe.  Also, on a clear day you can see Niihau, the small island reserved for Hawaiian natives that sits forty-three offshore from Kauai and seems to float on the surface of the ocean like a great big stone raft. 

After leaving the lookout, we drive a few miles uphill to Koke’e State Park and the Kalalau Valley lookout where we can gaze down the slopes of the Na Pali cliffs into the Kalalau Valley and think about what life was like for the ancient Hawaiians who lived there.  

So why am I telling you all this?  Well, the Spouting Horn, the Waimea Lookout and the Kalalau Valley Lookout have one important thing in common aside from spectacular views.  They are potentially very dangerous places.  And so at each of these very beautiful but dangerous places the State of Hawaii has put up very sturdy steel-rail fences to keep people from accidentally injuring or killing themselves.  They have also mounted signs on the fences that say, “Danger!  Do not go beyond this point!”  And, of course, there is always someone who thinks they can get a better view or a better picture or maybe just add a little extra excitement to their vacation by going beyond that clearly marked margin of safety, by exploring or fooling around on the other side of the fence.

If you want to keep people from falling off a cliff one of the first things you do is to put up a fence and warning signs a little way back from the edge of the cliff.  Since ancient times the rabbis have described Torah as a fence that protects us from hurting ourselves and others.  They have also noticed that some people tend to ignore the fence, so in their teachings they would extend the fence, moving the margin of safety a little farther back from the edge they were trying to protect.  They actually called this practice extending the fence of Torah.  

For example, the law says you shall not commit adultery.  Committing adultery is falling off the cliff.  The law is the fence that is designed to keep everyone’s relationships from slipping over the edge and falling into pain.  In addition to the Torah law, the rabbis established the cultural custom that frowned on a man and woman being alone with each other or even talking to each other if they were not married to each other.  That’s the extension of the fence that they thought would keep people from getting so close to the edge that they would be tempted to climb over the fence onto unstable ground where they might slip and fall off the cliff. 

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  What Jesus is doing in this section of the Sermon is fulfilling the law by extending a different kind of fence on some of the more important laws of Torah.  In each instance, he is improving the safety of the fence by making it more visible and raising the top bar.

With adultery, for instance, Jesus realizes that the real problem isn’t proximity, it’s perception.  “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 the trash heap.  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 the dumpster.” (5:27-29)  

Adultery starts with lust and lust starts with how you perceive the other person.  If you can only see another person as a sex object or as the object of your longing and affection, or as someone who might fill some emptiness in you and make you whole, that’s the real problem.  That’s the eye you need to pluck out so you can replace it with an eye that sees that other person as a whole person, a person who stands apart from you, a person whose wholeness includes relationships and commitments that have nothing to do with you other than your own obligation not to infringe on them.  

If your hand starts reaching for things that don’t belong to you or if it keeps rising up in an angry fist, tie it behind your back until you can retrain it and restrain it.  All this is a metaphor, of course, because it’s not the hand or the eye that has a problem, it’s the mind.  It’s a matter of developing self-control over our impulses, appetites, and feelings.  Over and over again, living the values of the kingdom of God is a matter of metanoia—a transformation of the mind.

Jesus applies this same principle to murder.  Rage clouds your mind and damages your vision.  “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 furious with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

When you are enraged, the person who is the object of your fury becomes something less than human in your eyes.  It might sound like hyperbole, but for that moment in the ferocious heat of your anger, you have killed them.  Jesus extends the fence of “You shall not murder” to “you shall not let yourself get so angry that your anger blinds you to the other person’s humanity.”  Take a breath.  Count to ten.  Walk away.  Relax your hands.  Don’t even get close to the fence of “You shall not murder.”

But anger isn’t the only way we dehumanize each other.  Jesus went on to say, “If you call a brother or sister an idiot, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the trash heap of fire.” (5:21-22)  I don’t know about you, but I violate this one all the time, especially when I’m driving.

Jesus is basically telling us, “Don’t dehumanize people by calling them names.”  He wants us to understand that that is, in fact, what name calling does: it makes them into something less than human in our eyes, in our thoughts, in our minds and in our hearts.  Dehumanizing someone is the first step toward eliminating them.  History has taught us that dehumanizing the “other” is always the first step toward genocide.

In the kingdom of heaven our relationships with each other are part and parcel of our relationship with God, so Jesus expands the fence of shalom around worship. “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.” Don’t carry a grudge, and don’t let anyone carry a grudge against you if you can so something to make amends!  A grudge is a festering wound in God’s shalom, so before you come before God with your prayers or your offerings, do what you can to heal that wound so both of you can come to God in peace.

Jesus also raises the fence around divorce.  “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.” (5:31-32)

Divorce was a hotly debated issue in Jesus’ time.  The Torah law in question, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, said that a man could divorce his wife if “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.”  The argument was over what legally constituted “something objectionable.”  The House of Shammai said that only adultery or some other form of unchastity constituted legitimate grounds for divorce.  The House of Hillel had a much lower bar, saying that something as simple as the wife burning dinner could be grounds for divorce.  

Jewish marriage in the first century was a contractual agreement, and women were protected by marriage contracts called ketubah that acted something like a prenuptial agreement and provided them compensation in the event of divorce, so Jesus isn’t necessarily thinking of protecting women here so much as protecting the institution of marriage.

Marriage is a covenant relationship and as a covenant relationship, it is supposed to be a living emblem of the covenant between God and Israel.  A good marriage creates shalom in the home which is essential if there’s going to be shalom in the world.

In Matthew 19 when the Pharisees bring up the topic of divorce again, Jesus cites Genesis where “the two become one” to reemphasize the ideal unity of marriage, but when the Pharisees then ask why Deuteronomy includes instructions on how to divorce, Jesus tells them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so.” (19:1-8)

It has to be said here that the sad fact is that marriages do break down.  People do become hard-hearted.  A marriage that has turned to all heated words and cold shoulders is no longer really a marriage at all, and certainly not a relationship that mirrors the love of God.  It’s obvious that Jesus didn’t want marriage or any other covenant relationship to be treated as disposable.  But not all marriages are made in heaven.  Sometimes the only way to keep it from becoming a living hell is to dissolve the covenant and go your separate ways.

It’s logical, I suppose, that right after reinforcing the sanctity of marriage, Jesus turns to the matter of vows and oaths.  “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.” (5:33-36)

It might look like Jesus is dismantling part of the fence here but in fact he is once again raising the bar.  The ethic in the kingdom of heaven is simple straightforward honesty.  Those who mean what they say and say what they mean don’t need any rituals or special language to verify their promises or certify their honesty.  “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” says Jesus.  It’s that simple.

Honesty and integrity.  Faithfulness in relationships.  Seeing and respecting the humanity of others and honoring their lives, commitments, and relationships. Preserving and restoring peace.  Changing the way you see and think so that you see the world with compassion and think beyond your immediate desires or convenience.  Love.  These are the extensions Jesus builds around the fence of Torah.  These are the ethics of the Beloved Community.  This is the Way of righteousness in the kingdom of heaven.  This is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote in Romans, “Love can do no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

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