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The Power of Words…

February 11, 2017

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It has been incredibly frustrating for me these past few weeks when it comes to getting out and taking pictures. Between being under the weather physically and literally (the weather itself has not been cooperative) and my hectic schedule, we have not had an opportunity to go hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Imagine my surprise a week ago when I stepped out of the house to go get the mail when I heard a noise under our front porch stairs. I went down the stairs and looked around… this is what I saw. The little bunny was in the one snow free patch that offered shelter from the wind. That patch was rocky but the bunny was making the best of it. I asked the bunny to stay put until I could get my camera. Thankfully my little friend did and I was able to take some really neat pictures.

When I first looked at the Scripture readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, I thought to myself… why, oh why, with all of the possible passages of Scripture available, did the Revised Common Lectionary have to give me Matthew 5:21-37? If you follow the lectionary, you may know what I am talking about. My sermons have been focusing on the passages and, at times, it seems like I either have angry prophet issues or I am simply trying to dig myself into a really deep hole as one parishioner jokingly mentioned last Sunday! But then it hit me. Just like the fact that the picture was right in front of me the whole time (I didn’t have to go searching in the Park for it), the answer to my “why” was right in front of me.

We are living in incredibly turbulent and chaotic times where angry words are spewed by so many without a though to the fact that they are out there forever! Yes, I am pointing at myself as well. Manners, decorum, and cooperation which were once seen as positive values to be embraced are no longer embraced. It was as I reflected on this sad state of affairs in our nation’s capitol and in the Social Media arena that it hit me. Maybe Jesus wasn’t as far off target as many think he was with his extreme examples (especially in Matthew 5:21-37).

At first, Jesus starts out slowly. You have heard it said that you shall not commit murder? I say 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.” (Matthew 5:22) Okay Lord, isn’t that a bit harsh? But then he picks up steam with the following: “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. (Matthew 5:27-28)

Wow! Jesus sure doesn’t pull any punches here. But what comes next really kicks up the heat in terms of sensational examples! “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.” (Matthew 5:29-30) Alright then… talk about sensational! Okay Jesus, it is one thing to talk about lust and looking or anger and murder… but really? Tearing out eyes and cutting off hands?

What came to mind as I pondered these two verses was the quote from Martin Luther King, Jr: “If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.” Mahatma Gandhi apparently said something similar during his lifetime: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” King was a student of Gandhi and they both were students of the Bible. The point they were making was that violence only begets violence and the end result is catastrophic. But what was Jesus trying to say?

I have struggled with this passage over the years and have seen Matthew 5:31-32 used as a bludgeoning tool in the hands of a self-righteous person! Not to mention, I have taken an oath of commissioning multiple times during my time in uniform. First on April 15, 1985 and then each time I was promoted or had a change of status (from Chaplain Candidate to Reserve Chaplain to Active duty Chaplain), I ended my oath of commissioning with the phrase “so help me, God.” So what do I make of Jesus’ comment concerning oaths in the closing verses of the reading?

“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 5:34-37)

Talk about extreme examples that cover the spectrum from actions to words. Wow! So what do we do with this passage and how do we approach it? First of all, we must approach it very carefully! Have you ever had the experience of getting so mad at someone who has been making your life miserable that you say something that is pretty harsh? Trust me, I have and I continue to have that experience far too often. What ends up happening for me is this… I become and/or do the very thing I don’t like in the other person!

So what was Jesus’ point in this extreme passage? After all, what a transition from the Sermon on the Mount and his teachings on being salt and light to this! If Jesus had meant this literally, would he have told the condemned man on the cross that he would be with him in paradise? If he had meant it literally, wouldn’t Jesus have let the crowd stone the woman caught in adultery? Would he have said that the Law and the Prophets are summed up in two commands… love God and love neighbor?

So what exactly was he getting at in this rather fantastic section of chapter five? I can’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “character assassination” used. However, I vividly remember Thumper’s mother asking Thumper what his father said after Thumper had said something not so nice about Bambi. “If you can’t say nuffin nice, don’t say nuffin at all.” These two are connected in my own heart and mind. Remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones can break your bones. But words can never hurt you.” Do you really believe that? I sure don’t and I used to repeat that rhyme growing up!

Our words do hurt! They can cut deep! How many young kids (especially LGBTQ kids) have committed suicide as a result of bullying? With the advent of the internet and social media, cyber bullying has become incredibly cruel and relentless. Words wound… words kill! Okay Jesus, I think I am beginning to understand now… Looks? Yes, looks can do incredible harm as well. I have counselled far too many women (and men as well) who have been belittled, demeaned, and made to feel like objects by the repeated gazes and comments from others.

As for the eyes and the limbs… while I don’t believe that Jesus meant we should gouge our eyes out or cut off our hands in the literal sense, he is using an extreme example to make a HUGE point! It isn’t as much about us physically, spiritually, and psychologically maiming ourselves as it is about the very REAL damage we do to others. How would you like to have your eyes gouged out or your limbs cut off? Well, then how do you think the victim of your words and actions feel as you demean, ridicule, harass, and intimidate them?

Yes, your Padre has had a good week to let this soak into his heart. Jesus’ warning that our words and our actions have consequences hits very close to home. Maybe in addition to following the advice of Thumper’s father, we can take it one step further. Not only should we say “nuffin at all” if there isn’t anything positive to say, we can do the same with our thoughts. Instead, as Denise often says, perhaps we should pray for the one who is causing us so much pain. When you pray for your enemies, all of a sudden you begin to see the enemy not as an enemy but rather as a hurting and broken child of God (just like we all are). Then when we speak, we can perhaps speak with words of love instead of words of hate.

Many friends of mine are taking “Social Media Sabbaths” in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the negativity. I have often pondered doing that or even eliminating my accounts all together. Yet social media can also be a way to get a different message out. A message of love, hope, healing, restoration, forgiveness, and unity. It may only be a single drop in the ocean of so much hate and vitriol, but it is a drop… will you join with me, dear reader, in trying to make a difference? We can do it… one drop at a time… and before you know it, an ocean is formed!

One Comment
  1. Michael, this is a needful and salutary word. Your thoughtful analysis adds depth to the text. And I, for one, would miss your gently persuasive, kind, encouraging and insightful presence were you to quit social media altogether. Though I can fully appreciate the benefits of taking a short break! Bless you, Brother, your words matter and are helpful to many. May you have a restful, restorative day. 💜

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