Friday, February 10, 2017
Can I? May I? Ought I? Reflections on Matthew 5.21-37 (RCL Proper 6A, 12 February 2017)
Can I? May I? Ought I?
Reflections on Matthew 5.21-37
RCL Proper 6A
12 February 2017
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
5.21 [Jesus said to his disciples,] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.
33 “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.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
For as long as I can remember, I have valued precision in written and spoken English. Whether this has been instilled in me by nurture or by nature or by formal education or by some combination of all three, I cannot say. But I do know that it is in me. Perhaps it’s why I’m a better editor than I am an author.
My children have grown up with this editorial father and their friends still comment on this from time to time. How successful I have been is a matter of debate. For example, we can still have lively conversations about the difference between saying ‘I can’ and ‘I may’ and ‘I ought’. At some point in our lives, perhaps even recently, we have heard someone say, ‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you may. Just because you may, doesn’t mean you ought.’ ‘Can’, of course, means I have the ability to do something. ‘May’ indicates that I have the liberty or authority to do something. ‘Ought’, though is particularly important because it says that I have the responsibility or obligation to do something. ‘I ought’ means I have a moral or ethical duty that is based on my ability as well as my liberty and authority.
In every dimension of our lives we navigate the waters of ‘can’, ‘may’ and ‘ought’, trying to discern what each situation, each relationship, each moment demands of us. Sometimes our discernment focuses on mundane activities such as travel. I have a car; I can drive. I have a driver’s license; I may drive. But if I, as a baptized Christian, have promised ‘to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the earth’, ought I use that ability and that authority without some thought?
Sometimes our discernment involves matters of even greater importance. Someone I know has hurt me deeply. I have in my power the means to strike back. Most people I know will not hold it against me given the circumstances of the injury. But if I, as a disciple of Jesus, have prayed ‘forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us,’ ought I use the means in my power and the approval of my acquaintances to exact my ‘just retribution’ or do I have a more pressing obligation?
We see this discernment enacted on the political stage of this and every nation. A leader has political power and an electoral mandate. Because of this he or she can and may act in a particular way, But ought he or she do so? This is the moral and ethical question that is difficult for some political leaders to answer. For a person of faith, especially one in a position of power and authority, it is a spiritual question and, dare I say, the most important question to answer.
Can I? May I? Ought I? These are the questions that Jesus is asking his disciples in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew. He asks his disciples to go beneath the surface of cultural norms and religious law to discern what each one of them, each one of us, ought to do, not what they or we can or may do.
(i) Can I kill another person? Yes. May I kill another person? No. But ought I also avoid killing another person spiritually and emotionally through my anger, my ridicule, my abuse, my self-righteousness? ‘You know,’ Jesus says, ‘the phrase “the walking dead” is not just a description of characters in a horror story. There are plenty of “walking dead” who are the victims of anger, ridicule, abuse, neglect and self-righteousness.’
(ii) Can I tire of my personal and committed relationships? Yes. May I opt out of them? In certain circumstances. But ought I also consider that my friendships, my covenant relationships, my family responsibilities are ways that I participate in God’s faithful love to creation? ‘You know,’ Jesus says, ‘relationships are not always exciting. They’re hard work. If you think that flowers, candy and a well-chosen greeting card on Valentine’s Day are substitutes for hanging in when the going gets tough, think again. There may be moments when a relationship has to end, but that’s Option B more often than it is Option A. Relationships are opportunities to become more fully human so that we can participate in God’s work of loving creation back into shape.’
What I can do and what I may do are matters easily resolved more often than not. Our abilities are known to us. We know the norms and laws which limit our actions as well as the consequences of straying beyond the boundaries they set. But what I ought to do is not always so easy to discern. When I am faced with a choice between my livelihood, my financial well-being and my profession status on the one hand and my conscience and religious faith on the other, what shall I do? What ought I do?
This is the question Jesus sets before us this morning. It is sometimes a difficult question to answer. But it is the question the disciples of Jesus must answer in some way or another every day. And on our ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ hang all the law and the prophets.