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Homicide and Sex
Fr Dennis Smith, February 16th, 2014
‘I have set before you life and death… choose life.’

The gauntlet is laid down, the challenge made! But what’s involved in choosing life? For the Israelites it was deceptively simple: obey the commandments, the laws of God. Today many would say that the law of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, are dated, even irrelevant. Yet Jesus taught that not only are they vita moral guides but there is fresh and deeper truth to be found in them.

 In our Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus focuses particularly on the sixth and seventh commandments. They are about murder and adultery, homicide and sex, topics that still grab headlines! In both cases the commandments arise from the conviction that everyone has a right to life, that fullness of life can be found through relationships, and that good relationships are the foundation stones of a just and worthwhile life. Murder and adultery negate these possibilities. The challenge that Jesus outs down is to confront the attitudes and feelings that lie behind the deeds, thus giving us a hugely high standard – some might say, impossibly high – to live up to.

This is how he puts it for the Sixth Commandment: ‘You have heard that it was said “You shall not murder”, but I say to you if you are angry with a brother ir sister, you will be liable to judgement.’ There’s an important place for righteous anger – anger which rails against injustice or unkindness – but that isn’t what Jesus was talking about.

As children we were told that ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you.’ But as adults we know that words can hurt profoundly. Angry words can be killers; they can destroy relationships and blight community life. People sometimes complain about Politically Correct language, but without it there can be a slippery slope that moves from banter to abuse, from abuse to deep-rooted prejudice, from prejudice to murderous intent.

The prejudiced language of the Nazis, aimed at Jews, led directly to the holocaust. White supremacist language led to slavery and, more recently, to apartheid. But verbal anger can kill much nearer to home than that, if language is unkind, bullying, derisive and abusive; especially when those who use it are the ones who might be expected to love and cherish the very children or adults they abuse.

Anger can destroy confidence, breed resentment and trigger retaliation. Like a stone thrown into a pond, the ripple effects can blight relationships and poison communities. Jesus’ warning prohibition reflects the psalmist: ‘Set a watch, O Lord before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.’ And: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.’ That’s a prayer that preachers often use before a sermon begins, but it’s a good prayer for any Christian to use at times of tension, for it reminds us that our words and intentions must be acceptable to God, who sets the highest standards of all, and it can help us to strain out of our speech thoughtless remarks, wounding words, ugly threats and false accusations.

If and when anger has disrupted relationships then, says Jesus, don’t delay to do something about it; even if you’re in church, go immediately and put things right. If at all possible, draw the sting and find a way through to reconciliation.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”.’ The Seventh Commandment is about another action that’s wrong because, like the Sixth, it destroys lives, relationships and community life. This isn’t an anti=sex regulation. As the love poems in the Song of Songs remind us, the biblical attitude to sex is overwhelmingly positive. We can rejoice in human sexuality, seeing it as a good and fulfilling gift of God, within loving relationships. But the concerns that led to the original commandment haven’t gone away and, once again, Jesus wants us to have a deeper understanding. ‘I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’

Today we would want to be less gender-specific, for lust afflicts a great many of us. But therein lies the problem! Jesus wants us to recognise that outward deeds follow from inward desires. What goes on in our minds is harmless, isn’t it? Yet that’s the crucial question. ‘The wish is father to the thought,’ says the proverb, but we can also say that the thought is father to the deed. And if that’s the case, then the possible destructive consequences have to be faced honestly and boldly.

The negative side of modern sexual appetites is that sex is often seen an appetite to be indulged, an appetite unrelated to real loving relationships and, when lust replaces love, there’s usually trouble, whether involving adultery or other sexual deviations. Many recent scandals, exposed since the Jimmy Savile affair, have shown the tragic effects of separating lust and sexual acts from real love and respect for other people, resulting in profound hurt and damage to children and adults and the wider community life.

The world around us is full of images that can arouse sexual temptation: on TV, in novels, at the cinema and theatre and online. Pornography is widely available, There’s always a debate to be had about proper boundaries, availability and protection for the vulnerable. But as Christians living in a plural society, rather than retreating into calls for blanket censorship, we need to think clearly about the radical solution proposed by Jesus.

‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.’ This is a dramatic figure of speech that’s not to be taken literally. As John Stott has put it, this is ‘not mutilation but mortification’. Jesus is saying to each of his followers, if you face sexual temptations that could hurt another person, harm a relationship or cause offence to the community, then behave as if your eye has been removed. ’I made a covenant with my eyes,’ said Job, ‘not to look lustfully at a girl.’ For many, looking at pornography on the internet isn’t the best way of avoiding the possibility of harming another person!

Limit our seeing to what can be kept under control – easier said than done, we might say. Willpower, however strong, may not be enough. We really need the strongest resource of all, the grace of God, which we can find by concentrating instead on good, positive speech, thoughts and actions.

‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable... if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things... and the God of peace will be with you.’ St Paul’s advice in Philippians 4 verse 8 is the starting point for escaping the negative power either of anger, and the destructive power it releases, or of lust without love and its harmful results.

‘Grace is a treasure of great worth, it is a pearl beyond all price; grace is the generous love of God made known through Christ’s own sacrifice.’ If this grace, this self-giving that we have seen in Christ, is what motivates our attitudes, words and actions in all relationships, then we have indeed made the decisive choice, and chosen life.

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