Sermon: "A Walk in God's Way"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Psalm 119.1-8; 1 Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37
Today’s lectionary readings have a lot to say about walking in God’s ways. In Deuteronomy 30,
the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land; Moses pleads with the people to walk in God’s
ways by loving God and observing God’s commandments. If they do, they will be blessed. But if they
turn away from God and bow down to other Gods, if they worship idols, they shall surely perish. Moses
exhorts, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him,
and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land
that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30.19-
Psalm 119, the longest psalm, is a celebration of God’s law. The psalm opens with an emphasis
on walking in God’s ways: “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!
Happy are they who observe the Lord’s decrees and seek him with all their hearts! Who never do any
wrong, but always walk in God’s ways” (Vss. 1-3).
What does it mean to walk in God’s ways? In Old Testament times, the emphasis was placed on
one’s actions, whether unintentional or intentional. Did one commit murder, adultery, bear false
witness, etc.? If so, Leviticus clarified the requirements of the law and set forth the provisions for
restoring righteousness. For an unintentional trespass, one was to make a guilt offering to the Lord. For
an intentional trespass against the Lord which involved deceiving or defrauding one’s neighbor, one was
to make restoration to the one harmed and to add one fifth. In addition, one was to present a yearling
ram to the priest for a guilt offering.
Jesus came bearing a new message – a refinement of the Law which focused not only on actions
but also on intentions. Today’s gospel lesson considers four provisions of the law relating to anger,
adultery, divorce, and oaths; other provisions in subsequent verses address retaliation and love for
one’s enemies. In each case, Jesus uses a formulaic construction: “You have heard that it was said to
those of ancient times (i.e., the time of Moses) … but I say to you.” Let’s examine Jesus’ message as set
forth in today’s lesson.
Concerning murder, Jesus said, “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” (Matthew5.21-24; NRSVUE). If we come to worship, and we remember that
we have wronged someone, before offering our gift, we are to go and be reconciled such that we may
offer our gift in a spirit of righteousness. Jesus was saying make reconciliation face-to-face rather than
merely offer a sacrifice. He was saying we are to curtail the enmity before it results in murder. (
Jesus’ words concerning anger are the basis of our tradition of passing the peace immediately
after confessing our sins and receiving absolution. During this time, in addition to wishing others peace,
we are to seek out the person or persons we have wronged or have harsh feelings toward and wish
them peace. This practice promotes the healing of relationships. Although we should extend the
practice beyond the sanctuary, it is especially important within the church community for it restores
community, and the restoration of community is a cause for rejoicing. We are blessed; we are happy!
Concerning adultery, Jesus reminds us that everyone who looks at a man or woman with lust
has already committed adultery in his or her heart. In our mind, we are already engaging in the act of
adultery. (Having said that, we can admire the physical beauty a person, we can even praise God for the
beauty of God’s creation, without lusting after the person.) But what does Jesus mean when he says if
our eye causes us to sin, we are to pluck it out and throw it away, or if our right hand causes us to sin,
we are to cut it off? If those who insist on the literal interpretation of the Bible were to take this
seriously, we would have a lot of blind and armless people wandering around! Might Jesus be saying
something like this? “We might not be able to remove the source of the temptation, but we can remove
ourself from the situation.” In other word, “Get out of there!” Cut yourself off from the temptation.
Concerning divorce, we need to remember, in Jesus’ time, a man was permitted to divorce his
wife for a trivial offence – he could simply give his wife a certificate of divorce. To combat this notion,
Jesus said, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, causes her to
commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5.32; NRSVUE).
In Jesus’ time, there were very few paying jobs available for women. There are a few references to
women owning a business, but those are the rare exceptions. In such conditions, to support herself, a
woman would likely have to resort to prostitution.
For centuries, Jesus’ words on divorce have caused a great deal of pain for divorced people have
been denied communion and have been spurned. Unfortunately, when it comes to divorced people the
Church seems to have overlooked Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourself! We need to
remember, Moses permitted divorce because it was a better recourse than murder! We need to
remember, not every broken relationship can be healed. There are times when the most loving action
for all parties concerned may be divorce, yet we are called to make a concerted effort toward
reconciliation through prayer, counseling, pastoral care, etc. From the standpoint of honoring one’s
covenant, divorce should be the last recourse when all else fails.
Concerning oaths, Jesus said, “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 … Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil
one” (Matthew 5.33-36; NRSVUE). In other words, one’s word should be so honorable, so trustworthy,
there is no need for swearing. One should not use language in a duplicitous or deceptive manner for
such use destroys trust, the basis of all relationships.
How do we wrap this up? What are the insights or lessons to be gained from these readings?
First, walking in the way of God involves more than acting in accordance with the law, more
than simply following the rules – it also involves an awareness of the intent of the law. The law asks us
to consider who and what God would have us be. In that respect, Psalm 119 reveals that God’s law is
cause for rejoicing.
Second, the intent of the law is grounded in love, in upholding trust and compassion in the
community – it gets to the very essence of what love entails. We are called to consider how our actions,
our attitudes, our thoughts, and intentions bear on community. Do they detract or enhance community?
This is clearly demonstrated in Paul’s letter to the Church of Corinth. After telling them they are still not
ready for the solid food of God’s word, Paul writes, “For you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is
jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human
inclinations” (! Corinthians 3.3; NRSVUE)? If we do not walk in God’s way, we continue to walk in the
way of the flesh.
Third, Jesus words further clarify what it means for us to be salt and light. When we walk in
God’s ways, we help to season and enlighten the community. Our light reveals and dispels the darkness
which surrounds us.
Let us choose to walk in the way of God! Amen!