17 year old Kenneth Suttner was overweight and suffered from a speech impediment. Sadly it made him a target for bullying at school and at work. Where some have said his manager “made him lie prostrate on his stomach while cleaning the fast food restaurant’s floor by hand, and threw a cheeseburger at Suttner because he made it incorrectly.” (Washington Post) On December 21, 2016 Kenneth Suttner sat outside of his home in the cold and took his own life. Tragically, it’s not uncommon to see stories of how a child or a teenager turns to suicide as an escape from bullying. The unusual part of this story is that the manager of the restaurant Kenneth Suttner worked at has been charged with manslaughter in relation to the suicide.
I don’t know if his manager can or even should be held legally, or criminally, accountable for Kenneth’s death, and I’m not wanting to paint this person as some kind of monster—but as we ponder these words of Jesus (and the words of Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy, to “Choose life”), what does it mean for us to be accountable for life, to be accountable for one another?
It’s important to remember that the context for these teachings we hear today is the statement we heard last week, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees you will not enter the Kin-dom of Heaven.” In all the teachings we will hear over coming weeks, Jesus is teaching his disciples how to internalize, to synthesize, the teachings of the Law and the Prophets in such a way that the abundance of life that is offered by G-d can be seen in how the people of G-d conduct themselves, in relationship to ourselves and in relationship to others.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’” This is the beginning of the litany of “You shall nots” that occurs in the Ten Commandments. The ‘simplest,’ if you will, of all the commands of G-d. “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 angry with a brother or a sister…and if you insult a brother or a sister…and if you say, ‘You fool!’ you will be liable…”
Human beings are experts and rationalization and justification, and right here we are told exactly what we can do with our rationalization and justification. When your anger goes to insults and then to name calling—you might as well be killing each other because the name calling has destroyed the humanity of the other, and while we may not have committed murder, we don’t value their life very much at all.
I remember in my childhood, playing in the den with my brother and we began arguing over some of the toys, it was all very quiet hissing and whispered arguments, because we were right behind my Dad who was napping in his recliner—or at least he was trying to. Our argument became very heated for elementary school boys and turned into hissed, “I’ll punch you in your face if you don’t give me that!” Followed by whispered, “Well you can try and then I’m gonna hit you in your face!” At that moment my Dad sat up from his nap, pointed at me and said, “Give me your glasses,” and then at my brother, “Give me yours, too.” His hand outstretched, we slowly took off our glasses and placed them in his palm, not really sure what was happening. And then he said, “You…go on and hit your brother in the face; just like you said.” And then, “And when he’s done you do the same.” We both just sat there on the floor, toys between us, and stared at each other awkwardly. “If you’re going to get so mad that you say you’re going to hit each other, go on an get it over with while I have these…no? Okay. Then be nice.”
Jesus is addressing anger that overtakes us and destroys relationships; because it’s not enough to just be content with not murdering one another—anger and insults and name-calling abound (just look at Twitter…) and all that happens is that the divide between folks gets deeper and wider and forgiveness and reconciliation becomes more and more difficult. The idea that we can coin the phrase “haters,” the idea that most people have a crystal clear understanding of the term “Internet Troll”, the idea that pretty much anyone understands why folks say, “Why did I read the comments? Never read the comments,” show how low discourse has fallen and how commonplace insulting and name-calling has become.
The more we name call, the more we insult, the less the other continues to exist to us as a human being and the easier it becomes to view the other as just an object or a thing. The person becomes the label we hang on them and they are no longer a human being made in the image of G-d.
But it’s not just speaking harshly about others that dehumanizes people; there are other ways that we objectify one another. When Jesus says, “You have heard 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.” To objectify women (or men), to covet another human being is to de-humanize them. They become an object to be possessed, not a free, unique creation of G-d.
One pastor says, “By collapsing the distinction between thought and action, this extension of the Law against adultery to include lust suggests that no one should be treated as a sex object. The burden here is placed on the man: women are not seen as responsible for enticing men into sexual misadventures.” (“Matthew” in The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, KT: WJK, 1992), 255.)
Similarly, in his statement about divorce, Jesus reminds us that to divorce someone “because they no longer please you” or because they “no longer make you happy” makes that person and object to be bought, sold, or returned” with no consideration for their freedoms. It’s dehumanizing.
Dorothy Day said, “If each of us could remember that we are all created in the image of G-d, then we would naturally want to love more.” (Dorothy Day, qtd. In The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003), 275).
If the Church really believes what we say, that Jesus is the embodiment of the will of G-d in relationship to humanity, sent to reconcile humanity with G-d, then we have to hear that “Jesus exhorts…to live Torah (Scripture) in a new way; not as a Law that protects against the danger of sin, but as a law that expresses the abundance of the eschatological [kin-ship] of G-d.” (Edwin Chr. Van Driel)
Maybe the reason theologians have taken to using the term “kin-dom of heaven or kin-dom of G-d” instead of Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of G-d is because it very much does reflect the relationship of reconciliation that we are called to—the ministry of reconciliation that we are participants of. We are, in fact, our brothers and sisters keepers. We are challenged to choose life so that we and our descendants may life, so that we and our kin may know peace, may know shalom.