by The Rev. Lisa Caine
February 16, 2014
Matthew 5:21-37, Deuteronomy 30:15-20
This has been quite a week, hasn’t it! Snow, ice, and earthquake during the week, and now to top it all off, here on Sunday morning in our Gospel reading, we have anger, murder, lust, deceit, and even a little self-mutilation! I don’t know how we’re going to top it all next Sunday!
Jesus is speaking to his disciples about what it means to follow him, what it means to be part of the community of faith that is so different from the communities they know – their towns, their places of worship, even their families. His vision is nothing like what they have been used to, and it would have been easy for them to think that he was rejecting all that had come before him as he speaks of the kingdom of heaven. But then he makes it clear in a verse immediately preceding today’s reading that it is not his intention to do away with the Laws of Moses that have given identity and purpose to Jewish people for centuries: laws that have set boundaries, and defined what is clean and what is unclean; laws that reveal what is of God and what is not; laws that have prescribed appropriate behaviors that will be pleasing to God and condemned behaviors that will invoke God’s wrath. No, Jesus says, “I don’t want to do away with these laws; I intend to fulfill them.” The disciples must have been thinking, “ You’ve got to be kidding! Well how do we do that Jesus? We’ve been pretty good at observing the laws, but it sounds like you want us to become like the Pharisees—those guys have focused their entire lives on following scrupulously all 613 laws of faith. You don’t really want us to do that do you?” And Jesus answer is, “No, I don’t want you to become like the scribes and Pharisees; I want you to exceed them!”
Well, if there was ever a moment to throw in the towel, and say “thanks, but no thanks;” that would have been one of them. It must have felt overwhelming, impossible.
What does Jesus mean by fulfilling the law and exceeding the scribes and Pharisees’ righteousness? What is it that the Pharisees, who look so right, are doing wrong? Certainly the Pharisees took their faith seriously. They attended all required religious services, they were observant of all the rules; they prayed; they fasted; they tithed. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things.
Well, if the behavior itself isn’t in question, then perhaps Jesus wants us to look at the motivations behind the behavior. What makes a person pray, fast, tithe, give alms to the poor, or spend all their time in church? Why do you do any or all of those things? For many motivation comes from the outside – concern about what people might think, what others have taught and said is right and wrong, a desire to follow the rules and measure up to those standards, or to escape God’s punishment and displeasure. All these motivations come from a need for structure and security, for protection, approval, or control and are based in anxiety and fear over losing them and of the painful consequences.
However, if we are to believe Jesus, motivation must come from the inside. It has to come from our love for God and for our neighbor, without fear or concern over what others may or may not think is appropriate; it means taking risks and not worrying about playing it safe; and it takes into consideration not only our personal relationship with God, but also the well-being of all of God’s creation. In other words, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, unless we can get over ourselves (it’s not all about me!), and focus on God and others. Father Thomas Keating has written that Jesus’ challenge to exceed the scribes and Pharisees is an invitation to follow him “out of the swamp of self-centered motivation [and] into the freedom and accountability of full personhood,” where then “we can take our place in the mystical body of Christ as a living cell responsible for the well-being of the whole body.”
And what in the world, you might easily ask, does that mean? What would that look like to responding positively to the love of God within us rather than reacting negatively to and defending against our fears of the world around us. In a variety of real life situations, Jesus first states the law as it has been handed down through scripture and tradition — You have heard it said . . .” and then gives his own radical interpretation –“but I say to you . . .” His interpretation is not radical because it is far out and crazy, or extremist or fanatical, but because it gets to the root of the law. And that root is love of God and love of neighbor over love of self.
His first radical statement is that the anger we carry towards someone is as destructive to our lives and the lives of others as if we’d committed murder. And words can kill spirits and reputations as surely as guns can kill bodies. If you’ve ever been the victim of someone’s rage, you know that is true. And if you’ve ever carried around anger and resentment for any period of time, you know how it can eat at you and be as destructive to your own life as it is in the lives of those towards whom you unleash it.
The solution is the hard work of reconciliation, making things right between you and the other person. In Jesus’ restatement of the old Law, it is not just refraining from murder that is required, it is living free from hostility. God wills not only that we not kill each other; but even more, that we live together in harmony. This law is so important today – on the world scene or the national scene – almost every day now, there is someone who is “outraged” over something or other. Usually because they didn’t get their way. And so much energy is put into condemning the offender and venting the anger, but very little into finding solutions. It’s almost as though people would rather live outraged than live in harmony with those who disagree. Compromise seems impossible, even traitorous. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said. And now more than ever, we need peacemakers among us.
Not only does Jesus stretch the definition of murder to include words that maim and kill, he also expands the definition of lust and adultery to include not only actions, but thoughts as well. It’s not just what we do that counts. It’s also what we think about doing.
Although Jesus didn’t live in time that was as overtly sex-saturated as ours – no internet porn or x-rated movies, or suggestive TV shows and advertisements that use sex to sell products. But human nature is human nature. Then or now. And it would be disingenuous of us to excuse occasional fantasy now and again or a little lust in our hearts from time to time, as no big deal, not hurting anybody because it’s just a part of our culture now. Do you remember when Jimmy Carter confessed, I think it was to Playboy Magazine, that he had lusted in his heart, and everybody laughed. I think it was an embarrassed, nervous laugh. Nervous because we know the truth – been there, done that – we know that retreating from reality and creating our own fantasy world hurts us, and it also hurts the targets of the fantasy by dehumanizing them and making them objects for our pleasure.
Jesus is saying, we are what we think about, or spend time watching, or reading, or hearing, or buying. And he’s so adamant about it that he goes as far as to say if your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hands or feet offend you, cut them off. This is – by the way – always a good passage to quote to your friends who insist on a completely literal interpretation of scripture? Do they really think Jesus wants for us to go around being blind amputees? Maybe Paul’s words in Philippians gets at what Jesus is suggesting we aim for, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.
In our closest human relationships, there is no room for self-centeredness. Lives are at stake, hopes and dreams are held in the balance, and should be treated with dignity and respect. Nowhere is our absolute honesty and fidelity more important. There is no room for deceit.
If we are truthful in our daily dealing with one another, if our yes can be trusted to be yes and our no can be trusted to be no, then in all of life’s situations we will be able to maintain integrity and stay in right relationship with God and one another. The old law required truthfulness under oath, but Jesus expands that law by saying we must be truthful at all times. Oaths are only required in situations where there is mistrust and lack of relationship. We admit, when we take an oath, that we can’t always be depended on to be truthful, and therefore have to call God in as a character witness to guarantee our words. In the courtroom we are asked, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And sometimes friends will ask, “Are you telling the truth; do you swear you are?” “Will you ‘pinky swear’?” That’s because sometimes we lie. They know it and we know it. But if we live as Jesus wants us to live, then oaths would no longer be necessary.
Following Jesus, becoming more Christlike, requires freeing ourselves from the kingdom of self in order to be open and receptive to the kingdom of God. And it won’t be accomplished in bursts of anger or resentment. It won’t be found in cheap substitutes for real relationships; and it won’t be found in crossing our fingers and saying “yes” when we mean “no.” It won’t be found in any of the superficial legalism or strategies for self-preservation, or by relying on the “rules” or the “law” as an external enforcer.
If we want to be a part of the community that follows Jesus, we have to change from the inside out, and build lives characterized not by fear, but by love and respect for ourselves and others – love that shows no hostility, love that is not predatory or demeaning; love that is not fickle or self-centered, or dishonest.
Jesus was honest – he never said it would be easy. It takes tremendous energy and commitment to live differently in the world from the way we are accustomed to living and which is not supported by so many of our cultural values and priorities. But the choice is one of freedom or bondage, life or death. The Old Testament reading for today from Deuteronomy says in a different way, what Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God.” May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.