February 16, 2020
In today's gospel, Jesus is expounding upon the commands of the Old Testament. He is not replacing them, but showing how they are far more than simply rules. They are to be the basis upon which our lives are built. “You have heard that it was said...” he begins. And the commandments he chose to expound upon go like this, ‘You shall not murder’; ‘You shall not commit adultery.' ‘You shall not swear falsely,' Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but examples of how his followers, how we, are to understand the commandments. Every one of these, Jesus makes, not less stringent, but he makes them almost impossible for us to obey. He knows our hearts and knows there is more going on inside than we show on the outside. Let's look at these three examples with the understanding that given time, he could be expand all the commandments like this.
He begins, “You have heard that it was said. '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 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.” Have any of you ever been angry at a brother or sister? Of course we have. We all fall short of the ideal that Jesus has presented to us. Do we stop striving to be better people? I hope not. Where we strive and where we fail is the place where grace prevails.
A lasting memory from my youth came from this very passage; calling someone a fool makes you liable for hell. For those of you who don't know my family background, my Mom was Catholic and Dad was Presbyterian. We kids were all raised Catholic. One night at supper, I was a teenager. We kids were goofing off and my sister called me a fool. Evidently Dad had recently read this or heard a sermon on it and got quite upset with Marlys. I remember her being in tears after a stern talking to. We need to guard against being too literal in some of these teachings of Jesus. It seems to me that he is exaggerating here to make a point.
This becomes more clear in the next paragraph. “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. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” He exaggerates to make his point strong. I don't believe this is a literal call to tear our your eye or cut off your hand.
In all these examples, Jesus is not negating the Old Testament commandments, rather he is making clear just how critical these commands are to our lives of piety. We understand that the letter of the law is how the Pharisees tried to live, and they missed the true meaning of the law. All of the law is not about strict adherence to rules, but about living in proper relationship with God and with others. Murder is of course forbidden. But Jesus takes is a step farther. Even hate is about a relationship that has gone bad. Lust is to look on another, not as a child of God, but as an object for our own pleasure. To be in right relationship with God and with one another calls for us to seek peace, to be honest, and to see others as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Certainly the paragraph about swearing is about right relationships. Jesus is not talking about four-letter words, he is talking about making an oath, about swearing to the truth; a pinky swear, swearing upon your mother's life are examples I've heard. But in right relationship with God and each other, your yes is sufficient to be believed, your no means no. Lying to one another shows a true lack of respect and trust. And it is possible to lie to God when we fail to confess our faults and failures. Or even when we overstate our service and morality.
Some years ago, I heard a story from apologist Ravi Zacharias. It speaks to the trouble we have in relationship with each other; partly because we know our own selves to be less than perfect.
I quote, “I heard a cute little story, growing up in India. It is the story of a little boy who had lots of pretty marbles. But he was constantly eyeing his sister's bagful of candy. One day he said to her, "If you give me all your candy, I'll give you all of my marbles." She gave it much thought, and agreed to the trade. He took all her candy and went back to his room to get his marbles. But the more he admired them the more reluctant he became to give them all up. So he hid the best of them under his pillow and took the rest to her. That night, she slept soundly, while he tossed and turned restlessly, unable to sleep and thinking, "I wonder if she gave me all the candy?"
He goes on to say, “I have often wondered, when I see our angry culture claiming that God has not given us enough evidence, if it is not the veiled restlessness of lives that live in doubt because of their own duplicity. The battle in our time is posed as one of the intellect, in the assertion that truth is unknowable. But that may be only a veneer for the real battle, that of the heart, which even now the risen Christ pursues.”
The real battle is the battle for the heart. Many of us know that duplicity of the heart that Zacharias talks about. It is saying one thing and doing another. It is half-truths and misleading facts. It is false news and incomplete sound bites. All things that get in the way of authentic relationship. The battle for the heart is a battle for relationship. Jesus is about filling our hearts with his presence. Relationship with the Savior is key. Then that relationship leads us to seek to live lives of righteousness. Lives where we learn to control our anger, our lust, our tongues. And when we are living in relationship with Jesus, we will be growing in our ability to obey the commandments.
Paul makes the point that we grow in maturity as we grow in relationship. He wrote to the Corinthians about how he began his ministry to them, “Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh?” Maturity means we are ready for more responsibility and more challenges. As infants in Christ, we need the simple message of love and grace. As maturing disciples, we can handle this message of honesty, of understanding, of mutual respect. Solid food, hard words, relational challenges.
We are asked to make many choices every day. In our Old Testament lesson, Moses challenged the Israelites to make wise choices. He said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that 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 him, and holding fast to him.”
Choose life. Make wise decisions. Moses taught that the right decision leads to blessings in this life and beyond. Wrong choices mean death and curses and adversity.
At our leadership training day, I showed a very short video that lightheartedly points out how a bad choice, a choice to display anger when frustrated lead to unwanted consequences. (Don't have a grandson with a dog collar video)
A simple wrong decision seldom leads directly to a grandson with a dog collar. We recognize that not every decision has that kind of impact. But our choices do leads us on certain paths. Jesus calls us to a very high standard in our gospels. Again, we won't live those out perfectly. Choose life means, to me, choosing Jesus. Let that choice lead to a growing relationship with the Lord and with each other.
This gospel passage calls us to look at our lives and see if there is something that is causing us to fall short, causing us to be less than God is calling us to be. We are to examine our lives, look for people we need to be reconciled with, things in our lives that are causing us to be less than we could be. It may be something you are fully aware of and choose not to change, or it could be something that is not obvious but causing pain. I've got one more video that I shared with the elders and deacons. Ask yourselves as you watch, “is there something in my life that I could change that would make my life better and improve my relationship with Jesus?”
We had a little fun with this. But let's take with us the fact that what we do and how we live is important to God. The commands we are given in scriptures are not to make our lives harder, but to make our lives better. We offer our lives to Jesus in obedience. Amen.
Take My Life 391 PH