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. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
Jesus Christ of Nazareth is not messing around.
This is quite a tirade – he unleashes isn’t it? And it’s such a switch – coming on the heels of the famously poetic blessings of the Beatitudes. Just moments and verses ago Jesus sat down atop the mountain with the disciples at his feet and uttered words we know very well. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek and those who mourn – the merciful and peacemakers – blessed are you all.
And then whamo! Judgment, murder, prison, divorce, lust, tearing out eyes, chopping off body parts and being thrown into hell!
(It does kind of make me wish I could preach it up like a Baptist!)
Why the change? Why does he pronounce blessings and then, let loose with this diatribe? The disciples are the ones who want to follow him – they have left homes and wives and jobs to be with him? It’s not like Jesus is on the steps of the temple or in front of the Pharisees decrying their practices – so why does he get so intense so fast with those who are sitting at his feet, yearning for good news?
Do you know one of the most terrifying places to be when you’re a parent of a young 4, 5 or 6 year old child? The parking lot of a shopping center. Picture that parking lot up at Wegman’s – in the late afternoon before snowstorm number 810. It’s sunset and it’s packed – and you walk with your child – or maybe two or three children. Pushing a full cart and looking for your car, one kid has your keys, they are all clamoring and you’re thinking now where did I park? When all of a sudden your five year old – takes off – just starts running – and you see the reverse lights of that SUV three cars ahead.
You leave the cart – take off after your kid – grab them by the shoulders in the nick of time and shout – don’t you ever, ever go running off like that again! Do you hear me!?
And then you watch their face break open with plump tears and full-throated sobs because you never yell like that – except when you have to. You bend down and hold them, apologize and say – Mommy is sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you but you can’t go running off in a parking lot. And while you didn’t mean to yell, you did – because some actions we take are matters of life and death – and when it comes to teaching that stuff – as a parent you cannot mess around.
Choose life – we hear from Deuteronomy – love the Lord and hold fast to God. When Jesus expands on what this means by repeating – You have heard it said, but I say to you – he gets intense because this is our one, incredible life he is talking about – and when it comes to teaching about that stuff Jesus does not mess around.
The word – law – can be understood in different ways. There are laws meant to keep us safe – like the sign that reads 55 MPH speed limit. Or if you own a patch of woods you decide who has access. You can post a sign that says “No Trespassing/No Hunting” – or “Hunters allowed with permission.” It’s up to you, it’s your property. Speed limit and trespassing signs are laws and set limits.
But there is another kind of law as in "the law of gravity" or "the second law of thermodynamics." This sense of law does not suggest limits but how things simply are in all situations. You may disobey the law of gravity if you want—maybe you decide you don't believe that particular law. But that belief won't help you if you lose your balance at the top of a step ladder and drop a hammer while it's over top of your left foot. (F. Beuchner from Center for Excellence in Preaching 2/16/14)
Christianity – organized religion in general – is often characterized as simply a set of laws God decrees – like speed limits or no trespassing signs - arbitrary hoops that God decided people need to follow and jump through; created to measure our capability of obeying them – as when our psalmist writes, probably after having done something pretty bad – oh that I should keep your statues then I should not be put to shame when I regard all your commandments.
But as the people of God – God’s field, God’s building as Paul writes – we know we are in this together – and God’s laws are like gravity. I hear Jesus pointing this out to the disciples so they don’t get stuck, like so many religious, in mere black and white application of the rules. But look deeper at the intentions of their heart – as the prophet Jeremiah says, through the new covenant the heart is where God has written the law. (Jer 31:33)
You have heard it said that murder is unlawful and liable to judgment – but Jesus says if you are angry with someone that is liable to judgment. Does that mean we can’t get angry? No, we all get angry – Jesus himself gets angry – but when we do, God’s people are called upon to do soul searching work – so our anger doesn’t lead to actions we will regret. Why am I angry? What part have I played? Have I attempted reconciliation? Have I attempted forgiveness?
Two former concentration camp survivors were visiting with one another. “Have you forgiven the Nazis?” one asked the other. “Yes.” Was the reply. “Well I haven’t. I’m still consumed with hatred for them.” “In that case,” said his friend gently, “they still have you in prison.” (“The Spirituality of Imperfection” Kuntz)
Our actions spring from something internal that we have choices about. Jesus says what is in your heart? How will that lead you to new life?
The laws of Jesus’ time were very clear when it came to a man’s prerogative for divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1 Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her…he may write her a certificate of divorce.
You can find several midrash texts that take a very liberal view of what “something objectionable” means – some write it is permissible to divorce your wife for burning toast. But Jesus says, while that is the law – it is not an action of the heart. The law viewed women and children as property. Jesus sees women and children as beloved of God worthy of being treated as such.
Jesus’ words in this passage are very challenging. Lust, swearing, sin, adultery – but the blessings came first. Blessed are the pure of heart. Where your heart lies there your treasure will be also. (Matt 6:21) Rend your heart and not your clothing when you come before the Lord. (Joel 2:13). A broken and contrite heart oh God, you will not despise! (Ps 51:17)
It is our heart God wants. More than anything and regardless of our mistakes.
Jesus wants disciples who see into the heart of their actions – the root cause of those things we do that are not life-giving – because that is where we need God.
Franciscan and author Richard Rohr writes – every time God forgives us, God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us.
Life brings more than the dangers of parking lots. God’s good news is that there are guidelines to help us on our way. There are commandments to help us examine the intentions of our hearts – but even more - there is forgiveness when we make mistakes – and there is Jesus Christ! Always reaching, reaching out to enfold us in those loving arms so that in our times of weakness we may be strengthened with God’s abundant stream of never-ending grace. Amen.
- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks
- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks