Jesus Sets Us Up
In our gospel text from Matthew today we have some of what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus.
These are words and statements that feel uncomfortably harsh to us.
Jesus says things like, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” and, “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.”
That seems pretty extreme. That doesn’t feel much like the loving Savior we have come to know and trust.
And it is critical that we reevaluate these statements and try to understand what Jesus is saying to us, because if we don’t, we are liable to play into the narrative of a dominating, vengeful and hateful God that people have feared for generations.
The knowledge of God’s love is always easy to crush with the false rumor of God’s wrath.
Many people over the centuries have either lived consumed by anxiety when faced with a seemingly furious God incapable of love and generosity, or used the wrathful false God to beat other people into submission.
Here we might actually find Jesus’ words quite helpful, reminding us that negative actions are always driven by negative thoughts.
And attributing our origin and care to a hateful, unfree God thirsty to murder his only Son to satisfy an inflexible “justice” seems rather unlikely to nurture gentleness and compassion in ourselves.
Remember that many of the Bible’s statements about God’s wrath, vengeance and hatred say much more about the human authors than God’s actual character.
The nature of God in the Bible developed as humanity’s level of consciousness developed.
In the early days, surrounded by war and carried off into slavery, the first Biblical writers could not conceive of a non-violent God.
Many people today struggle to accept the abject humility and poverty of the God who gave Godself entirely to be hated and killed by God’s own creatures.
It’s more comfortable to project our own fear and anger onto God, because then we can imagine that God’s fear and anger are taken out on the people we dislike the most.
But Jesus is saying himself in our text today that our outer actions of breaking relationship only reflect a deeper, untended brokenness within, and that is where we need to journey if we seek true spiritual transformation.
There is a case to be made that Jesus is actually doing something quite tricky here.
This passage and others like it are known as “the intensification of the law.”
Jesus says, “You have heard it said x, but I tell you y.”
The x is some quotation from the Jewish law, which already probably somewhat challenging.
But then, with the y, Jesus elevates it to a completely unattainable level.
Never get angry at someone. Never look at someone with lust. Never go to worship without being completely reconciled with everyone you know.
Yeah, right. Are you kidding, Jesus? How can you expect us to do this stuff?
It’s completely unrealistic.
In our reading next week, Jesus will cap this entire ridiculous set of requirements by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We can’t do it, and what’s more, Jesus knows we can’t do it.
If you’ve never looked at someone you’re not married to with lust, or you’ve never entered worship without some unresolved conflict in your heart, or if you’ve never been angry with someone, give me call, I want to know your secret.
A parallel example would be running the fifty-yard dash in 10 seconds. Tough, but it can be done.
And then Jesus comes along and says, “You have heard it said that it is good to run the fifty-yard dash in under 10 seconds, but I say to you that unless you can run to the moon and back in under 10 minutes, you will never see the kingdom of heaven.”
It’s so impossible as to be ludicrous.
But here I think Jesus is being dumb like a fox.
I think this is an incredibly artful and strategic move on this part.
I think Jesus is upping the ante on the law for a very specific purpose, and that purpose is to remove us completely from the worthiness system we have once again capitulated to.
We all know in our heads that salvation is a free gift, not earned, but here we are, agonizing over Jesus’ words of requirement, wondering how we can possibly find a way to fulfill them and please him.
He’s trying to make them so impossible that we are forced to finally give up and admit we can’t possibly do the right thing and live in right relationship on our own!
We need God. We need God’s grace to infuse our every moment.
Jesus knows us so well, and he knows we will keep trying to earn salvation and quantify grace as long as we believe there is any chance of attaining it by our own efforts.
It is a fundamental addiction of the human species.
It’s not all bad—it does start us down the path of confronting our own selfishness and moderating our actions. But it is not enough.
If we let ourselves believe that we really are earning brownie points in heaven by our good works, we will place ourselves in a false hierarchy above other people.
And the seductive, ego-boosting power of that record of good works will start to erode our good intentions and corrupt our ability to love.
So Jesus cuts across the whole system before we can even get started.
He gives us a patently ludicrous standard to live up to in order to break us out of our paradigm and jolt us back into awareness of grace.
If we won’t accept our own vulnerability and need for God, Jesus will help us see it in a new way with his intensification of the law.
We have to admit that we can’t attain “holiness” on our own, and from there admit that “holiness” is not really the goal after all.
Because what are all of Jesus’ statements in this gospel about?
They are about being in right relationship.
His words are functioning on more than one level. They are a standard we cannot achieve, yes, but they are also a reminder that our external actions are not as important as the state of our relationships with other people.
Rather than congratulate ourselves for not murdering anyone, or present our perfect attendance record at church, or tear ourselves up over whether we are married or divorced, Jesus would have us ask different questions.
Are we nurturing and feeding anger and division and superiority in our hearts?
Or are we seeking love and forgiveness and reconciliation?
Those habits of the heart speak, and those qualities inform and give character to our actions.
There are times when missing church or getting a divorce is by far the most loving thing to do.
Our motives will never be perfect, but a deep commitment to be honest with ourselves and with God goes a long way toward making us pliable and humble enough for redemption.
The purpose of the intensification of the law is to allow God to get at us, because we have at last been forced to abandon all our efforts.
Then God can begin the work in our hearts that will really awaken us to the kingdom of heaven available right here and now, not in some misty afterlife.
Paradoxically, this very abandonment of effort allows us to be transformed and conformed to the mind of Christ, making the intensification of the law actually possible and even easy.
We no longer need lust or anger or revenge because we have entered the communion of the body of Christ in the largest sense—we will not hurt others because we would be hurting ourselves.
Allowing and welcoming God to create the Mind of Christ within us makes possible our true and full membership in the Body of Christ.
We realize that the false boundaries we have put around ourselves—I’m right and you’re wrong!—have only cut us off from our very lifeblood, which is the love between Christ and ourselves and one another.
And the best part of letting go of the false boundaries of earning worthiness by the law, is that it simultaneously erases false boundaries around grace and transformation.
We think, “God, I can’t possibly be this good and holy, this caring and loving to others.”
And God says, “Beloved, you can’t possibly imagine how free, how loving, how filled and nurtured and guided by grace you can be if you will only trust me. So let go. Trust me. And be transformed.”
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