Have you heard the one where Jesus, standing with the crowd around the woman caught in adultery, says, “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone!” It’s quiet for a few seconds. All of a sudden a rock flies out of the crowd. And Jesus says, “Come on, Mom!”
Christians, and particularly their virginal mothers, have always been held to a higher standard. And sometimes these higher standards cause discomfort.
On Wednesday last, at Bible and Bagels, there were ripples of uncomfortable laughter about going to hell for calling someone a “fool!” Ouch! If that were the only thing some of us have called others! And of course from some of the gentlemen there was squirming at their “President Carter” moment about “lusting in their heart.”
Yes, Jesus calls us to a higher standard. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus intensifies the Jewish law of his day and raises the bar for behavior and conduct that may seem impossible to meet.
Jesus may have “broken every barrier down,” but he sure seems to have placed some insurmountable roadblocks along the way.
You and I are called to a higher standard. Your life should reflect your faith in Jesus Christ. But let’s be clear about what this means.
These higher standards are not a litmus test of how to get into heaven. God’s loving grace is not determined by how good you are. You not saved because you are perfect. “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.”
Besides, moral perfection is boring! In fact, if our just-ended study of Genesis has shown us anything, it is that it’s the rascals who catch God’s positive attention.
Your motivation for living morally and righteously should not be to avoid punishment as if God is waiting to catch you at something. That is wrong theology!
You do not do the right thing in order to win God’s favor. Another false notion about God. Rather you act righteously because God acts righteously.
You love because God is love.
You do not judge because God does not judge.
You forgive because God forgives.
You see, your life gives testimony to your deepest values. You are called to live in a way that shows others what you believe about God, who you think God is.
What do you want to show others about what you believe about God?
The Gospel of Matthew was written long after the life of Jesus – 50 years or more. In fact, the footnotes of your Bible points out that in verse 25, imprisonment for debt is not a Jewish practice, but a Gentile one – so Matthew has interpreted words of Jesus for a new context.
How should Christians live in the first century Greco-Roman world so as to show the world who their God is? People were looking and what were they seeing?
There is the famous example of early Christians during a plague not fleeing the city but actually taking care of the sick and dying: both Christians and pagans. And it was noted, “Look how the Christians love one another!” It was Christians who turned the social tables on their heads and allowed slaves, and women to take leadership in churches. It was Christians who would not abandon unwanted children to the elements. It was Christians who would speak the truth to power and not worry about the consequences. Christians claimed a morality that made a difference. Christians were showing the world who God is.
And the question is, of course, is there anything identifiable about being a Christian today, or have we simply capitulated to the culture? Because frankly there is a battle going on in our Christian culture about the very nature of God.
In our more recent history, Christians, along with other faithful people, started every progressive social movement in America: abolition, equal rights for women, 40 hour work weeks, child labor laws, civil rights, LGBT inclusion. We stood for these things as Christians because we believe that God extends boundaries. God is radically hospitable and so are we. God is not a God of judgment but a God who invites everyone to a kingdom feast! In a world which is segregated every which way but loose – people notice when folks get all mixed in together!
In Matthew, Jesus makes the connection between action and inner motivation.
Jesus says, not only don’t murder, but don’t be angry with a sister or brother. So this is inner church talk. Jesus says don’t call anyone “fool,” because it destroy community and folks are longing to be in community. Un-managed anger ends up destroying you from the inside. Letting your anger hurt relationships and break community – cuts you off – anger becomes so self-serving and it leads to self-loathing. And who wants to be around an angry person? Lighten up! You are in a hell of your own making. God may be angry at injustice and so we can be angry at injustice too – but we do not let anger break community – because God is not that kind of angry God.
What if before each time we received the offering, and especially each time before we shared the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, I announced: “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift and first be reconciled. We don’t want your money…yet.” Some churches would never take up a cent, or break any bread!
Our God is a God of reconciliation – and so we are a people of reconciliation. People want to see that, and experience that. God doesn’t hold grudges and so neither should you.
Adultery breaks every norm of trust and honesty. Jesus declares, “Men, don’t look at women as sex objects” and yet how many church people struggle with pornography’s exploitation of women, children and men too? God, you see, looks at the inside and so should we. That is the deep God-value.
Marriage is held in high honor. Divorce is a bond-breaker. Yes, this passage has been used and interpreted in negative and hurtful ways. Many have toiled in guilt because of these verses.
But it is wrong to use these verses to keep people in bad marriages. God does not intend you to be miserable. Work on the relationship and if you HAVE to…find a new one – because God is recognized by fidelity, forgiveness, tenderness, honesty, and sacrifice. Divorce happens, but forgiveness, new relationships, grace joy and contentment happen too.
In your marriage right now, or in your relationships on this post-Valentine’s day weekend, are you witnessing to compassion, truth, love and respect? Let your marriage honor God.
In the first century to swear was to identify who your god is. To swear by Caesar showed that politics was an ultimate concern. To swear by the temple was to show that your institutional affiliation was of ultimate concern. To swear by your head was to show that vanity was of ultimate concern. You and I are called to show Jesus Christ as our ultimate concern.
Be a person of your word. “Let your word be ‘yes, yes or no, no.” Or when you say “yes” follow through and allow yourself to say “no” sometimes! (But just not when Clover, Liz, Anne, or I ask you for something!)
Take a courageous moral inventory of your life. Don’t judge others. Come clean about your baggage. You don’t really have to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye (Jesus understood hyperbole!) But come clean – which can be almost as painful.
The point of this passage, to my understanding, is to present a God whose greatest desire is for you to be content, grounded, whole, balanced, joyful – and for our community to be a place of radical hospitality and joy, because that is who God is.
These are not words of judgment…this is an invitation. You are called to higher standard of love.
Let your life preach.