“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me as their minister, “Is it right to…?”, “Is it wrong to…?”, I would not have to burden my congregation with my stipend assessment!
There is something about human nature that wants to be told. “Do this.” “Don’t do that.” It is the path of lazy and infantalised religion. I never grow up if I never have to figure out the rules, for my own context, for myself.
A colleague of mine posted on Facebook recently his distress at losing a dear member and friend from his congregation. The member had gone off to join a right wing fundamentalist church. “I work hard all week, and when I come to church, I really don’t want to think. In my new church they just tell me what to do.”
Contrast that with this interview in which Eugene Peterson (The Message) speaks about effectively communicating Gospel – Good News to the world.
I am amused by the ironic circles of history. The essential teachings of Jesus challenged the way the Pharisees had replaced the essential interiority of a relationship with God and a covenant written on the heart and not in stone (Jer 31:31)with external legalism and ritual observance. The church took the Gospel of those challenges by Jesus and made them into external observance once again! I would giggle at the irony if I didn’t know many whose lives were devastated by that mistake of the Church.
At first glance, it seems that Jesus is making it even more difficult to follow the rules. However, the teachings of Jesus in the gospel passage for this Sunday are not intended to create more external laws, thereby deepening our self loathing and despondency about ever making the grade or getting over the ever rising bar! He is showing us the way to transcending our legalism.
I am convinced that the church will continue to decline on the left and become rabidly rigid and rule bound on the right, until we realise that the gospel is not about rules. For the Gospel to be Good News it has to be proclaimed in a way that shows that it is about relationship. Jesus is pointing that out with Middle Eastern humour and irony.
Externals are the consequences of interior processes. We avoid interiority at our peril. Was it Carl Jung who said, “If you do not go within you will have to go without”
Jesus is always, always, always inviting us to go inside. To enter the heart in the sacred, silent, spacious solitude of the personal and intimate encounter with our Parent Creator.
There in the cave of the heart we will hear, as Jesus did, that we too, are well beloved children, with whom God is well pleased! No law or behaviour can mediate that unconditional acceptance nor can observance of laws make it happen. Only by being still do we know that “I am” is God.
However when we emerge from that meeting, we will do the right things, make the right choices, behave as God’s children. What the Pharisees feared to risk is what Jesus did.
Theologian Don Cupitt calls Jesus the first humanist and I think he is correct. Jesus trusted that human nature, when secured in love and transformed by unconditional acceptance, is capable of doing good, true and beautiful acts. This is something that fearful rule-makers and law-keepers will never understand.
Hear the Good News! We act best not from fearful conformity, but from compassionate concern and perfect love.