Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus really knows how to lay down the Law – at least in today’s gospel lesson. It is a portion of a sermon by Jesus. It’s his most famous sermon, his Sermon on the Mount. He begins this famous sermon with a series of blessings, the beatitudes, in which Jesus blesses those for whom life is often a curse rather than a blessing. These blessings, like “Blessed are you poor,” are beloved parts of Scripture.
But then Jesus switches from these beautiful blessings to a series of sharp contrasts: “You have heard it said of old… but I say to you.”
In today’s Gospel Jesus takes commands too many already do not keep – “You shall not commit murder” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court” – and counters it with, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
Being angry with someone is the same as murdering them? Could Jesus really be serious?
And then Jesus says, if the offering plate is passed to you on Sunday, and you are getting ready to drop your $100 contribution into the plate, and just then remember that you are engaged in a dispute with someone else, you get up, leave your $100 bill on the pew, go out and make peace with your neighbor, settle the dispute, then come back and drop your money into the offering plate.
You should not worship or give offerings to the Lord if you are engaged in arguments? Could Jesus really be serious?
And then Jesus goes on: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Anyone with impure thoughts has already committed adultery? Could Jesus really be serious?
Jesus says, “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Yet statistics tell us that Christians have the same likelihood of divorce and remarriage – often times with the same reasoning and rationale – as do non-Christians. Could Jesus really be serious?
Here Jesus takes lessons from the 10 Commandments that are already difficult enough to obey in themselves, and ratchets them up 100 times into even tougher demands. Why?
Some contend Jesus wasn’t serious in telling us we ought to be reconciled with our enemies before we offer our gift on the altar. He didn’t mean that divorce is contrary to God’s will. Impure thoughts cannot be as damaging as committing adultery. Jesus told us these things, they say, knowing that no human being could ever do any of this, in order to show us what miserable, weak sinners we are, in order to rip out of our hands any presumption of righteousness and drive us into the hands of a loving and compassionate God.
In other words: if anyone thought, “Well, I may not be a saint, but at least I’ve never committed adultery,” then when Jesus gets through with them – telling us that to even think impure thoughts us as bad as committing impure acts – well, we all look like sinners.
All that is true enough.
But Jesus certainly sounds like he is making real demands, commands. He seems to be unimpressed by a gap between our feelings, our inner intentions, and our outward actions. He thus focuses upon our heart, what we are thinking as well as what we are doing.
Most of us are content if we can just avoid doing bad things. But Jesus raises the bar. He demands that our feelings, our inward disposition, and our heart match his way. To hate someone is to wish ill for that person, sometimes to wish that person were gone. The same could be said for lust. Lust is a rather natural, human desire, but what begins in the heart, as a natural human desire, often ends in some destructive, sad behavior that destroys lives.
Jesus, far from lowering standards for human behavior out of some allegedly soft-hearted permissiveness, raises the bar. He takes as seriously our secret, invisible thoughts as he does our wrong actions.
Has Jesus raised the bar too high? Is he pushing an utterly unrealistic standard for human behavior that makes us doomed to fail in our attempts to be obedient to him?
Or… is it possible that Jesus believes in you more than you believe in yourself? Is it possible that we are more capable of faithful discipleship than we may think?
Remember, Jesus is speaking primarily to his disciples – those who are already chosen. In the Beatitudes that begin this Sermon on the Mount were the promises of the kingdom; promises that are ours because we are already disciples by grace through faith in Jesus.
“You are the salt of the earth… You are light of the world.” These are declarations that are true because Jesus makes it so. We are part of the kingdom, disciples of Jesus, for a purpose: to lives live that reflect the love and forgiveness of Jesus that we have experienced to those that are around us; to be the presence of Jesus for everyone we meet; to be the love of Jesus with skin on it.
Who we are as God’s people affects how we live. In every area of our life – in thought attitude, word, deed, in our work, in our community, in our marriages, in our homes.
Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”
Exaggeration? Yes. But realize the serious point. Don’t let anything or anyone pull you away from Jesus and into sin. It is not our hands or our eyes that lead us into sin. It is a matter of life and death; it is a matter of the heart. From our hearts comes evil thought, evil desires, and evil actions. It all starts in the heart. And it is not a matter of having a better heart. Jesus is not saying, “Try harder.” Rather Jesus’ advice is that we need to cut out our heart. We need a heart transplant.
And that is what Jesus does for us. He takes our hearts of stone and creates for a new and a clean heart, a heart after God Himself. We die on the operating table; we die to sin, drowned in the waters of baptism, dying each day in repentance as we remember our Baptism. And new person comes forth.
To be sure it is human, all too human, to feel rage and anger when we think we have been wronged. It is all to human to feel lust for a person whom we find attractive. The trouble with pointing that out – with dwelling on ourselves – is that far too often we despair, throw up our hands, throw in the towel.
But I know there are people here in this place who could testify, had we the time, to the ways in which Jesus has given you a new heart. You have had Christ take your fidelity, your Christian love and charity, your speech, your talents beyond merely avoiding certain behavior and moved on to discipline your thought and mind in His way, moving your heart in the way that God the Father wants you to go.
That too is by God’s grace through in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit living in you. Forgiven we are empowered to live, to reflect the life of Jesus in our lives. That too is a matter of the heart.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.