A fender-bender in the parking lot of Safeway is a real pain, an irritant that can ruin a good day. On the other hand, setting off an avalanche in the back country when you’re below its path, that is a matter of life and death! “It’s a matter of life or death”… chilling words that get our attention!
Then we read today from Deuteronomy that we have a choice to make, and it is a life or death decision!! The Gospel today isn’t much gentler, with mention of hell’s fires, and the possibility that we might lose a hand or an eye based on not just what we do, but what we think!
I confess, when the Gospel reading ended, I ALMOST said “The Gospel of the Lord???”
In that Gospel, we hear our righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—no slouches in such a competition–with suggestions that if we don’t choose wisely, if not we die (according to Deuteronomy), then we could lose limbs and eye balls if we fail at this new righteousness. Good News indeed!
I remember the first time this part of Matthew truly got me thinking. I was in junior high, dealing with an older brother whose avocation in life was to make me miserable. His harassment and irritating actions toward a younger brother approached an art-form! So, when I heard that to be angry with my brother was the same as murder—a thought that had crossed my mind once or twice…. the consequences thereof were, well …DANG, what to do??!
What is Jesus up to here? Is it to bring the overly-pious down a notch or three… a shot at anyone who believed following every jot and tittle of the law completely was possible, and who then frowned upon…. Nay, condemned…. those who weren’t doing so? Is Jesus sticking a pin in such pomposity by having us look at inner thoughts and motivations?
OR, is Jesus shaking the complacency of those who would say that, in the new day of Christ, forget the laws and demands of God because we can’t keep them anyway…. I believe Luther was quoted once–with tongue firmly placed in cheek: “I love to sin, and God loves to forgive! What a wonderful arrangement!”
OR, is Jesus seriously calling for a new righteousness from God’s people?? …That what we have in the Sermon on the Mount is—and I love this phrase—“the Messianic intensification of the Law.”…. That the Torah, and the Deuteronomic codes didn’t go far enough to explain what is expected of God’s Chosen people. But that simply sets up another mark to meet, like a new fast time to beat on skis for a medal in the Olympics!
We must remember, however, even for the ancients, the Law revealed in sacred texts came, not as a means to becoming God’s chosen, but as a gift to God’s people who were already chosen by God! That is, the Law came into play in their lives under the umbrella of a graciously given identity….. under the assurances of Godly promises that Yahweh would be their God. Period! Even so, to ignore what this Gracious God demands was to walk into activity or inactivity that, frankly, took away from the life God intended…. Choose life, not death, say the ancient texts. Certainly, we can–and I think must–struggle with those portions of those texts that are so time-and-culture shaped that the weight of their bearing on present day life issues on their application needs challenge.
That challenge works for those Deuteronomic teachings, for sure. But what about the eyebrow-raising teachings in our New Testament Gospel? You know: bad thoughts are not just bad thoughts; they are murder and adultery?
Today’s Gospel is part of that Great Sermon on the Mount where Jesus lays out a radical new manifesto for God’s people, with its very different understandings about who is blessed ( “the poor… and the meek… and those who mourn….) and a new ethic where cheeks are turned when blows are struck, and enemies are loved and prayed for. As Jesus repeats, “You have heard it said of old, but I say to you…”
In this Sermon on the Mount, that fills three whole chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, the Christ reveals the new realities if the Reign of God were to come to this world, and how things could be if God actually DID rule the territory! And in that new reality, the heart and mind are to be as righteous as our outward acts and appearances. So now, not only do I smile at my older brother, but I actually hope for the best of him ….. rather than inwardly hope that he fall off a cliff after picking on me!
The Sermon on the Mount speaks of a new order that goes to the very core of who we are to be as God’s people, and how we shall treat others and ourselves. Can that be??
Obviously, such a new deep and abiding righteousness means a need for a significant transformation of human nature and the world. But how can that happen? Can it happen?
For, such a transformation is no minor adjustment or tweak or simple tune-up. Could it be that achieving that new righteousness isn’t so much a matter of choosing life or death…. But rather, what’s needed is a death, and then life?? That is, a death to the old way of seeing ourselves… dying to our self-shaped piety, and our self-love gone crazy…. or even our self-pity! You know… “I am such a woeful and miserable, useless creature–there is no hope for me” kind of thinking! Coming near the new righteousness becomes a matter of death, and then life…. to a new creation for the sake of the world.. nothing less.
Yet, if you are like me… and I suspect you are…. Even coming close to that righteousness sounds like entering a ski-jumping contest at Sochi, Russia, without even a trial run! The murderous thoughts still creep in… adulterous thoughts keep finding their way into our noggins… and when we speak, we say more than yes or no, even when we know it is stupid, much less ungodly, to do so. And the new reality of the reign of God slips back into the shadows somewhere….
Here’s where the wisdom of Luther—with tongue absolutely NOT in cheek–can help. Actually, it is the inspired wisdom of the Apostle Paul, first shared with those feisty Christians in Corinth! In the maturation of faith process, recall who does what, says Paul…. Especially who is able to do what, and who cannot. Such transformation… such maturation in the faith that leads to love and trust in the Reign of God can only be done by God. We can plant, says Paul… we can even do some watering… but as anyone who has done some gardening knows, life and growth is a mystery in the hands and power of God alone!
Which brings us back to that which makes us God’s own: Baptism! Like the ancient people of God, our identity in God is a gift that cannot be earned by obedience to Laws, however sacred… not even validated. For us our identity with God…. And the true righteousness of faith…. comes in the grace-filled floodwaters of baptism! Thus , a good and healthy thing to do is recall our baptism…. Waters that drown the old nature…. Baptism: a dying, so that someone new is raised. Baptized…drowned… in the name of Christ, and for Christ… not in the name of Apollos, nor Paul, but drowned in the name of, and for sake of Christ, and thus immersed into a new righteousness of faith and love and mercy and compassion… Drowned and raised into a new creation who seeks justice for ourselves and others.
Then what shall we do? Are we to work harder at being more Godly and righteous? Or, do we just slog along, knowing we cannot ever live up to what is called for, so why try, and end up saying and doing and thinking whatever comes to mind?
An voice from the past once shared a metaphor I found helpful on this, and I hope it is helpful to you. The life of faith is a journey down a road with those two ditches on either side. We may head for the “try harder—and judge those who don’t” ditch on one side of the road, doing the right thing, and thinking the right thoughts, and saying the right words all the time.
When we get too close to that side of the road, hopefully the waters of baptism—and remembrance thereof– will wash over us, and move us to the center, drowning such pre-occupation with self. And when we get too close to the other side… the side of complacency and “whatever….”, may the waters of baptism—and remembrance thereof—reawaken us to whose we are, and to what we are called as God’s people to be in the world.
Know that we do not walk that journey alone. That’s the pledge and promise in this Holy Meal…. Christ is with us, in Bread and wine, and in fellow sojourners with whom we share that meal for that journey! And remember, again and again, the death to eternal life journey of the Messiah, which is yours and mine, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
May God Bless your journey in this calling that is ours, knowing you shall be God’s own, through Jesus Christ our Lord.