Tuesday, September 20, 2011 -- Week of Proper 20, Year One
John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, Bishop of Melanesia, Martyrs, 1871
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 984)
Psalms 78:1-39 (morning) 78:40-72 (evening)
2 Kings 5:19-27
1 Corinthians 5:1-8
Right behavior was at the heart of the ethical tradition that Jesus received from his inherited religion. Religious teachers in Judaism strove to define faithful behavior in all activities of life. They based their descriptions on high ideals of justice, community responsibility, purity and faithfulness toward God. The objective standards were challenging but achievable. Anyone who behaved according to the law could be regarded as righteous before God and humanity.
But Jesus raised the bar. It is not only our observable behavior that is is accountable before God, but also our inward motivation. God knows our hearts. Jesus encouraged his followers to concentrate not primarily on outward behavior, but rather on our inner motivations, the "thoughts of our hearts," the heart being regarded as the center of being, both feeling and thought. Jesus wants us to be people with awakened hearts, loving hearts.
The contrast between the two approaches is especially stark in today's reading from Jesus' words in Matthew's collection that we call the Sermon on the Mount. He starts, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'" That is the law, the Seventh of the Ten Commandments. It is an objective ethical standard based on right behavior. Even at that, there could be some room for interpretation -- what actually is adultery? (Is it adultery if we don't "go all the way"?) For the most part, we know what "Thou shalt not commit adultery" means. So, a conscientious person could know -- if you have not had sexual relations with one who was not your spouse, you are righteous with regard to that commandment; you have followed the law; you can stand before God.
Jesus goes further. "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Gulp. When we look at the motivations of our heart, no one can stand confidently before God possessing a righteousness of our own.
Jesus' commandment is a great leveler. The distinction between sinner and righteous dissolves. All have harbored some form of unfaithfulness in our hearts. No one is righteous. Not one. And yet, Jesus teaches that God loves and forgives all. God embraces us in our sin. God accepts and loves us unconditionally.
Now, in the face of that unconditional acceptance, Jesus invites us to look at our hearts, and be disarmed. Whenever we look at another person with lust, we realize that our thoughts are God's possession. We drag God into our own adultery. Nevertheless, God does not reject or abandon us. God loves us even as we foul God. Humbling, isn't it? God's love is our motivation, both for surrender and for transformation.
Awaken, O my heart. Let God's penetrating and disarming love transform what seems beyond my control.