Raising the bar

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Matthew 5:21-37

Even simple common sense laws seem to have a way of exploding into a morass of regulations. The Federal Register of Regulations is quickly closing in on a million pages. But it’s not a new phenomenon. In Exodus God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. But that was followed by 27 chapters of do’s and don’ts in Leviticus and 34 chapters more in Deuteronomy, which then morphed into 6,200 pages of Talmudic law covering every aspect of beliefs, behaviors, diet, customs, ethics and attitudes. In this week’s gospel, Jesus tells us there is another way… a better, simpler way… to be in harmony with the will of God.

Jesus is quick to tell us that he has not come to contradict the law. Rather he is here to give us a fresh perspective on God’s law, as only God himself could do. Instead of governing our lives by constant reference to an encyclopedic canon of regulations, he would have us look for God’s love in all things. And in that context we refrain from sin not because of prescribed punishments, but because it is the antithesis of God’s love. In Christ our focus shifts from the dos and don’ts, to actively witnessing his love, looking not only to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of the Lord. What would he do? What would he have us do?

Jesus would have us live more active and more complete lives of virtue… as defined by love of God and love of neighbor. He is raising the bar… calling us to elevate our game. He is telling us that the state of our souls is just as important as the actions of our bodies. To be consumed by revenge and seething with anger is as wrong as acting out that anger. To indulgently wallow in lust is to commit the sin without even moving a muscle. To openly commit sin is an obvious affront to God. But it is no more sinful than the hidden heart that embraces vice and crowds out the love of God.

In calling us to follow him, Jesus would have us live in the love of God… leaving no room for sin, filling our hearts, filling our days in joyful harmony with his will. That means we wake in Christ’s love. We give him our day. We spend it together. And we end it gratefully, another day closer to him.

We know that in this life we will never be completely removed from temptation. To the contrary, as the lives of the saints testify, the virtuous are coveted prizes, subject to constant onslaught by the world, the flesh and the devil. But Christ has changed the whole dynamic of good and evil. In his love we run towards holiness, not away from sin. We are not alone, under siege, fearfully hanging on by our fingernails. Rather, we confidently cling to the hand of Jesus… a hand that was pierced for our salvation. And hand in hand, he protects us and claims us for his own.

In this gospel, Christ has raised the bar for moral behavior. But in his love, he raises us up so very much higher… well over the bar and safely all the way home.

The Reverend David Sellery, Author, Resource Creator and Retreat Leader. Committed to a vocation that focuses on encountering God in the midst of everyday life, I serve as an Episcopal priest who seeks to proclaim the good news of God in Christ in worship, pastoral care, education, stewardship, congregational development and community outreach, while continually engaging our wider culture with dynamism and hope.

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Raising the Bar

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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

Matthew 5:27-37

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.

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