1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
February 16, 2014
Peter Woods is a pastoral therapist who wrote, “If I had a dollar 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 infantilized religion. I never grow up if I never have to figure out the rules, for my own context, for myself.” (http://thelisteninghermit.com/)
My experience with the lightning rod issues of our time is pastoral, and not about politics or public policy, or even about church doctrine. When people ask me as their pastor about a tragic pregnancy, adultery, divorce, sexuality, business ethics, responding to being abused or cheated, they are always in pain and internal conflict. On the one hand, to say to them, “It’s your choice,” is a cop-out, an evasion of pastoral responsibility. On the other hand to cite a rigid rule inflicts further injury.
Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees they would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This week we will listen to him describe that righteousness for relationships with people who are close to us – next week, for those who might be our antagonists.
In Matthew 5:21-37 Jesus explains how we can exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven, not by tiptoeing around the boundaries, hoping we won’t fall out.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But 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.
33“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.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
This week, and again next week, we hear Jesus describe what he means by fulfilling and not abolishing the Law with the formula, “You have heard that it was said” and “But I say to you.” When he finished the Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (7:28-29)
The religious teachers of Jesus’ time never asserted their own interpretation of a passage of Scripture but always quoted an earlier scholar, who had also quoted someone earlier yet. For all of their fussing over details of the Law, they came off as if they had no real convictions.
The standard formula when a Hebrew prophet declared an oracle was “Thus says the Lord.” In contrast, Jesus said, “But I say to you,” which no Hebrew prophet would have dared to utter. Jesus was speaking as the one who had given the Law in the first place and had the rightful authority to articulate its fulfilled meaning.
With this authority Jesus defined righteousness in terms of internal character that bears fruit in relationships. He removed it from the realm of external conformity to behavioral rules and invalidated every human propensity for moralism, as though we could do enough good.
We read from 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 of Paul’s concern for the spiritual immaturity of the people of the Corinthian church. They were infants quarreling over whose teaching to follow. Bringing this up against what Jesus said about righteousness, reminded me of the research on moral development done by social psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. He identified three levels of moral development. Infants and young children regard as good avoiding punishment and getting their own benefit. Adolescents adopt social norms and eventually legal definitions as good, not only for them but for others as well. Interestingly, Kohlberg’s research indicated only a relatively small proportion of adults actually get to the third level of internalizing universal ethical principles. While Kohlberg did not relate his research to the teaching of Jesus, it seems to me that it validates Jesus’ call for a righteousness of internal character that bears fruit in relationships. Jesus identified three critical arenas to illustrate how to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven, not by tiptoeing around the boundaries, hoping we won’t fall out.
Jesus first identified anger as the root of violence (vv. 21-26). The debate in our society about guns is a symptom of our anxiety about violence. I believe Jesus would say that violence can’t be reduced by either restricting access to guns or by promoting guns for self-defense. I think Jesus would say that as his disciples we must get to the source of anger within ourselves, regardless of how the society responds. Psychologists teach that anger is a secondary emotion. It is triggered by another emotion, usually about some way we feel our interests are threatened. James 4:1‑2 expresses this way. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
If we take Jesus’ words about adultery, lust and divorce as stipulating what specific conditions make specific behavior permissible or not, we are tiptoeing around the boundaries and not centering ourselves on the center of the Kingdom of Heaven. Marriage and our human sexuality are not contractual or consensual arrangements regulated by law, but intrinsic to the structure of creation itself, the good gift of God to humanity; therefore, not at our personal disposal. (M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary, 2009, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 32)
Much like today, in Jesus’ time, people didn’t feel obligated to be completely honest if it did not serve their personal interests. They developed an informal hierarchy of oaths to convince others to accept what they said even if manipulated to their advantage. Complex contractual language and notarization, swearing into public office or in court are symptoms of a similar distrust of people’s honesty in our time. I understand why some Christians refuse these based on Jesus’ words, but I think that misses Jesus’ point. He is calling us to be people of such integrity that we are believed for whatever we may say. Letting our light shine before others requires such integrity.
When we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than tiptoeing around the boundaries, hoping we won’t fall out, we will inevitably be out of step with the expectations of the people in the society in which we live.
I felt ambivalent when I recently watched the Public TV feature about the Amish. On one hand I identified with and was challenged by the depth of their discipleship. But on the other hand, I felt some of their lifestyle choices were like hiding their light under the bushel basket. Through the centuries monastic movements that have sought intentional discipleship have also been susceptible to similar isolation that truncated their witness.
My friend Rick Morse works with hundreds of Disciples of Christ congregations as Vice President of the Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation. I excerpted an article he wrote in our newsletter a couple of weeks ago. I cringed a bit when I read his question, “If your church was to close tomorrow, what would the community miss the most?” I translated it to be personal for me. Have any of my neighbors in Dallas missed anything of the presence of Christ in the year and a half we are serving churches in Midwest City, OK and here in Odessa? I’m afraid I’m more at risk of blending in than being isolated.
So what does it look like to center our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven? One thing for sure, there will not be a single pattern for everyone, but a rich variety will grow out of the uniqueness of our individual relationships with Jesus. When we explain our decisions to ourselves or others, do we make a direct connection to wanting to follow Jesus? Or do we use a rule or law to justify a decision? Or do we say it’s our individual choice? Is our talk about Jesus or about ourselves? Eugene Peterson, best known for his Bible paraphrase The Message, gets at it in how he listens to sermons.
The thing I listen for in a sermon is a proclamation that God is doing something that’s never been done before for me. If the pastor is mostly talking about what I’m supposed to be doing, I quit listening. I want to enter the world of Jesus. I want to hear what’s going on, not just to hear a verbatim description of what went on, but what still goes on. What God is doing, not what I can’t do, or shouldn’t do, or should do. I’m listening for the proclamation of God’s Gospel. WorkingPreacher.org
God is at the center, not me.