Sometimes I really do wonder how Jesus’ listeners reacted to the things He said…especially when Jesus says the sorts of things that hard to listen to….
With the Twelve, it’s not so hard to guess their reaction to the Sermon on the Mount. After all, this sermon isn’t the only place where Jesus says the sorts of things He says here. In another place, Jesus tells the disciples about marriage and divorce and the disciples are shocked. “Then it would be better not to marry!” they exclaim. In another place, Jesus speaks to them about the deadly consequences of crossing God’s Law—and He doesn’t even add the graphic violence of chopping off hands and plucking out eyes—and the disciples are shocked again: “Then who can be saved?!”
And every time they say such things to Jesus, He answers them by saying something along the lines of, “With man this is impossible, but not with God.” “Well, thanks a lot, Buddha, what’s that supposed to mean?!”
Consequently, preachers run off in every direction with a text like this one…and some run really fast! They’re the ones who will never even preach on a text like this, never let it be read in worship. It’s as though, for them, the one unforgivable sin is ever making your listeners uncomfortable! And with this particular Reading, there’s no way you can get around making people uncomfortable!
Others simply say that Jesus is exaggerating here. It’s all hyperbole. Eo ipso, Jesus doesn’t really mean what He’s saying. And with them you always end up with some kind of “do the best you can” sermon. I recall as a boy in confirmation class when it came time to study the 6th Commandment in this class of mostly boys…all with our raging hormones…the pastor, bless his heart, tried to make it very practical and helpful. He told us, “When it comes to lust, the first look is natural. The second look is sinful!” And I, bright young man that I was, concluded, “So then, we ought to take a good, long look the first time?” So much for “do the best you can”!
Other preachers go in the classical Lutheran direction…but then they carry it too far. The classic Lutheran interpretation here is that Jesus makes the Law so thoroughly condemning that there’s no way out…except with Him. And that’s very true! It’s the exact point that St. Matthew is making.
Oh, but then, they take it to such an extreme that Jesus becomes merely a “get out of jail free” card. Listeners become numb to the whole thing, so that there’s no guilt, no shame, no remorse, no nothing. Neither grieving over sin nor rejoicing in Jesus. And then a Reading like this one just goes in one ear and out the other, unless the preacher does a lot of shouting and exhorting his hearers to “get out there and do a better job!”
So what do we do with this? Well…better question, what is Jesus doing with it? Our Reading follows immediately after Jesus’ words: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And He proceeds to explain what that means by using 3 of the 10 Commandments: #5 “You shall not kill”; #6 “You shall not commit adultery”; and #8 “You shall not bear false testimony.” Out of 10 commandments, He chooses only 3. So why these 3 in particular?
That February is heart month, and this week was St. Valentine’s Day, this happy coincidence leads us to see Jesus’ words as a matter of the heart. In this sermon Jesus puts on His scrubs and does a good bit of heart surgery. He uses the repetitive formula, “You have heard that it was said to those of old…but I say to you…” This is exactly what He was saying in last week’s episode when He told the crowd, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law…No, I tell you, but to fulfill it.”
So He turns to the 5th Commandment: “You shall not kill.” Yeah, newer translations say “murder” instead of kill…but it seems like a vain attempt to limit the commandment’s scope. “Kill” is the better translation…because anyone who has ever fought in war, or even been involved in an accidental death, they can tell you…any killing burdens the conscience something fierce!
And Jesus upholds the Commandment. So when He says, “But I say to you…” He is not contradicting that commandment, He is expanding it. “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother…whoever says ‘You fool!’” …has as good as killed him. “But, Jesus, who could live in this world today without getting angry? And what about righteous anger, justifiable anger?”
But Jesus goes right on to the 6th Commandment. He upholds it: no adultery. But…He goes on to say…anyone who even looks with lustful intent (yeah He’s talking to us guys, but He also implies women too!)…adultery is there in the heart before it is acted upon. Then having upheld the Commandment, Jesus comes down hard on divorce. After all He’s the one who said, “What God has joined together, let no one rend asunder.” No wonder the disciples wondered out loud whether it would be better not to marry!
And finally Jesus turns to uphold the 8th: “You shall not bear false testimony.” BUT…He adds that the only way you can really keep this commandment is to limit your vocabulary to “Yes” or “No”…“anything more than this comes from evil” [the evil in your heart].
Well what kind of heart surgery is all of that? It’s like Jesus opens us up just to drive a stake through everybody’s heart! He’s killing us with His words! Well…yes and no…but He is certainly laying our hearts bare! Why?
It’s like the Edgar Allen Poe story, The Tell-tale Heart, which may seem like a morbid reference in these days of flowers and chocolates and valentines. In that short story the narrator tries to justify his murder of a creepy old man, whose dismembered body he has hidden under the floorboards. But the longer the story goes the more the narrator is convinced that he hears the dead man’s heart beating beneath those floorboards, until at last he confesses his crime to the police, who rip up the floor and find the grisly evidence.
There is a tell-tale heart throbbing through all of the words of Jesus’ sermon. It’s the heart of a murdered man…Jesus! And like Mr. Poe’s narrator, the longer Jesus goes on in this sermon, the more inclined we are to justify murdering Him…to shut Him up in order to avoid His hard words. To get rid of Him so we can change His words to something less…uncomfortable.
Yet we cannot escape His beating heart! We can’t even kill Him. We already tried that! But…unlike Mr. Poe’s condemning heart, Jesus’ heart, His crucified and resurrected heart, beats for a very different purpose…namely to fill our heart with His own.
And when His heart beats within ours, our heart may often be surprised to find that it is not as angry as it might be without Him. And even when we are angry, justified or not, for that is our heart, His heart beating within ours leads us to repent, to forgive. His heart always remains greater than our own, whenever our own heart condemns us.
And when our heart is broken…by lust, by betrayal, by adultery, by abuse, by divorce…for our heart disease is as old as humankind…when our heart is broken, shattered—whether we are the shattered or the shatterer, whether we can justify our actions to ourselves or whether we feel like the victim of circumstances—it’s His heart, sifting through the debris, which sets the rhythm of our own aright. His heart restores ours, sustains ours. His heart—pierced and shattered by griefs we can only imagine—His heart beating within ours, in time, teaches us to love once again!
With His radical heart surgery in this Reading, Jesus shows us plainly that our own heart is not well…not well at all. The good we would, we do not. The evil we would not, we do. And while we would much prefer to bury the evidence under the floor, Jesus lays it wide open. Yes, killing us in His own way, but then making us truly alive with Him. Not separating and dissecting, but restoring and making us whole.
The Russian author and dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Jesus…that’s who. And Jesus takes up our heart with its dividing line of good and evil…takes it up with His own undivided heart…and the two become one. Despite all the frailties which remain in our heart…and they can be many…still He promises us, “What I have joined together…you and I…no one can separate!”