Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

One of the more interesting professors I had in college taught creative writing. He believed that writing prose and poetry was serious business. We students were not supposed to produce anything that came across as humorous, lighthearted, or clever, but only works that were, say, emotionally wrenching or, at least, bittersweet or reflective in nature. Some of us had trouble learning how to do that. For a time he began badgering, almost belittling some of us for not getting it right. (It was long before the day of students filling out evaluations of instructors at the end of the term. So back then professors did not have to worry about retribution!)

Well, after a time he stopped berating us and started acting differently. It was later I realized he was not a truly harsh or mean person at all. It was instead a tactic, a strategy to get us to improve our writing styles. In other words, it was one of several methods that he used. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is something to keep in mind when reading the teachings of Jesus—not only to look at the words he says and how he says them, but also for what purpose. In today’s gospel he uses hyperbole, extreme exaggeration in order to make his point. When he tells his disciples if a hand or an eye causes them to sin to cut it off or pluck it out, what he’s doing is making sure he has their attention. He’s telling them he’s really serious about sin and they should be, too. This is important to remember in looking at this part of the Sermon on the Mount.

So what’s the point, then, of what he says about anger, lust, and so on? What’s he getting at? And why should it matter? Well, it’s really all about relationships—about how we regard and treat others, not the least our sisters and brothers in faith. And all these relationships tie into the one each of us has with God.

Jesus begins with one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder” or “You shall not kill. ”To say the least, Jesus raises the bar on that command. Not only is murder itself forbidden—and we might assume unjustified violence in any form—but he even condemns words spoken out of anger. That’s a tall order, isn’t it? Personally, I think a case can be made to allow for the expression of anger toward someone else, as long as it’s done in a controlled manner and in a way that still respects the other person.

But here Jesus is telling us to watch what we say, not to give in to our emotions, but keep them in check. As we read in the Letter of James:

…every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse [others] made in the likeness of God….My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.[i]

 Jesus raises it up another notch when reviewing another commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Not only are we not to do that or speak in coarse language about doing such a thing, but we are not even supposed to think or fantasize about it. Jesus is not concerned here about thoughts that cannot always be helped, but rather about unhealthy preoccupation or obsession with fulfilling some physical desires. In our mind’s eye, we are never to see others as objects to be used, but—as we just heard from the Letter of James—to remember that they too are made in God’s image. They too always have infinite value in the eyes of God.

Not only to bring to heel what our bodies do and what our mouths say, but even the very things we think—how in the world do we do that? Isn’t it maybe the one thing we believe could be left out of weekly confession, when we say, “I have sinned against you [Lord] in thought, word, and deed?” Doesn’t it seem unfair or at least extremely difficult to include that with the other two? To me, it is. It seems to require a great deal of prayer and discipline. It seems to require that we develop such an ordering of our views and our opinions of others and our emotions that we control them rather than the other way around. And that’s not easy—at least a good amount of the time.

As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans: “…I see in my members [a] law at war with the [proper] law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[ii] His solution? That through Jesus Christ we continually ask God for the indwelling of the Spirit in our lives—so that that Spirit colors how we see others and the rest of the world.

Another way to describe that indwelling might be as a kind of divine attitude—a basic orientation of our lives. Here is a down-to-earth example. Among several difficult interim churches I worked at was one with a small but determined faction. In a showdown with a leader outside their group—who had a following of his own—the faction finally left and started its own church. But as a result, that leader also became a casualty of the conflict and ended up leaving the congregation. It was a real mess. Fortunately, a new congregational president—one who had belonged to neither group—was soon elected. A spiritually mature person, she sometimes wore to meetings a t-shirt with a familiar message on it: “Attitude is Everything.”

When the Spirit dwells inside of us, when it creates in us a divine “attitude, ”then fulfilling the heart and soul of the Commandments—in thought as well as word and deed—more nearly becomes second nature.

Jesus’ words about obeying the command’s in a newer and deeper way can sound rather harsh and legalistic, but they have to do more with his method of teaching as anything else. It’s the same as in today’s first lesson—in Moses’ declaration to his fellow Israelites. In that part of the Book of Deuteronomy, he and the others are looking down at the River Jordan and, across it, into the Promised Land. He tells them this is a time of decision. When they enter the land flowing with milk and honey, they must choose whether to be faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or go after other gods. They must choose whether to live according to “his commandments, decrees, and ordinances” or “bow down to other[s] and serve them” instead. Of course, as we know, the chosen people frequently said one thing and did another—over and over again—from one generation to the next. And they were often enough punished for their lack of faithfulness—in both word and deed and maybe also for the evil thoughts in their hearts.

But through it all, God would ultimately remain loyal to the covenant first established through

Abraham—a covenant, a steadfast love--promised long before the specifics of the law were given to Moses.

It’s what I remember from this little book I bought while a seminary student. It was written by Dr. Ron Hals, one of my Old Testament professors. He was a great guy—very down to earth and without a mean bone in his body—either real or used as a teaching strategy. He also had a good sense of humor. For example, he took it in stride when receiving at the end of the term a small token of appreciation from us students.

Here’s the story about the gift. As you may or may not know, the formal name of God in the Old Testament is Yahweh, which never appears as such because it was regarded as too sacred even to say out loud. Here’s another detail of the story: Something completely different, something secular—something from our own time—that you do know for sure, that is, if you were alive and at least as old as a child during the early 1980s.It was a motto that a fast-food restaurant chain used at one time: “Have It Your Way. ”So what a classmate of ours did was take up a collection to get a special t-shirt for Dr. Hals. When he received it and saw the words on it, he laughed. Then he pulled it over his head for everyone to see. What did it say? “Have It Yahweh.”

Now, back to the book. It’s entitled, Grace and Faith in the Old Testament. The main theme is that the grace of God we see in the Hebrew Scriptures and that which we see in the New Testament are basically the same. And a lot of that has to do with the law. When we hear and speak that word, we must also know that God’s grace comes first and that the law follows from that grace, is an expression of it. The law is a gift from God, a guidebook to help us continue on the path already set for us. As Dr. Hals writes:

There is no picture[s] of God the bookkeeper w/his…record of every detail of each person’s life being the cause for…concern about…our works [being enough] to earn his…acceptance [into heaven]. Instead, [we] find essentially only one attitude toward the law, joy—exuberant joy, even embarrassingly exuberant joy.[iii]

 We see some of that in today’s psalm, Psalm 119, and even more in some other verses, for example, verses 97 and 103:

                Oh, how I love your law!

            It is my meditation [throughout the] day...

                How sweet are your words to

                        my taste,

            sweeter than honey to my

                        mouth!

So, at the heart of Jesus’ words about the commandments, is a desireto obey them—at their deepest level—not in order to win God’s love, for we already have that, but rather to thank God for having chosen us and loving us in the first place.

True, Jesus uses some very strong language to get that across, but sometimes it’s hard for us to hear and listen to the message of grace—that God loves and accepts us in spite of what we think or say or do.

And that is our message for today.

 

[i] James 3:-8-9, 10b.

 

[ii] Romans 7:23.

 

[iii] Ronald M. Hals, Grace and Faith in the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980): 67.