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Sermon: Exceedingly Righteous

February 13, 2011

Matthew 5:21-37

You know that it is said from ancient times that you may take a liquid or a gel onto an airplane if you take it in containers that hold three ounces or less, but I say to you, do not take any liquids onto an airplane.  If you even drink more than eight ounces of any liquid before coming to the airport, you will be denied boarding.

You have heard it said that if your street address ends in an odd number, you may use your sprinkler system for up to eight minutes on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and if your street address ends in an even number, you may use your sprinkler system for up to eight minutes on a Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, but I say to you, regardless of whether your street number is odd or even, use your sprinkler system for only four minutes on one day a week.  If you even look at your hose on the six other days of the week, you will be liable to a harsh fine.

You have heard it said from ancient times that you may use a yellow curb for unloading freight for a maximum of 30 minutes and for unloading passengers for a maximum of five minutes, but I say to you, use the yellow curb for a maximum of ten minutes while unloading freight, and do not use it for unloading passengers.  And if you see a red curb and even think to yourself, “Well, I’ll only be a minute,” then you will be given a ticket.

You have heard it said from of old that you shall not murder, and if you do, you will be liable to harsh judgment, but 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, and if you call your brother or sister a “dunderhead,” you will be liable to the hell of fire!

You have heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery.”  But I say that if you look lustfully at a man or a woman, then you have already committed this sin in your heart.  If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It would be better to lose a body part than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

A few weeks ago, Matthew gave us the Beatitudes, one of the most beloved passages in scripture.  I would be willing to bet that today’s text is no one’s favorite passage.  It is a harsh, difficult passage.  It’s also a little ridiculous.  Pluck out your eye?  Really?  Am I a murderer if I call someone a fool?  Really?  So much for a compassionate, loving God, eh?

As always, context means everything.  And it will also help us to remember that Jesus was a master communicator.  Sometimes we read scripture as if the Bible knows nothing of humor, irony, satire and hyperbole.  We want to read scripture—because it is holy to us—as if it were a piece of Congressional legislation or the minutes of the last Trustee meeting.  We know how to read Dr. Seuss.  We know how to read e. e. cummings and Robert Frost.  We know how to listen to a song from the Beatles.  We know how to read the editorial pages of The Daily Breeze.  Scripture contains all of those kinds of literature, and so we need to bring a little bit of sophistication to it when we read or listen to the Bible.

So let’s let Jesus give his Sermon on the Mount, and let’s allow Matthew’s Jesus to be the master orator that he is.  If you spend a few minutes reading the text in that way, I’m sure you’ll be able to have a pretty good idea what Jesus is trying to tell us, and you won’t need a pastor to tell you.

There are, however, a few contextual notes that help to make the text a little more clear.  Most importantly, our reading comes from a portion of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus is making comparisons with some people who were experts in the Biblical law and who prided themselves on keeping that law to the letter.  I am sure that you know a few Christians like that, people who seem to know the Bible well and are committed to following every single thing the Bible says, and then who flog themselves and others when they occasionally fail.  While it might be easy to parody folks like that, we definitely don’t want to pass judgment on them, because they are sincerely making an effort to be faithful.  And, we all do it sometimes.  Fred Craddock called that weed pulling, when we try to pull out every last bit of sin and mistake from our lives.  He reminds us that when our weed pulling goes too far, we lose sight of what is important.  In today’s text, Jesus was reflecting on some of the notorious weed pullers of his time.

Just knowing that fact will help us enormously as we read this text.  Jesus said, “You want to pull weeds?  I can pull weeds with the best of them.  How about this?  Some of you say that murder is bad.  I say that anger is bad.  Calling somebody a fool is bad.  Anger and disrespect are just as hateful and destructive as murder.”  When Jesus pulls weeds, he doesn’t just get down to the root.  He takes about three feet of soil from all sides.  He takes out weeds with a backhoe.

Of course, then, Jesus is not truly suggesting that you should pluck out your eye or cut off your hand.  What he is saying is that if you want to be perfectly righteous so that there is not one blot or blemish on your soul, not one mark against you in the book of judgment, then this is how you will need to live.  Don’t just cut out murder.  Cut out anger and harsh words.  Don’t just cut out adultery.  Cut out any and every single impure thought you might have.

So you see, that if you are to live up to such a rigorous notion of righteousness, then you’ll have to pluck out your eye so you can’t even see that young woman walking across the beach in a bikini or McSteamy coming out of the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  And you’ll have to cut off your hands and your ears, and definitely cut out your tongue.  While you’re at it, just remove your brain, because that is the source of most of your impurity.

Are you getting it now?  Here is Jesus’ message to you and to me: if you want to be perfect, to follow God’s law in every particular, to be holy and clean as the new-fallen snow, then forget it.  You can’t do it.  Nobody can.  Perfection is not attainable.

Neither is Jesus telling us to forget all about our behavior, to let it all hang out and do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences.  Jesus has already affirmed the value of the law and his commitment to upholding it.  He is telling us that the heart of the law, the heart of righteousness, is found in the little things.  It isn’t about murder and adultery.  Our character is really built by the little things—the anger, the harsh words, impure thoughts—things that are as impossible to remove as ants from the kitchen.  They’re always going to be crawling around somewhere.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t try, that we don’t address these smaller things.  Jesus knows that the easy way out is for us to say “Well, I’m no murderer” and leave it at that, to be satisfied with that level of holiness.  Not many of us, though, struggle with the idea of committing murder.  There are probably not more than half a dozen of you sitting here this morning who actually had a struggle in your soul about whether or not to commit murder.  And there are probably not more than one or two of you who actually went out and committed a murder.  Yet, how many of us in here do you think had a flash of anger this week…more than once?  And did your anger have any effect on the people you love?

Thomas de Quincey was an English author in the 19th Century.  He understood the danger of a crime like murder, how murder is something like a “gateway crime.”  In his lovely essay titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” he wrote,

For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time (Thomas de Quincey, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” 1839).

That is why we do not measure our righteousness against the standards of murder and adultery.  The little things make our true character, not the big ones.

Today I stand before you to make the bold claim that I am not a murderer.  I have never taken a human life.  I have never shot anyone, stabbed anyone or hit anyone with a baseball bat.  I have never mugged anyone.  I have never put arsenic in any person’s food.

I have been angry with my wife and my children.  I have said things that have hurt them.  I have wounded them with words and actions.  I have been harsh and unforgiving.

Thankfully, however, my place in the kingdom of heaven is not determined by whether or not I am able to keep the law of God perfectly in every time and every place.  My place in the kingdom of heaven—and your place—is available to me only through the grace of God, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Jesus has led the way for us.  He lived an exceedingly righteous life, an impossibly righteous life.  We do not need to live our lives in perfect imitation of his.  We only need to follow him.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    June 20, 2011 5:49 am

    Thank you for writing this. I take issue with quite a few verses because I don’t understand them initially. It’s good to be reminded that we are not expected to live a harshly perfect, righteous life under legalism and fear.

  2. June 21, 2011 3:41 pm

    Thank you for reading, Amy. We’re all just trying to get along in this world, and it is good to remember that the key is progress, not perfection (John Wesley notwithstanding).

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