The text is Matthew 5:21-37.
Starting at a very young age, people in our society are taught that certain answers are expected of them in certain situations. There is a Sunday school urban legend that illustrates this point beautifully:
There was a Sunday school teacher leading a class of very young kids. As part of her lesson one morning, she held up a picture of a squirrel and asked the kids if they knew what it was. There was a dead silence in the room. The teacher was puzzled. She thought, “Surely, these kids know a squirrel when they see one!” So she asked again. And again, there was silence. “Now kids,” she said, “do you mean to tell me that no one in this room knows what this is a picture of?” Slowly and tentatively, one little boy in the back raised his hand. “It looks like a squirrel,” he said, “but I know the answer is ‘Jesus’.”
We are programmed to give a “right” answer whenever we are asked a question. This is especially true in church, where we are often told that our “right answer” will seal our eternal fate after death (for better or worse).
In Jesus’ day, people called Pharisees were thought of as experts at giving the “right answers”. The Pharisees were upstanding citizens and pillars in the community. They were the “neighborhood watch”, so to speak. People thought of them as pious and respectable individuals. If anyone had the “right answers”, it was them.
But the Pharisees had a dark side. They knew the Bible better than anybody and they used it as a weapon. Anyone who didn’t agree with their “right answers” or conform to their idea of “right behavior” was labeled as a “sinner” and was kicked out of life in the community. They used their religion as a way to make themselves look good at the expense of other people.
Jesus didn’t buy their act. He wasn’t fooled by these religious hypocrites. Sure, they knew the “right answers” and obeyed the commandments better than anyone else, but they were totally missing the point. From Jesus’ point of view, religion isn’t about knowing the “right answers” or obeying the rules, it’s about who you are on the inside. So Jesus took it upon himself to challenge their pretended piety.
He started with the commandments and Bible verses they loved to quote: “You have heard it said…”
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’”. That was a natural one for people to start with. “We’ve never killed anyone,” they said.
“You’re right,” Jesus said, “you haven’t. But look at the way you talk about each other. Think about the violence that comes out of your mouths. Those words can be just as damaging as any murder weapon.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” “That’s another easy one,” they said, “we’ve never slept with someone we weren’t married to.”
“Right again,” said Jesus, “But you size up the opposite sex and treat them like objects. You use them for your own pleasure and then just send them away. Don’t you know that the pain and the shame of that experience will always be with that person? You force them to live with the consequences of your actions while you get off scot-free because ‘your paperwork was in order’. And yet you still show up to worship each week, talking all religious and acting like you’re better than everyone else. Well, that’s not how God sees it!
What Message to Whom?
This is what Jesus has to say to the religious folks (the “insiders”). What about the “outsiders”? The Pharisees called them “sinners”. We call them lots of different names in our society (freaks, weirdoes, queers, losers, screw-ups). To “those people”, Jesus says things like this: “Peace be with you. Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has made you well.” Jesus gravitated to “those people”. They made up the majority of his early followers.
It’s ironic that so many Christians who follow Jesus today have turned his message around 180 degrees. They speak Christ’s comforting words to themselves and reserve his harsh words for the “outsiders”. Just like the Pharisees, too many Christians use their Bible as a weapon to beat other people down. For example, I can even think of times when ministers have used Jesus’ words in this very passage to belittle people whose marriages don’t work out. That’s not how Jesus meant for his words to be used! These Christians may have memorized all the “right answers” but they’ve missed the point. Like the Pharisees, they follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law.
The Heart of the Matter – Love
So, what is the point? If it’s not about having the right answers and obeying the rules, what is it all about? Jesus answered this question on another occasion when a Pharisee came up and asked him about what he thought was the most important part of the Bible. Jesus said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In the end, it’s all about love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love is the spirit of the law. If you are a person whose heart is full of love, the rest of the commandments will come to you naturally.
But the good news doesn’t stop there. It’s not up to you and me to stir up enough love in ourselves to pass around to the whole world. Love doesn’t come from inside us. Love comes from God. In I John 4, we read that “God is love.” In the same place, St. John says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us”. And later he says, “We love because God first loved us.” God is the source of all love. And, as St. Paul says in Romans 5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Martin Luther King
Our calling in life, as Christians, is to love. And we fulfill that calling with the strength of the infinite love that comes from God. One of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, discovered the power of that love late one night in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. It was after midnight when his phone rang. At the other end was a voice muttering death threats. If he wasn’t out of town in three days, they would blow up his house. He had received these kinds of threats before. Sometimes he got up to 40 a day! But for some reason, this one got to him. He couldn’t sleep after that. He was only 26 years old and too worried about what might happen to his wife and child. I’ll tell the story in his words from here:
“I was weak. Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now… You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. That power that can make a way out of no way. And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage… And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone.”
That’s the power of God’s love. That power gave Dr. King the strength to march out and meet death-threats, fire-hoses, billy-clubs, jail cells, and ultimately, an assassin’s bullet. The power of that same love gave Jesus the strength to carry his cross all the way to Calvary. The power of that love is the same power that lives inside of you and me.
Christianity isn’t about having the right answers or obeying the rules. It’s about learning to have faith in the power of God’s love. And it starts with you. Here’s your homework: no matter where you’re at today (even if you’re not a Christian), I want you to do like Dr. King did. Ask God to make this love real to you. As Paul said, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”. Take a few minutes at some point during your day (beginning, middle, or end) and imagine what that might look like. Imagine your heart being filled to overflowing with God’s love for you. Sit with it for a while. Imagine that it’s a blanket or a warm bath you can soak in. Do this as often as you can. Take that image of God’s love with you into the rest of your day. The love and acceptance that you’ve always longed for from family, friends, and significant others is yours, free of charge. And the Giver of that love has promised never to leave you alone. No, never alone.