O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus is coming on pretty strong here. It’s not just “you shall not murder,” now it’s if you are angry with someone or insult someone you are liable to judgment. It’s not just “you shall not commit adultery,” now it’s no looking at someone with lust in your heart.
And he is serious, and as so often happens with Jesus, we have to remember more about him than just the particular words he is saying right here. Jesus was living in a culture in which the Pharisees prided themselves on obeying every single one of the 613 laws in the Torah, not just the ten commandments. The thinking was that, if you obey every single one of these laws, and do it your whole life, then God will be pleased with you.
Now, the problem with rules-based thinking is just that: it is rules-based. The rules become the focus, and the purpose of the rules is forgotten. This is like starting out on a car trip to visit your friend, and then as you drive along, getting so obsessed with obeying all the traffic laws and ordinances that you forget where you are going or why you are in the car in the first place.
Rules imply consequences for breaking them. In a game, breaking the rules is called “cheating.” On the highway, breaking the rules can get you an expensive ticket. But what if you break God’s rules? There must be some pretty serious consequences.
And that’s how the Israelites, and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, understood things. And that’s also how many people today understand things: God has rules, and if you break them, you’re going to be in trouble with God.
If that’s the way you look at things, then you read this passage from Jesus and you think: okay, now I have to not even be angry, or even look at someone lustfully, because Jesus is making the rules harsher. But really, what Jesus is doing is making a point.
It turns out that it is part of the human condition to make mistakes, to mess up, or, in theological terms, to sin. We may not like it, but that’s just the way it goes. Over history, theologians came up with the idea of “original sin,” begun by Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God’s rule not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and passed down to every human being as our inheritance.
The thing is: whatever your own ideas or beliefs about original sin, the bible and the theologians were pointing to a truth: humankind simply cannot avoid sin completely. Sirach thought we could: you heard that in the first reading this morning. “If you choose,” he says, “you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” And it seems like it might be that way. After all, can’t we all avoid killing? stealing? committing adultery? lying? coveting things that belong to our neighbor? Isn’t it possible always to honor our father and mother, always to keep the sabbath day holy, never to put any idol between us and God? to never misuse the name of God, and not to have any other gods before God?
It seems like you could, but it’s once you get into the nitty-gritty of real life that things start to get complicated. Do “little white lies” count? What, exactly, does it mean by idol—do money, fame, self-esteem, or addictive substances count? What else counts? And what makes something “coveting” rather than just, say, admiring something and wanting it?
What would happen if the commandments came into conflict with each other: what if my father needs expensive medicine in order to live, and I can’t afford to buy it for him? Do I dishonor my father, or do I steal the medicine? And so on, and so on.
Jesus saw that the rules were like lines that people were not permitted to cross. They could go right up to the line, and walk along just next to it, but as long as they didn’t cross it, the system of rules would have nothing to say. A person could get angry at someone, yell at them, threaten them, do what was in their power to make their life miserable, but if they didn’t actually kill them, everything is fine. Jesus looked at the system and essentially told people to grow up. It’s not enough simply to follow all the rules, you have to understand what is behind them and act in accordance with that. You have to adhere to the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.
This is an example of the evolution of the relationship between God and God’s people over the time covered by the Bible. When we read about Adam and Eve in the garden, we see that they are like children, all their needs taken care of, told what the rules are and asked to obey them. But, like children, Adam and Eve exercised their free will and chose to disobey, and there were consequences.
When God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, God gave them rules in the form of the ten commandments. They were growing up a little, and they had more complicated rules. Over the course of the Hebrew Bible, more interpretations, expansions, exceptions, and explanations were added to the rules. But they were still rules, obedience was still essentially fear-based (remember all the times in the Hebrew Bible when the reader is told that the people fell away and worshiped other gods, and then some foreign power comes and invades? yeah, that.)
So by Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were busy trying to please God by following every rule as scrupulously as possible. But Jesus saw that they were doing it out of fear, and he recognized that they would walk right up to the line created by the rule but not step over it. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. In other words, Jesus saw that the Pharisees were missing the point.
Jesus is saying that these commandments are so important that it’s not just about following the rules or not, it’s about our approach to the rules as a whole. We need to take them seriously: If your right hand causes you to sin, then cut it off!
So he told the people gathered: it’s not just about not killing, it’s about everything that might lead you to killing. Not just about committing adultery, but everything that might lead you to adultery. Just writing a certificate of divorce is not okay—that doesn’t just make everything fine again, because being married and then divorcing has serious consequences. You have to grow up and take responsibility for yourself, not just rely on the rules to guide your life.
If you’re bringing your gift to the altar and remember that someone has something against you, leave your gift and go and reconcile with them first. Come to terms with your accuser on the way to court, take responsibility for your own relationships and your own behavior within those relationships. That’s what Jesus is saying.
Paul used the image of growing up in his letter to the Corinthians. He said, that he fed the Corinthians on baby food, as it were, because they were infants in Christ when he came to them. In fact, he says, they are still not ready for solid food, because there is jealousy and quarreling among them, and they behave according to human inclinations.
I have spoken from this pulpit more than once about God’s desire for us to partner with God in the work of bringing about God’s kingdom. Here, in today’s passage, we are called to the need to partner with God in the work of modifying and taking responsibility for our own behavior. On our own, we can do the best we can to behave in a loving way, to do what is right and in accordance with loving God and loving our neighbors. But, although we are called to this effort, because of the nature of sin, we are destined to fail—we humans simply are not capable of avoiding sin perfectly, at all times, in all circumstances. But God’s call is to try, and it is simply a different part of that same call from God, to partner in bringing about God’s kingdom.
Since we are called to an effort that we know we will not succeed at, we are reminded that there is grace. It is not our strict adherence to rules that is pleasing to God, rather it is our desire to please God out of our love for God that is pleasing to God. We hear this over and over, throughout the entire Bible, and it is particularly emphasized in the New Testament. Paul tells the Corinthians: it is God who gives the growth. That is grace. We are called to do our best to be open to God’s grace, but at any time and in any place it is God who provides that grace, God who gives the growth.
And so we prayed in our collect today: “because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed.” At first, this may sound unnecessarily negative to our modern ears. Can we really do nothing good without God? But then we remember: not only can we do nothing good without God, we can do nothing at all without God. Every breath is God’s gift to us. To understand that helps us to reorient ourselves in right relationship with the God who created us, who sustains us, and who calls us. That right relationship is one in which we recognize God’s love for us and our need to love God and to trust in God’s grace.
When, as happens from time to time, we need a reminder of God’s love for us, when we need something to help us to trust in God’s grace, there is something we can do.
We can come to this table, the altar of God. We can share in God’s feast; eat, and drink of God’s own body and blood. Here is proof of God’s love. Here we will find grace. Here we can learn to trust.