Monday, February 13, 2017

Setting the Bar Kinda Low

Brad Sullivan
6 Epiphany, Year A
February 12, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Sirach 15:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

Setting the Bar Kinda Low

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  That’s where we left off last week in Jesus’ sermon in Matthew chapter 5.  At a first hearing, it sounds like Jesus is giving a major, “you’ve got to be good enough for God” kind of statement.  “You’ve got to be righteous enough in God’s eyes in order to be good enough for God.”  That’s certainly where my teenage brain took this passage when I read it back in high school.  “Man, I’ve got to be even better that the religious leaders in order to be good enough for God?”  Yikes!

Well, I’ve got a few critiques to that particular understanding of Jesus and the Gospel.  The first is, let’s face it, if Jesus wants us to be better people than the scribes and the Pharisees, he’s setting the bar kinda low.  Just about any time Jesus mentions the scribes and the Pharisees, he’s saying not to be like them, calling them hypocrites.  So, not too much of a high standard of perfection there.  The second critique of the “You’ve got to be good enough for God” understanding of Jesus’ sermon is this:  “You don’t have to be good enough for God.”  Striving to be good enough for God, striving to be righteous for one’s own sake is missing the point of Jesus entirely.  Jesus is much more concerned with people’s well being than he is with people’s righteousness.  That’s the lesson I get from our story in Matthew’s Gospel today, not reward and punishment, but Jesus’ genuine concern and care for the well-being of people. 

Several years ago, I was gently pushing our then three year old son, Rhys, on a tire swing in the front yard of our house.  We were having a lovely time, and then our neighbor’s granddaughter came over.  She was about six, and she asked if she could push Rhys.  To be honest, I had some trepidation about the prudence of allowing such a young girl to push my son, but not wanting to be an overly protective helicopter parent, I decided to just let them play.  That worked really well for a about 20 seconds, after which time, she spun the tire swing too hard, and Rhys fell off the swing, breaking his collar bone.  Way to go, Dad.

Amidst Rhys’ crying and my checking to see if he was as hurt as I feared, the little girl began apologizing profusely, the fear in her voice and face communicating two things:  “I’m sad I hurt Rhys,” eclipsed almost totally by “It was an accident; I’m so afraid that I’m in serious trouble.”  For my part, I had almost forgotten that our neighbor’s granddaughter was still even there, focused exclusively on Rhys and what appeared even by looking at it to be a broken collar bone.  I was certainly not interested at all in my neighbor’s granddaughter being in trouble.  I knew it was an accident, and my only concern was for my son’s well being, not the girl’s being in trouble or not.  Assuring her that it was ok, I quickly scooped Rhys up and took him to the hospital. 

What strikes me about that story is or neighbor’s granddaughter’s concern about being in trouble eclipsing her concern for Rhys’ well-being.  Now, to be fair, she was a little kid.  Of course that’s how she felt.  She didn’t know what else to do or how else to deal with the situation, so no chastisement of her intended in any way.

But, now imagine that the little girl was an adult who had just accidentally hurt someone, and imagine this adult is more concerned with being in trouble or even worse, being righteous in God’s eyes, than this person is concerned with the well-being of the other person.  That is the situation I find when we hear Jesus critiquing the religion and way of life of the scribes, Pharisees, and other religious leaders of his day.  Be it the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the religious leaders pass by on the other side of the road when they see someone hurt, or be it the actual practices of the religious leaders in which they are shown to take money from poor widows in order to pay a temple tax, or pray about how wonderful they are compared to those around them, we see a group of religious leaders concerned with their own righteousness before God, worrying about being in trouble, while having almost no concern for the well-being of the people around them.

Jesus, in his constant healing of people; in his care for the orphan, the widow, the downtrodden, and the outcast; and in his preaching, including the sermon of his that we hear today, Jesus showed how much he cared for people’s well being, and how interested he wasn’t in people being righteous before God for their own sake.  Our being righteous before God, being good enough to please God, Jesus took care of that on the cross.  Jesus’ desire for us was then not that we would continue to be worried about being righteous or good enough before God, but rather that we would love God and love people.  From a place of fear about our own righteousness before God, Jesus sent us on a quest to love God and love people without fear.  That quest of love is what we hear Jesus teaching about in his words that we heard today, a far more complicated, rewarding, and beautiful understanding of life than simple reward and punishment.

In the teaching that we heard today, Jesus was basically going through the 10 Commandments, saying that on the quest of love, a basic rule based keeping of the 10 Commandments is not sufficient.  Some probably hear his words and are rather disheartened.  “Not only can we not kill people, we’re not even supposed to hate them?  No fair, that’s way too hard!  Not only can we not cheat on our wives and our husbands, we’re not even supposed to fantasize about it?”  From a trying to be good enough standpoint, no we can’t live up to that.  We’re not perfect.  We’re not going to be.  Jesus is teaching that the point of the commandments is not to be perfect, not to be righteous before God for one’s own sake.  Rather, the point of the 10 Commandments is to live in such a way that your life is a quest of love, a quest of loving God and loving people without fear. 

See, the 10 Commandments are a pretty good start to things, but you can keep all 10 of them and still be a pretty terrible person.  Imagine talking to someone who makes sure to keep the Commandments.  This person worships God, has no idols, goes to church on Sunday and does no other work, has never committed perjury or lied about someone to get them in trouble; he doesn’t talk back to his parents; and he’s basically content with what he’s got and doesn’t steal from others.  He sounds like a pretty good guy.  Now let’s say he then starts talking about how righteous he is, and you call him on it because you’ve noticed some rather less than wonderful habits of this person. 

“So, I hear you saying how righteous you are, but you’re also kind of a bully.  You routinely beat people up when they anger you, and are constantly insulting and verbally abusing others.”
“Well, yeah, that’s true, but hey, at least I haven’t killed anybody!”  Check, commandment kept. 

“Uh huh.  Ok, well how can you be so righteous, considering how terribly you treat your wife?”
“Hey, I don’t have to treat her well, I just have to not commit adultery.  I haven’t.”  Check, commandment kept.

See, there are all kinds of ways we can be really terrible to each other and still keep the Commandments.  Even in following Jesus’ more stringent code, we can find ways to hurt each other.  “Ok, Jesus, I got it.  No adultery, no ogling other women, and no divorce.  Beyond that, I can be as big of a prat to my wife as I want.”  Far from giving us a more stringent set of rules for us to follow in order to be righteous before God for our own sake, Jesus is showing us that the whole point of the commandments, is to care about the well being of others as God does. 

Now, there’s still this part where Jesus says that if we treat people terribly, we should be thrown into the hell of fire.  He’s saying we should be thrown into Gehenna, the burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem.  Have you ever known someone who was such a horrible louse that they seemed like human garbage?  That’s what Jesus is talking about.  People matter so much to Jesus, and so he taught that if you treat people terribly, you’ve turned yourself into human garbage, good for nothing but the burning garbage dump, metaphorically speaking.  Far from actually wanting us to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes, Jesus is teaching that even small practices of treating others terribly can lead to an entire life of treating others terribly, so stop with the seemingly insignificant practices in which you treat others without love so that you don’t end up living your entire life treating others without love.

Jesus is showing us the heart of God, a heart not interested in keeping rules for one’s own sake, a heart not interested in fear and  punishment, but a heart interested in using the rules to show us how better to love people and to care for their well being.  Jesus really is far more concerned with people’s well being, fare more concerned with love than he is with people’s self-serving righteousness. 

Jesus is inviting us to follow him in a life that is a quest of love, a quest to give and receive love.  In this quest, we have our eyes and our hearts open to check in with ourselves and ask, “am I really living as a loving person?  Am I full of anger and resentment?  Maybe I’m generally ok, but need some help with loving right now.  Maybe I should seek that help.”  In this quest of love that Jesus has given us, we don’t go it alone.  Love cannot be a solitary venture. 

We’re on this quest with each other, we have our eyes and our hearts open to the people around us.  Are they doing ok?  Do they have enough?  Do I have enough?  Do I have more than I need?  Is the path that my life is on serving only myself, or is the path that my life is on also being a light of love for others?  Is the path that our lives are on serving as a light of love for others.  That is the path of the quest Jesus has set us on, a quest in which we care not about our own righteousness before God for our own sake, a quest not of reward and punishment.  Jesus has set us on the quest of genuine concern for the care and well-being of others, the quest in which we love God and love and serve people without fear, the quest of love. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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