“The Jesus Who Makes Jesus Necessary”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Matthew 5: 21-37
February 16, 2020
“He was trying to see who Jesus was…” — Luke 19:3ai
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:30i
That won’t be happening. There is no one here this morning who is going to cut off his or her hand or pluck out an eye thinking that by doing so he or she can avoid the fires of hell. If we put aside the obvious pain that would ensue from such actions, I would suggest that such actions don’t make sense. Right? It’s not one’s hand or eye that leads one astray. It’s one’s brain that is the guilty party. The perversions Jesus is suggesting – lust, theft, violence, or what have you — are caused by wrongful thinking. Do we really think that if I was blind I would never have known lust, that if I was bereft of hands I would not ever have been tempted to steal? So, if Jesus isn’t making literal sense, what sense is Jesus making?
That’s our task this morning. Why? Jesus said it. We cannot simply dismiss it as nonsense. We have confessed Jesus to be the incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh. Jesus may not have been speaking literally, but Jesus was speaking Truth. So, what is the Truth Jesus was speaking? That is our first task.
There is a second task before us this morning and it will become apparent once we have determined what Jesus is saying. It is my contention that once we know what Jesus is saying, we will become convinced of the necessity of Jesus. More about that later. Let us now return to our first question — namely, what is Jesus saying?
First, Jesus is asserting that an external law code may be helpful but it is inadequate when it comes to Christian morality. Jesus is calling us to a far higher standard than legal compliance. What He is suggesting is nothing short of a revolution in our thinking.
Look at it this way. Ask anyone here if they live a moral life. One might say, “Well, I tell the truth. I don’t steal. I’ve been faithful in my marriage. I don’t abuse my kids. I respect and obey the laws of my nation and I’m honest in my business dealings so, sure, I think I live a moral life.” They’re right. They live a moral life. It just may not be a Christian life. It’s a good life, but here’s the rub — I have both my hands and both my eyes. I may be moral. I may be good, but Jesus expects more.
I may have shared this before, but we were given an assignment in an ethics class in Seminary. We were divided into groups of four and the three other people in my group argued very effectively that feelings are neither “right” or “wrong,” it is what one does with them, the action one takes, that has moral weight. They argued that one cannot control one’s feelings, that a great deal of emotional harm is done when we attempt to stifle the feelings of anger, envy, lust and all the rest. In the end, I think they got it right. Indeed, I’ve told folks that I have counseled the exact same thing. But on the day of the class, I guess I was feeling argumentative. I quoted Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It was my contention that feelings have moral weight. We don’t commit adultery because lust is wrong. One is an action and the other a feeling, but unless we are willing to label lust to be wrong, there is little moral weight stopping us from committing adultery. That was my argument and I think it is the argument Jesus is making. You do not act on an immoral feeling. You don’t have to agree with me. Indeed, most in that ethics class didn’t, but our argument is not really about me. It’s about what Jesus said.
One other thing on this point and then we’ll move on. There are people who is it understandable to hate. The feeling of hate, however, does little to effect change in the person one detests. Instead, it changes you. Oh, you can cling to your anger and your rage. You can go on hating and even build a sense of self-identity and self-righteousness. Truth be known, I’ve done it and it has made me a smaller person. No, the way to deal with such destructive emotions is to do the seemingly impossible — namely, follow in the way of Jesus and love your enemies. Simply put it is wrong to hate and right to love.
If we now have a sense of what Jesus was saying, if we realize what a demanding ethic Christ has set before us, then we can move on to what I said was our second task — namely, that the ethics of Jesus makes the forgiveness Jesus offers necessary.
I begin by stating the obvious. No one can live at such a fevered pitch of ethical purity. I know of no one who has successfully mastered what Jesus is prescribing. Do you? I think it odd that after 42 years of ordained ministry within the church, the body of Christ, I have never met a person who fully lived out the ethics of Jesus. Oh, I have met some wonderful, remarkable servants of our Lord, but no one has been able to achieve the ethical standard Jesus has set before us.
That’s a problem. I was once asked by friends to help them rototill their garden. As you may know, I’m a city boy. I had never rototilled in my life. The machine has blades set on a roller. The roller spins and is set in motion by a gas driven engine. So, I fired her up. Oh, it rolled — right over the top of the ground, so I dug my heals in and made the machine stay in place. This seemed to work. But it was exhausting, and they were making a rather large garden. I turned the sucker off. Then I saw it. There was a steal arm that I needed to set free from its mooring. With this now dangling from the machine and set to offer resistance when it was at a 90 degree angle from the machine, the task suddenly became possible. The arm dug into the soil and provided the needed resistance to make the machine stay iin place while the blades spun and dug into the soil. When it was done, I told my friend that when I first started I realized that no one in their right mind would ever use a rototiller if these machines were that hard to use. There had to a better way.
The ground on which human morality rests needs to be deepened, turned over, made anew. Jesus is the moral rototiller of choice. Oh, if you want to be good read Socrates, Immanuel Kant, David Hume. They will provide a moral rudder for your life. But you will be like me with that rototiller that offered no resistance — skimming over the surface of holy ground. You will, in all likelihood, be good, but you will not be Christian.
Jesus digs up the ground of your thinking and we see beyond the surface of our decency to what it means to follow in the Way of God By turning over the presumptions of our lives, Jesus shows us a deeper and more fully human way.
Finally, Jesus proves His own necessity by not only showing us what lies beneath but by sealing our forgiveness for having reached but failed to grasp. The ethic Jesus calls us to pursue ensures that none of us can claim the title of virtuous. We will fail. Try as we might, we will be unable to control our emotions. We will give in to thoughts of anger, revenge, lust. And there is Jesus saying, “Well done good and faithful servant, enter into the glory I have prepared from the beginning of time.” Jesus may call us into the seemingly impossible, but He also ushers us into the presence of God’s forgiving love. Jesus becomes the One who makes Jesus necessary. Let us pray…
i Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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 to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.