Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Power of the Imaginative Story: Matthew (part 6)

Jesus shakes up his listeners by declaring that certain conventional and legal actions (or inactions) are not at the heart of goodness, not at the core of righteousness. He reminds them of what everyone already knows (“You have heard . . .”) and then pulls the rug out from underneath their feet by pushing them away from their perceived moral and ethical safety zones (“But I say to you . . .”). So:

Not committing murder doesn’t eradicate the internal anger that resides in one’s heart.

Not committing adultery doesn’t magically erase the objectifying of someone as a mere object of sexual desire.

Following the legal rules that allow a man to divorce his wife—thereby forcing her into a new marriage relationship in order to avoid becoming destitute—doesn’t wipe the slate of oppression clean.

These first three admonitions, while clearly not ignoring the fact that actions and thoughts do not necessarily have the same consequences (actually killing someone brings a more severe result than just thinking about murder), bring to the forefront two important emphases:

First, there resides in the human heart the potential for the worst of human actions. Therefore, all people stand together in a sea of dark possibilities. It’s one thing to make a right judgment about something, as in bearing witness to some observable event (such as, “Officer, that car made a left turn and crashed into the light pole;” or, “I saw that man strike that woman and run away with her purse”). It’s another thing to claim that the possibilities for wrongdoing and error do not exist in those of us who haven’t committed any crimes. Such a claim is at the heart of judgmentalism.

So, just because a person didn’t pull the trigger on the gun doesn’t mean that her inner anger, an anger that makes murder a possibility, has no unrighteous power.

Just because a man hasn’t cheated on his wife doesn’t mean that his constant lusting over his neighbor’s wife doesn’t have the potential to destroy lives and relationships.

Second, legal permissions and boundaries do not necessarily mirror what is truly right. In Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife, sometimes on flimsy grounds, as long as he gave her a certificate of divorce (most likely a legally-recognized document that freed her to marry another). To be a divorced and disempowered woman in that time would be a sure ticket to destitution. Jesus wouldn’t allow for such a legally protected action, as though the boundaries of the law eliminated the destruction that would surely follow.

I wonder how things would change for us if, when we heard that someone did something awful, rather than saying, “How could he do that?” we lamented, “I am capable of the same thing.”

I wonder how generous our hearts might become if, while respecting the reality of our national laws, we didn’t allow legal regulations to be the ultimate definers of righteousness? For example:

Do the existence of immigration laws and national borders mean that “neighbor” is defined only by the legalities of residency and citizenship?

When the courts make a declaration requiring obedience—whether related to abortion, marriage, immigration, discrimination, and any number of other important issues—is the conversation over for followers of Jesus? Or do we look to him and wait for him to say, “But I say to you . . .”?

The words of this sermon in the gospel of Matthew—typically called “The Sermon on the Mount”—have been studied, reflected upon, and cherished by people for centuries. But they are not necessarily words of comfort. They force us as readers to confront ourselves and challenge our own perceived securities.

There is a road leading down from a mountain in Mexico where I have ridden my bicycle several times. There is a big sign on the side as the road begins its winding, eight-mile descent. The sign reads, “Curvos Peligrosos.” Dangerous Curves.

There should be a heading at the beginning of this message from Jesus that reads: “Palabras Peligrosas.” Dangerous Words.

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