“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out….and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”
These are some challenging verses for folks who insist that every word of Scripture is to be taken literally or those who think that they do not need the Church’s help in interpreting the Bible. But even for those of us who know that these verses are not to be taken literally, we must confess that these verses are unsettling. So how are we to take this teaching?
As always, the context of the verses is important. Jesus just previously said that we are not to think that He came to abolish the law, but instead He came to fulfill it. Then He gives a warning to those who relax the law and teaches others to do so. This puts me in mind of the so-called leaders today who refute biblical morality by claiming the God is “doing a new thing.”
And then Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” After saying that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus goes on to talk about anger, not calling your brother a fool; lust, sinning with your eye or your hand; swearing falsely, and the easy divorce system of His day that led virtually to legalized adultery. In short Jesus is saying that we need more than just external obedience. “You have heard it said to men of old, ‘you shall not kill’….but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment….. You have heard it said ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you the everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In one way you can read Jesus’ words as case laws referring back to the 10 Commandments.
So when Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees He was not really calling them righteous nor was He calling us to be like them only more so. He is making a contrast between the scribes and Pharisees who were all about the outward show and He is calling on us to focus on the condition of our hearts.
Lest we think that Jesus was not really serious about this or that it was a minor point in His teachings I want to take us to a chapter later in this same Gospel. The whole of chapter 23 is prophetic judgment by Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees. Like an Old Testament prophet He pronounces 7 woes against them. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of in people’s faces… Woe to you scribes and Pharisees hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte…you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…Woe to you blind guides…Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin… and have neglected justice, mercy and faithfulness…Woe to you scribes and Pharisees hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and plate but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…Woe to you scribes and Pharisees hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but within are full of dead men’s bones… Woe to you scribes and Pharisees hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous…you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets…”
In today’s upside world Jesus would be labeled as “Phariseeaphobic” but He was calling them out and speaking the truth. And the fact that an entire chapter is dedicated to calling them out, it is a good indication to us that we had better take His words seriously if we hope to live in His kingdom. Again, they are all about the outward show and so that our righteousness will exceed theirs, Jesus speaks to us about what is going on inside of our hearts.
“Whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says. ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” This is more than just a call to remove the word “fool” from our vocabulary. This also moves beyond the commandment that forbids murder. This is a call to deal with anger in our hearts. And given all that is going on in our nation this is a timely word.
Do you remember when Facebook used to be pictures of what you cooked for dinner and posts about your new puppy dog? But these days it is spewing with hate. Some are angry because they live in a perpetual victim mode. Some are angry because they do not feel that they are being listened to. Some are angry because professional fear mongers have scarred them to death. All you have to do these days to be called Hitler is simply to disagree or hold another view.
But the Scriptures point us in another direction. There are a good number of verses calling us to avoid anger. One of my favorites is from Psalm 37. “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.”
I’m sure that you can imagine many ways that anger leads to evil but I watched a documentary on OJ Simpson and saw an example of how anger and wrath also lead to evil in a more subtle way. One of the jurors was interviewed and asked point blank if they found OJ innocent as payback for the Rodney King verdict. You will recall that Rodney King was the guy that they took video of being beaten by the police and the police got off. She shook her head “yes.” Then the interviewer asked her what percentage of the jury voted as they did because of Rodney King. She said, “90%.”
While the juror’s anger over the Rodney King verdict is understandable it saddened me to think of the evil done to the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown in denying them justice. In the same documentary OJ admitted to his agent that he had killed them but he got off because the jurors had forgotten Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s example that anger and payback is not how you address injustice. All anger does is create more injustice. King wrote in his autobiography that he went outside of his home to address a crowd that was growing in anger and wanted to avenge King. He said to them “We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know that you love them.” Love is how we purge anger from our hearts and then our righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery.” And by the way ladies, you don’t get off the hook on this one simply because Jesus only mentioned men here. The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon that swept the nation awhile ago showed that women were just as capable of lust as are men. It’s just that in general we have different triggers.
What can cloud this issue about our eye causing us to stumble is trying to discern the difference between Victorian prudishness and godliness. And legalism is no help here at all because legalism just addresses outward actions and not what is going on in the heart. As they learned in Victorian times you can cover a woman from head to toe and all that will do is make a man get excited when he sees a bare ankle.
Of course things are made even more difficult these days because we live in a culture that is saturated with lust and it is used to sell everything from cars to hamburgers. So in many ways we are facing an even greater challenge than previous generations. But Christ would not call us to walk a certain way without giving us the power to obey.
Just as with anger that power is love. Lust is an artificial love and so we are to replace the imposter with the real thing. Lust seeks our own good. Love seeks our neighbor’s good. Lust pulls us towards the darkness. Love pulls us towards the light. Lust wounds the soul. Love heals it. Lust is demanding. Love is sacrificial giving. Lust objectifies. Love edifies. And as with anger and love, it is difficult for love and lust to coexist. So practice the Great Commandment and push lust away. Then your righteousness will be greater than the scribes and Pharisees.
A third area that Jesus addresses is truthfulness. I say that He is speaking about truthfulness here because He is telling us that we are not to swear by anything. As Deitrick Bonhoeffer points out in Cost of Discipleship, the only reason to swear by something is to cover up a lie, so we don’t need to swear. Our Yes should mean yes and our No mean no.
While on the surface truthfulness does not seem to be as central of a heart issue as anger and lust, I believe that it is our culture that had made the disconnect. I don’t know how or when it came about but we have gone from a culture where a man’s word is his bond to having zero expectations of honesty. We have had Presidents look right in the camera and lie straight to the American people. And they have done it so often that it doesn’t shock us anymore. The scandals in the Roman Catholic Church were a combination of lust and lies. Corporations lie to us about the effects of their products on people and the environment.
Did you know that the Oxford Dictionary declared “post truth” the top word for 2016. And the new buzzward is “fake news” so now we can’t tell the difference between real news and fake news; if there is even a true difference. As Thomas Jefferson said, “You can’t believe everything that you read on the internet.”
So truthfulness is very much a heart issue. Jesus said that anything beyond “Yes” and “No” comes from evil or in the original it says from the evil one. Satan is referred to in the Bible as the Father of all lies so we need to be as intent on removing untruthfulness from our lives as we are anger and lust.
How our righteousness can exceed that of the Pharisees is how we go about using the commandments. Remember Jesus did not come to abolish it, so the ten that hang over this pulpit are still in force. The difference is that the Pharisees used them like a checklist. “I didn’t make any golden idols today.” “Check.” I didn’t kill anyone today.” “Check.” I didn’t commit adultery today.” “Check.” “My what a good boy I am.”
I believe that Jesus is calling us to use the commandments not as a checklist but as a window into our hearts. “I didn’t put any other gods before God but I did skip receiving Christ through the Sacrament because it was a Titan’s home game.” “I didn’t murder anyone today but I could have killed the idiot who was on my bumper from Bell Road to the 24/40 split.” “I didn’t commit adultery today but I did back up and rewatch the Victoria Secret commercial….four times.”
What do we do next when we use the window to our heart and are convicted by what we see there ? Let me answer that by asking you a question. What do we do right after the priest gives the Summary of the Law at the beginning of the Mass? He says, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandment hang all the law and the prophets.” Then we say together, “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” Do you see what we are doing there? We are responding to conviction by calling for God’s mercy. When we do this we become vessels for His grace. The Scripture promises that when we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us or all unrighteousness.
This brings to mind the story Jesus told of a Pharisee standing in the temple while a sinner won’t even look up to heaven. The sinner cries our for mercy and the Pharisee thanks God he is not like the sinner but Jesus says it is the sinner’s prayers that God hears. So we used the commandments to look into our hearts. We repent where we have been convicted by the Holy Spirit and we ask for mercy. God hears our prayers and cleanses us from all unrighteousness so that we can walk with Him as His people. If we will do this, at least for now, we can keep our eyes and our hands. Amen.