Tuesday, February 21, 2017

At the Core

At the Core
Matthew 5:21-30[1]
Anyone who has had extensive dealings with children knows that rewards and punishments have only a limited effect. Especially if the rewards and the punishments have no logical connection to the behavior that is being encouraged or discouraged. Rewards set you up for a continuing cycle of trying to “buy” cooperation from a child. And punishments only work if they are connected to something that our children actually value. Even then, many children know the right buttons to push to “get out” of punishment. These “extrinsic” motivations—so called because they relate to something separate from our children’s own attitudes—rarely succeed.
Truly shaping a child’s character takes far more wisdom and effort. It takes “intrinsic motivation” to actually shape a young life—meaning values and attitudes that they embrace for themselves. Teaching our children that their actions have consequences is more important than arbitrary punishment. And it’s just a fact of life that children learn what they see. That’s why “do as I say, not as I do” never works. Children will learn from what they see us doing. They will make the choices that shape their character based on the way we choose to treat them every day. Either from respect for our integrity or from a desire to go a different way when that is lacking, children choose their path in life based on the values they embrace at the core of who they are.
I think Jesus’ approach to how we respond to what God expects of us is similar to this pattern of shaping character in children. There is always a tendency in religion to make obedience to God’s ways a matter of rewards and punishments. We do “the right thing” so that we will get to enjoy eternal rewards in heaven, not because it’s the right thing. And we avoid what is “wrong” in order to avoid eternal punishment, not out of a desire to do no harm. As is the case with children, this approach to the Christian life rarely produces people who actually follow Jesus’ example.
And so in our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel for today, Jesus calls on those who would follow him to go beyond the “letter of the law,” beyond a merely external show of obedience. He calls on us to embrace the values reflected in God’s ways and purposes at the core of who we are. Jesus knows that it’s too easy to put on an outward religious show so that others will think of us as “godly” and “Christian.” What God expects and what Jesus demands of those who would follow him goes far beyond any merely external action. Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter, which is the character of our fundamental attitudes and opinions toward others.[2] He knew the value we place on others (or lack thereof) would always reveal itself in the way we treat them.
So he begins with the true “starting place” for any Jewish person of his time seeking to obey God: the Ten Commandments. It’s not enough at the end of the day to keep the commandment, “You shall not kill.” We can go our whole lives without ever taking a human life, and still not come close to the kind of relationship God intends for us to have with fellow members of our human family. All of us have ways that we can “hate” certain people. We may not think of it that harshly, but when we essentially disregard the value of another human being for any reason whatsoever, we have missed the point of the commandment to value and honor and respect human life—all human life.
The same thing applies to the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” Beyond what we would traditionally define as “adultery,” there are all kinds of ways to betray the covenant of marriage. Jesus knew that infidelity doesn’t have anything to do with parts of your body you can simply “cut off.”[3] It comes from an attitude that sees others as objects to be used. The only answer is love that springs from a heartfelt commitment to honor and cherish another person. But when that is lacking, it’s easy to justify minor “indiscretions” and “little white lies.” What is so easily dismissed as “minor” usually has a major impact on the one betrayed.
If you’re thinking as a result of this that Jesus makes obedience to God more difficult than the Ten Commandments, you’re right. Part of the reason for that is when we measure our relationship to God solely by our actions it can be too easy to find loopholes. We can come up with all kinds of “what if’s” and “how about’s” to excuse our actual disobedience to God. When our hearts are not really devoted to God and his ways, we put our efforts into covering up our true character, all the while maintaining the disguise of faith.
Jesus makes it clear that this is not the path he intended to lay out for his disciples. Following Jesus means not only that we don’t take human life; it means we conduct our relationships in such a way as to honor the value of every human being. Following Jesus means that we not only avoid breaking our marriage vows; it means we truly love and honor and cherish our spouses from the heart. Following Jesus means actually practicing purity of heart and the intention to make peace. We who would follow Jesus are called to embrace these values not for any reward but simply because they are right and good.[4] We are called to live in such a way as to actually obey God, and that means embracing the commitment to treat other people with genuine love at the core of our very being.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/12/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 508-9, where they insist that these verses do not “offer us Jesus’ interpretation of the law,” because although “the Torah supplies him with a point of departure,” his demands surpass the Torah. “Obedience to rules, even to the Torah, does not automatically produce the spirit that Jesus requires of those who would follow him. Or to put it another way: purely legal norms, … , can never convey how life is to be lived by those who are genuinely poor in spirit, pure in heart, and full of mercy.”
[3] Cf. Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of The Sermon On The Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003): 275, “Of course, literally getting rid of the right eye or right hand would not prevent what causes the sin.” Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 524, where they point out that the imperative to tear out your eye or cut off your hand “is not to be taken literally. … Jesus and the NT writers knew well enough that amputation would scarcely curb the passions since the problem is not with the body itself but, as Paul put it, with ‘sin that dwells in me’ (Rom 7.17, 20 …).”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:696: “these examples are intended to make clear that the grace of Jesus Christ, the grace of the kingdom which has dawned, claims the whole man absolutely.” Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, “life in strict accord with legal observances is not enough. God demands a radical obedience that cannot be casuistically formulated.”

No comments: