Action or Inaction

As  I thought about the scripture this morning I began to think of the hill in Galilee that is identified as the spot Jesus gave this discourse.  I visited there during a trip to Israel I made with Moravian Seminary.  I remember a guide explained that The Lake of Gennesaret is shaped like a bowl.  This area is also known for its strong winds which create a strong amplification in that area.

It is through this natural phenomena that the crowd gathering there that day were able to hear Jesus so clearly.  As he stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee the wind from Lake Gennesaret simple carried his voice to his followers.  It is a perfect spot for a gathering as the hill has a tier effect and the view to the Sea is not obstructed.

I am picturing a nice day, plenty of seating and a chance to hear this fairly new preacher who attracted a surprisingly large crowd. Initially, Jesus had gathered his disciples  on the edge of the mountain for a teaching moment, but as the crowd began to join them, in this perfect outdoor venue, they also listened in to his lesson.  Some scholars suggest this discourse lasted close to a week. Matthew’s Gospel covers it in chapters 5 through 7.  Luke also gives it attention, but in a shorter version.

Some scholars suggest that this was early in Jesus’ ministry – perhaps in the first year.  He was gaining notice, and becoming quite popular.  His charismatic nature and unusual approach in his teaching attracted not only those who followed him because of his extraordinary message, but also the Pharisees – a Jewish religious sect that were known for their self-righteousness and pride.

They followed Jesus carefully and were usually appalled at his approach.  They accused him of contradicting the teachings of Moses. Who is this man who is tromping all over the law that was handed down by God to Moses? These men were know for their upmost accuracy in interpreting the law. They challenged Jesus at every turn.

Now that the scene is set, I invite you to find a place to sit on this very same hillside.  Enjoy the sunshine and the breeze as we too listen into the teachings of this magnificent preacher.

In the last few weeks we have heard JC preach on the earlier chapters of Matthew.  He spoke about Jesus’ sermon on the Beatitudes: on the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers.  He spoke about being the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  These chapters are some of the most read, preached on, and remembered.

He also addresses the fear of the Pharisees who are accusing Jesus in order to abolish the law.

But Jesus sets them and the crowd at rest and said, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets, instead I have come to fulfill it.”  For truly I tell you, he says, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

To be sure, Jesus begins to emphasize his source for his message, which is of course the Torah.

“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, you shall not murder.  But let me add to that a bit.  I say to you that if you are angry with a brother and sister, you will be liable to judgment.” As his sermon continues, Jesus begins to expand on the rule of law given to their ancestors.

The law is correct, we should not murder, and if you do, you will be liable to judgment. But, Jesus takes it further.  What about anger toward another – another like a spouse, a parent, a child?  What about anger that is repeated over and over.  These actions will also be judged. But there is more. Do you throw insults at your brother or sister by calling them hurtful names? And then there are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends. Do we want the best for those we meet; or do we allow ourselves to get entangled by the chords of jealousy, prejudice, spite or gossip.

Jesus is teaching a valuable lesson to his audience.  An act of murder is a final thing, yet anger has the power and ability to impart serious pain and destructive ways.  This is not what God intended for our lives, and we have the ability to become, with the blessings of God, to be transformed in our daily contact with another of God’s children.

Jesus is teaching them about filling themselves with love. The love that Paul speaks about in his letter to the Corinthian church: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

The crowd is listening, it is growing in size. So Jesus continues, “You have heard that it was said ‘do not commit adultery, but I say don’t even look lustfully at another person has already committed adultery in their heart.  If your eye causes you to sin – pluck it out! If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off”. So how can we fit love into the threats of adultery.  Well we can’t.  And just as murder was a heading for many other acts of destroying another person’s life, so too is adultery. You are destroying yourself, your integrity, and your marriage vows.

When I visit a couple at the end of their life together, I watch their tenderness to each other, their familiarity, their love.  I ask them how they met, and their stories are precious.  They admit that times may not always have been good, but they got through them.  And now they are about to complete their vows to each other. They have been through all of them. Sometimes it has been good, sometimes – not so much; sometimes they enjoy fine things and sometimes they went without; they have experienced times of health, both good and bad. As death approaches their life is complete.

That is what Jesus is saying – that if you are about to do something that could hurt your relationship with your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, yourself – eradicate it from your being.  Take it away, remove it. Take back your peace, your commitment, your love and your faith. Once the cloud of recklessness fades you will see clearly again.

Next Jesus addresses divorce: “You have heard that it was said, ‘whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'” Again the same applies. In each instance that Jesus is talking about – murder, adultery, divorce – he continues to point out to us that so many other things must happen before we get to that point.

In the Alcoholics Anonymous program, the twelve steps help the person to come to terms with his/her drinking: The first four are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Do we recognize that our relationship has become unmanageable?  Can we reach out to the Power that is greater than ourselves to restore what we once had? Can we allow God to take our will and our lives and care for us? Step 4 tells us ‘yes’. By making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, I believe anything can be restored.  For example, let’s ask ourselves:  Are we capable of hurting someone, including ourselves so deeply?  What brought us to this point? And most importantly – how are God and I doing?  Do I love God with my whole heart, my whole mind, my whole soul, my whole strength?  Did I ever? Do I want to?

This is where Jesus’ teaching becomes a bit uncomfortable. That’s because what Jesus is saying is uncomfortable to hear.  His intent, however, is always not to condemn but to restore.  For repentance and restoration are at the heart of all he is saying.  He is saying the law of God is not to punish and discourage. His purpose is to make us think!  The ten commandments were never intended to be a check list for sinners.  Instead it is a general guideline to moral thinking and ethical behavior. The point of Jesus’ discourse as written in Matthew is to impart in us a deeper commitment to our faith, our actions and those we love.

The beauty of our faith is that it never ends. Each week, as we come to worship, we again experience the gift of grace. We are united once again in community. Our prayers of confession  and affirmation once again tell us of who we are and to whom we belong.  As we break bread together we are reminded of all who share this experience with us. We gather at its table and all things are made new.

Friends, I believe it is good to challenge ourselves. Are we going to be active or inactive in the choices we make, the lives we live, the responsibilities we have been given. The unexpected learnings we receive are sometimes the best!  May love guide your way, and may you be deeply blessed.

One of my favorite verses in scripture comes from Psalm 51. Verse 6: you desire truth in the inward being; therefore give me wisdom in my secret heart.  May it be so!


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