In this week’s Gospel reading (Matt 5:21-37) we find Jesus teaching about anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. He is really instructing us about how to live out the Commandments. He is making it plain that more is necessary than a strict, literal view of the laws as they have been written. We need to go beyond what the letter of the law indicates and move to embrace the spirit of the law.
Jesus continually says “you have heard” then he fills in one of the pieces of the law. Such as you shall not kill, or you shall not commit adultery, or you shall divorce in a particular way. After each of these repeats of the strict letter of the law Jesus indicates a higher and better embrace of the spirit of what God intends for us. It is not enough to simply not kill but we need to cease our anger at one another. It is not enough to simply not commit adultery; even lusting after another is adulterous and sinful. While the law may allow one to get a certificate of divorce, it is wrong for any other reason but unfaithfulness.
Jesus lays before us a higher standard that is based not simply on what we do but rather of who we are. Jesus knows that if we change who we are the behavior will follow. If we let go of our anger, do we need to be told not to kill? If we are not hard hearted why would we seek a certificate of divorce and why would we ever lust for another if we are grateful for the relationships we have? Behaviors are always outward manifestations of inward states of mind. We express our values in our actions, so if we change what we value and what we love then the behavior changes as well.
This was a point that Martin Luther made in the Small Catechism, when he offered a positive “to do” for every one of the negative “to don’ts” of the Ten Commandments. He put into common language the admonition that Jesus gives in Matt 5:20 that our righteousness must be greater than that of the scribes and pharisees. These were people who obeyed the literal text but did so in a way that ignored the spirit of the law. It was a sterile, rigid view that forgot that the purpose of these laws is to enrich our lives by increasing our love for God and one another.
The way to effect change, real lasting sustainable change is to change hearts. Starting with ours. It starts with looking upon the Cross and seeing that Jesus give up everything for us. He suffered torture and a shameful criminal death that we may have life, by believing in His conquering of the grave. This creates in us the faith that sets us free for an eternal relationship with our Father in Heaven. The first thing this faith should do is get us to ask, “what now?”. The what now is answered time and again in the teachings of Jesus, this text being a prime example. We are to love ceaselessly; to give all of ourselves to serving one another and by extension God Himself. We are to reject a sterile, rigid view of the letter of the law and embrace a higher and better view of the spirit of the law. We know in our hearts what this means, we are just too often too weak to live it but try to live it we must. Our lives become our proclamation; all because our hearts have been forever changed.
This does not mean that we will cease to make mistakes. Jesus knows this too. This is why He offers radical forgiveness to those who are truly penitent. When we face plant, we must pick ourselves up, boldly beg for God’s mercy and love on. To those who claim that “you Christians are hypocrites for leading sinful lives”, we must respond that we never said we are perfect, only forgiven. The other thing to tell them tongue in cheek is that if you think I’m vile now, consider how awful I would be if I were not a Christian. The point is not to expect perfection but to strive for it. Changed hearts will produce better outcomes and it does get easier and more joyful over time.
So, what does this all mean for us as social and political creatures, especially given the social and political nature of Jesus’ ministry? It means, I will argue that playing the game of politics, as it is currently constituted is a dead end game for those who hold onto the values of this world. Yes, we are to be engaged; God does not call us into a monastery or to quietism. This does not mean that we have to accept the world’s formulation of political practice. To do this is to accept the false God of the state, to accept that it is alright to support death, theft and all manner of human abuse in the name of governance. It is to believe that the government can magically perform tasks that only God could perform; like turning stones into bread (the economist John Maynard Keynes literally claimed he could). This is not the path for those with a heart changed by the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.
It is our task to demand a better path forward, one based on hearts that are truly and forever changed. We need to demand an end to endless war, predatory theft by the powerful elites and the desire to bend the will and worship of the populace toward the false idol of government. We should be as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents as Jesus taught us (Matt 10:16). We are not naïve as the heathens will undoubtedly describe us, but we must be steadfast in seeking to reach people and to change their hearts. If we do that then trust the Lord, that the rest will follow.
Praise Be to God