Faced with life and death you would think the choice would be easy. And so it is when we are watching a movie or reading a novel or listening to our friends struggle with a decision. But most of us find that we struggle when it is our turn to discern what makes for life and to choose it in our own lives.
Our readings this week (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37; Sixth Sunday after Epiphany) put us between a rock and a hard place. We begin with the attractive enough reminder that what is asked of us is in essence simple – to love God, to walk in his ways, to serve with all our heart and soul and to keep his commandments. Simple but a very tall order. And people of faith seem to have always found it so because the psalmist starts by saying how blessed are those who keep the law but then confesses that he can’t manage it!
But when we get to the gospel then Jesus really puts the squeeze on us! If you so much as think angry thoughts, or look with lust, you are done for.What on earth, or in heaven, is Jesus trying to do to us? The almost impossible standards of God have just become truly impossible! Well it would seem that that is precisely what Jesus was trying to do. To make it absolutely clear that we can’t get to this high standard on our own merits but only by grace.
Let’s unpack it a little. This week we hear the first four of six contrasts in which Jesus says to his disciples and newly gathering crowds: “you have heard it said to the ancients .... now I say to you ....” or in other words: “You think you know what the commandments are all about, a code of moral behaviour, but I tell you the commandments are about the state of your hearts and minds.”Jesus is using the rhetorical style of wisdom sayings which exaggerate in order to point to difficult to see truths. Jesus is making it clear that the law in not simply about outer behaviour but about the inner state of our hearts and minds.
It might help to remember that the summary of the law is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbour as yourself. And if we are going to love God with all that we are and have, and to love our neighbour as intimately as our self then it rings true that “Thou shalt not kill” actually means more than just thou shalt not go around killing people who annoy you and wrong you, but that “thou shalt not harbour hate in your heart toward another”. And whoever even feels adulterously toward another has already committed adultery in their heart.
What this does not say is that anger is wrong. Anger is sometimes righteous and Jesus often felt angry we are told. Hate, which can grow from anger undealt with, is wrong for it breeds violence. Neither does the text say that sexual thoughts and feelings are wrong. And it certainly does not say that women are responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and feelings. Rather the text says that the source of the problem is always the state of the heart and mind and that is where we need healing and grace. It is Jesus’ emphasis that the law requires a certain state of heart not just external behaviour that makes the perfectly righteous law perfectly impossible for even if we can control our external behaviours how can we control our internal feelings and thoughts?
We can in short never get worthy enough! And did God ever imagine that we would? Probably not. It would seem that God has built a safety devise into the human condition – the very thing that is our fatal flaw is our salvation. Our inability to live in the way we know we should and indeed mostly desire to is beyond our grasp. But rather than bring us to despair it brings us to grace.
And why? Because until we let go of our ambition to do it on our own we are spiritual infants as Paul says. While we are arguing about who converted who and what faction we belong to we don’t get that we are all fed by the same eternal source. While we are striving after a perfect but perfectly impossible standard of law we don’t get that it is by grace that we are drawn into the embrace of God. That’s what happens in baptism – we die to the old self and all that striving and are reborn into the life of Christ. That’s what is meant to happen every Eucharistic meal we share – we partake in the death of Jesus that we might partake in his life.
It is the spiritual genius of Jesus that he takes our mistakes and failures to bring us into relationship with God. It is probably why his ministry flourished among the least and the lost and infuriated the nearly righteous. And it is not a new theme for the Old Testament is full of pointers – “I do not desire sacrifice but mercy”, “stop stinking up heaven with all your thousands of animals being sacrificed and have a change of heart”. Jesus gave himself up to sacrifice as the last sacrifice ever needed – or as we hear every week the one perfect sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It is done. No more sacrifice is needed ever. And so we have every reason to live as people at ease with God, with ourselves, and our neighbour. Not because we are without anger or lust or any other failure but because it has been done.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us bathed in the love of God free to live life as fully as the goodness of God’s law in our new, and always being renewed, hearts are able. And as people whose hearts are being recreated within our breast week by week, sacred meal by sacred meal, and by every small dying to the self, we desire more and more, little by little, to live as children of God in loving relationship with God and neighbour and self. It is a work of grace achieved long ago but only realised moment by moment in our own lives. And the truth is it is a clunky rocky path full of twists and turns, mostly of our own making.
We have been placed between a rock and hard place so that we might know that there is no where to turn but home, toward grace, toward the perfection of the love of God. It has been done. There is nothing left to do but live.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come.