Deuteronomy 30:15-20 • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 • Matthew 5:21-37
I suspect that any religion that is deeply true is lived in tension. Anytime we settle too comfortably into something that has the sound of finality to it, anytime we speak an absolute, we may be in danger of turning something true into a shadow.
This Deutoronomy passage that John read is a case in point. It is filled with all kinds of “if-then” language: if you obey God’s commandments, if you walk in God’s ways, then everything will be great for you. But if you don’t, well, look out!
The psalm echoes the same simple sentiment: Happy are those who do no wrong, but keep God’s commandments. Everything will go swimmingly for you. If you do what’s right, you’ll have your cake and eat it too. God will take care of you. It is a great promise, and true… until it's not. It is true, but a truth, I suspect, that must be held in tension with other truths.
I heard that kind of absolute talk a lot when, as a teenager, I lost my dad to cancer. “God has a plan,” they’d say. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “God took him for a reason,” they’d tell me.
That’s why I think it is so striking that Jesus seems to do just the opposite in his sermon to the those who have followed him up on the mount looking for a different way. I think it is kind of stunning that rather than make things easier, rather than forcing reality into the shape of his beliefs, he actually goes about making things harder for settled, overconfident religion. He raises the stakes:
You’ve heard the commandment, don’t murder. But I say this: If you’ve been angry at someone you are equally guilty. You’ve heard the commandment against adultery. But I tell you if you’ve so much as looked at a girl pornographically, as much as you’ve made her an object for your pleasure, you’ve essentially done the deed and robbed her of her humanity. You’ve heard the laws about divorce. You’ve created a narrow set of rules for a so-called “acceptable separation”, but I tell you the whole system is flawed, and your sense of moral superiority is a sham. You’ve heard it said, don’t swear falsely, but I’m telling you to just tell the truth all the time and in every place, be a person of integrity 24-7, and if you’ve slipped, you’re done.
Jesus takes Moses’ if-then sermon that actions have consequences and he puts it on steroids. And in doing so, he creates an impossible tension: You can do your best, and make no mistake, you should. But you cannot do good enough. You cannot be good enough. No one gets a pass here. No one gets to claim superiority.
You see, the idea that people could be perfect was a possibility under Moses. It was possible to keep to the letter of the law, and it was working for a lot of people, just not the people that Jesus happened to be spending his time with. For them, the system didn’t work so well. For them religion had failed.
Think about it this way. We typically read into these conflicts as if they are interpersonal and economic. Don’t lust after someone else’s spouse. Come to terms with your accuser before you get to the judge or you’ll be thrown in debtor’s prison. But what if behind the notions of accuser, guard, and the hell of fire is the face of Rome which occupied the mount on which Jesus preached, and all their homes as well, and the anger described is that of the always popular option of armed resistance that has fueled Zealots throughout history?
Think about it this way. Jesus got the fact that among other things privilege and power buys you the ability to be good in a way that those on the business end of a sword or an unjust law just can’t. So he calls the question, not by abolishing the law, but looking into the very heart of it, and by allowing its demands to reach far enough that no one gets a pass.
This is a hard teaching. It is hard for a number of reasons. For example imagine a child of divorce hearing this teaching about divorce. It could be devastation to someone who has already been devastated. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus intends here. The purpose of this text seems not to heap shame on the ashamed, but to simply level the playing field, simply to remind the self-satisfied that our overconfidence will destroy us, our need to be good will only pull us away from the God who calls us to eternal life, and the community that we need to see us through life and through death.
A little later in Matthew’s story Jesus will be asked what good deed is necessary for eternal life. After again going back to these same commandments, he offers an invitation that proves to be impossible for a certain rich young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
No one gets to buy their way into righteousness with this God, Jesus seems to be saying. It’s not for sale, despite what religions of all stripes have told us at times throughout all of history. And before we get overconfident, dear friends, remember that we too are guilty.
But the good news is that this is not the end of the story. Instead Jesus stands on the mount, far away from the temples of religious and political certainty and he tells a hungry and desperate people that the heart of true religion is life, not death, it is blessing not condemnation, it is dancing and celebration, not thin-lipped legalism and self-righteousness. He tells them that God is not a law protecting us from death, but a feasting together that sets us firmly in life.
Jesus points to the truth that none of us have this thing in hand on our own, so he can finally remind us that God is our Way, God is our Salvation, God is Love.
I think that’s why this Corinthian text has been paired with these other readings. It is so easy for us to continually want to justify ourselves: I belong to Apollos. I was in Paul’s study group, and he’s a stud. I was a 12th Man before the season began.
You see, anytime we need to identify ourselves against others, we’ve already lost. And make no mistake, we have all already lost—each and every one of us. For we are all God’s servants, working together. None of us have it right. None of us are better. We need each other. One planted, one watered. But it is a common purpose we have. It is a common life we live.
This is the spirituality that gets us to life. This is the Way that leads us to God and to God’s promises of life in abundance. And, as obvious as it seems when we say it this way, the fact seems to remain it is a hard way. It is a hard teaching because it calls us again and again to remember we belong to one another—especially that one who just gets my goat, that one I just can’t bring myself to like very much. That I need him, that I need her…that is a wonder.
And it is a hard teaching because it calls us to remember that we are not only servants, but children, claimed already in love by a God who is love. For we who are used to earning everything, there is nothing to earn here, only a grace to live into.
The way of Christ is a way of grace and generosity. It is a way of forgiveness. It is a way of reconciliation. It takes a practice that we are simply never finished with. But it is a good way. It is a truthful way. It is a giving way. It is a way that leads to life. It is a way that leads to God.