Everyone wants to do right. When did you ever set out intentionally to do wrong? You may look back on something you did and say to yourself, “That was wrong. I never should have done that.” But at the moment it probably seemed like the right thing to do. You know it’s wrong to break the speed limit, but you’re running late, so you justify breaking the law. You may regret this morning something you said to a loved one last night, but in the moment you thought he had it coming to him, and it felt like the right thing to do. And there are those times when we know that we’re doing wrong, but can’t stop ourselves and do it anyway. Flip Wilson said, “The devil made me do it.” Paul in Romans says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Even the greatest evil that human beings have carried out has been justified by some standard of what is good, even if that standard had to be contorted to justify what was done. Ethnic cleansing, whether in Darfur or Bosnia or Nazi Europe or colonial America is always given some justification, whether racial purity or bringing justice for age-old grievances or claiming a God-given destiny. Those who commit murder will offer a defense that is based on some concept of good. A drug kingpin will justify killing an opponent by the standard of fairness and justice of the mob; a jilted lover will stab his ex because he feels he has been wronged.
People want to do good, even if that means reinterpreting what good is. And that’s the problem with laws. They can be interpreted. They have loopholes; they are never expansive enough to cover all the wiles of the human heart. It’s like Janet Napolitano said when she was governor of Arizona and Congress approved building a wall along the Mexican border. “Show me a 50 foot wall and I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder.”
We are masters at justification, at finding reasons to clear our consciences and feel OK about ourselves. We need laws because they give us a minimum standard of how to live together and fulfill our minimal responsibilities as citizens. On April 15, I fully intend to pay what I owe my country in taxes, but I’m going to spend a lot time poring over my tax return to make sure I don’t pay anything more. A manufacturer is going to comply with environmental regulations to do its part for the environment and to avoid getting fined by the EPA, but it’s probably not going to do much more than the law requires or it might be at a disadvantage with its competitors. It would be nice if we could trust every person to do exactly what they were supposed to do, to pull their fair share, and to work together for the common good, but we can’t see inside the human heart. Ever since God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses, we have had laws to guide us and keep us within certain bounds for our own good and for the good of others. And ever since God gave Moses the Commandments, we’ve been looking for ways to parse our way around them.
There’s a common misconception that Jesus came to replace the understanding of God we have from the Old Testament, that he came to do away with the old laws and replace them with grace and forgiveness. Some people think that the God we know in the Old Testament is a God of law, while the God we know through Jesus is a God of grace. Well, for one thing, there’s lots of love and forgiveness and grace in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus clearly says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Instead of letting us off the hook from having to follow the laws of the Old Testament, Jesus holds us even more accountable. He holds us accountable not for how we follow the letter of God’s law, but how we follow the spirit. He has come to bring in what he calls the kingdom of heaven, that way of living together and relating to one another that isn’t guided by self-interest or individual maximization, but by the welfare of others that springs from the God of love. He has called us to be part of that kingdom, where he tells us the requirement for belonging is “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And how do we be perfect like our heavenly Father? Not by trying harder and harder to obey the letter of the law. Not by striving to be perfect on our own. We do that by giving our lives to Jesus, who changes our hearts so that we have the heart of God.
In this section of his Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus describes what it looks like when those whom he has called to be part of God’s kingdom live the way the law intends us to live. Rather than going into a long discourse on abstract concepts of justice and law and righteousness, Jesus gives some concrete examples so we can get the drift of what he’s saying. He starts with what most people consider probably the worst transgression of the law there is: murder. That’s one Commandment that most people can feel good about keeping. But Jesus says, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment.” Ouch. Who hasn’t been angry? Even Jesus was angry when he used a whip of cords to drive the moneychangers out of the temple. You can’t be a parent without getting angry with your kids for disobeying or doing something that puts them in danger. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus “be angry but do not sin.” Anger can spark us to stand up for justice or discipline our kids or expose wrongdoing. Jesus got angry with the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple, but then he went to the cross to die for them. A parent gets angry with a child for disobeying, but then love channels that anger as motivation to train the child. Jesus knows how dangerous anger is. It’s like a nuclear reaction. If it can be channeled properly, a nuclear reaction can produce energy to power a city, but it can easily get out of control and lead to massive destruction.
A while back I read Rick Atkins’ best-selling Liberation Trilogy about the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. He tells how ineffective Allied forces were when they first landed in North Africa in autumn of 1942 because the soldiers were green and not battle hardened. They hadn’t become angry enough with the enemy to throw themselves completely into battle. By the time the Allies were fighting their way through France and Germany in late 1944, they had become a more effective killing machine. After years of war, they became angry enough with the enemy that they could bring themselves to do things that are horrifying to read about. A few years ago Ken Burns produced a documentary on PBS called The War. It was about the American war effort, and it ended with the soldiers returning home. It told how the Greatest Generation got back into their routines, started families, and built careers. But there were certain things they never talked about around the grill on the patio or over the bridge table on Saturday night. My father was one of those. He was a Marine who earned two battle stars and a Purple Heart. I remember how he would talk fondly about his comrades and the exotic things he saw in the South Pacific. He told some scary stories about being trapped on a submerged submarine and being stranded on an island for days surviving off coconuts. But there was always a line he would never cross. It was clear there were some things he would not discuss. There were things they had to do in order to win the war and preserve our freedom, but they were things that did not always square with their image of who they were as children of God, things that they do not want to bring back up to the light of day, things that they could not have done if they hadn’t had the anger to fuel them. We’re grateful to them for what they did for us, but what a price they had to pay.
Anger can cause us to dehumanize another person, and at the heart of all God’s commandments is the command to recognize and honor the humanity of others. Take the next example Jesus gives of adultery. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We may not be able to control the thoughts that pop into our minds, but we can control what we do with those thoughts. One way that people justify watching pornography is that they don’t act on their thoughts. If they are married, they remain physically faithful to their spouse. Adultery as Jesus defines it is anything that objectifies someone as a object of lust or disregards the vows of fidelity we make to another. It’s when we see others as objects to satisfy our desires, not as people made in the image of God, whom God loves and cares for. That is not being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Or divorce. Jesus was speaking to a culture in which all a man had to do to divorce his wife was present her with a written statement that they were now divorced. The law was written so that the woman could be free to marry another man, but in those days when women were not allowed to have the same freedoms they do today, they were basically dependent on their husbands or their fathers for survival. For a man to cut off his wife, even according to the law, was to leave her destitute with no means of supporting herself. It was treating her as an object, not a human being beloved of God.
And finally, Jesus gives the example of swearing an oath. If we truly are to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, as those who are perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, what sense does it make to swear under oath? In our legal system, you can be held liable for making a false statement under oath, but you can’t be prosecuted for telling a lie to your neighbor over lunch. That implies that there are two kinds of speech – speech under oath that is always true and other speech that may or may not be true. In God’s realm, there is only truth. God never speaks what is not true, and neither do those who are called God’s children.
So for Jesus, the standard of right and wrong is how our words and actions and thoughts build up relationships and respect others. Before Pilate sent Jesus to the cross, he found legal justification to put him to death. Jesus was convicted as a threat to the emperor and one who broke the laws. The Romans were legally justified for killing Jesus. But Jesus went to the cross to fulfill God’s law, to restore that broken relationship between humankind and God and the broken relationships among people. He showed the kind of love God has for us, which is the kind of love we are called to have for one another.
Jesus didn’t come to do away with God’s law. He came to fulfill it. And this is God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We can be as precise in following the letter of the law as a Pharisee, but if we don’t do everything out of love, we are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Jesus changes our hearts so we are fit for God’s kingdom, where the law is made perfect in love.