Matthew 5:21-27

The Best Place to See the Glory of God

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

In today’s gospel,
Jesus changes the rules.
He expands them actually.
Four times he quotes scripture.
“You have heard that it was said
to those of ancient times.”
Then he goes on to expand
a familiar obligation:
“But I say to you.”

Why is it
that Jesus changes the rules?
Why does he take established commandments
and make them more demanding?
Maybe he is promoting a rigorous ethic
that he believes
is closer to the will of God.
Maybe he is setting forth an impossible ethic
so that his disciples
will recognize their unavoidable inadequacy.

Maybe so.
But I would like to suggest to you
that something different is happening.
It just may be
that Jesus is taking laws
that help make society stable
and revamping them
for a different purpose.

Consider the familiar rules that Jesus cites:

• No murder
• No adultery
• Legalized divorce
• The integrity of oaths

These have to do with perennial features of human society:

• Violence
• Sexuality
• Relationships
• Speech

Much of the time
when we human beings get into trouble,
it has to do with one or more
of these perennial features.

And so we maintain societies
using rules that restrict us
in a variety of ways.
These rules are not meant
to govern angels.
They are rules that recognize
that human beings are flawed
and that society is imperfect.
They represent ways to curb the damage
we do to one another
and to ourselves.

The commandments cited by Jesus
are good examples of such rules.

• People are not permitted to kill each other;
legitimate violence is reserved to the state.

• People are not to violate marital commitments;
those who marry restrict their sexual activity
to their spouses.

• Divorce is allowed, but regulated;
the dissolution of marriage requires
an appropriate legal framework.

• The public forum demands truthfulness of speech
and fidelity to commitments,
and so oaths are imposed and must be kept.

These ethical requirements,
already ancient in the time of Jesus,
have for us today
a contemporary ring.
They belong to our morality and law.
Such principles serve to hold society together
even as they did
among Jesus’ own people.

But Jesus comes along
and changes the rules.
He does not abolish the familiar laws.
He does not permit murder, adultery,
unregulated divorce, or the violation of oaths.
Instead, he announces an intensification
of these commandments.
What is he trying to do here?
What sort of society
does he want to establish?

Asking about the sort of society
Jesus wants to establish
may not be the right starting point here.

We picture laws
as walls defending society from chaos.
These laws impose certain minimal standards.
We experience them as outward requirements
enforced by the state’s ability
to impose punishment on us.

Jesus comes along,
changes the rules,
expands them in ways that challenge us,
and we may naturally assume
that he’s trying to reform the social order
through new legislation
that represents an improvement
on what is old and familiar.

But Jesus is not doing this.
His goal is not the improvement of law,
the building of better walls
to defend society from chaos.
His project is more drastic than that,
and it may seem to us unfamiliar,
even threatening in its novelty.

It sounds like
Jesus is changing the rules.
It sounds like he wants
a different set of walls
to defend society from chaos.
But what he does
is point to the problem.
Point to the problem
in its different manifestations.
And the problem is:
our hearts get stuck.
Our hearts get stuck
and stay that way:
this happens before we know it.

• We become angry,
not for righteousness’ sake,
but to protect our ego.
We get angry and we stay that way,
and the result is always murder.
There may be no corpse to account for,
but at least one killing occurs:
we murder ourselves.
And what’s the weapon in this crime?
A heart that became stuck.

• We become lustful,
and while no liaison may occur,
our energies for love are wasted.
Our desires do not flourish
in real relationships
that bless us and bless others.
What could have been holy passion
turns cancerous,
fit only to be cut off and cast out
due to a heart that became stuck.

• We divorce people in our lives,
whether marital partners, parents,
children, friends, opponents,
and believe we can do this without pain.
We regard them as disposable.
Thus we fail to feel
how it is that the Holy One sees us all:
we are a single indivisible family in the eyes of God.
That we cast out others, that we exile ourselves
shows that our hearts have become stuck.

• We bear false witness,
lies become our language,
unreality contains us in a net.
Our promises fall flat.
Soon all this becomes more consistent
than the sober, stubborn truth.
No longer can we plumb
the depths of our falsehood.
We speak from our hearts disastrously;
trapped as if in concrete, our hearts stay stuck.

Many of us much of the time
respect the walls
built to protect human society.
When we do this,
society rewards us with labels like
“responsible” and “law-abiding.”
We are regarded as solid citizens.

But all of us suffer, at least a little,
from having hearts that are stuck.
And some of us have hearts
that have not moved in a very long time.

Living the Christian life
does not elevate us above other people.
by it we address our own case
of a universal malady:
having a heart that is stuck.

Recognizing this dilemma in ourselves
and doing so time and again throughout life
requires a strange blend of humility and boldness.

Opening ourselves up to the grace of God
in all its many manifestations
requires of us faith and hope.
We must act constantly on the belief
that God works in this world
and can even work in us,
setting free our stuck hearts
and making them
engines of life and love.

Here’s a choice
all of us must make.

Do you believe
that knowing the rules
is all we need?

Or do you believe
that setting free
hearts that are stuck
is divine work
and that this can be
a reality in your life?

Here on earth
the best place to see the glory of God
is in a human heart set free.  1

1.  This sentence reflects a famous quotation from Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive, and the life of humanity is the vision of God.” (Against Heresies, IV, 20).

Copyright 2014 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.