“You have heard it said, but I say to you…”
Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
16 February 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
“You have heard it said, […] but I say to you […].
Jesus uses this phrase four times in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount.
You have heard it said, “you shall not murder,”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment,” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
You have heard that it was 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.”
It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,” but I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.”
Again, you have heard that it was said, “you shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord,” But, I say to you, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.”
It is very easy to go wrong when reading this text. One of the worst ways that one can go wrong is to believe that Jesus is calling Christians to “higher standards” than what the Jewish law requires. That is not what is going on here at all. And, if read this way, it can actually be a recipe for despair, thinking that Jesus is calling us to live by impossible standards. But what Jesus is trying to do is to help people understand the problem of sin more broadly, not simply as isolated and discreet acts of wrongdoing, but rather how the whole destructive trajectory of sin begins and how it develops.
I recall confronting a friend once about a concerning relationship she was having with someone who was married. She replied, “nothing is going on.” “We’re not doing anything wrong.” And, well, they might not have been sleeping together, but something certainly was going on, and something was certainly wrong, and it was harming both of them and their marriages. It seemed obvious from the outside looking in they were headed toward a bad end.
Sometimes we think that the only sins worth confessing are when we might break the 10 commandments. I remember asking someone once if they had ever made a confession. He said, “No, I’ve never broken any of the commandments.” And that reply is a symptom of large misunderstanding as to the nature of sin.
We sometimes tend to think that if we only come close to denying God, but don’t; that it’s still OK. Or if we figure out a way to manipulate the truth without lying under oath, but don’t actually lie; then that it’s OK. Or undertake behaviors that lead to harm, without actually committing murder; and that it’s OK; or have inappropriate relationships, without actually committing the act of adultery; and that we’re still OK; or bend the rules without actually breaking them in order to have things that don’t belong to us; not actually stealing, that we’re that we are still in the clear. But this kind of thinking is precisely what Jesus is warning us about in this passage.
It’s not the actual crossing of the line that counts as sin, it’s the whole journey down the wrong path that takes us all the way up to the line that is crossed which is the problem. If we do end up denying God, or lie under oath, or committing murder and adultery, we aren’t committing sin only at the very instance we cross the threshold. The sin that we are guilty of are the sins that start us out on that path; sins of pride, or greed, or lust, or envy, etc. Those are the sins we are guilty of; acts of theft, idolatry, murder, and adultery, are simply just the culminating behaviors of the sins that set us out on that journey in the first place.
I came across a story of a priest hearing a confession made in a hospital room by a truck driver who is about to undergo surgery, which illustrates the point I think that Jesus is trying to make. (See reference at end of sermon) Here is the dialogue:
The truck driver says to the priest, “I’m glad to see you, thanks for coming. You’ve got communion there, right? Before I receive, there’s something I want to get off my chest—something I’ve never told anyone since I moved here 15 years ago. This operation tomorrow has me worried and I know I might not pull through. But even if I do, I want to know that I am all right with God.
The priest says: Are you saying that you’d like to make a confession? That you’d like to use that sacrament to experience God’s forgiveness? “Yes,” the driver said, “I need that. I’m glad they gave me a private room, so only you will hear what I’m going to say.”
“Eighteen years ago—I remember the day—I was involved in a terrible accident, and it was all my fault. I’d been driving a truck for two years by then, and I realized I could bring in a fair amount of cash by taking on long hauls. I was young then, cocky, I guess. I used to press on driving even when I was dog tired. One day it caught up with me, and I fell asleep at the wheel, going a good 60mph on the highway. Next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital with some fractured ribs and a broken arm and lots of bruises, and then they told me that my truck hit a car straight on. It was a family—parents, three kids. Killed them all. They didn’t have a chance, not against my rig.
There was an investigation of course. I was acquitted. Couldn’t help it if I fell asleep, right? But I knew I’d been taking a chance, driving too long, being greedy. Wiped out a whole family! Of course I prayed God for forgiveness, over and over. And maybe God has forgiven me. But, I’ll never forgive myself. How can I? All those lives cut short! I don’t deserve peace, do I? And I wonder if God really does forgive me. If I die tomorrow on the operating table, how will I face him? How will I ever face God for what I’ve done?
The priest offers the following counsel:
“Do you remember Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?” When he was dying in terrible agony, Jesus forgave those who planned and carried out his death. If our Lord could forgive those who were responsible for his death, even giving them an excuse “they know not what they do,” he will also forgive us when our sins hurt his beloved children—even when they kill them. You know you did not commit murder, which is the intentional killing of another human being. But as you have confessed, you took a reckless chance out of greed and pride, and it had devastating consequences. Even if there had never been an accident, that sin would still be what it was—no more and no less.
That last sentence is the important line in the priest’s counsel which illustrates what Jesus is trying to say here in the Sermon on the Mount. Even if there had never been an accident, the driver’s sin would still be what it was—no more and no less. The priest is pointing out that the driver’s real sin is not that he fell asleep and killed the family. Or that he is culpable of the sins of greed and pride only because they died, and would not be culpable for those sins if they had not died. The point that the priest is trying to make is that the sins the driver was correct to identify was his sin of greed and pride, it was those sins which motivated him to take unnecessary risks for the sake of more money, which put himself and others in danger.
We have a saying in the flying world that we should not mistake luck for good judgment. As we all know, sooner or later our luck is going to run out. Just because you skip the preflight inspection every time you fly and have never had an accident, doesn’t mean that that is a good practice and that you are not culpable for laziness. Nor, should one draw the conclusion that if you haven’t had an accident, that this proves that doing a preflight inspection is not necessary. If I pilot crashes as a result of missing something on the preflight checklist, he was just as guilty for the sin of sloth and laziness each time he skipped the inspection as he was the day he crashed. Thinking that we can get away with things because we haven’t been caught, or because some crisis, accident or scandal hasn’t broken out doesn’t mean that we aren’t culpable for wrongdoing. It is the height of self-deception to think that only when bad outcomes occur have we done anything wrong.
The reading from the Old Testament tells us that “If we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice.” We do have choices. And, we usually know when we are walking down the wrong path. The lesson goes on to say that, God places both fire and water in front of us and that we can stretch out our hands for whichever we choose. So, if you are playing with fire right now, in any part of your lives, there is still a chance to put the fire out. There is still time to choose the water to put the fire out.
God’s love is always greater than the power of sin, but only if we turn that sin over to God to allow him to heal us from it and point us in the direction of new life. It is in choosing the water over the fire, that we can only find true happiness. As the psalm says, “Happy are they who walk in the ways of the Lord.” Everything else, while we might think those things which issue out of the devices and desires of our own hearts will make us happy, or at least eliminate the difficulties that come along with doing the right thing, we know that in the end, those things will only bring destruction upon us and everyone around us. So, choose real happiness. Choose new life because happy are they whose way is blameless who walk in the law of the Lord; happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts. Amen.
Reference: Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith, Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions. (New York, NY: Moorehouse Publishing, 2012), last case study at the end of the book.