Inner Righteousness and Preventative Justice – a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

Good morning everyone! It’s really great to be here with you this morning and to have an opportunity to preach the Gospel to you today. I don’t currently serve in a preaching ministry, and at times like these when it seems like the world is going crazy, it’s a high honor and responsibility to open up a portion of the Sermon on the Mount before you, so thank you so much for this opportunity.

To be fair, though, if I had the option of which portion of the Sermon of the Mount to preach to you all this morning… I might have gone a different way with it. It’s just my luck that the lectionary dropped a 16 verse-long bomb on us today, about murder, adultery, divorce, gouging out your eyes and swearing by your head. This text is a long and challenging one, and if I’m being honest I’m not going to be able to touch on all of it this morning. After spending a lot of time with it recently and spending a lot of time trying to keep up with what is going on in our world right now, I hope this morning to offer a perspective on this teaching of Jesus, that challenges us to do right by the world that God loves, and to imagine new ways to seek out God’s vision for righteousness and justice in it. My belief is that this difficult text is not a fierce declaration of a newer, harsher standard of judgment, but a reframing of old concepts for what it means to do right and to be righteous.  

Now before we get really into this, I have to say something outright about a really dangerous way this passage is sometimes interpreted. I’ve heard this and seen this on social media, when a Christian is trying to confront social injustice like greed or consumerism or racism or sexism, someone will inevitably say something like, “This is not a [blank] issue, but a sin issue. The world doesn’t need [blank], it needs Jesus.” Now…you won’t hear me say that the world doesn’t need more Jesus, but please let me say this today: if the world had more Jesus, it would have a lot less greed, a lot less consumerism, a lot less racism, a lot less sexism, and if we suppose ourselves to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we might just find ourselves working against those things, not just in people’s hearts, but in our laws, in our systems, in our media, and in our public discourse. When Jesus says, “you’ve heard it said do not murder, but I say to you do not even hate,” he isn’t saying that the murdering part is okay! Just because Jesus wants to go a little deeper doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t concerned with the rest of it. So please, don’t be deceived into believing that Jesus is so small that he only wants to work on our personal morality. But equally this morning, Jesus calls us to not be deceived that the only morality to be dealt with is out there.

For when Jesus says “do not even hate”, he calls us to evaluate not only the outward actions of evil, but to look inside ourselves to see the origins of it in our own hearts. And isn’t that refreshing, in a world full of posturing and politicizing… I almost imagine Jesus stepping into all the nonsense and saying “What’s really going on here?” Jesus has this almost superhero power sometimes in the gospels where he knows what people or thinking, or the text will say “He knew what was in their hearts.” We really could’ve used that in 2016, I think.

But let’s not totally pass the buck here. Because unfortunately, the moment that we look at someone else and say, “I bet Jesus knows what’s going on in their hearts,” we’ve forgotten that Jesus also knows what’s going on in ours. And then we start to get a little nervous, right? A friend of mine said this really well this week, he wrote, “When we see the wrong in someone else, we demand justice. When we see the wrong in ourselves, we demand mercy.” And while many interpret this to mean that we should have mercy on those others for their injustice, (and we should show mercy,) the opposite is also true. Instead of demanding mercy for ourselves, we ought to demand justice of ourselves.  Jesus is asking us, each, individually, to take a step of self-evaluation, of self-awareness, beyond what we do on the outside, to ask if our motivations, our thoughts, our preconceived notions, our unconscious bias… if these are congruent with who we say we are, and who Jesus is.

One key example of this discrepancy between outward action and inner injustice is the way we handle and talk about racism. We find ourselves this morning in the middle of February, which is Black History Month, and 2017 is a good time, and church is a good place to take that seriously. I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that racism still exists, and that that conversation is as important as it’s ever been. And while I don’t claim to be an expert in the area, I have tried to become educated and to listen and learn more. And what I’ve been hearing and learning reminds me of this passage. This same distinction that Jesus makes between outward acts and inner thoughts is very true and dangerous when it comes to racism. While most Americans may not actively or intentionally participate in outward forms of racism, sociologists have shown that even children have an unconscious bias to perceive white people as superior, as less dangerous, as more successful. And these inner perceptions survive into adulthood whether we like them to or not, and I confess to you this morning that I have notice them and experienced them in my own heart – these little moments where I prejudge a person differently because of the color of their skin. And it matters! Throughout American history,  many great victories have been won on a systematic level, from abolishing slavery, to voting rights, desegregation, and affirmative action. And yet, it always seems that a new system of oppression always replaces the one that came before it. If you haven’t already done so, please watch a documentary on Netflix called 13th and you will understand what I mean when I say that. And it is imperative that we call for change when change needs to be made on a systemic level. We must stand up when it is time to stand up, and now may again be that time. But this battle against racism takes place also in our own hearts, and that remains a place it has yet to be fully won. I suspect in this passage when Jesus says “do not hate”, he recognizes that hatred and anger arise within us against our better judgment and our will. But Jesus still holds us accountable to what we do in that moment to catch ourselves in the act, even if no-one ever sees or hears it. Jesus grants us the mercy we ask for, but calls on us to demand justice of our own hearts in those moments. We are called to self-awareness, and to self-betterment at the deepest, internal level.

As much as this sounds like a hard word of judgment, I actually see it as a call to re-understand righteousness. I truly don’t believe that Jesus is taking this list of things not to do (don’t murder, don’t commit adultery) and adding to it (also don’t hate, also don’t lust, also don’t curse…). I don’t believe that Jesus is trying to make the list longer. I think Jesus is calling into question the very purpose behind the list to help us understand what righteousness looks like in any given context. Jesus invites us to go beyond the list of things NOT to do and is teaching us what it means to do good. (Rather than NOT doing bad.)

I come from a Holiness denomination called the Church of the Nazarene, and at its best, holiness churches are about this idea of constant self-betterment; a quote that some of us hold dear is “you look at yourself, you look at Jesus, then confess the difference.” But at our worst, we can be heavy on the rules and the “thou shalt nots”. Along the way, my denomination has had rules against dancing, public swimming, going to movies, and a variety of other things, some of which are still on the books.  And I do think it’s very often true of all Christians that we can become known more for what we “don’t do” or who we “don’t like” than anything else. We’re not unlike the religious people Jesus is talking about in this passage. You’ve heard it said… don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do that… as if that sums up what it means to be God’s people. You can almost hear the sarcasm in Jesus’ voice, as if people were standing in front of Jesus saying, “I’m a good person!… I don’t murder people!” As if Jesus is going to throw a holy parade for all of the non-murderers! I think Jesus might be saying, by going a little deeper, that our standards are too low.

If we define ourselves by the things that we don’t do, what good is that to the rest of the world? Is the Christian life about making sure that we have a personal clean slate, or about setting God’s righteousness loose on the world? This is Jesus’ mission in Matthew, not to go around setting everyone straight, but to announce “the kingdom of heaven is near”. This is the first and most important message in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is here to get something new started. And kingdoms are not built on inaction.

Participating in this new kingdom requires action, and that action entails that we confront big issues. The religious leaders were certainly concerned with the big issues: Murder! Adultery! Divorce! They made sure to be firm and swift on the big issues. Jesus wants to do something more than that.

It’s not unlike what we see today, right? We live in a very reactive culture, and again, before I point the finger, I have to preach to myself here. Social media gives us new things to react to and be outraged about on minute by minute basis. Sometimes I catch myself refreshing my feed thinking, “Okay, what am I mad about now?” I’m sure I’m not the only one. And it’s important to stay informed, but it can sometimes come at a cost. My sister recently did one of those things where you can temporarily change your profile picture, where it’ll keep your picture but put a border around it that says you stand with refugees. And she was really dismayed that Facebook had a time limit of just one week where it changed back! That’s how fast these issues come and go, that standing with refugees has an expiration date! I was also reading recently that Flint, Michigan STILL does not have clean drinking water! My first thought to that was, “Wasn’t I outraged about that almost two years ago!”

And we should be outraged about all these things. And when these things happen, Christians should react Christianly, whether by voting, protesting, donating, or speaking out. But if we’re being honest, we can’t properly react to everything. At some point we end up choosing our battles, and we all do that in different ways. Some focus in on a key issue they are especially passionate about, others simply surrender and feel powerless. It’s exhausting, and it’s disheartening.

But perhaps Jesus’ teaching this morning can be a fresh word of hope. When the religious leaders cry in reaction to the biggest outrages of their time, Jesus calls attention to the small things over which we have control. Hatred. Curses. Unreconciled relationships. Lust. These are the small but very real things that lead to the big things, and he calls us to work them out at that level too. And he makes that task urgent! When Jesus says to gouge out our eyes and cut off our limbs, I think we can all agree this is not literal, or we are all going to have a painful afternoon with the sermon application. I think the point is two-fold: that it is seriously urgent, and that it is proactive.

The call to deal with the internal and unseen root causes of evil is as urgent as a finger on a trigger. The need to confess and turn away from the evil inside of each of us is dire. It seems innocent or unimportant, like when your car starts to make a funny noise and you think, “I’ll just wait till that really becomes a problem before I take it into the shop.” Jesus is saying take it into the shop. As I’ve been learning this February, sin that is not dealt with can span generations and truly devastate people despite our best intentions.

You have to admit: cutting out your hand or your eye is a pretty proactive approach to dealing with the problem. As we look at everything that is wrong in the world, and our Facebook feeds fill up with things to be outraged about, what if we took a step back and asked where the root impulses and origins of injustice are? What if we spent our energy in a proaction instead of reaction? Whatever injustice we see in the world that we feel particularly passionate about ending… they don’t come out of nowhere. They have roots, they have origins that begin at the ground level.

We ought to be like doctors who not only treat symptoms, but also offer preventative care. There are a lot of symptoms in the world to deal with, and in many instances it is necessary to stop the bleeding. But through prayerful consideration we might find ourselves called to preventative justice care. My wife is a teacher, and at first glance that may not seem very social-justice-oriented. But to be able to shape the hearts and minds of children, before they’ve formed prejudices, while they’re learning how to treat one another… this is frontlines of justice and righteousness. She has a daily opportunity to offer the world preventative care for all the things that go wrong in the world.

But we don’t have to quit our jobs and become teachers or social workers to live this out. I believe that in each moment, in every thought and deed big or small, we have the opportunity to choose life, to contribute proactively to God’s kingdom in seemingly small ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as usual, says it best: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”  I’ve come to believe that every thought, word and deed that is done in love is an act of proactive justice; justice that goes into the world, establishing God’s new kingdom, and driving out the old one.

If we take Jesus at his word that every hatred, every curse, and every look of lust contribute to the harsh injustices we see in the world, then the opposite is also true. When a kind word is spoken, when a relationship is reconciled, or the dignity of another is upheld, the old kingdom of injustice is dealt a blow and denied a foothold in our lives and in the lives of those around us in ways we may never fully understand.

So may we be people who address the wrongs in this world not only by calling for justice in others, but seeking justice within our own hearts. May we people who not only react when things go terribly wrong, but who do justice proactively in each moment that God grants us. May we be people who do justice and love righteousness. May we be people who choose life. Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s