15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom’s mother, who died recently, but this passage always makes me think of my dad’s mom, Dorrie. Dorrie is kid-language for Dorthy, in case you were wondering. My earliest memory of going to church with Dorrie includes this passage. I can’t remember how old I was, maybe seven or eight, and I certainly don’t remember what the preacher had to say. I remember the two of us talking in the parking lot after church on the way to her car.
I was disturbed by all Jesus’s words about hell. I asked Dorrie if she thought we would go to heaven. She said, as a loving grandmother would, “Well Sam, you’re an awfully good boy, and I don’t think I’ve been too bad myself, so I think we’ll go to heaven.”
In some ways that’s usually how we think about heaven and hell. We imagine heaven as a place you go if you live the right way, while hell is reserved for the evil people in the world. Others imagine that heaven is a place for Christians (or Muslims) and everyone else, no matter how righteous, will go to hell. Some of us worry whether we are going to make the cut when judgment day arrives. We worry that for some reason or other we might not be good enough, or faithful enough or devout enough to get through those pearly gates. Some people seem to take pride in imagining that they wouldn’t possibly be welcome in heaven, though I suspect that posturing covers up some real anxiety about the future.
Judgment and the afterlife are a source of incredible hope and incredible fear, so much so that these ideas sometimes distract us from the here and now demands of discipleship. We can focus so much attention on whether we’re going to be in or out that we loose sight of the more important calling of faith in our everday lives.
The truth about judgment is that Christ already took care of it. Jesus took on himself the judgment that should be ours. Going to heaven isn’t about us anymore; it’s about Jesus. Out of love Christ took our sin to the cross and put its power to death. He was condemned in our place, suffered our penalty and freed us from sin’s power. He offers us his righteousness to wear when we come to judgment. So in the end we will be judged innocent not for ourselves, but because of Christ.
I’m convinced that in the end the love of Jesus will save every last one of us. The love that went to the cross isn’t going to see labels on the last day, and we aren’t going to be so full of pride we’ll hold on to our need to do things our way. In the end, as Paul writes, every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. On that day we’ll be glad to accept the gift of grace we’ve sometimes been slow to receive. Theology puts the truth in boxes that make it easier to understand God and the world. That’s useful as long as we understand that God and the world are too complicated to fit neatly in those boxes, even if they are well built and elegant.
Our reforming ancestors taught that God’s grace in Christ saves us and we connect to that grace through faith in him. The fancy name for that teaching is justification by grace through faith. The great thing about this teaching is that it puts the focus on Jesus. We don’t go to heaven because of the good deeds we do. We don’t go to heaven because we give a certain way or show up on time for church each week. Our eternal salvation comes from Christ’s love, not our efforts. We are justified by God’s amazing grace; we don’t earn salvation, God gives it to us freely.
The medieval Catholic church taught that we gained access to God’s grace by our deeds, in particular by different acts of worship that stored up merit for us. By contrast, the reformers taught that we accessed God’s grace simply by trusting in Jesus, by putting our faith in his love: justification by grace through faith.
The trouble with that teaching is that it risks turning faith into a work. The emphasis shifts away from whether we’ve earned our way into heaven to whether we believe strongly enough or believe the right things. In reality, we don’t go to heaven because our beliefs are all in order; we go to heaven because Jesus loves us, and one day he will guide us home. Our faith in Christ lets us rest securely in that knowledge and frees us from the anxiety we might otherwise have about heaven and hell.
Trusting that God’s love is enough also frees us from the powers of this life. If we know that God’s love is the most important thing, we won’t be tricked into thinking that driving a nice car or having the best house defines us. We won’t be tricked into thinking that people are disposable or that hatred can make us safe. We won’t be afraid of the power of popularity or force but will be free to follow God’s calling, knowing that in the end only God’s judgment matters. When we trust in the love of God, our priorities for this life fall into place correctly.
The other risk of the doctrine of justification by faith is that we’ll be complacent in our faith thinking something like: “I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior, so I’m all set; I’ve got my ticket punched for heaven.” Faith isn’t faith if it doesn’t guide our actions in this life. The main point of Jesus’ teachings about heaven are to tell us what God values in this life.
Today’s teaching from Jesus lifts up three things: relationship, commitment and simplicity. Those are not the only things Jesus teaches about, but they are the focus of today’s reading.
Jesus reminds his hearers first of the commandment against murder. He goes on to say that murder is really just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t only go against God’s will when we kill people; we go against God’s will even by being angry or insulting or looking down on them. Even worship takes second place in God’s eyes to being in right relationship with others. If we are in the middle of worship and remember that our relationship with someone else isn’t as it should be, we should go, make it right, and then worship God. We’re all sisters and brothers, so we should make it a priority to seek reconciliation with others. That is one of the core missions of the church.
Jesus also talks about commitment, both commitment in marriage and commitment to righteousness and God. Again, Jesus tells the crowd that the commandment about divorce is just the beginning; we should also steer clear of looking at women (and men) in a way that objectifies them or tempts us away from our partner (even just in our heart).
We’re not just talking about commitment to our partner here, though that’s a crucial part of faithfulness. Jesus is also talking about how committed we need to be to doing the right thing. We should be so fixed on being faithful to God that we would rather put out an eye or cut off our hand than turn away from God’s calling.
Simplicity is the name I’m giving to the last idea Jesus lifts up here, but I’m not convinced that’s the best word. Jesus tells his audience not to swear by anything but to simply say yes or no. I think his point is that, for one thing, we don’t have control over most of the world, so it doesn’t make sense to swear by those things. For another thing, we shouldn’t need to secure the truth of our words by swearing. We should always tell the truth, so “yes” or “no” should be enough.
Taken together, the image Jesus gives us is one of a life lived in obedience to God and harmony with others. It’s an image of faithfulness that goes beyond following the commandments to seeking good relationships with our brothers and sisters and avoiding not just evil itself, but the thoughts and ideas that nudge us gently in the wrong direction.
Christian behavior in the world isn’t about following the rules; it’s about loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and loving our neighbor as ourself. That love goes beyond just following the commandments. The commandments give us a sense of what’s important to God, as do the stories of scripture, but our best guide is love.
Love can be a frustratingly vague guide, which is why scripture, prayer and the community are so important in shaping us as we grow in faith. Scripture helps us see our life in the context of what God is doing. When we allow scripture to form us, reflecting on a decision will bring to mind familiar passages that help us to see angles of our decision we would otherwise miss. In this case, if we’re struggling with anger, this passage might remind us that God calls us to peace and reconciliation. If we’re struggling with pornography, this passage reminds us that sexuality belongs in committed relationships and those relationships need to be protected carefully.
Prayer helps us filter out all the noise in our brains and lives so we can listen to the truth. When we take a decision to God in prayer we often don’t hear a heavenly voice give us the answer like a magic eight ball. Instead, often the voices that cloud our thinking quiet and we can see the question more clearly. That allows us to sort out which choice fits best with love.
Finally, the community of faith guides us in seeing how to love in our daily lives. Often difficult decisions are so tied up in our emotions and fears that we have a hard time seeing clearly. Sharing our situation with a trusted brother or sister can help us see our choices in a different light and can fill in our blind spots. Maybe that’s one reason Jesus values reconciliation so highly: we loose the strength and trust of our community if we let differences divide us.
Life is complicated, so we need all the resources we have available to follow love in the world. When we trust that God is the only true judge, we have courage to put faithfulness ahead of the pressures of life. When we trust that Jesus saves us from our guilt and leads us safely to God we can put aside fear and live bold lives of love and integrity. Trusting Jesus and loving our neighbors, we can courageously follow God’s will in our lives. We can choose life and faithfulness over fear and greed. Jesus calls us and shows us the way; let us follow with joy.
Thanks be to God.