Rev. Katherine Todd
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘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; 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.
“You have heard it said…But I say to you.” Matthew records Jesus as saying this over and over again, in succession. The teaching we read today merely starts this series of teachings. Jesus is re-framing things for his listeners. Jesus is contrasting our ways with God’s ways. Over and over again.
Basically, for everyone who has studied the law and scriptures and who think they know something about holiness, goodness, and truth, Jesus is shining a brighter light, revealing the flaws in their thinking. It’s as though the people of God have been trying to work and see inside a dim room, but when Jesus comes, he throws open all the curtains and the light of day comes streaming in. All of a sudden what was once believed to be white is seen for the yellow-stained color it is. All of a sudden what was considered black catches the light to reveal a deep blue-ish purple.
You see, in the light of God’s truth and presence, the things we once viewed as holy are uncovered for the pale reflection of holiness that they are, and the things we once viewed with disgust and judgement, we can now begin to see the beauty in.
God is like that.
So Jesus is waking the people up from their slumbers. Jesus is turning on the brights. And the people have the chance now to finally see themselves and one another in the light that God sees them. God’s holiness is not attainable. God’s righteousness cannot be achieved. God’s goodness is far above what we pass off as good. And even in the blackest of sinners, God’s fingerprints can still be seen, there are still glimmers of light.
This teaching, emphasized over and over again by Christ, can be seen in the movie series, Star Wars. There are heroes. They are often clumsy or afraid. They may not have the faith they need at times. The sometimes fail and miss their chances. They are far from perfect. And then there are the “bad guys,” as we often say, who do heinous things at the expense of human life and creation’s vitality. They exploit and control. They deceive and trap. They use their life force for evil instead of good. …And yet, the riveting parts of the stories are where that glimmer of goodness inside them steps forward. Where the “bad guy” sacrifices himself to save another.
Goodness. In the darkest super-villain.
This is what makes these movies so compelling. This is what tugs at our heart-strings. The characters are not one thing or another. They are not flat. They are not only good or only evil. They are a complex mosaic. They grow.
And so Star Wars shows us people much like ourselves – full of dichotomies and complexities – sometimes doing good, sometimes doing harm…
And we relate.
While we are ever tempted to label and dismiss one another… While we are certain we are right and someone else is wrong… While we stoop to calling one another names… God sees things in a different light. Apart from Christ’s own sacrifice, even the best behaved among us is a sinner, with evil in their hearts.
And so Jesus’ words call the people to suspend their judgements. Jesus’ words call the people to humility. Jesus’ words call the people to listen and to open their hearts to learn. Because as long as we think we already know something, as long as we are convinced we are right, as long as we feel justified, we are living an illusion.
The truth is: none of us know it all, none of us are right, none of us see clearly, none of us has the corner on the truth.
As much as it may not seem fair, Jesus is RAISING the standards of the religious communities of his day. Rules that perhaps before felt challenging or even impossible, are now that much more impossible. It is at once inspiring and defeating: God’s ways are beautiful and wholly pure, but we dreadfully fall short of God’s good way.
And that is perhaps what Jesus is leading to.
Could it be that Jesus is toppling over their human constructs of goodness and evil in order to make room for the truth?
Could it be that Jesus is pulling back the curtains on their partial understandings in order to open their eyes to wonder and concern?
Could it be that Jesus is encouraging the weak and challenging the strong in order to help each and every one of them see their utter and complete need for God’s mercy and grace?
Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. All we have to do is turn on the news and in a few short minutes, we can name a handful of individuals worse behaved than ourselves.
Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. All we have to do is score higher on a test than someone else, and the feelings of superiority begin to bake in.
Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. All we have to do is pass someone holding a card-board sign on the side of the road and wonder what it was they did wrong…
We are skilled in our judgements. And yet our judgements are flawed. They are flawed to the core.
Paul also spoke to this flawed way of thinking. And he too sought to re-orient his listeners and their judgements:
Christ reorients our hearts. Christ shows us the dinginess of our greatest gains and achievements and invites us to lay those down in exchange for a that higher righteousness that only God can give. For we cannot achieve God’s holiness on our own, but we bear the imprint of our Maker and we are loved beyond belief. And our lives, no matter how stained and fractured, are of great value to God.
Do we mirror the heart of God toward one another?
Do we mirror the heart of God toward ourselves?
Have we set aside jealousy and competition?
Have we stepped out of the rat race and into the flow of God’s unbounded love?
Christ is calling each of us
to come in,
to set down our loads,
to pull up a chair,
to know and be known…
For our God has called you “daughter.” Our God has called you “son.” Our God has called you “friend.” You are family in the house of God.