Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Obedience of the Heart

Matthew 5:21-37

 Our Gospel text this morning proceeds directly from last Sunday’s text.  In the previous verses, Jesus talked about how obedience is necessary to discipleship.  Here he expands our understanding of obedience.  Obedience is more than just keeping the letter of the Law; it is also keeping the intention of the Law.  It is more than just our actions; it’s also a matter of our heart’s desires.  

 Now some people say that the Jewish people in Jesus’ day were “only” concerned with outward obedience, just with keeping the absolute letter of the Law, and Jesus challenged that.  That is an over-simplification.  There were many rabbis who agreed with Jesus’ basic premise here.  Even in the 10 Commandments, we find that outward obedience was not enough.  The Commandments forbade theft and adultery, but they also included the 10th Commandment that said, “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife or your neighbor’s possessions.”  So from the very beginning there has been that emphasis that God is concerned not just with our actions but also our thoughts and desires.  

 But there was that tendency to reduce obedience to just keeping the rules, outward obedience.  And it’s still there today.  We can still be tempted to think that “we’re okay” with God because we didn’t do _______, even as we are entertaining thoughts to the contrary.  God is concerned with more than just our actions.  He wants our thoughts to be right as well.

 Generally speaking, society is really only concerned with what we do.  To a smaller degree, society cares about what we say.  If we say certain things:  Threats, racist messages, and so on, then society does care about those.  But society doesn’t care what we think.  We can think the worst thoughts, as long as we don’t act on them.  And of course, that’s the way it should be with society.  Human beings are incapable of knowing what others think.  We can only know words and actions. 

 Not so with God.  God knows our thoughts.  He knows the condition of our hearts.  He knows not just what we do but we intend to do.  And God is not content with only outward obedience.  

 This also reminds us that only God is truly worthy to judge.  Other people don’t know our thoughts, and so they are never able to be impartial judges.  A person can sometimes do the right thing with the wrong intentions.  On the other hand, a person can do the wrong thing with the right intentions.  Only God knows those things.  

 Jesus applies this principle of inward obedience to three of the 10 Commandments in our text this morning.  Obviously, it applies to all of them.  

 First, the prohibition against murder:  Just as it is wrong to commit the act of murder, so the intent of murder, anger, is wrong.  It is wrong to wish to kill a person or to treat them as if they are dead.  

 Now, obviously, in a sinful world, anger is inevitable.  And I think Jesus recognizes that in this passage.  In the Greek language there were two different words for anger.  The first one described a brief, intense, emotional anger.  The second described a settled, intentional anger, and that is the word Jesus uses here.  I think it’s more the sense of bitterness than just an emotional response to a situation.  That feeling of anger is inevitable, but allowing it to settle into bitterness is a matter of our choice.  

 If murder is wrong, then so is murder of character.  Jesus gives two examples.  The first is to say to someone RACA, the Hebrew word for “empty,” as in “empty head, idiot.”  And the second is to say “fool.”  In the Hebrew mind, the word fool had more to do with character than intelligence.  A fool was a wicked, evil person, not just someone who did something dumb.  

 In both cases, the person is accountable to God.  “If you say RACA, you are in danger of being brought before the Sanhedrin.”  The Sanhedrin was the Jewish high court, but it was also used to refer to the “heavenly court.”  “And if you say, “Fool!” you are in danger of the fires of hell.”  

 Anger violates the intent of the Law.  The intent of the Law is love for neighbor and peace with neighbor, and anger violates it.  So when we get angry, instead of allowing it to settle into bitterness, we are to seek peace and reconciliation.

 A broken relationship with our neighbor hinders our relationship with God.  “If you are coming to offer your sacrifice, and you remember your neighbor has something against you, go first and be reconciled.”  The very first story of a person offering a sacrifice in Scripture is also the first story of a broken human relationship.  Genesis 4 tells the story of Cain and Abel.  Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to God, but Cain’s was not.  Why not?  Because he was bitter toward his brother.  And instead of being reconciled to his brother, he murdered him.  

 So if we are seeking peace with God and we remember our neighbor has something against us, go first to our neighbor and be reconciled.  By the way, if you go on to read Matthew 18, you find out that Jesus doesn’t leave the other party out of the responsibility to seek reconciliation.  Jesus also addresses the person who has been offended by someone else, and he also tells that person to seek reconciliation.  Peace in our relationships is the responsibility of everyone.

 If not, “You will be dragged into court and thrown into jail until you have paid the last penny.”  In most ancient societies, debtors were thrown into jail until someone paid off their debt.  The Hebrew people didn’t do that, but they knew the custom.  A failure to “settle our debts,” that is to be reconciled to one another, damages our relationship with God.  

 The second situation Jesus addresses is adultery.  

 Maybe more so than any other area, we resist being told what to do when it comes to our sexuality.  The attitude of our society is basically, “Do whatever you want to do, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”  What our society ignores is that human sexuality is a gift from God, and as such it is to be used in keeping with God’s ways, not just as we please.   And secondly, our society is also pretty good at ignoring that a whole lot of hurt is caused by wrong sexual choices, not just hurt to others, but hurt to ourselves and our relationships as well.  

 Jesus says that if the action of adultery is wrong, then so is the intention, that is lust.  And again, just as anger is inevitable but bitterness is a choice, so attraction is inevitable, but lust is a choice.  We can’t help having feelings of attraction from time to time, but what we do with them is a choice.

 The principle Jesus uses in his illustration is that “corporal punishment,” punishing the body, “cutting off your hand, gouging out your eye,” is better than “capital punishment,” that is death.  Behind this idea is the belief of many Jews that the resurrection would take place in the form a person had at death.  But what I think Jesus means by this is that it may be necessary to cut certain things out of our lives for the sake of holiness.  Sometimes, it’s not a good idea to have certain relationships.  It can be hard to have a close relationship with someone of the opposite sex toward whom you struggle with feelings of attraction.  I’m not saying we should end relationships

completely, but sometimes we need to put up very specific boundaries in our relationships for the sake of maintaining holiness.  

 If it’s wrong to commit adultery and wrong to lust, then it’s also wrong to divorce our spouse for the sake of a “coveted” relationship.  

 The intention of the 6th Commandment, “You must not murder,” is peace with our neighbors.  The intention of the 7th Commandment is covenant faithfulness in our relationships, and especially in marriage.  Not just the letter of the Law but the intention of the Law is important.

 The third example Jesus gives is the 3rd Commandment, the prohibition against taking oaths in God’s name and breaking them, that is “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”  In the background here is that the Scribes had endless debates about which oaths were binding and which were not.  Some rabbis said that you had to keep the oath made in God’s name, but if you swore by the hair on your head, you were free to break that vow.  That kind of thinking denied the intent of the Law, which is that we should practice honesty and integrity in every situation.  

 The general principle throughout this section is that obedience is not just about our outward actions, but also about the intent of our hearts.  

 But I think it also points to something else:  It reminds us of our need for a Savior.  It’s hard enough to keep the letter of the Law.  It’s impossible to keep every intention of the Law.  It’s impossible to be obedient in our thoughts.  We are sinners.  We can’t escape that.  We can’t rationalize it away.  As sinners, we need a Savior.  We are incapable of saving ourselves.  Jesus is raising the bar of obedience to an impossible level.  That’s the bad news.  But the good news is that Jesus bears our punishment on the cross and saves us from our sins.  

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