A Bar So High

By Rita Steadman

Try harder. Be better. Or else you’ll be punished.

I don’t think this is Jesus’ message to us today. But I do think it is easy to hear it this way. Perhaps it is even how we do hear it, consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps we hear his words through the voices inside our head or in our home that say, You’re no good. You messed up again. You are a failure. You should be ashamed.

This isn’t Jesus’ message in his Sermon on the Mount, but it is easy to hear it this way, and we’re likely to do ourselves damage if we do. If this is how we hear Jesus, then I imagine the most tempting or common response is to walk away. We may stay in the Church. But we look for a different God. Jesus’ words seem too hard, too demanding, too harsh, and interiorly we walk away. How could God ask this of me? It doesn’t make sense. And walking away, we make ourselves our own judge and master. We’ll decide ethics and conduct, because Jesus’ words don’t make sense. And we set off on our own.

Or we try to affirm God’s authority and accept his words, and we adopt Jesus’ words as our standard but know we’ll never make it. And we make hypocrisy and judgment a normal part of our life and our relationship with God. We grow blinder to our behavior and shortcomings, and we focus on others’ behavior to compensate. Judging others, we feel we are still taking Jesus seriously, and become more self-righteous. This is the caricature of Christian discipleship that is so commonly seen by the world and that so often discredits God and the Church.

Or perhaps most dangerously, we don’t walk away. Instead, we give up. We recognize Jesus’ demands as impossible, and we despair. I’ll never be that good. I can’t live up to his expectations. God’s promises are not for me. I am beyond God’s love and redemption.

Spoken out loud, these responses don’t satisfy. So, what if we stay with Jesus’ words and wrestle a while?

Jesus repeatedly says, “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you.” He uses that introduction multiple times in our lesson. And he continues to use it in the verses that follow, as we’ll hear in next week’s lesson with the Scripture that follows. He clearly means to introduce something new, and he is raising the bar. He begins with “You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’ … but I say that if you are angry you will be liable to judgement … if you insult, you’ll be liable to the council, if you say, ‘You fool,’ you’ll be liable to the hell of fire.”

These are confounding words. We’ve all been angry. Multiple times a day. And on a bad day, multiple times an hour. And haven’t we all said a few insults, or many? Even if they aren’t insults said loudly on Facebook, who hasn’t indulged in a few sly or catty remarks? And who hasn’t said at some point, ‘You fool’? Or worse? In our current political and social climate, isn’t ‘You fool’ a part of daily engagement? And if we haven’t said so aloud, then haven’t we spoken it in our hearts and minds? Who then can stand?

None of us can. Jesus raises the bar so high that none of us can say we live righteously and according to his teaching. We all fall short. Perhaps that is what he means. Our standard ways of comparing and contrasting, judging for ourselves who is more right with God, who is doing a better job, who has a better understanding, who is best, are all made ridiculous. None of us comes close, so hadn’t we better not judge at all?

Modern rabbis have said that the essential message of Torah is, “I am God. And you are not.” This is at the heart of learning not to judge. By setting the bar so high that we cannot reach it, Jesus is teaching us not to judge by using his teaching — but learning not to judge is also in the substance of his teaching. For isn’t much of our anger, our insulting, our crying out, “You fool,” about judging? Jesus tells us to refrain and not to go there. When we say, “You fool,” we are dismissing one of God’s own. We are discounting them, devaluing them. We have no right to that. By our judgments, we insult God and break relationship within his family —with each other. It isn’t a light matter.

When Jesus continues with more examples of “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” he continues to hold the bar so high we cannot reach it. If we look at someone with lust in our eye, we have committed adultery in our heart. We are all guilty, I suspect. In our world today, who cannot feel uncomfortable listening to Jesus’ new teaching on divorce? We’ve either divorced ourselves, or so have our children, or our parents, or our siblings, or even our closest neighbors and friends. We are all touched. And even Jesus’ instruction not to swear, but to let our yes be yes and our no be no, seems after all this like a standard we are likely to miss. So do not judge and do not place ourselves in the role of judge. This is a fundamental teaching, and one that Jesus will say explicitly, further on in his Sermon on the Mount.

But I believe Jesus is also teaching us about the nature of sin. Paul says elsewhere that if we are guilty of one sin, we are guilty of all sin. Like Jesus, he would have us refrain from judging ourselves and others, comparing and contrasting, deciding who is better and who is worse. That perspective loses all sight of God’s grace and of our need. Similarly, here Jesus tells us that the beginning of sin counts as the whole sin. We can’t console ourselves with thoughts like It’s not really so bad. It could be so much worse. Jesus is telling us that the seed contains the tree, and we are accountable for the whole. This may seem harsh or unfair, and we might be tempted to dismiss it, holding to our scales to judge orders of magnitude and be sensible.

But what if orders of magnitude are linked more to our circumstances than to our character? When we’re not hungry, it’s much easier not to steal. Much of our goodness and our good choices is dependent on circumstance and privilege. We acknowledge this colloquially when we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But it’s easy to lose sight of.

We talk of criminals when describing people who have driven without a license to go to work for less than minimum wage to raise money to support their family and dependents. We call them illegals. Pharisees may have called them unclean. Like them, we’re tempted to a “monied morality.” We exonerate or congratulate ourselves for our goodness, but we are simply privileged. Jesus’ view of sin puts us all in the same boat, the same human condition, regardless of circumstance.

Regardless of circumstance, we are all in need of grace. All of us fall short. Jesus sets the bar so high that we are frustrated at every attempt to call ourselves righteous. And if we are to stay with Jesus, we must give up judging ourselves and others and look to mercy as a way of life. Instead of despairing, Jesus’ teaching is meant to open us to a new relationship with God, where Christ lives within us, grows within us. His light and life and love pour through us, and we act, trusting in his love and his mercy, not in our getting it right.

Canon Kate Tristram has said of the saints that their life stories are not about extraordinary women and men, but they are the story of God’s life within ordinary women and men. And the demands of following Christ are too hard. “There is only one who can live them. And so let him live in you!”

The Rev. Marguerite (Rita) Steadman is rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bangor, Maine.

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