Raising the bar

Matthew 5:21-37

Even simple common sense laws seem to have a way of exploding into a morass of regulations. The Federal Register of Regulations is quickly closing in on a million pages. But it’s not a new phenomenon. In Exodus God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. But that was followed by 27 chapters of do’s and don’ts in Leviticus and 34 chapters more in Deuteronomy, which then morphed into 6,200 pages of Talmudic law covering every aspect of beliefs, behaviors, diet, customs, ethics and attitudes. In this week’s gospel, Jesus tells us there is another way… a better, simpler way… to be in harmony with the will of God.

Jesus is quick to tell us that he has not come to contradict the law. Rather he is here to give us a fresh perspective on God’s law, as only God himself could do. Instead of governing our lives by constant reference to an encyclopedic canon of regulations, he would have us look for God’s love in all things. And in that context we refrain from sin not because of prescribed punishments, but because it is the antithesis of God’s love. In Christ our focus shifts from the dos and don’ts, to actively witnessing his love, looking not only to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of the Lord. What would he do? What would he have us do?

Jesus would have us live more active and more complete lives of virtue… as defined by love of God and love of neighbor. He is raising the bar… calling us to elevate our game. He is telling us that the state of our souls is just as important as the actions of our bodies. To be consumed by revenge and seething with anger is as wrong as acting out that anger. To indulgently wallow in lust is to commit the sin without even moving a muscle. To openly commit sin is an obvious affront to God. But it is no more sinful than the hidden heart that embraces vice and crowds out the love of God.

In calling us to follow him, Jesus would have us live in the love of God… leaving no room for sin, filling our hearts, filling our days in joyful harmony with his will. That means we wake in Christ’s love. We give him our day. We spend it together. And we end it gratefully, another day closer to him.

We know that in this life we will never be completely removed from temptation. To the contrary, as the lives of the saints testify, the virtuous are coveted prizes, subject to constant onslaught by the world, the flesh and the devil. But Christ has changed the whole dynamic of good and evil. In his love we run towards holiness, not away from sin. We are not alone, under siege, fearfully hanging on by our fingernails. Rather, we confidently cling to the hand of Jesus… a hand that was pierced for our salvation. And hand in hand, he protects us and claims us for his own.

In this gospel, Christ has raised the bar for moral behavior. But in his love, he raises us up so very much higher… well over the bar and safely all the way home.

The Reverend David Sellery, Author, Resource Creator and Retreat Leader. Committed to a vocation that focuses on encountering God in the midst of everyday life, I serve as an Episcopal priest who seeks to proclaim the good news of God in Christ in worship, pastoral care, education, stewardship, congregational development and community outreach, while continually engaging our wider culture with dynamism and hope.

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