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Cut It Out!
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to The gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, and follow along as I read verses 21-30. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
26 Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Back in 1928, the Church of England revised the wording in the Communion service from "lively faith" to "living faith." This revision created quite a stir. One Yorkshire churchwarden, who disliked the change protested: "Look at our vicar. He's living, but he ain't lively." [Michael Wright, Yours, Lord (London: Mowbray, 1992), 9]. Well a lot of Christians are living, just living, but they are not very lively. Their Christian lives are at a low ebb because they allow themselves to be dominated by bad habits.
Thus, our scripture today from Matthew 5 is something we need. It is about dealing with bad habits; specifically, Matthew 5:21-30 is about our bad habits with regard to other people and Jesus offers us blunt advice. Cut it out. Stop doing it.
In v20, Jesus said the righteousness of his people should exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. He then proceeds to show us how to do that, and he gets specific, which makes us uncomfortable. Some might say that Jesus has quit preaching and started meddling. Actually what he has done is to quit theorizing and start making practical applications of the law of love.
The Expanded Sixth Commandment
First of all, Jesus deals with the sixth commandment. Notice that Jesus does not hesitate to amend the Old Testament. In v21 he says you have heard the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. He is talking to Jews. They know the law of Moses. They know the sixth commandment, which forbids killing.
The common understanding of this commandment in Jesus time was that, “Whosoever shall kill, shall be in danger of the judgment.” That is, murderers face the sword of justice, the judgment of the courts. This is the way that most people still interpret this commandment today. Most would say that the commandment against killing involves only a physical act, and has nothing to do with inward attitudes and thoughts.
But Jesus adds a new dimension to the commandment, a psychological and spiritual dimension. He says that anger is a kind of murder. Jesus says that whosoever is angry with his brother, breaks the sixth commandment. By our brother here, we are to understand any person, any adult or any child, any neighbor or any stranger. He means everyone from Osama Bin Ladin to St. Francis of Assisi.
But we need to add a qualifier. Anger, in and of itself, is not always bad. Sometimes we ought to get angry. We ought to get angry when people are killed or abused.
What Jesus is talking about is anger “without cause.” When we get angry at children for doing something that they did not know they were not supposed to do, when we get angry at friends for something that they could not help, when we get angry because of something we perceive as wrong, and we do not stay to find out if it is actually wrong, that is anger without cause. When we get overwrought about this or that and we blow things out of proportion and get angry over trivial stuff, that is anger without cause. When we get angry at others for something that if we had done it, we would not have been angry at all, that is anger without cause. Further, any anger that incites us to vengeance and hatred is without cause, because those are not attitudes that Christians are supposed to have. If someone else murders, we should be angry about it, but if that leads us to murder, then our anger has led us wrong.
Jesus takes it even further, saying that if in our anger, we would commit murder, but for some reason we do not carry out that act, either from fear of being caught or lack of opportunity, but still if we would like to murder, then we are guilty of murder. We are not perhaps guilty in a human court of law but we are guilt in God’s court.
Jesus says that murder begins with anger against people, so we ought to stop murder where it begins; we ought to stop having and promoting attitudes of violence.
And in the latter part of v22, he continues this to the next step, saying that we should not even speak ugly of others. Do not have contemptuous attitudes so that you speak of others as idiots or morons or fools. These are words that come from attitudes of malice and false pride and cause us to look upon others as somehow vile and beneath us.
It may seem a far cry to us, from chopping someone’s head off to saying something mean about them, but that is a human point of view. Jesus says that we break the sixth commandment when we maliciously slander other people. Our ugly words show our ugly attitudes, and show that we would actually kill them if we had the power and opportunity.
Now we in our human wisdom make light of these sins. Certainly, if you cursed someone with four letter words, we think that is not good behavior, but call him worthless or no good, and most people think that is not a sin at all. Jesus says it is a sin, because no one is worthless. All putdowns of people are wrong. God made them and God loves them, and so we do not have the right to ridicule them.
This shows us then how we are supposed to live. We live in a state of peace and love with other people, and if at any time problems or difficulties arise, we work for reconciliation. We confess our fault; we beg pardon; we make restitution.
Jesus said that even if you have come to church, and you are sitting there in the pew, and you think of something that someone has against you, then you ought to get up right now and go make it right. Do it now. And if it is the other way around. If you remember that someone has wronged you, even as you sit there in the pew, you should immediately forgive them and put that behind you.
That leads us then to a couple of basic points for Christian worship. First, we come to a religious service with an attitude of self-examination. Here, in church, we are to reflect seriously on our relationship with God and each other. Secondly, our worship, our participation in a religious service, is not acceptable to God, if we have attitudes of wrath, envy, or malice. What Jesus says is that these are sins are so displeasing to God, that nothing pleases God which comes from a person where these sins are predominant. In Isaiah, God says,” When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (IS1:15). God says, I am not going to hear your prayers while you are covered with the blood of your neighbors. You cannot hurt people and turn piously to God in prayer and praise, and expect that to be acceptable behavior. God says it is not acceptable. Cut it out. Stop doing it.
Now sometimes folks say, that they do not come to church because they are angry with their neighbor. They piously say, “I am just not fit to go to church because of this quarrel.” That is not what Jesus said at all. That is using one sin (the sin of deliberately not going to church) to excuse another sin (the sin of not loving neighbor). All that does is double the sin and double the guilt. But Jesus says, this problem is easily solved. Those who have wronged us, we forgive; and those whom we have wronged, we make satisfaction to, or at least we offer them satisfaction and renewal of friendship. It may be that they will not accept your offer of friendship, they will not give you forgiveness. You can do nothing about that. Do not worry about that, do your part, seek their forgiveness.
The Expanded Seventh
Then in v27, Jesus moves on to the seventh commandment. Which is: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” According to the first century Jewish application of this commandment only the woman could commit adultery. This was that old double standard, and they had it down pat. The woman caught in adultery was shamed forever, and might well be stoned to death. The man’s sin was winked at. But Jesus changes this and makes the man accountable, and again he adds a psychological and spiritual dimension to the law saying that if you even looked at her with adulterous thoughts, you are guilty of sin. Jesus says that if you would have committed adultery with her, and you looked at her with those kinds of thoughts, then even if you did not do anything, you are still guilty.
We have an Old Testament example. When Joseph was a slave of Potifar, he was put in a position of trust, he was made steward of Potifar’s house. But we are told in Gen. 39:7 that Potifar’s wife looked upon Joseph and lusted after him. When Joseph refused her advances, she reacted like a woman scorned and framed Joseph and had him thrown into prison. But notice this, Potifar’s wife could have claimed that she was not guilty of adultery. She never actuallyl engaged in any illicit sex with Joseph. But Jesus says she was guilty, because she looked upon him with lust. I suppose that a feminist writer would say that the reason the Old Testament makes a big deal out of Potifar’s wife lusting after Joseph was because the story is about a woman committing this sin, not a man, but Jesus says that it makes no difference. Man or woman, to look with lust, is to commit adultery.
Now I realize that the male part of the congregation may be saying that this is too much to bear, that any male will always look at a pretty female, that this is biology that cannot be helped. I do not think that is exactly what Jesus is talking about. He says look with lust, that is to look with the intention of committing adultery, with the willingness to commit adultery. This is more than just noticing a pretty woman. It is the hard look of one who wants to commit adultery and is plotting to do it, but for some reason or another does not actually do it.
Plucking Out Eyes
Jesus concludes our scripture today, in vs 29 and 30 saying: “If 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. And 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” (NRSV).
These are verses that if you lift them out of context do not make any sense at all. What is Jesus talking about? More to the point, what has he been talking about? He has been talking about evil attitudes. He want us to understand how offensive our sinful habits are to God and he wants us to stop it.
Now had he said just that it would have had little effect on us. If he said, “You folks have some bad habits and attitudes that you ought to change,” had he said that it would have had no effect. Jesus knows that to make his point he has to exaggerate so that we are shocked by what he says, and what he says then makes an impression on us, so that we actually stop doing it. He says that if your eye were preventing you from going to heaven, if you knew for certain that your eye was going to condemn you to hell, then you would rip that eye out of the socket with your bare hand and throw it away. But of course he is not talking about an eye, he is talking about our ugly attitudes toward other people.
And Jesus points out here a couple of essential factors in stopping any bad habit. This applies to any habit that you want to get rid of. Maybe you want to stop smoking, maybe you want to stop drinking alcohol, maybe you want to stop eating too much, whatever the problem, we see in this passage a couple of crucial things.
First of all there has got to be the recognition of the problem. This may be the most important part of dealing with any habit. Most people are in denial about their bad habits. I have heard this often in dealing with alcoholics. “I am just a social drinker,” they say, and then you discover that their drinking is consuming every aspect of their lives and destroying every relationship they have. But they refuse to see that. Most people have a blind spot when it comes to their own bad habits. They can see a speck of a bad habit in someone else a mile away. They cannot see their own bad habit even when it is a log in their eye. So the first rule in dealing with any bad habit is I have to accept that I have this specific bad habit. For example, to use our scripture today, anger is a bad habit, but in order to deal with it, I have to understand that it is my bad habit. I am the one that Jesus was talking about, I am the one who needs to stop it. I need to change some things about my life because the way that I am living is not acceptable to God.
And not only must I recognize that I have a problem, I must be filled with revulsion and disgust at this evil habit of mine. I will tell you the reason why most people fail to stop doing their bad habits. They do not really want to stop. At some level, they know that what they are doing is wrong. Take smoking for example, they have read the evidence, they know that tobacco in any form is a nasty unhealthy habit. They know they ought to stop, but the desire to stop is not really a major motive in their thinking. Yes, they ought to stop and they probably will some day, but it is not the biggest deal in the world. I assure you if you think like that about any bad habit, you will never stop.
Half measures do not work with bad habits. Gradual tapering off does not work. Compromises do not work. Stop it. That is what works. Cut it out that is what works. But I cannot stop it until I become some angry at it that I will go to any measure, to any length, to stop it. You remember that I said that anger is not always bad. It is not bad when it is directed at our bad habits. When I become so angry at my bad habit, when I hate it so much that I would be willing to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye to be rid of it, then I can be rid of it, then I can stop it. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/12/04