Beware of Literalism!

Matthew 5:21-37

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.

Before we go any further—as a priest in the Episcopal Church I’ve got to tell you—no way can you read this text literally.

As a community, we’d have a lot of one-eyed, one-handed parishioners, for starters! How could Jesus mean this literally? He’s a healer! Doctors don’t tell you to pull out your eye!

Jesus and the Torah

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch

To understand this text, it is important to locate it in the scriptures.  This is from the Sermon on the Mount. It follows the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor, for they will be filled; Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Those are the blessings for the future, when the Kingdom of God comes. This section is part of the core of Jesus’ teaching in the sermon: the section scholars call “Jesus and the Torah.” After the blessings of the future, Jesus addresses the demands of life in the present.

Jesus is teaching about the law, specifically about the Ten Commandments. He is not teaching people something they don’t know; he is teaching something they know well and still need to keep learning. Moreover, he is teaching them how to follow him as his disciples. If you read the Ten Commandments where they appear in Exodus (20:1-17) or Deuteronomy (5:6-21), you will notice that they are a list of Dos and Don’ts for loving God and living in community, but there are no consequences listed there. The punishments for wrongdoing appear elsewhere in the Torah, but the Commandments are God’s top 10 list of things to do and not do “Because I said so.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus added consequences–maybe “Because God said so” wasn’t enough for them. Jesus used hyperbole is a teaching method. Can you think of ways that you have heard hyperbole used to teach? Perhaps in the way parents talk to young children? What do they say? “Don’t make a face—your face will freeze that way!” and a million other Don’ts! What do parents mean? Be careful of the way you behave! Who would a child make a face at? A little brother or sister, to torment them. A stranger in a passing car, being generally bratty and disrespectful. They use hyperbole in naming scary consequences when “because I said so” isn’t effective. Hyperbole is a way of over-making the point—which Jesus is doing. Tear out an eye? Cut off a hand? The point is that there are serious consequences to behavior.

Change your behavior, change your thinking

Early in the 20th century, B.F. Skinner became known for Behaviorism—a branch of psychology that holds more or less that it is easier to behave yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of behaving. Two thousand years earlier, Jesus taught about behavior: specifically how to honor the Ten Commandments.  His teaching was intended to build a fence around the Big Ten so people wouldn’t stumble into serious trouble before they realized the danger. He said that if you avoid lusting in your heart, you won’t find yourself committing adultery.

Imagine you are listening to Jesus say these things, and you remember when you did something—look with lust on someone, say. You raise your hand to get his attention and ask Jesus: “Do you want me to tear my eye out now? Right now?…Oh, not now? When? …Did you mean that? You’ll have a lot of one-eyed people around here. What do you want me to do really? Oh. Follow the Ten Commandments. Got it.”

Boston2Since we have the Ten Commandments, why do we need anything else? Do the Ten Commandments help you do everyday things? Do the Ten Commandments help you drive from here to Boston? What do you need to make that drive?

  • Patience, I know

  • Traffic signs and lights

  • Speed limits

We need traffic laws. We need a system of right-of-ways. If I come to a stop sign, I may not want to stop–may not feel like it–but there is a car in the intersection and I know that other car has the right-of-way. Stopping at that sign keeps me from plowing right into the other car–keeps me from murder.

We need rules to help us understand when we are in the minefield walking toward the big ticket SINS. For example: Don’t Steal (that’s number 8). To understand that you shouldn’t steal, a kid has to first understand a right-of-way concept: “it’s not yours.”  When I was about five years old, I was in a store with my mother–Woolworth’s (a thousand years ago). I discovered that if I reached my hand out, I could grab some very appealing colorful candy, and put it in my pocket. When I got home, my mother saw me looking at the candy. “Where did you get that? I didn’t buy it,” she said. “I picked it up!” I said. Back to the store we went, and right up to a clerk. I confessed. I returned the candy. I apologized. I remember it as if it were yesterday, and I never again took anything that didn’t belong to me. I am very sure Jesus does not want me to cut off my hand.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught people how to do the right thing. He taught them about human dignity and healthy relationships. He warned  them to stay far away from the things that would entice them another step closer to doing the wrong thing. He warned them in the strongest terms to stay out of the minefield, because the way we treat each other matters to God. How could we rephrase these teachings for the 21st century?

It’s not enough just to refrain from murder.

We should also treat each other with respect and that means not insulting or verbally abusing each other.

It is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery.

We should also not treat other people as sex objects.

It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce.

We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable are provided for.

It is not enough to keep ourselves from swearing falsely or lying to others.

We should speak and act truthfully in all of our dealings so that we don’t need to make oaths at all.

How can we live into these teachings right now? What would be a good first step? I suggest that you call to mind a relationship that is important to you: one that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you. Think about what makes that a good relationship, about why it’s so important, and thank God for that person and that relationship.

Second, call to mind another relationship that is important to you but that has suffered some damage. You don’t need to figure out who was to blame for the hurt, but hold that person in prayer; offer that broken relationship to God and ask for God’s help and healing.

Thank you God for the gift of your law and teaching. Thank you for the Good News that you love us. Help us to love each other, and treat each other well, and help us to do it with our two good eyes and our two good hands. AMEN.


PS. Not stealing means acknowledging other people’s work. I am grateful to David Lose at Working Preacher for his modern-day interpretations of Jesus’ teaching, and suggestions for how to implement them.

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