Saturday, 22 February 2014

Anger, Lust, and Lies

In our Gospel reading Jesus is now describing to us what it means to be the people of the Kingdom of God. And as we hear his words we should also hear in the back of our minds the period (or exclamation mark!) he places after his teaching. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says this (7:21-27): 
“Not everyone who says to me, ’Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ [Which he doesn’t teach in this sermon]. Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’  ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’”
When we hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount we need to hear it with this kind of seriousness. As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas said “…if these radical demands are abandoned, we abandon Jesus”. To ignore these teachings of Jesus is to ignore Jesus. Jesus ties these teachings intimately to himself. To be the people of the Kingdom is to be people united with Jesus living out the call to be salt and light in the world.   
This was always God’s intention. God wanted to create a people that would bless the world. Jesus was drawing people back to God’s original plan. 
While we need to take what Jesus says with the utmost seriousness, we must also avoid turning Jesus’ teachings into laws. Jesus is more concerned with your character. Jesus doesn’t necessarily want people that follow the letter of the law. Jesus wants people whose characters are so formed that they naturally and easily do what is right- and in that way they fulfil the law. Someone in prison has a very limited ability to break the law, but might still have the heart of a lawbreaker.
Each of the topics Jesus teaches about in our reading could be a whole sermon, but I thought we could touch on them each.  

Jesus sees anger as the seed of murder. Jesus is concerned with the state of a person’s heart. A person can be imprisoned and be prevented from murdering someone, but they might be filled with murderous anger. They are filled with the same inner condition as the person who commits murder. To Jesus this person has not truly fulfilled the law to not murder. Jesus gets right to the source of murder by pointing to anger. It is something all of us face. I don’t think Jesus is speaking about that flash of anger that comes to you when someone hurts you. I think he is concerned about dwelling on anger and acting in anger.  I would risk saying that all actions done in anger are sin and dwelling on anger and refusing to let go of it becomes poison to your soul. Dwelling on this kind of anger is poison for the whole community. That’s why confession of sin, penance, and reconciliation are necessary to receive the Eucharist.
Anger arises for a number of reasons- something we value has been devalued, an expectation hasn’t been met, or we feel like we don’t have control over a situation. We often want to hang onto anger because we think it helps us fight for justice or right a wrong, but we read in James’ letter (1:20) “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires”. Anger makes us feel self-righteous so we think it comes with justice, but it usually just clouds our minds. Anything that can be done in anger can be done better out of some other emotion, like compassion for the victims, rather than anger at the perpetrators.  This doesn’t mean we don’t confront those who we believe have wronged us. We confront them, but it is in the spirit of peacemaking and truth-telling rather than vengeance.   
This world would be a very different place without Anger. How many murders would take place without anger? How many wars would take place if there was no anger in this world? It is no accident that Jesus tackles anger early in the Sermon on the Mount.
There is a lot more we could say about the topic and there are ways of dealing with anger, which we don’t have time to get into here, but they have to do with training ourselves to think differently and changing bad habits.

After anger Jesus deals with lust. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus is not saying that merely noticing someone is beautiful is equal to committing adultery. The original Greek means something more like “lookingfor the purpose of lusting”.  This is where one dwells on the thought of the person and starts to use the imagination to commit adultery in the heart. This is essentially what lies at the heart of pornography- looking for the purpose of lusting. It turns people into objects for personal selfish gratification. 
            Jesus tells us that this is so serious that if it would help we should tear out our eye or cut off our hand. Jesus knows, of course, that these are not the sources of our lust. The source is the sin in our heart and that is what must be torn out.   

Jesus speaks against divorce after he speaks about anger and lust. I wonder how many marriages would be saved if anger and lust were dealt with.  Jesus speaks quite strongly against divorce. But, we also have to be careful to hear his words in his cultural context. In Jesus’ day there was a school of thought that allowed a man to divorce his wife for nearly any reason, even for not cooking a pleasing meal. It was very easy for a man to divorce his wife. A divorced woman in his culture was forced to move in with family members that would have her, or beg on the street or become a prostitute. She might be able to get remarried, but she would likely be treated as 'damaged goods' by her new husband.
            This injustice has to be in our minds as we hear Jesus’ words about divorce. Jesus is here trying to protect women from abuse. (If this is true then we could be acting against Jesus' intentions if we ask a woman to stay in an abusive relationship). God’s original intention for marriage didn’t include divorce, but we live in a broken world that makes it difficult to avoid. The ideal is what Jesus wants us to look for- two people who have been made one flesh in their love and care for each other. Paul will go on to teach that a married couple should love each other as Christ loves the church and as the church loves Christ, which involves sacrifice for the benefit of the other. But, people's hearts are hard.  There are conditions where it is allowed because people can do awful things to each other, but we shouldn't think in terms of "law" and what is allowed. We need to be thinking about the state of our hearts. We shouldn't be looking for loopholes. 

Jesus then tackles lies and truth telling. The reason we need to sign papers and take oaths is that we live in a world full of lies where people do not keep their words. If we lived in a world where people kept their word and told the truth we would have no need for oaths or signatures. The dangerous outcome is that people could come to believe that they don’t need to keep their word unless they take an oath or sign a document. Jesus wants us to recover plain speech and honest hearts where we say what we mean and mean what we say.

I didn’t give any of these the time they deserve. What Jesus wants is not people who follow laws. He doesn’t want people who keep themselves from murdering people by cutting off their arms. He doesn’t want people who blind themselves so they never see a beautiful person for fear they might lust after them. He doesn’t want people who live the letter of his teaching but miss the heart of his teaching.  We won’t become the kind of people Jesus desires by just avoiding sin. A garden is more than just pulling weeds. We pull weeds so they won’t harm the flowers. We won’t become holy people by avoiding anger and lust and lies. He wants us to learn to become a particular kind of person- a person motivated by love. 

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