first preached in 2014; revised in 2017 and 2023
Object Lesson (kids’ names changed for privacy)
One of our kids, John, got to open a small box. Inside: heart-shaped milk chocolates, foil wrapped. “Today,” I explained, “we’re going to talk about rules for chocolate.”
Jane, whose mother has diagnosed her with “chronic cuteness syndrome,” narrowed her eyes and pouted in an exceptional ham-it-up moment.
“Rules for eating chocolate,” I insisted. “Like: You take the foil off.”
“And throw it away!” Veronica reminded me. “No littering.”
“And you use your mouth,” I added. “You can’t eat it with your nose.” Giggles and protesting. “And of course, if you put candy in front of kids, you should bring enough to share.”
As they dove eager hands into the box, I continued. “But chocolate is a treat. Maybe we should have a rule about savoring it. To truly savor it you can only eat it very slowly — you have to sit for 30 seconds and look at it before you can put it in your mouth.” A double-down glare from Jane. “And you know,” I added, “in case there isn’t more later you should only eat the corners now. And technically Valentine’s Day isn’t for two more days so you can’t eat it till then!”
Amid the shouts and chaos of being presented with chocolate they now could not eat, I suggested that we scrap those last three rules, and simply listen to today’s scripture for what rules were helpful, and what rules sounded like a burden.
“One more rule, though,” I said, opening a much larger box — “if you bring chocolate for the kids, you should bring some for the adults too.”
And with pride, John, Jane, and Veronica began distributing the rest of the chocolate to the whole congregation as we listened to the Scripture.
Scripture: Matthew 5:21-37, New Revised Standard Version
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“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. 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.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Last week, we heard how Jesus said to his disciples: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of Jesus’ world. They were the priests, the readers, the theology scholars — the pastors and Bible study leaders of their time. They interpreted the Jewish scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) and taught people how to apply them to their lives. For example: work on the Sabbath, the seventh day, was forbidden, to remember the seventh day of creation when God rested. But how much work was forbidden? Could you cook food for dinner? Could you light a fire at all? This is the kind of thing they would discuss, trying to find a way for faithful people to live honest and integrated lives.
And all of this discussion, in Jesus’ time and before and after it for Jewish people for centuries, was happening under the power of outside forces. The Jewish people live under a long history of oppression — of power wrested from them by outside empires, kings and armies who conquer and destroy. So, not only where the scribes and Pharisees asking, “How do we live as God’s people?”, but also “and how do we survive under the oppression of Syria, Persia, Greece, Rome?” So the religious leaders of Jesus’ time had power, but not complete power; they had responsibility, and lived in very real danger, and tried to find ways to use their limited power to protect their people.
But power does strange things to people, and religious power is no exception. Religious power can even be worse — it can be a piling-on of financial power and emotional power and social power and spiritual power and, for us as Christians, eternal power. Religious power can decide who gets to be part of the church and who doesn’t — who can lead worship, who can have contact with their family, who can receive help when it’s needed, who is allowed to receive communion, who goes to Heaven and who is doomed eternally.
Religious power does strange things to people, and sometimes, among the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, they would make decisions that made things really hard for everyday people. Those with religious power could get so caught up in the minutia of making sure the rules were never ever broken (or, unfortunately, that their own power was never ever challenged) that they put impossible burdens on their people — the faithful Jewish people living under Roman rule.
People with religious power making things hard on ordinary people — good thing that ended two thousand years ago, and never shows up among us now, huh? [laughter]
These kinds of religious leaders — we know what it’s like to live under them. Under pastors and preachers and teachers and Bible study leaders and high school friends-of-friends on Facebook who are always asking questions with an edge to them, trying to trick the listener. The religious leaders that Jesus tangled with were trying to catch him teaching others to disobey religious laws. They see Jesus standing by a man with a crippled hand and say, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” (The implied answer being no, because one of the Jewish laws was that no work could be done on the Sabbath — but who would support a miracle healer who refused to heal?) They say, “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Rome, or not?” — a trick question, because saying Yes would make the crowd hate him and saying No would make the Romans jail him. They hear of Jesus’ miracles, of the exorcisms and healings, and they say “Jesus is casting out demons by the power of the ruler of the demons — he’s not sent from God but enslaved to the devil.”
Jesus gets really worked up about this kind of religious power. After he’s entered Jerusalem, just before his arrest and trial, he goes into a long speech against them — like a reverse Blessed are the meek: “Woe to you, religious leaders, hypocrites! You are blind guides, you debate the law of God day and night, you demand that everyone follow the rules perfectly and then you forget justice and mercy and faith.”
And right now Jesus says to his disciples, “Those guys? The ones who study the law so closely, who spend day and night researching how to follow it perfectly? Your righteousness, your rule-following, has to exceed theirs.”
But then Jesus keeps going — and when Jesus keeps going, the rules start to taste a little different.
“You have heard it said,” he says, “‘You shall not murder’.” But then he says: just as wrong is anger, and hatred, and bearing a grudge. It’s not just your outward actions that make a difference. If you’re walking around with resentment and unfinished business, it doesn’t matter if you’re making the right sacrifices. What’s in your heart is what matters.
“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “‘you shall not commit adultery.’’ But then he says: just as wrong is objectification, and disrespect, and valuing people only for what they do for you. If you’re walking around treating everyone like they’re just there for your enjoyment, it’d be better if you couldn’t see anything at all. It doesn’t matter if you don’t technically “do” anything. What’s in your heart is what matters.
“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “‘divorce is acceptable if there is a certificate’ — a proper legal procedure.” But then he says: just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right. You’re the only thing she has to live on. It helps to remember that the only way for a woman to survive, in first-century Jewish life, is to be married. She can’t work. She can’t own property. She has no legal representation, no alimony, no child support, absolutely nothing to live on if her husband chooses to put her aside — which he could do for absolutely any reason. So Jesus says to the husbands: if you treat her like she’s something you can idly put aside, you’re destroying her chances at a good life. The legal issue’s not important — it’s what in your heart, and what your impact is on others, that matters.
“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “‘carry out the vows you made to God.” But then he says: don’t make vows. Don’t swear by anything. Just tell the truth, straight from your heart — that’s where things matter. Yes, vows can be beautiful when they are made for marriage or just to be someone’s best friend forever, but what matters is whether those are carried out. What makes a difference is walking the walk once you’ve talked the talk.
Jesus takes these rules, the burdens of the religious leaders, and moves the concern from our actions to our intentions. “Your righteousness must exceed that of the religious leaders, because it’s no longer just about what your body is doing but your heart. Checking off boxes, earning points, following the letter of the law — that has only a little to do with true righteousness, true justice.” Instead of making faith about how perfect or pious or saint-like we might appear — about what we do, or about what we avoid doing — Jesus invites us to look at our motivations, our thoughts, our intentions behind what we do.
We’re about to start the long journey of Lent, the season when we prepare ourselves for what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean for us. Lent is beautiful, and Lent is worth waiting for, but let me give you a spoiler for what happens at the end:
We are tasked with moving through the world with love.
Not just the kind of love you can box up with candy hearts and milk chocolate kisses. Not just the kind of love that writes grand poetry and brings home flowers on special days. It’s a much more challenging kind of love — the kind that forces us to let go of ourselves and open our hands to others.
The kind of love that leads to reconciliation. Love that lets go of anger. Love where you start to love your brother, your sister, your family, your neighbor, even your enemy.
Love that creates connection. Love that lets go of of objectification. Love that’s not just not lusting after someone but of recognizing the humanity of everyone.
Love that leads to mercy and compassion. Love that recognizes when you are in power, like the men of the 1st century who could cast aside their wife for any slight they decided on. Recognizing that you have the chance to ruin someone’s life or to save it — to take the easy advantage or to remember that you are dealing with someone who is, just as much as you are, a beloved child of God.
Love that creates honesty and vulnerability. Love that lets you tell the truth. Love that doesn’t protect itself behind laws and vows but daring to say what you mean and mean what you say.
This is life. This is what God begs us to choose, in Deuteronomy chapter 30: Keep my commandments. Live. Really live. The people of Israel have wandered in the desert for forty years and now stand on the banks of the Jordan about to pass into the promised land, and God says: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life. Choose love. Choose to love me with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and choose to love your neighbor as yourself.
This is life. And it’s hard. It is so hard in the midst of our political divisions and worries about money and stress at work and sick kids at home and broken relationships and awful bosses and too much homework and too much to do to remember that we have been offered this gift, this sweetness of living in love instead.
It’s harder than the righteousness of the religious leaders. It’s harder than a life of law, where we know who’s in and who’s out. And it’s worth it. It’s so, so worth it. And that is why God gives us a chance new, every morning. That is why we bring our babies and our children and our selves to baptism, to the promises of God that every single morning we are washed clean and get a fresh start to choose what is good — to choose life. Not distrust and manipulation and objectification and heartbreak, but life. Honesty and vulnerability and intention and compassion. To live in love, right from the heart.
Today’s a new chance. Let’s take it.
Congregations that are actively affirming of LGBTQ+ people are given permission to reprint and use this content in worship when credit is given to Rev. Emmy Kegler and a link provided back to this page. Congregations without an actively affirming policy are invited to ask for permission.