"All or Nothing Faith" – Matthew 5:21-37
“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.
I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy in a lot of ways, and it’s come to my attention in the last couple of weeks, yet again, much to my chagrin. I was reminded of it most recently when I got onto a health kick and began to get into an exercise routine, which I started again after some time, a few weeks ago.
And if I’m going to exercise, I’m going to run, not walk. And if I’m going to bother, there’s going to be some distance involved – a few miles, at least – even if I haven’t stepped on a treadmill for, say, 6 months or more. And if I’m going to exercise, I’m also changing my diet. There’s no sense bothering with all of that time and energy, sweat and tears, and so on if I’m just going to undo it all with a large fry. So I cut calories and do without sugar and drink water by the gallon and so on and so forth.
And then I’ll hurt myself – strain my back, let’s say – to the degree that I can barely walk or stand up straight without groaning or find a heating pad hot enough to take away the pain, whatever. And I’ll have to stop running…or walking, for that matter… because why bother? And if I’m not running who cares about what I’m eating…so back come the calories and the candy and the snacks and the sugar and all the rest.
And this ridiculous character flaw shows up in other ways, too. If I can’t clean the bathroom from top to bottom, why bother just scrubbing the shower, even though it could use it? (So I don’t do either, often enough.) If I’m not going to move all of the furniture to get at every inch of carpet, why run the vacuum at all? (So I don’t.) If I’m not going to cook a full-fledged meal for everyone to sit down and enjoy, why not just grab some chips and salsa and call that dinner? (Which I do, far too often.) It’s a character flaw. And it can be ridiculous. And, as you might imagine it’s not one of my wife’s favorite things about me.
Anyway, when I read Jesus’ words from this bit of his Sermon on the Mount, I feel like he’s describing some kind of an Olympic-level regimen for discipleship and faithfulness. And it makes me tired and it wears me out and it makes me not even want to try. It seems impossible; it’s certainly unlikely; it may even be downright unfair to expect this kind of dedication, this sort of complete devotion, this total, all-or-nothing commitment to the ways of God as he describes them.
After all, he sets the bar of faithfulness so high in what we get for today, who could live up to his standards? In verses 21-26, he lumps anger and insult into the same category as murder. In verses 27-30, he puts a wandering eye under the same umbrella as adultery. And in verses 31-32, he makes divorce and adultery one-and-the-same – as far as many people I know are concerned, anyway. And, of course, the corresponding punishments for not living up to it all are extreme – tearing out eyes and cutting off hands, and so forth. Most of us are in some “deep kimchi,” as my high school history teacher used to say.
And I know we can’t minimize this. We surely can’t disregard it out of hand, like my all-or-nothing attitude tempts me to. (If I can’t honor all of it … in full … with perfection … why bother?) But we can’t believe, either, that Jesus is advocating we actually lop off our limbs and pluck out our eyes or otherwise punish ourselves with guilt and abuse every time we falter or fail.
See, I don’t think Jesus means to be holding up an impossible standard, just for the fun of it. And I don’t think Jesus is testing our willingness or ability to actually be perfect as some Christians might be inclined to suggest. I don’t think Jesus is setting the bar for faithfulness so high in order to see who can endure the most intense, grueling, deprived life of discipleship. Nor do I think Jesus ever means to make faith like an exercise in something we can fail at or succeed in. Where would the grace be in any of that?
What I think Jesus means to do, is to encourage us and challenge us and inspire us in as many ways as possible so that we’ll live faithfully in ways that bless us and that bless the world in return.
I think Jesus – in this moment with his disciples on the hillside – is like a loving parent…like a trusted partner…like a model coach who pushes his most trusted followers in ways and to places that they – and we – might not get to without some encouragement and challenge. What he’s calling us to are lives that shine the light of God; that usher in the Kingdom; that bring to bear upon the world, a better way of grace. And that kind of kingdom-living isn’t easy, pretty, or perfectly managed – but it doesn’t mean we don’t try… that we don’t set a high standard for ourselves and each other, nonetheless.
In other words, for people celebrating and searching for the kingdom of God among us, we can’t let murder be the minimum standard by which we govern our anger – what we post on Facebook or whisper behind backs matters. We shouldn’t let adultery be the standard by which we measure faithfulness to our partner – the way we talk about and treat women matters. The way we talk about and treat men matters. And we shouldn’t let divorce come as an easy solution to problems in a marriage – because love and forgiveness and reconciliation are worth the work.
So, Jesus holds up a higher standard, not because he wants to see us fail – or because he knows that we will – or because this life of faith is an all-or-nothing endeavor. What Jesus does is raise the bar of faithfulness for us because he knows that we and the world will be blessed by every effort we make at living into those faithful hopes and expectations, even when it’s hard; even when we don’t do it perfectly.
It’s why we do what we do together as believers in the church. I think our life together here is meant to be a training ground for grace and discipleship that helps make us fit for the kingdom of God we’re called to experience and bring to bear on the world out there.
When we talk about praying it’s not to get the words just right so we’ll get what we want or all we think we need. When we miss the chance to pray as we should, it doesn’t mean we refuse pray as we ought when the next opportunity arises.
When we encourage and challenge each other to give our money away, it’s not just to pay the bills or to build a building. It’s to grow generous people. And just because we can’t give it all, doesn’t mean we don’t give any. Just because we can’t give as much as so-and-so, doesn’t mean we don’t give as much as we can or know we should.
When we talk about practicing our faith, in any way, as children of God, it’s not because we are – or ever could be – done, or perfect, or better than anybody else in the eyes of our creator. It’s because we will be blessed…and able to bless others; it’s because we will be fulfilled…and able to fill the world; …and it’s because we will be forgiven, even when we don’t.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – and today’s words, as hard as they sound on the surface – are all about living, as disciples, in ways that aren’t always easy, or comfortable, or popular. And we will fail…, or come up short…, or leave so much left undone, more often than we’d like. And, it might be tempting to wonder “Why begin?” or “Why bother?”
But in those moments our answer is an “all-or-nothing” kind of thing, only it has nothing to do with our efforts, or our energy, or our success, or our failure. It has everything to do with God’s effort and God’s energy and God’s faithfulness in Jesus. The only “all-or-nothing” that matters here, is God’s “all-or-nothing,” which says always says “no, no” to our sin and brokenness and failure, and “yes, yes” to our forgiveness and love and second-chances in all things by amazing grace.