Boy, Jesus is really kicking it up a notch! That was my first thought after reading the gospel lesson for this Sunday: Matthew 5:21-37. We're in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus has just finished laying out his vision statement for the kingdom of heaven - the Beatitudes - and reminding us that we are salt and light in this world.
Now he begins to get to specifics. "Ok - everyone knows the commandment about murder. But listen! If you even are angry at someone, if you call someone a name, you are just as guilty as if you murdered that person." Talk about kicking it up a notch!
It's an impossible set of standards. Jesus takes the Ten Commandments and raises the bar even higher. You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not covet, you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain - these become you shall reconcile with anyone you are angry with, you shall control your envy and lust and not entertain thoughts that would lead you to sexual impropriety or acts that would ruin a marriage, you shall let your yes be yes and not try to skirt taking God's name in vain by using clever euphemisms.
The thing on oaths sort of reminds me of a conversation I had when my kids were in early elementary school. They were acquiring colorful vocabulary and it was my job to teach them which words were acceptable and which words were not. Our conversation that evening went something like this:
Daughter: "Gosh darn it!!!! Oh - I can say that can't I? I didn't use the bad 'd' word."
Me: "Yes, but you know that 'darn' stands in for the 'd' word. And 'gosh' stands in for God. So it's really not much different from saying the bad words, is it?"
Daughter, interest piqued: "What about 'heck?' Can I say that? Pastor said 'hell' in his sermon last week, so is that ok, too?"
Son, intently listening in up to that point: "What about the Christmas carol that calls the donkey the bad 'a' word. Can we say that if we're talking about donkeys? What if we think someone is acting like a donkey?"
As you might expect, the conversation deteriorated from there. I valiantly tried to explain that just by changing the word a bit - damn to darn, hell to heck - they were still really saying the curse word. I admit most of it went over the heads of my 5 and 8 year old, but it opened the door to further conversation about the difference between what we say and do and what we really mean.
I tried to kick it up a notch, and failed utterly.
I am also reminded of Martin Luther's Small Catechism. In the section on the Commandments, Luther first states the commandment and then asks, "What does this mean?" He goes on to explain that 'we are to fear and love God, so that..." - and then he kicks it up a notch. For example, for the commandment against murder, Luther teaches that we are not only to not kill, but we are to preserve and protect life, to build up our neighbor and be reconciled to everyone. Every commandment has an explanation, kicking the commandment up a notch, turning a list of don'ts into a list of what it looks like to live in the kingdom of heaven. Of course, Luther got his ideas directly from Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount.
Yeah, Jesus really kicks it up a notch. He goes beyond the actions that we do, to what is in our very hearts - our thoughts, our intentions, our grudges, our secrets.
Jesus wants us to understand that it's not just the acts that hurt us - murder, theft, adultery, envy. It's the intentions - the leaning of the heart - behind those acts that destroy life and relationship. We may not actually plot (or carry out) murder when we harbor anger against our boss, or neighbor, or spouse, but the anger kills nonetheless - it slowly strangles relationship. Thoughts of lust may not be acted on, but when we hold on to those unhealthy desires, it consumes our mind and destroys love.
Jesus kicks it up a notch, and it sounds like we have a whole new, more stringent set of rules to live by. But it's much more than that. Remember Jesus started with his vision of the kingdom of heaven. Kicking it up a notch here is not heaping more rules on us - it's telling us what the kingdom of heaven is like. In the kingdom of heaven, not only is there no murder, but anger that destroys relationship is dealt with in a healthy way, reconciled and forgiven, because those who are peacemakers work to resolve all conflict. In the kingdom of heaven, envy and lust are put aside for love that is real, healthy, respectful, mutual and life-long. In the kingdom of heaven, a yes is yes and a no is no without the need for swearing an oath, because those who are pure in heart (everyone) are known for their truthfulness and integrity.
Jesus kicks it up a notch and we humans, who want to know just how far we can push things, who want to know what we can and cannot do or say and still be considered 'good,' start squirming. Because suddenly the Law is no longer about what we do, but about how we think, about how we live out our faith. It's about our relationship with God and how that relationship is reflected in all other relationships.