People used to use the stars to tell the passing of one season to the next. The lunar calendars of ancient civilizations would mark the proper time for rituals and celebrations, for holidays to mark the harvest or the spring. Throughout human history, people have found ways of counting the days from one festival or fast to the next.
Nowadays we do it differently. If you want to know what holiday is coming next, just look at the candy displayed at the grocery store. Sure, it may not feel quite so sacred and mysterious, but it’s a lot more efficient.
If you stroll into Hannaford later today, right there at the very front of the store is quite a large shelf festooned with all manner of red and pink hearts, boxes of bonbons, and enough flowers to decorate a float in the Rose Bowl parade. And just like the Christmas decorations got put up the second the Halloween paraphernalia disappeared, so too the Valentine’s Day stuff got dragged out the day after New Year’s.
I’m willing to bet by Friday, once all the Russell Stover and Hallmark goods have been given a day or two at clearance prices, the color will shift from red to green, and the marketing will gear up for St. Patrick’s Day.
But back to Valentine’s Day! Back to those red and pink displays. Back to matters of the heart. Our lesson from Matthew is all about what people feel about each other.
Admittedly, what Jesus has to say would look weird in a Hallmark card.
“Roses are red,
Blue is the sky,
If it leads you to sin
You should tear out your eye.”
Don’t look for that one in stationary stores.
In all seriousness, what Jesus has to say in our Gospel lesson today does seem a little bit extreme. He tells the people assembled to hear him that, no matter how good their behavior, their innermost feelings could still lead them to judgment. Could anyone truly abide by that?
I’d ask people to raise their hands if they’d never been angry, but I quite honestly doubt anyone here could raise one if I did. I certainly couldn’t. Likewise, can any of us truly claim we’ve never had an unkind thought about someone else? And is it really evil to make a promise to someone? Is having a tempting thought about someone really no different from committing adultery?
It seems as though Jesus is telling us that we need to not only have right actions, but also perfectly pure thoughts. That’s an impossibly high standard. It also seems kind of self-defeating. If being angry with someone is just as apt to land you in Hades as murdering them, you may as well run the guy who took your parking space over once he leaves his car.
While it’s probably a safe bet that none of you are going to go home and start removing body parts, I’ll just say outright that I don’t think Jesus is literally telling us to do so. Please leave your hands attached.
So what could the point of Jesus’ words really be then? If he’s not really setting an impossibly high standard for his followers, what is it he’s really doing?
Perhaps it’s helpful to consider the words we heard from Deuteronomy. They’re not a particularly famous passage, so they’re likely to have been unfamiliar to you. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to quote them from the top of my head. But for Jesus’ audience, they would have been quite familiar indeed.
His followers came from a deeply religious society, after all, and one in which religious law had a very real, daily impact. So the words of the law were well-known to the people who heard Jesus’ message.
Though the lessons of the Bible contain enduring truths, they also were specific things spoken to specific people. If we listen to the lesson from Deuteronomy and forget it was being said to the children of Israel as they entered the Promised Land, we could be persuaded to believe that following God will lead to material wealth in this life. (That’s the message of the so-called “prosperity gospel” movement you may have heard about.) Of course God promises no such thing, but out of context today’s lesson might seem to say otherwise.
So it was to that same group of law-focused people that Jesus was speaking. What was he telling them? That they still needed grace, no matter how perfectly they may have been able to adhere to the commandments, decrees, and ordinances God had handed down to their ancestors. That God wanted more from them.
That was the problem with their religious leaders, who had become so fixated on rigid adherence to the law that they had forgotten when truly mattered to God. They had mistaken the appearance of righteousness for genuine compassion and mercy.
Obviously, it’s important to obey the laws themselves. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t slander your neighbor. No matter how angry you get, don’t actually run over the guy in the parking lot.
But do more than that. Cultivate loving hearts that reach beyond the mere letter of the law. Step past the threshold of rules and edicts, and find ways of ministering to those around you. Go past the idea of keeping commandments, and follow Christ’s example of compassion to those on the margins. Rules can be used by people in power to exclude others, don’t forget.
We are all going to keep having angry thoughts. Unkind things are sometimes said even by good people, and eyes can sometimes wander. It’s not for nothing that God’s laws direct us not to follow wandering eyes or let our hands act out our angriest thoughts. We were given God’s commandments for a reason.
But those commandments weren’t meant to be the farthest limit of our goodness. Jesus urges us to cultivate hearts and minds that think the best of each other and yearn to treat them well. Whatever the season, let us always strive to demonstrate how much we love each other, beyond what we are merely commanded to do.