Saturday, February 15, 2014

Inhabiting the Words

Matthew 5:17-37
February 16, 2014
William G. Carter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

We are in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is tough! Jesus is on the mountain like a New Moses, laying down the demands of God’s kingdom. “Your righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees and the scribes,” he says. All those professionals who study the Bible, who know the Bible – you have to be better than them!

He does not spell out what that means. We could, I suppose, take a potshot at the professionals, and ignore our own ignorance. They know the Bible; we have to know the Bible too, if we’re ever going to exceed them.

What is he talking about? We can surmise a few things. Sometimes people study something without ever learning it. A student will cram for the exam, pass the exam, and then forget all the undigested data. Maybe he’s talking about that, although the Pharisees and the scribes had their heads full of the Bible --- and their hearts full of the Bible. We have to be better than that.

What is he talking about? Sometimes there is a gap between “book learning” and common sense. The smart person has a nose in the book but forgets to unplug the iron. Or they can recite the recipe without ever making the dish.  Especially in these technological times, there can be a disconnection between the concept and the practice, between the idea and the reality. Maybe that is what Jesus is saying, except the Pharisees and the scribes specialized in interpretation. The people had the Law of Moses for 1300 years, but they wanted to know how to apply it.

  • God said, “Keep the Sabbath, don’t do any work.” If the kitchen fire goes out, can I put a log upon it?
  • God said, “Do not covet what your neighbor owns.” OK, I don’t want his flat screen TV, but can I get one of my own?
  • God said, “Do not curse somebody who is deaf?” I understand that, Lord, but they aren’t going to hear it anyway.

Trust me when I say: if you interpret scripture for a living, you may always have job security. There is always something to figure out and explain.  

But this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. He speaks of a “higher righteousness.” In his spiritual imagination, heaven rules over earth. We simply can’t take that lightly. Like John the Baptist, he came preaching, “The kingdom is near. God is right here, at hand.” There is an ethical earnestness which is our gateway. It’s more than doing the right thing; it’s being the right kind of person.

That’s why Jesus pays so much attention to the words. The words! God speaks, we speak. It can go either way. We can most resemble our Creator when we speak. Or we can find ourselves condemned by the Judge because of what we say. It matters what we say.

In the Bible, when God speaks, God shows up. God is present in the Word spoken. God inhabits what God says. There is no division between the speech of God and the being of God: they are one and the same. God has integrity. As the children of God, we can be like that, too.

But since we are children, rather than God, it is quite possible that we don’t inhabit our own words. 

  • My wife calls out to say, “Supper is ready,” and I reply, “I’ll be right there,” and then I sit and putt around for another ten minutes while my plate goes cold and she gets hot. I said, “I’ll be right there,” but I didn’t mean it.
  • We are surrounded by messages all the time. Here’s one: “New and improved.”  Do you know how many varieties of toothpaste are for sale in America? 352.[1] Every one of them, new and improved. It’s hard to take those words seriously.
  • Or the politician lands in the private jet, is met by limousine to whisk him to the old house. He puts on over-alls and pulls on a cap from the seed company, and then wanders down in a pickup truck to the Agway to say, “I’m just one of the regular folks.” Sure he is, and you know why he says that.
Now, we heard the list of hot button topics that Jesus mentions today: murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing. Beneath each one, he is teaching about words . . . and whether or not they are inhabited.

“You have heard it said, ‘don’t murder,’ but I say to you, don’t insult anybody.” If you insult somebody, it is the same as killing them. Jesus says a sure-fire way to fall into hell is by calling somebody names. He’s talking about words, words like, “fool, idiot, no-account, good-for-nothing, loser.”

Now, I know nobody in this room has ever done that. And I know the people out there do awful things. They are mean and demeaning. They prove the doctrine of sin over and over again. As I have heard someone say more than once, “Why be an idiot if you can’t prove it?” But if we can step over the anger that naturally comes with daily life, we can perceive the deeper truth that all of us are more alike than different. All of us have our share of disappointments. All of us live in an unfair world, and all of us contribute regularly to its unfairness.

And all of us are children of God. Every description of a human being begins there. Child of God: that’s who we are. And to demean other people is to insult their Maker. To put somebody else down falsely puffs us up.

The rabbis tell a tale of a certain Rabbi, Simon ben Eleazar. He was coming from his teacher’s house, and he was felling very smart. After a day of learning, he was feeling uplifted at the thought of his own smarts, his own erudition and goodness. On the road, a very ill-favored passer-by gave him a greeting. The Rabbi did not say anything.

The traveler repeated the greeting, to which the Rabbi said, “You Raca! You fool! How ugly you are! Are all the men of your town as ugly as you?”  “That,” said the passer-by, “I do not know. Go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature he has made.” And so the sin of contempt was rebuked.

Child of God – that is what the neighbor is. Worthy of dignity and respect. And that leads to the next word: “You have heard it said ‘don’t commit adultery,’ but I say don’t look upon someone with a lustful desire to possess.”

I’m sure those words of Jesus have slapped a number of craving spirits. He suggests a number of dire measures. If your eye leers upon another, get rid of it. If your hand reaches out to grab or pinch, take a hacksaw into your other hand. Fortunately, he stops there. And please understand: the Bible is not always to be taken literally, it is to be taken seriously. Be serious about the demeaning power of wanting somebody. And be serious about who that person is, who they really are.

The story is told of some good old boys in Texas, gathering out back of the barn. One of them had a picture he was showing the others. I will let you imagine what it was, who was on it, what she looked like. They’re making all kinds of noise, hooting, poking one another, making comments, saying a lot of suggestive things.

They hear somebody clear the throat, turn around, and it’s the preacher, come to make a visit. “I was looking for the rancher, but nobody answered at the house. What do you have there, boys?”

They looked at one another, one of them smiled devilishly. “Well, preacher,” he said, “take a look at this. What do you see?”  He looked at the picture, gazed deeply, and without a change in expression, he said, “I see somebody’s daughter. I see somebody’s sister… I see a child of God.” There was a painful silence and they all walked away.

Ever regard somebody that way? Somebody’s sister or brother, somebody else’s wife or husband. Somebody’s child. Worthy of dignity and respect.

And that leads into the next word rather directly: “You have heard it said, ‘give a certificate of divorce ’. . .” You know what a certificate of divorce was? In the time of Jesus, it was a simple conclusion to a marriage. The Pharisees, the scribes, and the religious leader had debated and discussed for centuries all the various teachings in the Bible about divorce. Contrary to some popular opinion, the Bible has diverse views in its pages about divorce. Moses said, “It is lawful to divorce.”

But first century Israel was a man’s world. The woman had not legal rights. All he had to do was proclaim “I divorce you” and then walk away, and that was it. She was destitute and ashamed.

The purpose of marriage is to inhabit the words, to put ourselves into the vows and promises that bind us together. In our own fast-paced world, where people don’t take the time to get to know one another deeply, the answer is not to whisk through the words and hurry on to self-fulfillment. It’s to slow down, to sink roots into the ground, to grow from there. It takes a while.

I’ll never forget it. The phone rang a year or so ago and I didn’t know his name. A voice at the other end said, “Are you the minister? We want to get married.” I said, “Congratulations!”

He said, “Can you marry us?” I said, “Sorry, I’m taken. You’ll have to marry one another.”

Then he said, “What’s the quickest time it takes to get married?” I thought for a minute and said, “About forty years.” And he hung up.

If he would have stayed on the line, I would have continued: there is a world of difference between getting two names on a piece of paper and getting married, really getting it. Even after you say the vows and exchange the rings, it takes years to get there. “What do you think this is,” I said out loud, “a drive-in window?” There’s too much of that, too much rushing through words that we don’t mean, words that we can’t completely mean yet. It takes years to inhabit our words, to show up and to live in them.

Do you know what I mean?

So Jesus gives one more test case in today’s text, one more sign of the higher righteousness of heaven:  “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord ’. . .”  Wait a second, there’s more to it, and before I get to that, let’s talk about the word “swearing.”

Jesus is not referring to that vocabulary list of words when some of you might slice on the 14th fairway. He’s not speaking of curse words that exhale when you slide into a snow bank or when a lousy driver hits you from behind. No, that’s just foul language. He is not referring to the belch that comes from an angry heart.

Actually he is speaking of that practice of pulling in an external authority to preside over the promises we make. Here’s one: “I swear on a stack of Bibles that I’m going to clean up the dishes.” What do you need the Bibles for? Just do the dishes!

Or: “I swear to God that I will take you to the hockey game tomorrow night.” Well, what’s that about? Is the Creator of heaven and earth your personal referee?

Or (and I heard this from the stage of “Jersey Boys” on Friday night): “I swear on my mother’s grave…” Your mother’s grave? Your mother’s gone. Leave her out of this.

Either you show up on time or you don’t. Either you make a commitment or you don’t. Either your word is good or your word is empty, meaningless, and uninhabited. So Jesus said, “Let your word be yes, or let your word by no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Words, words, words. It matters what we say. It matters that we live what we speak, that we live within our promises. Not only is this the foundation of integrity; it is the sign of heaven’s higher righteousness. Because God always keeps his Word. God lives in what God says. So we have to be careful what we say, and inhabit whatever we speak.

Did you ever hear about Abbot Agatho? He was one of the first Christian monks. He lived in the desert of Egypt. It is said he took a small stone, put it in his mouth, and kept it there for three years.[2] It was a reminder. He wanted to be careful what he said.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Wall Street Journal, 23 February 2011. See online at    
[2] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Dimensions, 1970) 30.

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