Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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The Demand of the Other

Category: Righteousness

Speaker: The Rev. Eric O. Springsted

Tags: goodness, kindness, righteousness, sermon on the mount

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            In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus claims that he is fulfilling the Law, that is to say, that he is making of it what it was always meant to be. He has no intention of changing the Law, he says; he does want to make sure that it functions in human life as it was meant to do. He is seeking to ensure that it gives righteousness, and not just “rightness,” and that it gives the kind of life that comes from righteousness. He does that by giving what we have called the “inner side” of the Law. He teaches that it is no good simply to keep the Law in externals. Rather, righteousness, real righteousness, is a matter of something inner. It is a matter of the heart.

            Now, as I suggested last week, what he wants can be easily grasped. It is fairly obvious to all of us whether or not someone is living from the inner side of the Law, or has an inner life, a heart, from which her actions proceed. Such people are, as Jesus himself says, like salt, in that they give life some bite and preserve it. They are light, because they let things be seen for what they are; they reveal the world, and they lead others to give thanks to God for what they do. We usually have a very good feel for the difference between those who have such an inner life and those who don’t. But what is not so very clear, is what following the Law from the heart consists in. We can recognize it when it happens; it is a lot harder figuring out how we actually are to live righteously, or how we are to have an inner life.

            Not that we don’t have a lot of ideas about that in which an inner moral life consists. However, I am pretty sure that in trying to figure out how to live from the heart, or how to have an inner life, that we, in this age, tend to go wildly wrong, in one or both of two ways. What they have in common is that both of these ways go wrong if that they both center on us and not the person we are dealing with. Thus, for example, we may think that the demand to act from the heart means that we are to add a certain sentimental component to what we do. Thus, we think that acting from the heart means feeling good about the people whose lives we touch. That, of course, would make it easier to deal with people, because we would then like dealing with them more, and we would even be sincere. Yet, while it would be admirable if one could pull-off  liking everybody, sentiment isn’t the issue. Jesus nowhere suggests that such sentiment is part of the inner life. In fact, when later on in the Sermon he tells us to love our enemies, he seems to assume that, as a matter of course, we have enemies, and I would guess that he knows that enemies are not people we feel good about. You may have to love your enemies; you don’t have to like them. Your feeling just doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.

            Nor does he suggest anything like the other way in which we tend to think that we have an inner life. In this case, what we often think it means is acting solely from within ourselves. We don’t act because somebody tells us to do it. We believe, we are to reason and judge from within ourselves as to what needs to be done in any situation. It is in this way, that what we do comes from within us, and it is, therefore, never phony or inauthentic or forced.  In what we do we are left as free, autonomous and rational beings, beholden to no one.

            Yet, as Jesus actually describes what one is to do in fulfilling all righteousness, he neither recommends nor even hints at either of these two ways as a way of conceiving the inner life. Actually, he seems to fly in the face of both of them, as he recounts how the Law was understood by those in former days, and how it is to be understood and performed now. He argues, for example, that it was said of old, that one is not to murder. But, he adds, one is subject to judgement if she even calls her brother or sister a fool, or if he gets angry with a sister or brother. As is often and famously quoted, he goes on to say that whereas in former days it was taught that one is not to commit adultery; now, he claims, if one even looks at another with lust, that he, and I presume she, too, has committed lust in his or her heart. One cannot, as in former days, divorce a spouse without rendering them partners in adultery, and, finally, one is not only to avoid bearing false witness, and to carry out one’s vows, one is now to avoid all vows whatsoever. One is simply to say “yes” or “no” and then act accordingly; anything else in invoking God is presuming upon God.

            What is even more, Jesus adds that if one’s eye causes him to go astray, that it would be better to pluck it out and go on maimed than to let one’s whole being be thrown into hellfire. Similarly, with one’s hand if it causes one to sin.

            Those are very tall orders, and very strict ones. They do not encourage sentimentality, or thinking of oneself as an autonomous rational moral agent. So, how are we to understand them?

            Well, let it be said from the outset that it is pretty obvious that what Jesus is saying here involves a lot of hyperbole. The ancient church certainly took it that way, and while I have heard it said that the history of Christianity is the history of trying to avoid the plain and obvious sense of the Sermon on the Mount, I doubt that is because not enough people have plucked out their eyes or cut off their hands. Only crazy people do that. Moreover, as we all know, Jesus himself gets angry, as, for example, he does when he chases the money changers out of the Temple. If he doesn’t use the word “fool” when talking to the Pharisees, it is also pretty clear that we are to take away the lesson that they are fools for making the choices they do.

            But, if this is hyperbole, let us understand its point because it is a serious one. Hyperbole can be many different things. For example, hyperbole as a rhetorical device can be the refuge of the inarticulate. A tired teenager who has come in from shoveling snow, may claim, “I am literally as dead as a doornail.” One hopes that he will enjoy a better grasp of language in the future. Or hyperbole can be the refuge of the scoundrel, the person who hopes that in his exaggerated claims that you will not notice that he is just trying to blow smoke past you to get you to agree with him or to inflate his image. You can provide the concrete examples here yourself.

            But, hyperbole can also have a very legitimate rhetorical use. It can, in its deliberate, extreme use of language and charged use of the imagination, be a way to point us to something that we would not ordinarily pay attention to. It is not meant to be taken literally; it is a way of waking us up to the seriousness of the situation. It may be the only way of saying something that needs to be said, but that in its importance finds no suitable words in ordinary language. That, I think, is precisely what Jesus is doing in his hyperbolic charges to the disciples about the moral life.

            Think, then, about what is being said simply when he tells us that not only are you not to murder, you are not to get angry with your brother or sister, or even call them a fool. In the first place, he is clearly trying to tell the disciples about how serious this issue is when he suggests that violating it makes one liable to judgement. We don’t get an option on this issue.

            Moreover, and to the deeper point, think about what happens when one gets angry with another person, or when one calls her or him a fool. Anger often is connected to a sense of justice and when it is, it is a good thing. Civil rights would not have happened in this country if people hadn’t gotten mad about the injustices of color bigotry. Temples would be filled with money changers if folks didn’t get angry over turning the temple into a marketplace. But, that sort of righteous indignation is not usually what is going on when one calls somebody a fool. Usually we are feeling offended, our rights and dignity bruised. So we retaliate. But then think about what we are doing to the other person. The way we retaliate and get even means to be dismissive and belittling of the other person and we know it. Only somebody trying to fool us would justify his behavior by saying that he didn’t mean anything by it, he was just trying to express his frustration. Even if that were the case, he has used the other person and treated her like an object in trying to express himself. So, what Jesus is pointing us towards when he tells us to avoid anger or name-calling is that it isn’t good enough simply not to kill somebody. You have to treat them with the respect that is due another human being who is also made in God’s image. You have to do it in even the slightest of things. Dismissing him and treating him as an object, as a thing to be used for our good, for our feeling good about ourselves, is to treat him as a thing without life.

            Or, consider what is being said in the oft-quoted lust passage. Being attracted to another person is necessary to marriage, and the respect and mutuality that it brings. We would not continue on as a species otherwise. Treating another person merely as an object of your pleasure, however, is to treat them as less than yourself. You can’t use people.

            The point then is straightforward. In order to fulfill the inner side of the Law, you have to recognize that the other person out there -- friend or brother or sister, or a stranger or an enemy-- has a claim on you, and it is absolute. It does not begin when you notice them, if you do.  It does not go away when you want to turn to your own projects; it never goes away. To fulfill righteousness is to recognize that claim and to act on it. To be a fulfilled human being, is to recognize that claim and to act on it. It is to recognize that we were created to hear that claim coming from the lives of others and to respond to it, and we therefore do ourselves harm by failing to recognize that about ourselves. That is why you don’t treat people as things to be used, and why you don’t blow them off as insignificant or as roadblocks on the highway of life.

            That is also a key to having an inner life. The inner life isn’t about sentiment, nor is it about individual judgement. It certainly is not about having a rich fantasy life, nor is it a little private “me-cave.” It is about having a life that recognizes that, at our very root, from the day we are conceived, we are joined one to another, joined by a bond that a holy God has established between all human beings by making them, all of them, in God’s image. Having an inner life is to recognize that as a fact about ourselves and about others. In recognizing it we are at our most fulfilled as human beings. We are living from the inside when we recognize that the other is sacred to us, whether or not he or she may be of some use to us.

            That is a heady thought. But what does it mean? Well, try some comparisons. Living like this is, for instance, like dancing. When you dance, you don’t just throw your partner around the floor. You move together and are responsive to each other, adjusting to each other. It is the whole that is the dance. Some folks have also compared this kind of life to jazz. One thinker put it this way: “A jazz group which is improvising [is a group] in which to a large extent each member is free to express herself as she likes. But she does so with a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performances of the other musicians. The complex harmony they fashion comes not from playing from a collective score, but from the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights.” But even playing classical music from a score can be like this, too. No one succeeds as a choir member or as a member of a quartet just by singing or playing all the right notes, no matter how well they do it. They have to listen and play with others. A great voice that always sticks out and can be heard above the rest of the choir is not improving the choir. 

            But the most obvious thing that recognizing the other is sacred involves is to say that this is what love means. Maybe or maybe not, feeling is involved. But love always respects the other, taking him or her into your life, and adjusting one’s own life to that person’s reality, working and playing with another human being. Sometimes it is pleasant, sometimes it is really hard. But it is always divine.


            Treating other human beings like that is what it means to fulfill the Law and the prophets. That is why the Law was given, and why the prophets spoke.