Blow past the minimum. Love to the max.
Old Testament Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20
Psalm Psalm 119:1-8
Epistle 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Gospel Matthew 5:21-37
“If you choose, you can keep the commandments ... to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus continues the sermon on the mount, moving from beatitudes and blessings to specific instruction. We should remember Jesus' words last week, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill” ... to complete. Jesus continues to reinterpret the Law and reveal God’s intention. Jesus speaks with authority from scripture, “You have heard it said ... but I say to you ...” The trouble many of us have with the passage today is it hits too close to home. Our God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, is intimately connected to our hearts and souls and minds. This truth can be a little uncomfortable at times. It can make us squirm, especially when we know our own thoughts and intentions fall short. As one southern saying goes, Jesus’ sermon “has gone from preachin’ to meddlin’.”
Jesus is less concerned with how well we follow the commandments of the law, and more interested in the intention of our hearts. The deep intention of the commandments is to invite us to live as if the realm of God's kingdom is fully present. Jesus is inviting us to go deeper.
We all agree with the commandment “thou shalt not murder.” Most of us can check this one off. So far, I have not murdered anyone. But Jesus demands an interior disposition corresponding to outer action. Simply not murdering still allows for all sorts of ill feelings against another ... anger, insult, and hate. Jesus does not rescind the commandment against murder, but places anger on the continuum that leads to hate and violence. Jesus knows we get angry. But rather than prohibiting anger, Jesus teaches that anger can be transformed by living as a peacemaker. We practice this weekly. Before we offer gifts at the Eucharist ... money, bread, wine, our very selves ... we confess our sins and then reconcile with our neighbor by passing signs of peace.
In keeping with the commandment, our culture frowns on adultery. But simply refraining from the act of adultery still allows for all sorts of poor treatment of others ...coveting, betrayal of relationships, and objectification. Jesus demands a life that goes beyond the letter of the law. Just as anger is the root of murder, lust is the root of adultery. The lustful look is the beginning of the process. In the movie "The Silence of the Lambs," Hannibal Lector states, "we covet what we see." Perhaps this is why there are so many work-place affairs. Jesus wants us to see each other as valued children of God, not objects of lustful gratification. Again, Jesus does not abolish the commandment against adultery, but broadens the scope, emphasizing the need for integrity in navigating our relationships, and the relationship between intent and action.
Similarly with divorce and swearing oaths, the law allows for both of these. But we are to pay attention to our relationships and value others, even when relationships fail. Swearing oaths often leads to disappointment, deceit, manipulation, and broken relationship. We are to deal honestly with others, and in our relationship with God.
If we read the gospel a little further, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. If you are asked to go one mile, go two. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. We are called to more than following rules. We are called to follow Christ. We are called to follow Jesus’ example of not settling for the minimums of the law, but aspiring to the intention of scripture and commandments to reveal God’s love for us and learn to express our love for God and one another. This is God’s law that is written on our hearts. We are challenged to love more than the minimum. Love to the max.
Some of you may remember southern preacher and humorist Grady Nutt. He often made cameos on the TV show “Hee Haw”. Grady Nutt laments that we do not know much about Jesus in his youth, so he made up a story I will share with you. It is fiction. It isn’t true. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t reveal truth.
The seventeen year old Jesus is hanging around Nazareth, when a Roman soldier passes by. Remember the Jews are occupied and oppressed by Rome. The Jews and the Romans hate each other. To add fuel to the fire, there was a law that a Roman soldier could force a Jew to carry their pack for a mile. They would not choose an adult who had work to do, which would interrupt taxes paid to Rome. They could not choose a young boy, because they could not carry a man’s pack. They chose teenagers who were not working but had idle time to just be hanging around. On this day, Jesus is just hanging around, and the soldier approaches, “I hereby demand you carry my pack a mile.” Jesus replies, “OK, let me go tell my dad and I’ll be right with you.”
... “What?” The soldier was used to hearing all sorts of objections not suitable for church, but never, “OK, I’ll tell my dad and be right with you.”
Jesus sticks his head in the shop door,
“Hey dad!” ... “Yes, son?”
“I’m gonna carry this soldier’s pack for a mile” ... “Ok, be back by supper.”
Since the beginning of Joesph’s journey with Mary, he seems to accept God’s will. Through experience with Jesus in the Temple and other unknown stories, he probably has also learned to accept Jesus’ will. Joseph was well chosen and suited for his role.
Jesus hefts the pack up onto his shoulders, “Whew, what have you got in here, rocks?”
They set out past the “Now leaving Nazareth” sign. A conversation begins.
Jesus learns the solder is 23, has a wife and two kids, and is heading home to Joppa on a 30 day furlough. The soldier has made it to captain and wants to be a career military man.
Jesus, an idealist, says, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was no fighting and no wars and we didn’t need all this military.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, wouldn’t it be great if ‘peace’ broke out?”
“Well, I’d be out of a job.”
“Yeah, but what if there was no more fighting.”
“That’ll never happen. There will always be wars and fighting. It’s my job security.”
“Well, what if everybody just stopped fighting. What if when someone hit you, you just turned the other cheek?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, last week, we were all playing in the All Nazareth Soccer tournament. It was tied 1-1, I was playing forward, and my best friend Jarad was goalie for the other team. I scored the wining goal and everyone went crazy. They hoisted me up on their shoulders and were cheering. I looked over and saw my friend Jarad walking off the field, dragging his sweatshirt by the hood, dejected. I jumped down and ran over to him. I wanted to congratulate him on a great game. I tapped him on the shoulder, but in his hurt and anger he wheeled around and ... see the bruise?”
“Yeah, that’s quite a shiner.”
“Well, I stopped, offered the other side and said ‘here, hit this one too’. See, I wanted Jarad’s friendship more than I wanted to get even.”
The conversation went on like this. The young soldier deeply entrenched in his experience of the world and an idealistic Jesus dreaming of a better world.
Pretty soon, they approached the one mile marker outside of town. Now the law said the young Jews only had to carry a soldier’s pack one mile. The Jews impressed into service had a practice of edging the pack off their shoulders, just holding on to the little bony antler knobs, and right at the marker they would shrug and drop the pack, breaking all the souvenirs from Stuckey’s. The Roman soldiers soon grew wise to this and would lunge to catch the pack before it could drop. It became a sort of shrug and lunge game.
As they passed the mile marker, the soldier fell back a step and lunged, catching nothing but air. Jesus turned to him, “Come on. I’m not going to drop the pack. It’s a nice day, I’ve got nothing else to do, and I’m enjoying the conversation. Let’s go another mile.”
“What?” The soldier is struck with what we call ’slack jawed amazement’. It is now clear to the soldier he has not encountered another Jew like Jesus. It should also be clear that the expected relationships of obligation and power have gone out the window. Jesus moved from what he had to do according to the law, to what he chose to do out of joy and love for another human being. They continue to walk and talk. It is in the second mile that transformation happens. In the second mile, the relationship is changed.
Somewhere well past the second mile marker, they sit down to rest. The soldier breaks open his pack and they share some bread and cheese and water. They each stretch and rub their feet and bask in the sun. But it is getting late, and they each have to return to their respective homes.
Jesus helps the soldier get his pack on and adjust the straps. They grasp wrists as they depart. The soldier says, “I really enjoyed meeting you. It was not what I expected”
“Well I enjoyed meeting you and our conversation. If you are ever back in Naazareth, stop in and visit.”
“You know, if you are passing through and need a meal or a place to stay, just drop by the house. It’s easy to find, right above the carpenter’s shop.”
“I believe you really mean that. I do hope we meet again.”
Jesus let’s go of their grasp, but the soldier holds on, and looks deeply into Jesus’ eyes, “I hope we meet again.”
Well, they do meet again. This time it is 16 years later. The soldier is now 39 and a Centurion. Jesus is 33 and hanging on a cross at Golgotha. The Centurion has been assigned to the crucifixion, and is filled with anxiety and angst. “I know I have seen this guy before.”
It is not until Jesus utters the words, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Everything comes rushing back and his eyes are opened. It is the Centurion who first says, “Surely, this was the Son of God.”
I wonder what opportunities each of us will find to move past the limits of human inclinations and embrace God’s abundant joy. It is in the second mile, where we move from obligation to loving intention. It is in moving past expectations we find joyful expectancy of God’s presence. It is in sacrificial giving and serving we approach God’s kingdom. It is in radically blowing past the minimums we maximize life in God’s grace and love. Amen.