What I’m Thinking: Rising Bar

Jesus keeps raising expectations – raising the bar – for us. Does it look whether it’s in reach?

Here’s a transcript:

I’m thinking about the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5:21-37). Yes. Still. The Revised Common Lectionary continues on through the Sermon on the Mount.

This section follows right along from the end of last week’s reading where Jesus tells his disciples that their righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. That is, they are to be better, more faithful people than those who had the best reputations for their faithfulness, for their righteousness.

In this section, Jesus goes on to say how that’s supposed to be done, and in every example Jesus raises the bar. It’s sort of like a high jump or a pole vault in which the bar keeps getting higher and higher and higher until to most of us it looks quite out of reach. I’ll be honest. I look at this section of Matthew’s Gospel and my first response is, “Can we just skip this?”

Because instead of murder and violence, Jesus wants us to talk about anger. Instead of talking about adultery, Jesus wants us to talk about how we think about those we see. And Jesus says that if one is considering a divorce, well, one shouldn’t do it, that the breaking up of a marriage, even though it’s allowed for in the ancient law of Israel, is tantamount to adultery.

Harsh words indeed. High bars indeed.

Personally, I don’t think that Jesus could successfully say to anybody, “Don’t get angry.” I don’t think that Jesus could say to anybody, “Don’t look at someone and not feel that pulse of attraction.” Feelings are things that happen to us.

Nevertheless, how we express feelings, how we reflect on our feelings, how we let our feelings govern us (whether we let our feelings govern us): ah, that is something that you and I have some control over in our lives.

So, if somebody makes us angry, we’ve got some choices. There are different ways that we can express it. Remember what we’ve told the young children – the four-year-olds, the five-year-olds: “Use your words”? It’s amazing how often we not just permit but even endorse people in positions of high leadership to do things that are certainly not “use your words,” but constitute actual violence. I could argue, in fact, that war is the ultimate failure of “use your words.”

No, these are the places where Jesus is asking things of us that are achievable. However, when we do not manage to clear the bar it does not mean that we are unforgivable. That is still something that is coming to us from Jesus, from our loving God. But our first task is to strive for those heights, to strive for those goals of living a life that is loving, that is committed, that is compassionate, that is faithful.

At the end of this section, Jesus tells us not to make promises by and ensure those promises by means of oaths, of making declarations “I’ll do this as long as the sky is overhead.” “Let your yes be yes; let your no be no.”

You and I both know that we don’t always achieve that. For that, there is still the forgiveness of our friends and our neighbors and of our God. But isn’t that a worthwhile goal for ourselves? To say “Yes” and work to maintain the “Yes.” To say “No” when we have to and have the “No” be what we mean and what we do.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’m curious to hear what you’re thinking. Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below; I’d love to hear from you.

Categories What I'm Thinking | Tags: , | Posted on February 9, 2020

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