Once a young girl prayed to God: "O God, make all the bad people good, and all the good people nice." What do you suppose she meant by make all the good people nice? Merriam Webster says that the adjective good means something is of high quality, the subsequent definitions say something can be of somewhat high quality but not excellent, or it might simply be of correct or proper quality.
Nice, another adjective, has a primary definition meaning giving pleasure or joy; followed by good and enjoyable, attractive, kind, polite, and friendly; all are proper uses of the word “nice.” "O God, make all the bad people good, and all the good people nice."
That young girl seemed to be instinctively discerning the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. We, Presbyterians get itchy when the word righteousness is used – but we can think of it as right-living or whole-hearted living. You may have noticed, Jesus began each right-living teaching with: “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…” Jesus was reinterpreting his Scriptures and his tradition, in light of his current context and because Good Folks were being less than whole-hearted.
The fact that our Lord was reinterpreting Scripture makes my Reformed Christian heart beat faster – I want to wave our Presbyterian banner Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, which means, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the [Holy] Spirit. That statement is directly out our Book of Order.
One might say Jesus sounds rather progressive in what he was doing at the time. Yet, taking a closer look at Jesus’ sermon content – it seems he was flying his conservative colors on that mountain. Don’t rest on your laurels just because you haven’t murdered or committed adultery or divorced or are willing to take an oath. Instead -- Jesus instills fervency of faith…in his teaching he broadens the force and breadth of the Law and Prophets – which is short hand for the entire 1st Testament. In these beginning chapters of Matthew, Jesus is explaining – how he is about to demonstrate whole-hearted living amongst his followers.
First: It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We have to watch our anger. Wait – Jesus got angry. There was that Sabbath Day in the synagogue when Jesus met a man with a withered hand. Some of the self-righteous were standing around ready to pounce on Jesus if he healed the man, because healing was considered to be work, and work was prohibited on the Sabbath.
The Bible says, "Jesus looked around at them with anger." An angry Jesus is not usually the first image that comes to mind at the mention of his name. Yet - He got angry – angry seeing religious people care more about their rules than the well-being of a fellow human. Jesus also became angry when people got hurt by each other or when people tried to turn children away from seeing him. Notice that Jesus is not talking about anyone who "gets angry" but instead he says "Anyone who is angry." The Greek verb in this sentence is one that hints at a simmering anger. Jesus is talking about all those who go through life nursing one grudge after another. An alternate translation might be: Don't let your anger turn to rage - sinful rage and irate action – as the Bible teaches in the Cain and Abel story.
It’s been said that resentment, which is anger, is just like a spark on a sleeve. If you do not get that spark off the sleeve right away, what happens? It will spread and then, finally, consume the whole garment. Resentment consumes us if we do not get rid of it. The philosopher Necci said, "Nothing consumes a man [or a woman] more than the passion of resentment." In Matthew -- Jesus teaches God isn’t interested in us keeping the law for the law’s sake. God cares that we keep the law for our sake.
Learning to forgive others frees us of resentment, and any of its smoldering effects. There is freedom in that release so that life is more fully and abundantly available to us. Next, Jesus takes up the topic of sexuality in human relationships. Jimmy Carter made this teaching memorable back in the late 70s – with his abundant honesty and vulnerability. Jesus tells his followers it is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery. We should not objectify other persons by seeing them as a means to an end -- in which one’s desires are satisfied. The #MeToo movement in our current era, I believe, is the lash back to objectification. And – it should be said, objectification is not only a female problem. However, the females have been objectified at a higher rate. Regardless, this is not how nice people treat one another.
Next on Jesus’ human behavior agenda, he points back to the time of Moses, when a certificate of divorce was allowed. Divorce became so rampant; women were being divorced for petty infractions like not being good cooks or keeping a clean house. Men, not women, were allowed to divorce…making women vulnerable to being penniless and unprotected.
Jesus says, “It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce.
We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable are provided for -- which often meant women and children.
Marriage is a covenant – a promise – reflecting the promise and relationship we have with God. While in some cases divorce may be necessary – it should never be entered into lightly.
Oath taking is the next dimension of human behavior Jesus clarifies.
Think about the oath taking – politicians take the oath of office, witnesses take an oath in court, doctors take a Hippocratic oath, Boy and Girl Scouts have an oath. Jesus makes the point: Why would someone need to take an oath, which is a promise that we will not lie to others and keep their best interests at heart? God’s desire for human behavior is for us to speak and act truthfully in all of our dealings so that we don’t need to make oaths at all. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.
This human behavior checklist is easier to recognize than it is to live. Preacher George Buttrick offered four reasons – that Christians get tangled up in their attempts at whole hearted living and each involves the self.
**First, the self-righteous are egocentric. They measure all responses in life against their code of virtue and sin, right and wrong. These religious types, stand in the midst of life and announce the judgments of their code of right and wrong. Westboro Church folks are famous for judging in this manner by their appearances picketing at funerals. Yet, before we get smug – it can happen in any faith or denomination. When our Codes fail to cover the surprises of life, they exchange freedom for slavery to the code.
**The second problem is that the ‘good,’ righteous folk tend to separate themselves from the ‘bad.’ Their code of virtue and sin becomes an important standard of separation. Soon the folks who are supposed to be the “salt of the earth” stay in the saltshaker (Mt. 5:13).
**The third problem is our propensity toward gradual realization that good is mixed with bad. Ambiguities are part of life: "There is the story of the race-horse owner who, after being converted to faith, gave a race horse to the Mission in which he had found new birth. The horse began to win, the mission was enriched, its work was thus extended; but should a mission, of all places, play the ponies? No --- because it’s often the poor and the addicted who are taking the biggest gambles in life. The problem of the righteous man is how to get rid of the horse." Aware of the ambiguities in life, the self-righteous person cannot admit to ambiguities, for to do so would be to break their code of right and wrong.
**The final problem comes from self-introspection – or lack thereof. The ‘good’ person discovers that true righteousness goes beyond the code, and his or her own ability to keep it. Our Codes of virtue and sin are tainted with ambiguities as our founder in faith, John Calvin, emphasized. The truth is: Ambiguities exist within the self – and – in our humanity, for we all are saints and sinners.
The alternative to the ‘good’ person is a person who accepts the ambiguities of life – knowing that life is not all black and white, but that there are also shades of gray. This person has empathy for the whole of the human dilemma.
This ‘nice’ person lives in faith, giving herself or himself to Christ’s love,
loving God and neighbor. This person does not claim any righteousness on their own, but only the righteousness of Christ through faith (Phil. 3:9).
Preacher Buttrick said: There are no real righteous people in the world.
There are simply the disillusioned self-righteous, the bad who may turn to faith, and the nice who believe.
In a time of prayerful meditation, I invite you to call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you; one that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you regularly. What makes that a good relationship, why is it so important? Give God thanks for that person and the relationship you share.
Second, now call to mind another relationship that is important to you but that has suffered some damage. You don’t need to figure out who was to blame for the hurt, but rather to hold that person and relationship in prayer.
Offer that broken relationship to God as an offering and as an arena of God’s help and healing. Think about what action you can take to move that relationship to greater health.
God of blessing, you call us to be one with you and your creation in love, faithfulness, and truth. Help us to carry out the promises we make: looking to your Law and Gospel as guidance, so that in adoration of you, we live in mutual support of one another, and love as if your realm has fully come. Amen.