In Jesus’ neighborhood, most people had very dark hair until it turned grey or white, usually due to old age. There were no barber shops or beauty salons to get your hair colored any one of a myriad of colors—blond, red, auburn, brown, black, gray, white, much less purple or blue or green! There was no sense in wishing your hair were black if it was white or white if it was black because there simply was no human ability to change the color of hair. Jesus uses this one little human limitation as an illustration of how little power we really do have, and points out that we really have no business making oaths in our names, as if we could guarantee that we will or will not do something. We are fooling ourselves, we who can not even change our hair color. Jesus also points out that when we make an oath in God’s name, we are setting ourselves up to disrespect the name of God if (or when) we fail to keep our oath. Breaking one of the original 10, by the way: do not misuse the name of the Lord. There are instructions in the Psalms which presume that making a vow in the name of the Lord makes it obvious that you are serious. This kind of vow is definitely to be fulfilled. But Jesus knows that in practice we don’t. So his expansion of the old ways is this: if you want to be a faithful commandment follower, just get rid of that age-old practice of swearing in the name of heaven, of earth, or your own head (or self). Don’t swear in anyone’s name—then you avoid getting tangled up in the possibility of misusing the name of God or in making promises that you can’t keep based on your own limited power and ability. Just be up front, transparent, simple: if you mean yes, say yes. If you mean no, say no. Period.
Perhaps you too have wondered when someone is so insistent on the validity of a statement by swearing up and down that it is true, either in the God’s name or on his or her own credibility. Is that not raising a red flag that the person really is not telling the truth! …. Hmmm.
One after another, Jesus lists some of the laws of the ancestors, which had been handed down for generations, some from the ten commands, but he draws from more than just the original ten. As we continue to attempt to do in our day, Jesus applies them to his own time and situation. He is speaking to a large crowd on the mount, a high hill above the sea of Galilee, and his interpretations of the law are more intense than the old ones, looking even deeper than the obvious “letter of the law type” of interpretation. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not divorce because something else looks better. Do not misuse the name of God. People of any time period are guilty of trying to slip around these commands by being super literal about them. Jesus says, “Forget that. These commands are a lot deeper than you make them out to be.”
Words or actions can murder another’s reputation, selfish or lazy behaviors destroy the land, sea or air we call home, and other behaviors push our own lives faster toward death in some way—misusing our own bodies, living recklessly—each of these are examples of the ways we test the edges of the command to not murder. Jesus’ point is that murder can be a whole lot more than taking the physical life of another human being. Indeed it can.
So too agreed the Westminster Divines, as they are called, the group of 150 men in England who met together over 1000 times between 1647 and 1649 to hammer out the wording of a very detailed statement of faith which ended up as the Westminster Confession, and its two related catechisms, The larger and the shorter. A catechism is a question and answer form of the statement of belief, used for teaching new believers about the faith we share. In describing the ten commandments, I appreciate the effort these men made to explain the positive side of these “do not” commandments, reminders that the words ‘do not murder’ mean we should be doing all that we can to preserve life, our own as well as the life of others. And the words ‘do not commit adultery’ mean we are to remain faithful to our spouse and do what we can to help our neighbor remain faithful. The catechism is clear–that means being faithful on all levels—thought, speech and action. These men of Westminster took the commands, and Jesus’ intensification of them in his sermon on the mount, and reworked the question for each one: instead of only asking what does God prohibit a faithful follower from doing?, they also asked What does God require of a faithful follower? Like MLK’s statement that life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others? Not, how many times have you broken commandment 5 or 8 or 10.
Turns out Jesus was not a literalist. He knew that the laws of old needed to be applied in a new way for his day. Remember, he is speaking to Jews, and the gospel writer Matthew is speaking to Jews, who would have known those ancient laws backwards and forwards. I can just imagine the jaws dropping when Jesus said that committing adultery started with lusting after another person in your mind and heart. Ouch to any red blooded human being, right? Of course adultery can start with lust. It starts with not living fully in relationship with the one you have chosen, and finding an alternative option for what could possibly be more fulfilling. The adulterous action springs from the thought, the desire, the dreams. Jesus uses hyperbole, great exaggeration, to get his point across. Committing adultery deserves eternal punishment in his mind, so you may as well cut out the offending parts of your body in order to bring a stop to the adulterous behavior. Who is going to do that? But he is that serious about what it means to protect committed relationships, to keep oneself and one’s neighbor free from the temptation to adulterous actions.
Reconciling with a brother or sister is so important to him that Jesus advises leaving your offering at the altar, going to seek the person you are in conflict with, and then returning to the temple. How could someone leave their dove or their goat at the altar unattended? What a literal zoo! Again, he is exaggerating to point out how serious he is—your relationships with others do impact the way you relate to God.
In many ways, our scientific and technological advances in the last 2000 years – maybe even in just the last century–make it even more tempting to think we can work out a way to get around Jesus’ version of the commandments, fooling ourselves into thinking that we are more powerful than we really are as human beings. Let’s go back to Jesus’ hair color illustration. Today we laugh at that. We do have the power to change our hair color. With a little money and time, we can go from blonde to dark brown, from black to red, from grey to blonde. Just one more item in our long, long list of ways we actually can control our lives and our environment. The power to change hair color contributes to our ongoing tendency to think we are in control of everything that happens, to think we have more power than we really do, and therefore, slowly, oh so subtly, we start to take over God’s role in our own minds. I love what Christian author Anne Lamott writes in one of her books on prayer: “The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you.”
Eugene Peterson closes out his paraphrase of this section of the sermon on the mount with these words: In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up! You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you. ( V. 48)
And is that not the bottom line? Is that not what all the commandments are for? Whether it is ten, or 100 or 1000, or just 2, God’s instructions are meant to provide us with a pattern for living toward one another the way God lives toward us. Amen.