Yesterday I preached a sermon on a challenging (well, given the context perhaps I should say extra challenging) portion from The Sermon on the Mount in The Gospel According to Matthew. The pericope that I preached on is a section of the sermon traditionally known as the antitheses (Matt 5.21-48). The “antitheses” are introduced in a prior verse of the gospel which declares that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees (who kept Torah law) we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. In the antitheses Jesus elaborates on the meaning of the commandments in the Torah; each antitheses begins with Jesus announcing that although we heard one thing in ancient times he has come to say more: “You have heard it said in ancient times… but (now) I say to you…”
In the antitheses Jesus illustrates that major transgressions (like murder) begin with minor offenses (like anger) and that even minor offenses carry drastic consequences. In regard to lust (which leads to adultery) Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away, for it is better for you to loose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell…” “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…”
Because we know that tearing out an eye or cutting off a hand won’t reduce the impulse to look at or touch what we ought not, commentators often say that Jesus’ sayings in the antitheses employ hyperbole to make a point. In a compellingly personal blog post last week Mariann Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, wrote , “If you come to church this Sunday you’ll hear Jesus speak strongly on questions of character and integrity. Try not to take such offense at his use of hyperbole that you miss the truth of this words: that at times for the sake of what is right or best or required of us in a given situation, we have to make choices that can feel like cutting off a limb.”
I once heard integrity described as “that which we do when nobody else is looking.” In the the majority of the gospel accounts Jesus’ ministry begins after he overcomes his own temptations in the midst of a wilderness. I take this to mean that Jesus ministry begins only after he struggles with his own temptations in a place without an audience. It may well be that when Jesus left the wilderness he left his right eye and one hand behind.
In the Gospel According to John (7.53-8.11) there’s a story that’s antithetical to the consequences described by the antitheses given by Jesus in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In John, at Temple worship one morning, when Jesus is the scheduled preacher, the scribes and the Pharisees bring a woman caught “in the very act” of adultery before the congregation. They remind Jesus of the ancient law prescribing that she be stoned, and then they ask him, “Now what will you do?” Jesus defies the mindset of the keepers of the law by asking anyone without sin to cast the first stone. In the end everybody has to walk away; nobody dies or is cast into hell, and the sermon concludes with the admonition, “Go on your way, and do not sin again”.
In my mind’s eye, at then end of the service, as the variously faithful are shaking hands with the pastor, Jesus shares a parting word with the woman caught in the act. He asks her not to sin again. She responds by whispering to him how difficult this demand is for her, knowing that she might fail, but all the while knowing that anything less than what has been demanded of her will not demand her best.
Hyperbole or not, God asks for our best. Nothing less. Despite our condition, with God’s help, our best is yet to come.