Well my friends, as you can see, we are still deep in the midst of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Two weeks ago, Dan led you through the comfort and challenge of the beatitudes and last Sunday, our area minister, Terry Ogawa, preached from a section of that felt almost like a pep talk:
“You are the salt of the earth,” said Jesus.
“You are the light of the world.”
There were some caveats thrown in about not losing our saltiness or hiding our light under a bushel, but on the whole, last week’s reading definitely had a “Go Team!” sort of vibe. I was grooving on what I was hearing and feeling encouraged …right up until the last three lines:
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
I really liked what Jesus was saying… right up until then. But those verses, mmm, those verses immediately caught at my heart. I didn’t like the hierarchy implied by words like “least,” and greatest,” and they felt odd to me coming from the mouth of Jesus.
I don’t like to think of the kingdom of heaven as a place where some people are greater than others. I don’t think of the kingdom as a place where people are ranked at all. Though there was some comfort for me in the idea that whether we break the commandments or keep them, there is still a place for all of us in the kingdom. At least there is if we stop reading at verse 20.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Jesus is not done preaching at verse 20. Quite the contrary, it would seem that Jesus is just getting going:
“For I tell you,” he says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Never! Well “Ruh Roh, Shaggy!” If that’s the case then we’re all in trouble, because no one was more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus is still not finished.
He then goes on to explain what that level of righteousness entails, and my first instinct is to tap out. I mean murdering people, fine. You’ll be happy to know that I’m pretty sure I can avoid that.
Raise your hand if you’re with me. Excellent.
(Do see me after church, if that is not the case).
But becoming angry with people?
Choosing to apologize and reconcile with people I have hurt or offended when I could just as easily save face by going about my business and avoiding them entirely?
Those don’t even sound like temptations to me. Those simply sound like cultural norms.
I mean, how can you not be angry anymore? We live in a society fueled by outrage: some of it fabricated to drive up clicks, make money, and cement power, and some of it good, righteous, and absolutely necessary because it propels us to confront the injustice we see all around us.
And as for lobbing insults, well, if our social fabric has frayed to the extent where it is now socially acceptable for our elected officials to heckle the President on national TV during the State of the Union, who can blame the average citizen for planting incendiary lawn signs, posting derogatory memes, or laughing along with the late night host of their choice at the humiliation and hypocrisy of their ideological opponents? Certainly not me.
And as for embarking on the hard work of reconciliation, where do you even begin in a hyper partisan culture where objectivity has seemingly perished and individualism reigns? Why even wade in when you know that no matter what you say, your opponent is already fully convinced that you’re wrong or you just don’t get it or if you would just read this article by some random on the internet you would finally understand?
It is far easier to retreat to our information silos, avoid difficult conversations, and surround ourselves with people who like us because they are like us.
And that’s to say nothing about Jesus’ very difficult words about lust and adultery and divorce. (Which, if we were to keep reading, our followed by his equally challenging words about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving to anyone who asks, and blessing those who persecute us.)
If the Pharisees in all of their righteousness - a group of men who were scrupulously impeccable in all of their actions - aren’t going to make the cut, where on earth does that leave the rest of us?
If we are expected to not just do the right thing on the outside like they did - which is hard enough! - but always feel the right things on the inside, how are any of us ever going to make it into the kingdom at all? How indeed?
Are you all sufficiently freaked out, such that you’ll pay attention to the answer? Good.
Because to answer that, the first thing we need to do is take a step back and understand what Jesus means by the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the “fires of Hell.”
Thanks to 2000 years of Christianity and the brilliance of authors and artists like Dante and Milton, Bruegel and Bunyan, we hear the words heaven and hell and think of actual places where we will either chill forever or burn for eternity.
But in Jesus’ day, at least amongst the Jewish people, visions of the afterlife were much more vague. I’m not saying there isn’t an after-life. I’m 99% sure there is.
But given his historical context, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven and the fires of hell, even the life eternal, he’s not necessarily talking about places you go when you die, but about places you go in body, mind, and spirit - the reality you create for yourself and those around you- right now, while you’re still alive.
His word for hell - Gehenna- was an actual place outside the city of Jerusalem. It was the city dump; a hell-scape if ever there was one where all that had been discarded and destroyed was burned in a perpetual dumpster fire both day and night. I’m sure no one wanted to go there for any number of reasons.
When Jesus talks about eternal life, he’s talking more about the space you will occupy in the minds of the living after you are gone. If your “memory is for a blessing,” - as the Jewish people still say - you will live on so long as those who loved you, remember, and honor you in all that they say and do. Whereas if your life was best forgotten, soon you will be too.
And as for the kingdom of heaven, whether you’re good at keeping the commandments or not good at all, the radical truth at the heart of Jesus’ gospel- see again verses 19 and 20- is that you’re already in it.
The kingdom of heaven is all around you. It’s not so much a place as a state of being you achieve when you choose to live with grace and compassion. In order to know it, you have to practice it. To experience it, you have to take a chance on it. You already have everything you need in this very moment to access it, enter into it, build it out and build it up right here, because my friends, the kingdom of God is within you.
So these words that can at first sound like an impossible standard none of us could ever meet with any consistency such that we’re all in danger of getting locked out of heaven for eternity, are actually a beautiful affirmation and invitation to enter into the kingdom of heaven in this present moment.
Jesus is letting us know that our every thought, word, and deed has the power to bring down heaven or raise hell right here upon the earth. Every thought, word, and deed is feeding into one or the other, building up one or the other, leading us, those we love, and those we need to love more, deeper into one or the other, making us greater or lesser in one or the other.
As Jesus launches into this new section, saying, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” he’s not setting the bar higher such that only the best of the best of the best of us will one day make it in. No, Jesus is tossing out the keys to the kingdom like confetti, such that everyone can gain access in the here and now.
He is reminding us that the kingdom is the place where God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven, the will God laid out for us all in the ten commandments.
Very quickly: God gave us the the law as a gift and guide to help us build heavenly community here on earth; a beloved community where all can live and thrive. The ten commandments are beautiful, broad strokes, that establish the sort of healthy boundaries we need in order to live in community with God and one another. Worship God and not idols. Honor your parents and keep the sabbath. Don’t lie, murder, steal, cheat, or covet what isn’t yours.
Jesus isn’t improving or revising the 10 commandments, he’s merely reminding us all that these rules are not just there to keep us in line and mitigate the harm we do to one another. He’s reminding us that their ultimate purpose is to foster connection, help us to build up our relationships with one another, and bind us together in love.
The kingdom of heaven, the dream God has for the best life we can experience as human beings, is not a place where it is okay for people to hate and malign one another just as long as we stop short of murder.
It’s not a zero-sum game where the end goal of justice is punishment or retribution.
It’s not a place where we can indulge our lust or covet someone else’s partner, as long as we stop short of physically cheating.
It’s not a place where we take our vows lightly or only trust each other to tell the truth if we’re under oath.
That just sounds miserable. Actually, you know what that sounds like?
That sounds like hell; a hell where we minimize and dehumanize, punish and deceive ourselves and one another to justify our own selfish ends… actions that rupture community and destroy connection.
No the kingdom is the reality we create when we seek the welfare of one another, no matter how other that person may be. Which is why Jesus goes right to the root of our sins, those behaviors that break down our ability to live in peace and wholeheartedness with all.
He shows us how hate, anger, lust, and disdain, are the first steps in the wrong direction; a direction that can all too easily escalate into violence and destruction that only ever begets more violence and destruction until everything we have built - from our most intimate relationships to our global ones - is reduced to rubble and ruin.
Till our lives look like Gehenna, a place where the fire never stops burning because we never stop feeding it with all the relationships we have discarded and destroyed.
Now of course, when it comes to the rules, even the big 10, there are always exceptions, exceptions to everything Jesus is saying and I have just said. And my friends, rest assured that God knows this. God knows there is a time for everything under heaven:
a time for war and a time for peace,
times when anger is not only justified but righteous,
times when people must be called out and held accountable for their foolishness,
times when reconciliation isn’t possible or healthy or safe,
times when divorce is the only option or an affair is justified,
times when a lie does far less harm than the truth ever could.
You know it as well as I do and God even more so.
Just as God knows that we can do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. And paradoxically it is our awareness of that- our awareness of all the frailties and complexities of the human heart- that show us how we can exceed even the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.
Not by keeping the rules at the center of all we do such that we never mess up, but by keeping love at the center of all we do so we don’t mess up each other.
I know it would be a lot cleaner if we could just say them’s the rules, obey them or else, and be done with it. But in the end, the rules are really not the point. If they were… if getting into heaven was just about keeping the rules for the sake of the rules, it would make sense to cut off or pluck out of any part of yourself that caused you to break them.
But Jesus doesn’t really want you to do that. He’s being absurd, because viewing the rules as an end in and of themselves is absurd. He’s exaggerating to such a degree to impress upon us all that the rules are not just there to be kept, they are there to help us keep one another.
That’s the real task Jesus is setting before us. Are we keeping one another? Caring for one another. Are we speaking the truth with love? Upholding the rules with love?
Am I more interested in being right and getting what’s mine or finding peace and being reconciled? Am I trying in all I say and do, to build up a beloved community or am I turning away from that in order to simply build up myself?
The choice between heaven and hell is an on-going act of discernment.
The choice between heaven and hell is not God’s - God only ever wants what is best for us and has shown us the way.
The choice between heaven and hell is ever and always ours, and there is no better time to choose heaven then right now.
“Heaven," as my father-in-law used to say, “isn’t a reward for being good. Heaven is what it feels like to be good.”
And that, my friends, sounds pretty good to me. Amen