This is the sermon for Matthew 5:21-37.
Do you know who Aron Ralston is? About seven years ago, Aron Ralston was a 27 year old out door enthusiast who loved rock climbing in the desert southwest. One Saturday morning, he got up early and began a hike that would change his life. He was in the Blue John Canyon of Utah, having a great day of solo hiking, he fell down a slot canyon and a boulder fell on top of him, trapping his right arm. He was unable to move the boulder to escape and finally, after over five days, he freed himself by amputating his own arm. This little adventure is the story line of a movie that is showing right now called 127 Hours. Yes, I went to see it. And no, I did not see very much of that part of the film.
You can guess why I would want to see the movie though: Because in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says a pretty shocking thing: If your hand causes you to sin - cut it off. Better to enter heaven without a limb than to have your whole self consigned to hell. I’ve always been horrified by this saying, and I hoped that the movie might give me a new angle, a new perspective on this outrageous action.
Both the movie and the passage of scripture are less about amputation and more about transformation. They are less about the hand than they are about the heart.
I’ll get back to the movie in a minute, but let’s look at this challenging scripture together first:
In this passage Jesus is attempting to describe the kind of right- life that God desires for us and from us. He’s contrasting his vision with that of people who are focused on obedience to a set of laws or religious guidelines. But he doesn’t do it by sweeping the law aside or minimizing its importance. What Jesus does instead is to expand the range of God’s authority in human life - to blow up its importance, and to make larger and more voluminous the area of life that matters to God.
He does it 6 times altogether: The first four re-casting of the Law are in our passage for today. The last two - which are sort of the climax of this section of scripture - are next week’s lesson. He uses a standard format - like some pronouncements have a formalized wording - e.g. “Whereas . . . this, whereas that, therefore be it resolved . . .” Jesus uses the rabbinic formula: You have heard it said . . . . . but I say to you . . . .
You have heard it said, “Thou shalt not kill.”
You have heard it said, “You shall not sleep with someone else’s spouse.”
You have heard it said, “If you want to end your marriage, you have to give your wife a certificate of divorce.”
You have heard it said, “Don’t swear to something that isn’t true.”
Then Jesus, in each case, spells out a much more rigorous, much more demanding, much more difficult - maybe - even - impossible! standard. Don’t kill is reinterpreted to say, “Don’t hold a grudge. Don’t insult or cast aspersions on another.” Don’t commit adultery is broadened to prohibit leering glances or lustful looks. Divorce law is rewritten to have only the very narrowest window of permissibility. And telling the truth under oath becomes a demand for integrity so stalwart that one’s word could NEVER be brought into question.
Wow. Do these enhanced commands, this righteousness on steroids, . . . have any impact on our life? Well we don’t take them literally. If you think about this a minute, it is pretty obvious: When you see an eye-patch - your first thought is probably, “Pirate” not “must be a Christian.”
But even though we don’t take them literally - we cannot and should not dismiss them. They deserve our attention. If Jesus says something this weird, it must mean he wants us to notice it. He must be trying to motivate us somehow. Jesus isn’t widely known for blowing off steam . . .
Of course! We’re not going to be motivated to amputate. No legal system worth its salt puts insults on par with murder. We don’t slap people in jail for calling their brother a fool. We don’t gouge out the eyes of those who ogle the freshmen and women on Green Street. We don’t cut off our hands if they give somebody the finger.
Jesus was up to something different -letting us know that God is concerned with our very selves. He desires an attitude that can’t be faked with a few surface gestures of civility. He wants to shape and change our hearts and our relationships.
All these examples Jesus gives are about right relationships. And Jesus’ command is that they be RIGHT. Not just POLITE.
Relationships with brothers and sisters, close friends, relationships with the opposite sex, marital relationships, even marital relationships that are on the verge of ending. Relationships with people with whom we do business, with whom we enter into contracts and to whom we make promises. In all these relationships, Jesus insists, God’s intention is that we should go beyond the bare minimum legal requirements for doing the right thing. We should do the right thing for the right reason, out of the right heart. We should act with perfect integrity and love. Right. Not just polite.
The gift of opened hearts and right relationships that please God is a gift that Jesus wants us to understand is offered to us. He uses vivid, even horrifying language, to tell us the value and beauty that God desires to see in our lives. But I hope that we can get past the grisly-ness of it to see and accept the larger and better life that is proffered in heart changing commands.
When Aron Ralston fell into that crevice in the rock in Utah, he was an OK guy. But sort of a jerk. You know the kind? You get the picture of someone who doesn’t really care about anyone but himself. He doesn’t do anything bad, but he doesn’t pick up the phone when his mother calls. He doesn’t tell anyone where he is going, even though that would make them feel better. He’s the kind of boyfriend who just can’t give the relationship much time or energy. He lets a woman who loves him drift away. And she tells him as she leaves, “Aron Ralston, you are going to be so lonely.” He’s not a criminal or a drug addict or a liar or a thief. But he’s profoundly stingy of heart.
So then he is trapped. All alone, knowing that he is probably going to die, he has the chance to think deeply about his life. And he thinks of his mother and his father. Of the co-worker he didn’t even care enough about to tell where he was going. Of the woman who loved him, whom he had used and discarded, like an old backpack. But, even more, he begins to think about his future - he begins to have visions of a son - a young boy who doesn’t even exist yet. These visions of the son he feels he is supposed to create, being together in the future - these experience transformed Ralston in a profound way. One reviewer said, “This story is a tale of massive transformation on a small, personal scale - of and individual’s life changing forever, over the course of five days.” Here’s what Ralston says, “My physical self was stripped away, but what was left were the connections with people in my life. When we are connected through love to other people is when we’re most alive and have our greatest sense of resolve and courage.”
And opening to those connections - allowing God to train and shape our hearts so that right relationships can arise - this kind of new life and transformation is worth an arm (and a leg). When he finally cuts his arm off - he’s glad. And, as a viewer, you share his sense that this is the absolutely right and joyful thing to do. You know that his life, and your life, is beloved by God. There’s something that touches your heart to see his heart grow so much. And the bigger heart is one that is filled with gratitude and love.
“When my mom first saw this film, she was holding my hand,” Ralston recalls. “The amputation scene is over and we all made it through, but as I hike out and the music builds, my mom’s squeezing my hand so hard I think I’m losing my other arm. We’re involuntarily rocking in our seats and she’s going,”Thank you, God! Thank you, God!” That’s what a beautiful gift this is.”
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day - hearts everywhere. God wants to give us a Valentine’s present - but we have to let him know that we want it. Will we accept that gift? Will today be the day that we recognize the need to let God transform our hearts, to move us from polite to right in our relationships with others. Will today be the day that we resolve to give up a grudge that cuts us off from relationship. Will today be the day we open our hearts to the friend who has wronged us, the person we desire but do not love, the spouse who is driving us crazy, the obligation we’ve been meeting, but just barely. Will today be the day we hear Jesus’ call to live - really live - the quality of life that God desires for us. A life that is Right. Not just polite, but Right.
Maybe today is the day we, like Aron Ralston, begin to see the beauty of human connection and the loving future God has planned.
And I hope that we catch the vision that rocks us to the core, and tears from our hearts the cry, “Thank you, God! O thank you, God!”