Free Not to Be Me

Ecclesiasticus 15/Mt. 5/Ps. 119

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the best-known passages in the Bible. St. Matthew put together a lengthy collection of statements of Christ’s teachings, including some of his most memorable sayings.

But someone who knows that the word, “gospel” means “good news,” might wonder how some of these sayings found their way into Matthew’s Gospel. For instance, Matthew reports Jesus saying, ”…if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Christ goes on to say, “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ..If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

These sayings won’t strike most people as good news! At one time or another, most people feel anger or desire. Or they find their hands reaching out to take things that they shouldn’t take or spend money they shouldn’t spend. Few of us would enjoy being told by Jesus that if we give in to these impulses, we will wind up in hell.

But what’s the alternative? Would it be possible to arrange the world so that such negative forces didn’t exist? In fact, they seem to be necessary in order that other goods can come into being.

If we didn’t have these temptations, we wouldn’t have the very freedom that makes us human. As the First Lesson noted, we can keep the commandments God has given to us because, the text says, “to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”

To act faithfully, we need free choice. We might wish that we lived in a world without anger or wishes. But the only way God could create such a world would be to limit our freedom. We would be little more than robots who could perfectly follow every divine command but whose lives would be thoroughly uninteresting.

So Christ’s sayings express vital truths about the soul. Jesus recognizes that human beings are prone to all kinds of fantasies and compulsions. He highlights the dangers of unchecked human nature because he knows that it represents the dark side of our freedom.

And while there’s nothing we can do about our nature except admit that we are the way we are, that admission is extremely valuable. For one of the darkest aspects of the dark side is that we don’t want to admit that it exists!

Thus, even Christians these days hesitate to use the word, “sin” because they don’t want to appear to be “judgmental.” The Christian psychologist, Robert Coles complains that pastors visiting the sick fall back onto therapeutic language instead of speaking about the evil of sickness and the healing power of God’s spirit. A dying friend of Coles’ once complained to him about a clergyman who visited him offering “psychological banalities as God’s word.”

There are no psychological banalities in the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Nothing ordinary about that statement!

It is intriguing to imagine the audience who first heard Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. They weren’t just ignorant peasants—the region Jesus lived in included a large factory for making pottery, for example. There were wealthy people in the crowd and skeptical intellectuals too.

At the same time, though, compared to us, these folks had vastly fewer temptations. In ancient times, there was no television advertising; there were no magazines; there was no Internet that would stimulate the sinful thoughts that Jesus warned about.

One solution to our modern problems that is sometimes offered by preachers is that we should reduce our exposure to media. That way, we have more control over what goes into our heads. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to limit the amount of time we spend on media entertainment when we have better things to do.

But I think that, ultimately, the various media aren’t the real issue. Christ’s pronouncements make just as much sense today as they did 2,000 years ago because human beings are essentially free. We are so free that we inevitably have problems with our freedom.

Freedom undoubtedly is a blessing, as any citizen in a country which is newly democratic will attest. But the flip side of freedom is that we can get carried away with it. After France had overthrown its monarchy, it lasted only a few years before descending into chaos. Some of the most prominent leaders of the revolution were themselves victims of the guillotine. Freedom ran out of control.

Now this is not to say that freedom will always lead to a bad end—or that we should give up trying to be good persons.

But I think the really deep truth of Christ’s pronouncements on human freedom is that they remind us that we need God’s grace. Freedom in itself won’t make us happy.

As the Prayer Book collect says, “we know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Only God can help us to use our freedom.

Those listening to the Sermon on the Mount didn’t go off in despair that they could never live up to Christ’s teaching. Instead, they discovered that when they allowed themselves to experience the loving grace of the divine spirit, their freedom became a blessing.

Instead of feeling beset by impulses that they couldn’t control, they learned to let God take the lead. They weren’t only at the mercy of their own feelings, so they could learn how to profit from the gift of freedom.

In other words, Christ’s pronouncements become good news for them. As they are good news for us.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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