“Jesus the Libertarian”

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

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

I begin with some words of Jesus that we just heard—words that seem to go against the grain of our culture today: “Listen and understand. Jesus says: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

Now we Americans seem to worry most about “what goes into the mouth.” We worry about eating the wrong foods – and eating too much food. We debate the merits of ingesting certain drugs—for example, powerful medicines that have only a slight chance of curing certain illnesses or recreational drugs like marijuana that many consider harmless, but also pose long-term health risks.

Our culture also seems to disagree with the other part of Christ’s statement–that, “it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Swearing for example seems more common every day. Vulgar speech and references of all sorts are everywhere—they’re even on television.

No one seems to object to language that used to be forbidden in public; we never hear people being criticized for swearing. If I were to preach against this kind of talk, I could be sure that at least some people would say that I was being uptight and puritanical!

No, for us modern people, it’s what goes into the mouth that gets us in trouble. And we share that obsession with the religious culture of Christ’s time.

The Pharisees were an influential group within Judaism that advocated the strict enforcement of dietary laws. You had to wash your hands ceremonially before you ate. You weren’t permitted to eat some foods; animals had to be slaughtered in a particular way; and so on–many, many rules.

Now Jesus seems to have followed these rules himself for the most part. He saw that such customs could help to center one’s life on God.

But Christ wasn’t rigid about the Hebrew purity code–because he put a high value on freedom. As he said on a different occasion, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

In this respect, then, we might say that Jesus was a libertarian. He valued personal liberty as a necessary component of the abundant life of God’s Kingdom. And he thought that religious rules were intended by God not to make us miserable but to help us to use our freedom better.

Yet Christ’s paramount concern was our relationship with God and our neighbors. And so he wouldn’t necessarily have agreed with everything that modern libertarians believe.

Jesus was hardly pro-war, and he was well aware of the perils of the freedom to bear arms; as he observed, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Yet he admitted that he himself “did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

As for foreign policy and the issue of whether citizens should be compelled to pay taxes to support interventions in overseas conflicts: it’s possible to interpret the sayings of Jesus either way. He cared for the lowest members of society; and he obviously challenged the powerful, since the powerful eventually had Him eliminated.

Yet Christ seems to have been most interested in spiritual conflict. As he said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And as he taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” he knew that the reign of God would only finally be established by divine power at a future time known only to God.

Yet there’s no doubt that Jesus believed that our faith is meant to add to our liberty. In fact, he told his disciples, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Thus, while Christ himself recognized the spiritual value of food regulations, he didn’t think that they needed to be followed by everyone at every time. As today’s Scripture indicates, Jesus was more concerned about the words that come out of our mouths than the foods that go in.

So what would he think of the issues of personal liberty that people debate today? Again, it’s hard to see Jesus coming down dogmatically on one side or the other. While I doubt Jesus would rejoice in our current cultural vulgarity, I don’t think he would make swearing illegal.

After all, bad language comes and goes with cultural changes—it was common in England during the time of Shakespeare, for example. I just came across some poetry that could only be termed, “dirty.” This poetry was published nearly 500 years ago by the dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Dublin! In any case, as America’s founders recognized, trying to gag people often ends up causing more harm than good.

On the other hand, Jesus seems to have been an opponent of what we call, “hate speech.” For Jesus, saying terrible things about someone was as sinful as actually hitting them on the head.

Why? Because what we say reveals what is going on in our hearts. Again, as Christ taught, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions…” And, for Jesus, these “evil intentions” include slander—in other words, a form of hating speech. Angry words can be as offensive to God as murder.

As a legal matter, this issue is more complicated. In some cases, it’s hard to say what side Jesus would take. Would he be in favor of general censorship of the Internet?

I doubt it. But wouldn’t he want to shut down child pornography sites? I think he’d approve of this form of censorship.

It’s interesting that in this country there is only one legal restriction on what is said during a private confession. If I am hearing a confession and the person admits to abusing a child, I must direct the person to go to the police. If he doesn’t, I am legally obliged to report the case of abuse to the authorities myself.

While, in general, confessions should be totally private, this exception proves Christ’s point that what we say reveals the state of our souls.

Child abusers have a deep compulsion that isn’t easily overcome. And the wish to act on this compulsion festers in the secrecy of the abuser’s soul. So when it emerges into the light of day, the threat to cause damage on the young is enormous.

At the same time, though, Christians can’t help being on the side of political freedom. How could we do our work of evangelism and outreach if we lacked freedom of assembly and freedom of worship and freedom of expression—all of which are only guaranteed by a government?

So even though we may disagree about how Christ’s ethical views should be applied in the world today, we know they have to be honored somehow. For, as St. Paul said, Jesus wanted his followers to discover “the liberty of the children of God.”

And while we may disagree about what Jesus would say about civil liberties in our culture, we can bet he would concur with advice that many of us first got from our mothers: “Watch your mouth!”

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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