Texts: Isaiah 58:1-8, Matthew 5:27-30
So let’s jump right into it. If a man can’t keep his peeping eyes out of women’s dressing rooms, he should have himself blinded. If a man cannot keep himself from groping women, he should cut his hands off.
This idea is not original with me. It’s a straightforward paraphrase of what Jesus said 2000 years ago.
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body 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 part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus makes many extreme statements. It would be a bad idea to turn them into literal rules.
Jesus said, “Take no thought for the morrow.” Don’t even think about your future. Obviously, we don’t want our children to do that literally. First question of an evening on a school night is, do you have any homework for tomorrow? When we teach our children about money, one of the foundation principles is savings. Part of every pay check should go for the future. A future so far out there that our kids can scarcely imagine it.
Still we appreciate Jesus’ caution about robbing ourselves of enjoyment today by fretting about tomorrow. We understand Jesus’ words to be a poetic summons to practice trust in God.
Jesus said, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other.” None of us can imagine literally doing this. If he’s bigger, when he strikes you on one cheek, RUN! If things are a bit more even, if he strikes you on the cheek, prepare to defend yourself.
We do not take Jesus words about offering the other cheek literally. But we do take them seriously. We cultivate an attitude of forgiveness. We recognize the futility, the foolishness, of thinking we can make life better by hurting those who have hurt us.
These extreme statements by Jesus capture our attention. They call us to rethink our “natural” ways of thinking. Aim higher. And higher. Jesus is the supreme Spiritual Cross Fit trainer, pushing us way beyond what we thought was possible.
Which brings us to today’s New Testament reading:
If your eye gets you into trouble, gouge it out.
If your hands get you in trouble cut them off.
What is Jesus trying to tell us?
Let’s start with the most obvious and simple. Central in the creation order is the glorious, fiery attraction between men and women. Part of this magnetism is the powerful allure of feminine beauty. For most men, female beauty is nearly irresistible.
It is a short step from our awareness of our desire to imagining that our desire for a woman is permission from that woman for us to enter her space. From there it is another short step to imagining that if my desire is illicit, it’s all her fault. Men make women responsible for male desire.
Jesus emphatically rejects the notion that women are responsible for managing male desire. Men are responsible for their own eyes and hands. Female beauty is neither permission nor command for men to do anything. It is simply a glorious, lovely fact.
It is part of the charm of creation. It what makes the world go round.
But, Jesus says. Do not confuse your desire with permission or command to engage with the person I desire.
I am responsible for where I place my eyes. I am responsible for what I do with my hands. Morality begins and ends with my management of myself. In the religion of Jesus morality, goodness, integrity is rooted in our own hearts not in the outward circumstances.
When we embrace this ethic, it creates a wonderful freedom. Freedom for happy relationships between men and women. Freedom for women to engage freely in the full range of society. Freedom for them to achieve their highest potential, and in the process enrich our entire society.
When men and women cultivate respect for one another, acknowledging the special charms and unique allure without in any way confusing my desire for the other person’s permission, we are creating a safe world. Safe for ourselves. Safe for our children. Safe for those among us whose gender and sexuality does not match the usual, neat binary divisions.
Self-restraint is the very foundation of a holy, happy, healthy community.
Because we are sexual beings, self-control and mutual respect go a very long way toward creating a healthy society. And this challenge by Jesus goes far beyond sexuality. It touches the foundation of all harmonious relationships. We do right because that’s who we are. Period.
We don’t refuse to murder because the person who has so provoked us deserves kindness from us. No. We do not murder because we are not murderers.
When we see a nice bicycle on someone’s porch, we don’t leave it there because we might get caught if we stole it. No, we leave it there because we are not thieves.
We do not mock our political opponents because we are not mockers. We tell the truth because we are not liars. We obey the law, because we are lawful people.
If our eye causes us to sin, let’s not blame the person or thing we have seen. Let’s deal with our own hearts. And maybe, just maybe, we should quit looking. After my sermon on not calling people idiots, several of you said to me, but when I watch TV news and I see such and such, I can’t help myself. I explode with anger and ugly words in my mind if not out loud.
Well, then maybe you should quit watching. I do not watch any TV news. I read, but I do not watch because of that emotional impact, which can often distort the facts.
Last week Hanz talked about all the spankings he received when he was a kid. I got my share, but it sounded like he got more. If you are a parent and you are frequently spanking your child, the problem is not your child. Find a different and better form of discipline.
And if you are a guy who invades the space of women, stop it. Cut your hands off metaphorically, of course but still, cut your hands off. The problem is not the attractiveness of women. The problem is you. Fix it.
A couple of weeks ago, I was biking to an appointment in Ballard. I was peddling up a section of 50th Street that is quite steep. I noticed a young woman running up the hill on the other side of the street. Her power moving uphill was impressive. She was a serious athlete. I stopped for a light and she crossed the street in front of me. As she ran in front of me I noticed she had beautiful, long legs. Once across the street, she turned and continued on up the hill moving crazy fast. The light changed and I stood on my peddles and did my own push up the hill. It was so steep that even though I was on a bike and she was on foot, I did not gain on the runner. In fact, she was pulling away from me. Finally the slope eased and I peddled past her. And again appreciated her amazing athleticism and her beauty.
I had already begun work on this sermon series. And as I continued on to my appointment I thought of the freedom she represented. In Saudi Arabia this young woman would have been forbidden to go running on a sunny afternoon in her shorts and T-shirt. In certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn dominated by Orthodox Jewish culture, she might well have been stoned. Some of us attended Adventist schools where she would have been called in by the girl’s dean and admonished. But here she was free to luxuriate in the sun and warmth of a Seattle summer afternoon. Free to run like a gazelle. No one bothered her. No one grabbed her. She was free to run and dream of glory in whatever race she was training for.
The highest vision Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount is human living in the image of God. Jesus calls us to practice with one another the generosity of God. Our highest ambition is not to see how much we can seize, how much we can grab from others. Rather, responding to the call of Jesus, our highest ambition is to see how much we can give, how grand and magnanimous we can be.
For me that girl flying up 50th Street is a picture of the beauty and freedom available when we embrace the principles of the kingdom of heaven. Most of us will never be able to run as strongly as that young woman. But we can delight in her freedom and pledge ourselves to do all we can to ensure that the same freedom is there for our sisters and daughters and granddaughters. God gives freedom. We partner best with God when our generosity expands the freedom available to all God’s children. This is the wisest, best use of our eyes and our hands.