From the Hand to the Heart
Have you ever been afraid of doing the right thing for the wrong reason? Put another way, your outward behavior was the right choice, but inwardly you made that choice for reasons that were less than completely noble.
We learn from the teaching of Jesus that not only must we do the right thing with our hands, but we must also have the right thoughts in our heart. While our human courts will only judge the activities of our hands, God will one day judge the attitudes of our heart.
Let’s go to Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. Our first story in Matthew is about a man by the name of Joseph. The text makes no bones about. Look at verse 19: “Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man.”
Righteous means that you’re holy. Just. Upright before God. You do what God expects. You are a keeper of the law. Put another way, you give Joseph an ethical dilemma, and he knows the way to go. He does. He does what’s right. And in this case – the story of Christmas – he knows the way to go when his fiancée turns up pregnant. And even when he does the right thing, he does it with the right attitude. He could have embarrassed her, but compassionately – not only the right action, but also the right attitude. He plays by the book. Righteous men put such women away. But he does so quietly, respectfully.
And then, that great and glorious intrusion of the angel. “Joseph, there is more holiness in this matter than you ever could have imagined. There is more divinity in this pregnancy than you have ever dreamed. You will not put her away. You will take her as your wife, and you shall name the baby Jesus. For He will save His people from their sins” (1:20-21, paraphrased)
Now, Joseph has a choice. Is he going to be righteous, in the old sense of the word – or is he going to be righteous in the full sense of the word? He took her as his wife and he named the baby Jesus, as the angel had commanded. Right there, at the outpost of Matthew, Matthew gives you the very paradigm of who he wants you, his reader, to become.
Righteousness, or being righteous, is an interesting concept in Matthew’s gospel. It happens again in chapter 3, verse 15. Turn to that passage.
Jesus is approaching his cousin John the Baptist who is baptizing Jews in the Jordan, a new repentance. And Jesus stands in line to be baptized with the rest of the folks. John said, “No. No. I have need to be baptized by you. And you come to me?” But Jesus, answering, said to him, “Permit it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus identifies himself with his people in a movement of national repentance. It was required by God that the Jews repent. His baptism demonstrates what we already know by his putting on flesh. Jesus identifies with his people.
Matthew continues this idea of righteousness – a new kind of righteousness – when he says, turn to chapter 5, verse 6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will be satisfied.” Jesus, in his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, says, “Happy are those, blessed are those who have a desire to do what’s right before God.” Now when we have running water in our own homes, we can’t really imagine what it means to thirst. But it’s like the deer pants for the water, a great longing to be satisfied by being obedient to God.
Then in Matthew 5:10 he says, in his fourth use of the idea of righteous, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A sure way to heaven: find yourself persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
And then the fifth use, in Matthew 5:20. “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
You see the progression? We start the story with Joseph, a righteous man who eventually has to choose between the old righteousness of the hand or the new righteousness of the heart. And then we’re told that if we’re going to make it into his kingdom, we have to have a righteousness that is different than the old righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Then the sixth use. Look at Matthew 6:1. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men, to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
When you do the right thing, you have to do it, also, for the right reason. It’s not just that action of the hands; it’s the attitude of the heart. So when you make a large financial contribution, don’t call attention to your generosity. It’s the right thing to do, but you must also have the right attitude.
Then in 6:33, the seventh use in Matthew’s gospel. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.” That’s the new righteousness. Seek the kingdom of God and the kind of righteousness that God desires, and then everything will come to you.
It’s an interesting progression in Matthew’s gospel from Joseph, the righteous man, to all of us thirsting for righteousness and seeking His kingdom and kingdom righteousness.
Let’s turn to Matthew 5:17-20.
What’s behind this new righteousness, this idea that Matthew is developing?
“Do not think that I cam to abolish the law or the prophet; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness – notice verse 20 – unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Christ wants us to know He is not contradicting the law, but neither is He preserving it unchanged. He will fulfill it; He will bring the law to its intended goal.
Jesus mentions the Pharisees and the scribes precisely because they were the model, the paradigm of the greatest righteousness imaginable among the Jews. He does not challenge their great attention to the detail of the law. But as subsequent verses show, He simply declares that now, with the coming of the Messiah – now that He is here – more is required to be in fellowship with God. People must now follow Jesus in discipleship, which these Jewish leaders had refused to do.
Christian followership requires a new, a greater righteousness. Lest we be left wanting for an example, Jesus gives us – not one or two, but count them – six examples. And with each example in His greatest sermon ever preached, He contrasts what the law, the Torah, says, and its traditional interpretations, with His new authority and declares how each part of the law will apply to His followers, to His disciples.
He redefines what it means to be righteous with God.
The Pharisees were not religious professionals, as we imagine them. They were lay people who were drawn from all segments of society. But they had separated themselves (in fact, the Hebrew word for Pharisee means “to separate”) from all who would defile in order to carry out with precision every regulation developed by the scribes.
But the righteousness of Jesus requires more.
The laws of the Old Testament were not enough for the scribes and the Pharisees. They had developed an oral law around the written law. These additional instructions were passed down from generation to generation by the scribes. In the middle of the Third Century, these oral laws – interpretations of the Torah – were compiled and summarized and codified, and this became known as the Mishnah. Later Jewish scholars wrote commentaries on the Mishnah, explaining the explanation – and this was known as the Talmud. It was a legalistic mind that was constantly defining and redefining the laws. “You can do this, but you can’t do that.”
But this strict adherence to the law doesn’t bring about the righteousness Jesus is talking about. He emphasizes that righteousness comes from a right relationship with God and man. He emphasizes not more rituals, but more of a right relationship.. That was the whole purpose of the law to begin with – to show man how to get along with God and with each other. Amos spoke for all the prophets when he said in Chapter 5: “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like a never failing stream.”
Their good actions of the hand were not matched with good actions of the heart. And, thus, God rejected them.
Let’s look quickly – we only have a few moments – at each of these. But to get an idea about a righteousness that goes beyond the hand to the heart begins in Matthew 5:20-26.
I. Beyond the act to the attitude: murder and anger (21-22).
Jesus makes reference to the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai. “Be careful, lest you throw yourself a party because you haven’t murdered anyone.”
The formula occurs over and over: “You have heard it said..., but now this is what really matters.” Jesus doesn’t change what is said, but He brings it into a sharper, ethical focus. Kingdom righteousness is not just murder of the hand, but it’s the removal of any desire to harm others. Jesus says no orge, no brooding, no inward anger. Don’t call your brother “Raca” – that is, you good for nothing, you blockhead. Raca. It means, “I spit on you.” Don’t call your brother a moros, a fool. To do so is to be heading straight to the fire of destruction.
In his work, Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King admonished his people to “avoid not only violence of deed, but also violence of spirit.”
Jesus says in regard to your worship here at church, “Stop going through the ritual until you get the relationship right.” “Stop right in your tracks while you’re singing a hymn,” he might have said. “Close the hymnbook. Leave the church. Go get the relationship right with your brother. Then come back and finish the hymn and the offering.”
Is anybody here this morning worshiping with an angry heart, a heart that has ill-will against a brother or sister in Christ Jesus? It might be a family member, it might be a co-worker, it might be a fellow church member. Be careful, says Jesus. Don’t pride yourself on the fact that you’ve not murdered anybody. Jesus said, “I’m concerned about more than just your actions; I’m concerned about your attitude. I’m concerned more than just about your ritual; I’m concerned with your relationship.”
II. Beyond the act to the attitude: adultery and lust (27-28).
Don’t pride yourself in your record of faithfulness to your spouse – specifically He says wife – if, in fact, you are looking upon other women with the intention of committing adultery in your heart. The tense of the language is someone who continues to look, rather than just casting a passing glance. The reality is that adultery happens in the heart long before it becomes a physical act. Thoughts and actions make the possibility of giving in to temptation all the more likely.
III. Beyond the act to the attitude: divorce (31-32).
He wants them to know that marriage is sacred. Divorce is an appalling social evil. Why in some marriage ceremonies the couple exchange vows and say something like this – instead of “until death do us part,” it goes “as long as I shall love you” or “as long as we both shall love each other.” Jesus teaches that the marriage commitment is binding for life – the only exception being a state of immorality which has already broken the covenant.
I want to add very quickly that I think the church has to be serious about two things. First, the church has to be busy proclaiming relationship – the one-flesh relationship of husband and wife that lasts a lifetime, holding high the standard and expecting it at the beginning of marriage. But I also want the church to be careful lest, in some way, for some reason unclear from the text, we make divorce the unpardonable sin. God is able to forgive all sin, including divorce. And we, as a community of faith, should not be seeking ways to exclude those who have suffered divorce but, rather, through the forgiveness of God and grace we should be seeking to restore them to service and to worship.
IV. Beyond the act to the attitude: honesty (33-37).
The disciple is to be honest, trustworthy, making the swearing of an oath unnecessary. One’s “yes” means yes and one’s “no” means no. Whatever is needed beyond this is because there is evil. Where there is honesty and trust, there need be no more words. Jesus said that swearing is unnecessary – irreverent and ineffective. It really doesn’t change anything. The issue is still the truthfulness of the disciple. Jesus wants his disciples to practice truth in relationship to society, but also in their relationship to themselves.
V. Beyond the act to the attitude: returning good for evil (38-39).
The oldest law available – lex talionis – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, all the way back to Hammurabi, the 18th Century B.C. king – found three times in the Old Testament in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The original intent was to restrict unlimited revenge. But now Jesus, to his disciples, changes limited retaliation to non-retaliation. Like Jesus, like their Master, they must accept unjust abuse. Three examples of non-retaliation for personal abuse are offered. If someone should insult you with a backhanded slap to the right cheek, turn the left cheek for an additional blow. The backhanded slap was a double insult. It carried twice the punishment of an openhanded slap. Secondly, if someone takes you to court and deprives you of your shirt, let him have your coat, also. The third illustration of non-retaliation draws from the ancient practice of armies conscripting peasants to carry their gear, as Simon of Cyrene was forced by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross – not one mile, but two.
VI. Beyond the act to the attitude: compassion (43-48).
Of course, the Old Testament never tells us to hate our enemies, but they had heard it from those who were interpreting the Old Testament. The true test of genuine Christianity is how we treat those we are naturally inclined to hate. A second rational for loving one’s enemies is that God loves them, too.
Yes, the godliness that the disciple must show cannot be comprehensively formulated in a set of rules. A team of evangelical Christians invaded Shipshewana, Indiana, to bring the lost of Shipshewana to Christ. It was in front of Yoder’s Dry Goods Store that one of these earnest souls confronted a Mennonite farmer with a challenge. “Brother, are you saved?” The farmer was stunned by the question. All his years of attending the Peach Bloom Mennonite Congregation had not prepared him for such a question, particularly in front of Yoder’s. He didn’t want to offend the earnest man, and he truly felt like the man was posing the question with good will. He seriously considered how he might answer. After a long pause, the farmer asked his questioner for a pencil and paper and proceeded to list the names of ten people he believed knew him well. Most of them, he explained, were his friends, but some were less than that and might even be enemies. He suggested that the evangelist ask these people whether or not they thought he was saved, since he certainly would not presume to answer such a question on his own behalf.
What are they saying about you – your friends, your family, your enemies? Is yours a righteousness – an old righteousness of the Pharisees, like the old Joseph who was willing to put away Mary? Are you still at the stage of the old righteousness? Or, have you heard the call of the divine to name Him Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins – sins of the heart as well as sins of the hand.