The Heart of the Matter

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli
at Foundry UMC August 14, 2016, the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Matthew 5:17-30                                                          

Is it possible to legislate morality?  Will stricter gun laws keep people from
killing each other?  If we outlaw online extramarital
hook-up sites will people stop cheating on their partner?  Will legally enforced compliance with the
agenda proposed by the Black Lives Matter movement insure the end of racism in
every police precinct?  Of course the
answer to those more specific questions is absolutely not.  But that didn’t keep Foundry from being
deeply invested in the work of the Anti-Saloon League in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Some may scoff at that as a romantic and
misguided investment of resources and energy, but at that time alcohol was tearing
at the fabric of families and whole communities on a massive scale.  Something had to be done.  The pros and cons of Prohibition are still
debated today.  Some may suggest that
Prohibition—and gun control legislation as a contemporary corollary—are not
“legislating morality,” but are rather attempts to protect citizens by setting
legal boundaries for production, sale, and use of death-dealing products.  And others will counter with statements like
“guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” 
And then the debate has a tendency to turn toward the need to focus on
changing hearts and minds of individuals versus the benefits and necessity to
address systems through policy and laws.


In Jesus’ time, the debate was a bit different since
there was no separation of “church” and state. The “law” was inherently and
simultaneously religious, social, legal, and moral.  And the differentiation between “individual
rights” and “communal systems” was nothing like it is for us; the
interdependence of the individual and community was simply understood.  In today’s reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the
Mount, Jesus says that he hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but
rather to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17).  Jesus’
fulfillment of the law is his life, the way that he shows what it looks like to
truly embody not just the letter, but the intent of the law.  One of Jesus’ primary critiques of the
scribes and Pharisees is the hypocrisy manifest among many, the ways that their
lives don’t match their words (Mt 23:3). 
He also challenges the tendency to apply laws in a way that ignores or
harms the poor and oppressed (Mt 12:10-12). 
So when Jesus goes on to challenge his followers to exceed even the
scribes and Pharisees in faithfulness to the law (Mt. 5:20), it seems that he
is saying: know the law and the teachings of the prophets and then try to
actually live and apply them in life-giving ways.  Jesus then offers some examples to help his
hearers understand how they might do that. 
Here are a couple of those examples (Mt 5:21-30):

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient
times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to

22 But I say to you that 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.

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you
remember that your brother or sister has something against you,

24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be
reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on
the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and
the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.

26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have
paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit

28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with
lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

29 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.

30 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.


So do these verses simple things up for you?? 

Undoubtedly, Jesus is setting a very high standard for
his followers here.  But what we have in
these verses is not a full-blown ethical system, a list of rules, a new set of commandments.  Rather, what we have here are some examples
of how to get to the heart of the matter when it comes to living as God would
have us live.  Jesus takes a couple of
examples from the Ten Commandments—“You shall not murder,” and “You shall not
commit adultery”— then, in essence says, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I want you to
live these things at 11.” 


Jesus’ assumption is that all will know and understand
what it means in the law when it says “You shall not murder” and “You shall not
commit adultery.”  After all, those
admonitions are pretty straightforward. 
But Jesus goes on, stressing that the heart of these commandments is
based on God’s desire that we do no harm
to one another
.  The extreme case is
murder, but Jesus goes on to speak about anger, urging us to understand that
mismanaged anger can become the seed of violence.  To be clear, Jesus would never suggest that
we should never be angry; there is such a thing as “righteous anger” that can
and must be expressed—prophets ancient and contemporary spend most of their
time being angry and making sure everyone knows about it!  But that kind of anger is a directed anger
for the purpose of addressing injustice, righting wrongs, making a world that
does less harm.  Jesus’ teaching here challenges
us to seek reconciliation and to be mindful of the words we use.  We know well enough—even those who have
become good at publicly pretending otherwise—that words can hurt us just as
much as sticks and stones.  Notice that
the strongest consequence comes from spewing an insult at someone (calling
someone a “fool” 5:22). Stubborn refusal to seek reconciliation and engaging in
hate speech, while not taken to the extreme case of murder, is still not to be
taken lightly. 

And a second extreme case is adultery, but Jesus
presses the point, emphasizing that unchecked lustful desire for another’s
spouse or partner is the seed of that betrayal. 
Allowing ourselves to covet another person’s partner will harm every
relationship involved—not to mention our own mental, emotional, and spiritual
health.  Let the small thing—the
awareness of the way we are seeing someone (our eye), or our temptation to
reach out and touch them (our hand)—let those things be the warning to stop ourselves
from doing harm; let them also be the prompt to reflect upon what in our own
life or our own relationship needs to be cared for.  I’d wager that 9 times out of 10 when we are
tempted to have an affair there is something in the shadows of our being that
is trying to get some attention—something that has little to do with the object
of our desire.  I also hasten to add that
in Jesus’ teaching and practice, women were not to be avoided as dangerous
seductresses, but rather were welcomed as sisters and partners in the work of
ministry.  Jesus isn’t saying that a
handsome woman or man cannot be admired as beautiful and attractive.  He is pointing to the damaging effects of
wanting to possess or take another in a way that objectifies them, that betrays
trust, and hurts all involved.


Jesus is trying to explain the teaching from the
Hebrew Scriptures that the heart is
the inner source of outer actions.  To
put it simply:  what is in our heart is
at the heart of all these matters.  Jesus
taught “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt.
5:8)  Later in Matthew, when the
disciples express concern that Jesus has offended the Pharisees with his
critique of their ritual purity laws[i]
(Mt. 15:12), he asks them, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth
enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from
the heart, and this is what
defiles.  For out of the heart come evil
intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”  (Mt. 15:17-19)  And a bit later than that, in Matthew chapter
22, we get to the heart of this matter of the heart:  “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question
to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said
to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your mind.’  This is
the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love
your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the
prophets.” (Mt. 22:34-40)  // But before
we allow ourselves to settle in to the comforting word, “love,” remember that
in Jesus’ sermon he takes the law of love to “11” too, saying: “
have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those
who persecute you,
so that you may be children of your Father in
heaven…Be perfect…as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Mt 5:43-45, 48)             //


We are all swimming in the
Olympic pool at the moment and there have been some amazing moments and truly
breathtaking performances (Simone Biles!). 
But the Olympic moment that springs to mind as I reflect on Jesus’
teaching is not from this year’s games.  The
context was Berlin on the verge of World War II…Nazism, red and black swastikas
flying, goose-stepping Storm Troopers marching before Hitler…It was the 1936
Games and Jesse Owens, the African-American son of a sharecropper and grandson
to slaves, was winning gold after gold in track and field. But he struggled on
the long jump.  On his last attempt in
the qualifying round,
Luz Long, a tall, blue-eyed, blond German
long jumper who was his stiffest competition, introduced himself to Owens and
gave him some advice. Owens took the advice, qualified, and went on to edge
Long out to take the gold. The first person to congratulate Jesse Owens on his win
was Luz Long.  Owens commented that “It
took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler…Hitler must
have gone crazy watching us embrace.”[ii]

“Love your enemies…be perfect as God is perfect…”  Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets.  And at the heart of God’s teaching is
love.  To be perfect as God is perfect
is, quite simply, to love as God loves.  Jesus,
in seeking to fulfill God’s law, shows us what it looks like to have our
outward acts, our conscious decisions, our choices, our priorities consistently
driven by a heart overflowing with God’s love. 


The work of the church and of faith communities
everywhere is to do all we can to teach, practice, model and encourage people
to be ever more filled with the love of God. 
In the meantime, knowing that the world—and we along with it—are far
from perfect, we need the guidance and protection of just laws that are enacted
and upheld for the purpose of ensuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness for all citizens, not just some. 
We are responsible for doing all we can to enact and maintain such laws.  And then we are called to take it to the next
level and attend not only to the letter but also to the heart of the law—and
that always has to do with what is in our hearts.  What is in your heart?  Does an expanding and compassionate love
reside there?  Or is anger, hatred, lust,
and dishonesty taking up residence?  Howard
Thurman, the great African-American pastor, theologian and poet, offers us the
perfect prayer:  “Lord…
In my heart, above all else, let
love and integrity envelop me until my love is perfected and the last vestige
of my desiring is no longer in
conflict with thy Spirit.”[iii]
//  These teachings of Jesus are challenging,
there’s no doubt about that.  But they
are challenging us toward this good end: 
to love more and to allow God’s love to fill us so completely that not
only our outward appearance and action, but even our inward intention is
consistent with a whole-hearted love of God and of neighbor.  Through the grace of God, may it be so… and
in the meantime it’s always a good idea to truly meditate on the question:  what is in my heart?  How do you answer today?


[i] Alyce M. McKenzie, “The
Telltale Heart: Reflections on Matthew 21-27,” February 7, 2011,

[ii] “Owens pierced a myth,”
by Larry Schwartz,

[iii] Howard Thurman, The United Methodist Hymnal, #401.