Guard Your Heart

Woman protestor in Tahrir square, Cairo

 Text: Matthew 5


The Gospel lesson this morning comes from the portion of Matthew we call the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is speaking to a large crowd of people as well as his disciples.  He begins his sermon with what we have called The Beatitudes, listing attributes that would make someone blessed in God’s eyes.

In Luke’s Gospel, the Beatitudes talk about life’s circumstances—blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, etc.  But in Matthew, Jesus zeroes in on issues of the heart. 

In Matthew it is not “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  It’s not “Blessed are the hungry,” but “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness.”  He blesses the pure in heart, those who seek peace, the merciful, the meek, the grieving.  He then calls the crowd the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

He needs to start with all that comforting buildup, because his language is about to get tough.  Right after all that niceness, he begins to talk about the Law, and makes a quite remarkable statement.  In verse 20, Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Scribes and Pharisees were the legal system of the day.  They proclaimed the law, interpreted the law, and enforced the law.  They prided themselves on living the letter of the law and encouraged others to do the same.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, Paul was a Pharisee, and most of them truly believed that if they just made their actions conform to the Law of Moses they would find God’s approval.

And that was right in a certain sense.  The trouble was, the people couldn’t do it.  Try as they might, sin would enter the picture and they would stumble and fall.  Which is why the people are so stunned to hear Jesus say they had to do even better than the Scribes and Pharisees.  They were already failing just trying to get that far.  How could they have a greater level of righteousness?

So Jesus explains.  Like any good Rabbi, Jesus helps the crowd understand why they are having so much trouble keeping the Law.  He pulls out the Ten Commandments as well as some of the other important laws in Leviticus and points out an important psychological truth:  our actions begin with the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. 

Stop worrying about murder for a minute and think about the anger that is building between you and your brother.  Nip that in the bud and you’ll never get to a point where you kill him.  If you feel tension between you and another person, drop whatever you’re doing…even if you’re in the middle of church…and go make it right.  That will keep you both out of court.

Yes, adultery is wrong…but if you guard your heart against lust, you won’t have to worry about it.  Be tough on yourself at this stage and you won’t be in violation of the commandment later. 

Think back to our own history for a minute.  Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  Two US Presidents.  Both Democrats from Red States.  Both Southern Baptists.  Both married to their first and only spouse.  One commits adultery, the other does not.  Why?

We don’t know for sure, of course, but we do have some clues.  Jimmy Carter had self-awareness.  We know he did because he did an interview with Playboy magazine where he famously confessed to lusting in his heart—a direct reference to this passage of Scripture which, as a Sunday School teacher, he knew well.  People made fun of Jimmy Carter ever after for saying that.  But I bet Rosalyn never did. 
Jimmy Carter kept an eye on his heart and he stayed true.  Bill Clinton had a different ending to his story and ended up not only breaking the adultery commandment, but the false witness one as well.  The way to keep the commandments is to keep watch on our hearts.

After hearing all of that, we can assume the people had questions and Jesus goes into discussions about each.  He talks about divorce.  Pastor Sharon had planned to address that topic this morning and I will leave that for her to discuss.  But Jesus also talks more about the anger/murder problem by getting at the root of some of those feelings.

We get angry when we are harmed and, in the Law of Moses, permission was given to strike back in proportion to what was done to you.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  In its day, that was actually an improvement.  Before the eye for an eye law, people took someone’s life for an eye; an arm and a leg for a tooth.  The Law of Moses was a step in the right direction, but after a couple thousand years, Jesus gives it a new coat of paint.  Don’t strike back at all, says Jesus.  If someone slaps you in the face, turn the other cheek so they can hit you on the other side as well.  He’s not trying to say to be a doormat or to tolerate abuse—that’s taking things out of context.  He’s saying, don’t escalate the violence by striking back.

Oppression also makes people angry, often violently so.  The people of Jesus day knew oppression.  They were an occupied nation and were subject to the whims of the Roman army.  Jesus tells them how to respond to something that was actually happening to them.  If you get pressed into service and are forced to carry a soldier’s pack for a mile, what do you do?  Go an extra mile.  He wants your shirt?  Give him your cloak, too.  Don’t give the situation a chance to get out of hand.  Obey a higher law.

And then Jesus sums it up in verse 43:  Even though parts of the Scriptures say to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, I’m telling you to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.  It’s no great good deed to love those who love you and hate those who hate you.  Be better than that.  Love them all.

If you ask me, I would rather have Jesus’ version of the commandments posted all over the place instead of just the original ten.  We need this message right now more than ever.  Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we have free speech in this country because speech doesn’t matter.  It’s “just words.”  That’s a strange thought for those of us who believe that words can become flesh.

The words we speak reflect the attitudes of our hearts and the words we hear are taken into us like food.  We even hear something and call it “food for thought.”  That’s exactly what it is.  Words feed our thoughts and thoughts feed our emotions and emotions feed our actions.

There are times when we experience a direct assault of some kind, and it is normal for us to feel angry.  Anger is a God-given emotion to alert us that we’ve been threatened or harmed and need to fix it.  But these days we have people who make a career out of using words to make others angry.  We’re perfectly happy and have experienced no direct harm but we’re told there is harm we can’t see or feel.  Or that the normal pains of living and growing and making our way are someone else’s fault.  Our anger is stoked, it gets into our hearts, and with the right set of circumstances, it comes out in our actions.

Jesus doesn’t tell the crowds to fear the Romans.  He tells them to beware of their anger—to watch their hearts—to focus on doing good even to those who don’t care about them.  Don’t be hungry for revenge or revolt, hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Be a peacemaker and you will be blessed.

The words of Jesus could not be more relevant to us.  Turn off the hate-mongering on radio and TV.  If it doesn’t get ratings, they won’t do it.  Leave a group where hate is spoken.  Go to anger management classes.  Get rid of the pornography and seek help if you can’t.  Watch your heart like a hawk.  Monitor what goes into your ears like you would monitor the internet for your child.  Your entire ability to keep the Law of God and to be part of the Kingdom of God depends on it.

To a large degree we have just seen this play out on a national scale in Egypt.  The Egyptian people have been oppressed for many years and were justifiably angry.  They came out into the streets to say they had had enough.  But they came peaceably; even in the tens of thousands there was peace.  The regime attacked with thugs and tried to incite violence--many died.  But even the military would not take revenge and peace was restored to the streets.

There were both Muslims and Christians, side by side in the streets in a country where just a few months ago there had been religious violence.  But in Tahrir Square, the Christians protected the Muslims as they prayed.  The Muslims protected the Christians as they prayed.  We watched them do it on video.

The crowds swelled to hundreds of thousands in cities all across Egypt and then came the moment they were waiting for.  Hosni Mubarak spoke—and just like Pharaoh of old, his heart was hardened and he told them he was staying put.  What would happen?  The people were furious.  Their hopes had been dashed.  But they kept their hearts in check.  They did not leave, but neither was there violence.

A day later, seeing that the people would not either go home or give in to their emotions and riot, Mubarak stepped down.  The people spent a day rejoicing.  And what are they doing now?  They’re still out in the streets—cleaning up.  They’re dismantling the tents and picking up debris so that they can get back to work and to a new life of freedom.  It’s hard to say what will happen from here, but we can say that in these last few weeks, Egypt has given the world an example of what Jesus might have been thinking about when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  And the way to make sure that light is visible is to guard your heart.  Transform dangerous emotions with prayer and acts of selflessness.  Put a filter on what you hear.  Turn off hate.  Turn off smut.  People may make fun of you, as they did of Jimmy Carter.  But you will be blessed and the Kingdom of Heaven will be yours.


Copyright 2011 by Anne Robertson


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