part two

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Read Matthew 5:27-37

So when is the last time you made an oath? When is the last time you witnessed someone taking an oath? Presidents and other leaders are sworn into office. A witness in a court is sworn to tell the truth. A bride and groom make a vow, which is a special kind of oath. But what exactly is an oath?

An oath (from Old Saxon eoth) is either a promise or a statement of fact calling upon God as a witness to the binding nature of the promise or the truth of the statement of fact. Technically, to swear is to make a promises that invokes God to hold you accountable to that promise.

Jesus knows about oaths. He also knows how they are abused. Since an oath calls upon God and it just seems sort of pretentious to summon God to witness our business, some would swear not by God, but by heaven. That seems a little nicer. Of course the convenience of swearing by heaven is that this isn’t as binding as swearing by God, so maybe it wasn’t really an oath to being with since an oath technically invokes God.

But Jesus knows the difference and he teaches his disciples differently: Instead of reserving the truth for special occasions like an oath, Jesus’ disciples always tell the truth because we are always in the presence of God.

The same way with vows and covenants. Vows are special oaths that represent covenants between people. Like the covenant between a man and woman in marriage. Jesus knows about vows and covenants. He also knows how they are abused. Moses required the men of Israel to write out a bill of divorce if they were going to get rid of their wives. It was an effort to limit divorce so that the men would practice some sort of self-control and not abuse the women they put out on their own. But in later times the men of Israel developed a process of “scriptural divorce” and created a loophole in the covenant that allowed them to wrap their lust up in legality so they wouldn’t break any rules.

But Jesus knows the difference and he teaches his disciples differently: It isn’t enough to “not commit adultery” or to “stay married to one person.” Not breaking any rules isn’t the same thing as purity of heart. And Jesus did not say “Blessed are the rule-keepers, for they shall stay out of trouble.” No, he said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!”

Lust and adultery are not a problem simply because they break the rules. That’s an immature and imperfect way to view it. The real problem with lust (of any sort, not just sexual) is that it is unbelief. It trades the unseen promises of God for the tangible object of a moment’s desire. We become Esau giving up our birthright for a bowl of soup.

A report on the news yesterday told of the struggle of women in Lebanon and other Arab countries to obtain certain basic rights. In Lebanon there are eighteen legal courts designed to deal with different cultural and religious beliefs about women in society. But what all of the courts have in common is that women are objects – they are subordinate to men.
In America it is very different. Women have rights. In fact, a woman has the right to “make herself” nothing more than an object to be used by a man – but the woman may be fulfilling her own desires. Now which is better, America’s way or Lebanon’s way. If we are only concerned with individual rights, we should say America. But if we understand the teaching of Jesus, then we should say that Americans and Lebanese have the same problem – they are exchanging the unseen promises of God for the tangible. We each have our ways of reducing people to objects for our own benefit rather than seeing people as God’s children.

According to Jesus, lust becomes a problem not because it breaks a rule, but because it distracts us from the purity of heart that his disciples have when they follow him. The instruction to poke out our eyes our cut off our hand is meant to underline how serious this is. It is better to save your whole body than to sacrifice it for the momentary pleasures of the eye or the hand. Likewise, it isn’t worth losing your whole body for those same lusts. When the eye becomes clouded with lust, we can no longer see God.

When our hearts are clouded and impure, we live by lies we tell ourselves. The little stories we make up that justify our fears or our lusts. When our hearts are clouded are impure, something as important as marriage can become a means to satisfy our own selfish desires. But Christ consecrates the marriage of disciples and sanctifies it. He sets it on a stronger foundation than mutual satisfaction and makes it into a covenant of love and selflessness that enables us to practice reconciling forgiveness.

The problem we have with oaths and covenants today is that we apply them only to individuals. They are regarded as nothing more than a personal ethic. When a single person no longer accepts the oath or the covenant, he or she abandons it for personal desires.

But oaths and covenants are based on more than a personal moral code. We are all stakeholders in the oath and covenant. This is simply because we are all accountable to the truth. Truth is something larger than all of us. Not any version of the truth, but God’s truth and God’s will. God’s truth becomes the oath and covenant that binds us to one another in such a way that it is truly the only way we can all live together in any way at all.

The only way we can become perfect is as a people, not as individuals. Jesus never intended his sermon to be practiced by hermits. He is preaching to a crowd. He is preaching to churches. His “you” is plural.

We are going to be perfect together – and this is where church discipline and accountability come in: We tend to think that church discipline means “someone is getting in trouble.” That’s a rather elementary school concept of it. The discipline is always an attempt to help people do better – never to punish. Church discipline is the children of God working together trying to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are the practice and process of a people living out perfection. Through the process of forgiveness and reconciliation we become more than what we could be if we had simply followed our own desires. We actually improve – we mature and become perfect – when we confront our own lusts, our own desires, our own tendency to wiggle away from God’s charges. And the only way we make any progress is through forgiveness and reconciliation. God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others.

In our effort to be disciples, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect we must go to the cross. One of the values that our elders have encouraged us to undertake as disciples is to “daily focus on Jesus and the cross.” That’s so important, for beneath the cross of Jesus, we are all accountable to one another.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 10 September 2006

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