Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Raising the Bar

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 -- Week of Proper 20, Year One
John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, Bishop of Melanesia, Martyrs, 1871

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 984)
Psalms 78:1-39 (morning)      78:40-72 (evening)
2 Kings 5:19-27
1 Corinthians 5:1-8
Matthew 5:27-37

Right behavior was at the heart of the ethical tradition that Jesus received from his inherited religion.  Religious teachers in Judaism strove to define faithful behavior in all activities of life.  They based their descriptions on high ideals of justice, community responsibility, purity and faithfulness toward God.  The objective standards were challenging but achievable.  Anyone who behaved according to the law could be regarded as righteous before God and humanity.

But Jesus raised the bar.  It is not only our observable behavior that is is accountable before God, but also our inward motivation.  God knows our hearts.  Jesus encouraged his followers to concentrate not primarily on outward behavior, but rather on our inner motivations, the "thoughts of our hearts," the heart being regarded as the center of being, both feeling and thought.  Jesus wants us to be people with awakened hearts, loving hearts.

The contrast between the two approaches is especially stark in today's reading from Jesus' words in Matthew's collection that we call the Sermon on the Mount.  He starts, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'"  That is the law, the Seventh of the Ten Commandments.  It is an objective ethical standard based on right behavior.  Even at that, there could be some room for interpretation -- what actually is adultery?  (Is it adultery if we don't "go all the way"?)  For the most part, we know what "Thou shalt not commit adultery" means.  So, a conscientious person could know -- if you have not had sexual relations with one who was not your spouse, you are righteous with regard to that commandment; you have followed the law; you can stand before God.

Jesus goes further.  "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  Gulp.  When we look at the motivations of our heart, no one can stand confidently before God possessing a righteousness of our own.

Jesus' commandment is a great leveler.  The distinction between sinner and righteous dissolves.  All have harbored some form of unfaithfulness in our hearts.  No one is righteous.  Not one.  And yet, Jesus teaches that God loves and forgives all.  God embraces us in our sin.  God accepts and loves us unconditionally. 

Now, in the face of that unconditional acceptance, Jesus invites us to look at our hearts, and be disarmed.  Whenever we look at another person with lust, we realize that our thoughts are God's possession.  We drag God into our own adultery.  Nevertheless, God does not reject or abandon us.  God loves us even as we foul God.  Humbling, isn't it?  God's love is our motivation, both for surrender and for transformation.

Awaken, O my heart.  Let God's penetrating and disarming love transform what seems beyond my control.


Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Click the following link:
Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at missionstclare.com -- Click for online Daily Office
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html --  Click for Divine Hours

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at www.stpaulsfay.org

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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