Scripture: Matthew 5:21-30
Over the years I have known several people who have worked as servers in restaurants, and there is a common theme I have heard from several of them: Sundays are the worst days to work. The reason for this was best captured in a picture from 2013. It was a picture of a receipt from Applebee’s. Like many restaurants they have an automatic gratuity policy for large parties, in this case it was 18%. However, the person signing the receipt had crossed out that added gratuity and wrote on the receipt: “I give God 10% why should I give you 18%”. Pictured receipts with inflammatory messages, are a common internet hoax because they are easy to fake. However, this one was posted without the signature blocked out. This meant that several news outlets were able to do enough digging to and get enough details to confirm that the story was indeed true. The woman who left that note made it easier because not only did she sign her name, but she also wrote her title: “Pastor Alois Bell.” She did later publically apologize, but that apology read more like I am sorry I got caught and less I am sorry for what I did.
The conception of after-church diners being bad tippers is so prevalent in the service industry that studies have actually been done to find out if this is statistically true. It was found that the majority of church goers who dine out on Sunday afternoon tip an average of 17.5%. However, the study also found that church goers eating out on Sunday were more likely to tip less than 5% than non-church goers were. While the vast majority of Christians do what is honorable, it does seem that there are enough people who do not that the reputation of Sundays are the worst days has been sadly earned. In Indiana, servers only have to be paid $2.13 an hour, so agree with it or not the system of gratuity is a necessity for the men and women who wait tables. Refusing to tip, and then claiming religious reasons might feel like making some sort of ethical stand, but it is hard to view it as anything but based in self-righteousness and selfishness.
I mention this, because since 2013 when I come across this morning’s scripture I cannot help but think of the story of Pastor Alois Bell. Her story serves as a modern day example of the attitude Jesus was speaking against in this morning’s scripture. It was literally on paper that she claimed to honor God, while she dishonored God by cheating someone else. This kind of doublespeak behavior is exactly what Jesus is referring to in this morning’s scripture. In this morning’s scripture Jesus was addressing the most religious people of his day. He was calling them out because their walk did not always meet their talk. If we take the time to truly listen, then Jesus is still calling us out today.
One of my absolute favorite things to do in ministry is teach confirmation classes, and I have been privileged enough to do it on multiple occasions. A big part of confirmation is teaching the terms and concepts core to Christian theology and belief. This means that as part of confirmation we will inevitably talk about sin, and I will inevitably ask for examples of sin. Without fail, every time, the very first example given is murder. Across multiple confirmation classes, that is always the go-to example for sin. It does sort of make sense. Murder is a pretty bad thing to do, but it is a safe sin to highlight. Teens mention murder as their go-to sin example, because it is a sin they can easily say they have not committed. That is the exact same reason that Jesus starts this morning’s scripture with murder. He was addressing the very religious of his day, and in first century Israel the primary way to show one’s religious devotion was by following the rules. How good of a person one could claim to be was based on how many religious rules one could claim to uphold to the letter of the law. So naturally, the command “Thou shall not murder”, was a slam dunk that most people could claim as a success and check off in the win column of being a good person. Both murder and adultery were two sins that the good religious people of the day, could point to and say, “At least I have not done those things.” But Jesus calls them out. In this morning’s scripture he makes a simple but profound point. Sin is not just about the actions, it is about the motivations. Sinful acts come from a sinful heart. The point that Jesus makes is following God is not about going through the action and obeying the letter of the law, it is about internalizing and living out the intent of the law. Not being guilty of murder is one thing, but ultimately murder is the result of acting out in anger and hatred. If we speak rancorous words that come from the same source of rage and hate, then we are still guilty of sin. The action, the outcome is different, the motivation is the same. Jesus makes the same point on adultery. Giving room in our hearts and minds for lustful thoughts to take route comes from the same crooked motivations that marital unfaithfulness comes from.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, used the analogy of dirty dishes to explain this. In following the letter of the law but ignoring the motivations of the hearts, the religious people of Jesus’ day washed the outside, the exterior of the cup. Yet the interior of the cup is still filthy. Even a child can tell you, it does not matter how clean the outside of the cup is, if the inside is dirty then anything that comes out of the cup is going to be yucky. We can fall into the trap of cleaning the exterior of the cup, while leaving the interior dirty. I have encountered this multiple times in youth ministry. One multiple occasions I have been part of conversations with teens where they were talking about a song they really liked. When I asked if I could hear it (because I was genuinely curious about the music they liked), the teens would get a nervous look and say something like “It’s not really church-appropriate.” That is a really odd phrase isn’t it? Either it is appropriate or it is not. To create a separate category for media like that is kind of like having a cup that is clean on the exterior, without giving much care to what is inside it.
The religious leaders of Jesus day, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, had made religion all about a list of rules to follow. Being able to check off boxes of rules followed was more important than why they were following the rules in the first place. Again, Jesus called them out, and Jesus raised the bar for what it means to live the way God wants us to live. Yet even today, it can be far too easy to turn faith into a religion of following rules. Growing up in the church in southern Indiana, I learned that Christian behavior was “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t run with boys or girls that do.” Personal holiness, avoiding things that can be destructive or sinful, is good and worthwhile, but when we turn what is supposed to be a reconciled relationship with our Creator into a long list of “Thou shall nots” then we have sort of missed the point. Avoiding certain behaviors while engaging in others should be the natural result of us living in right relationship with God and following Jesus.
Seeking to follow Jesus and living in right relationship with God should change our heart, and should lead us to hate sin. However, we often get that wrong too. We fall in the same trap of making that into a list of rules that gets imposed on others, and we make it all sound very religious. There is a common expression, “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Do you notice how when someone says that, they are always talking about someone else, and the sin they hate is usually one they personally do not feel very tempted by? When we point our fingers at someone else and say that we “hate the sin but love the sinner”, all they hear and experience is we “hate the sinner.”
Now do not get me wrong. We should hate sin. The very thought of it should be repulsive to us, but the only sin we should hate is our own. Instead of pointing at others and self-righteously saying “hate the sin, love the sinner”, we should instead get on our knees and humbly pray that God helps us to “hate our sin, and love the savior.” Hating our own sin is what Jesus is talking about in the end of this morning’s scripture. Jesus uses very graphic imagery of gouging at your eye if it causes you to sin or cutting off your hand if it causes you to stumble. Now thankfully, biblical scholars universally understand that Jesus is using hyperbole here. Which is good, because otherwise we would be a church of pirates with eyepatches. However, the strength of the imagery conveys how seriously we should take our own sin.
A religions of rules is all about the end results and only the end results. That is why it does not matter what is inside, as long as the outside of the cup is sparkling. A religion of the heart though, starts from within. I remember one time on a youth mission trip, after a day of missions work we were with all of the other work groups at a park and a pickup game of soccer started. It was a dry summer and the grass was coarse and withered. At one point I, without thinking, slid for the ball. I got it, but the rough grass really tore my leg up. An older gentleman who had come as a chaperone told me he would bandage it up, but first I needed to wash it off. When we got back to where we were staying I went to wash it off, but it was tender, it was time consuming. I did not want to go through the pain or the work it would take to do it right. After sort of half doing the job, I reported to our self-appointed medic who took one look at the wound and then looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Either you clean it right or the would festers. One way or another this dirt is coming out.”
This is the attitude we should have towards sin. Either we clean it out, or it is going to fester and come out in our lives in an ugly way. Just following rules is not going to get the job done. We cannot just clean the outside, we have to clean out the dirt that is in us. We have to remove it from our lives completely. Following the rules is not good enough if our motives are not in the right place. If we are being honest all of us have sin in our life, we have actions and attitudes that are not in alignment with mercy, grace, and justice. If we are being really honest most of us probably do not hate our own sin near enough. We put on our Sunday best and present a clean cup, while on the inside the dirt festers. When we read this morning’s scripture we too should feel called out, so may we in turn call out to God. When it comes to getting out of the muck and mire of our own sin, Jesus did not say pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, Jesus said surely I am with you until the end of the age.
May we call out to Jesus. May we humbly cry out create in me a clean heart oh God, and renew a right spirit within me. May we seek God’s help to clean out the dirt and make our wounded souls whole again. May we not follow an empty religion of rules, because all that does is present a clean exterior, but may we submit to having the blood of Christ make the foulest depths of our hearts white as snow. May we have a religion of the heart, where we can honestly say to our God and our savior, “Take my heart, it is thine own, it shall be thy royal throne.”