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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Tuesday, February 11, 2020  

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 5:21–37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (NRSV)

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount that (we hope!) is hyperbole, Jesus expands and intensifies many aspects of Jewish Law to the point that all of us would be guilty: Have you ever been angry with someone else? Have you ever thought someone you saw out on the street was attractive? Have you ever said, “I swear it’s true”? If you’ve ever done any of those things, then Jesus has some bad news: “You will be liable to judgment.” And this extended series of expansions on Jewish Law come after a point that Jesus is trying to make about how he has “not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill” and that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17–20).

All in all, the picture that is being painted can feel pretty bleak. No one (or at least no one I’ve ever met!) seems as though they’d be able to live up to the lofty expectations that Jesus is holding us to. But ultimately that is exactly Jesus’ point. This passage is a reminder that no matter how closely we may try to follow God, we will inevitably fall short, but that reality helps us recognize that we need to rely on God rather than ourselves. Far too many of us fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as completely self-reliant, without acknowledging how that sense of control impacts our connection to others and with God. By tearing this illusion of control and self-reliance down, Jesus is bringing us closer to God.

God, help me to recognize the times and places when I need to let go—to more fully rely on you and others—so that I may better understand your presence in my life. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Associate Pastor for Children and Family Ministry

Reflection and Prayer © Fourth Presbyterian Church

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