Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, June 18, 2018

"You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . ."

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. . . .

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. . . .

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

(Matt. 5:20 - 22; 27 - 28; 31 - 42)

I've done my share of moralizing throughout life, and probably more than most, trying to get things just right. My basic approach to life has been strong-willed, following rules and carrying out a well-scripted plan. Ask me another time how well that has worked out for me.

For several days, the daily readings suggested by the lectionary have offered an entire series of Jesus' teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, each of which begin, "You have heard it said . . . but I say to you." These sayings radically move the center or focus of religious life, spiritual attunement, and daily action from the externals of "righteousness" to the human interior. Jesus was not unconcerned with behavior and deeds, but he continually drove the focus of religious life and connection with God from the outer "will" to behave to the interior landscape which produced the deed or behavior.

Behavior and exterior actions have interior sources; therefore, in a religious sense, righteousness entails much more than proper conduct or right behavior. Jesus bores down to the interior, to motivation -- which is the inner landscape of behavior -- to the attitude and stance which bring about particular behaviors.

It is one thing to will oneself to a particular kind of action or behavior, to rely on strength of will to change who we are in the world. This is the determined intention, post-summer camp or post-revival meeting, that resolved to do better, to "live without sin," to clean up that one area of life that seemed to be out of control.

And for a few days, may a couple of weeks even, it worked. I've been there, done that. By force of will I could make myself avoid what I needed to avoid, or to adopt a habit I needed to adopt, or to treat that prickly co-worker with the kindness I didn't think she deserved, or to embrace a way of life I had previously resisted.

But after a few days of altered behavior, fortified by the camp or the evangelistic services, my will began to fade. My hard-wiring would slowly kick in again, and all those neuro-pathways that had been grooved for decades within me would lead me right back to where I was before . . . and now with a nice side-order of guilt -- that I had totally botched my commitment to do better -- and a dish of shame -- that I had just proven my incompetence and utter failure at being a decent human.

The basic problem with a "works-based righteousness" -- that is, a religion that is mostly concerned about behavior -- is that few of us have a will strong enough to govern our behavior in every life-situation.

Jesus radically moves "righteousness" from outward action to interior motives and stances. "You have heard it said" mostly leans into the Law that governed behavior and external action. "But I say to you" drives the matter to the interior, speaking to our need for some way to reshape our inner life.

Surprisingly -- to me, anyway -- institutional religion has focused on the behavioral, moralistic components of faith for centuries, largely bypassing Jesus' words in his Matthew 5 Sermon on the Mount. To the extent the Church has sought to address the human interior, she had been ineffective, for the most part. (The most judgmental, spiteful, and unmerciful people I've known in my life have been highly "religious" people, faithful in church attendance, in teaching the Bible, and in zeal for their religious beliefs.) By appealing primarily to worship attendance, small group participation, and a life of personal devotional (intercessory prayer, Bible-reading, tithing, witness, and acts of service), the Church has sought to transform persons. None of these practices are bad. In fact, the list sounds like good religion! (And to be fair, I have also known a handful of people in my days who have become kinder, more generous, and more compassionate by attending to these externals.) None of these expressions of faith, however, tend to be aimed at interior transformation, to the core from which we live.

Too often, the universal Church desperate for change appeals to fear, guilt, and shame as outward motivators in order to persuade persons to ethical living by strengthening the will and fortifying resolve (which, by the way, also fortifies the ego and the sense that "I'm can do this . . . I'm good enough . . . I'm strong enough"). The Church also provides information on life-change (classes, conferences, books, etc.), as well as promoting group accountability. Both information and group accountability, though, are subtle forms of outward motivation, external-based means of shaping the inner life.

[Small group accountability is assumed by many to be the key to behavior change and "right living", in which other persons hold you accountable for your resolve and commitment to live a certain way or to carry out certain promises. The underlying motivator is peer pressure, since you don't want to show up for the group and have to report that you have not carried out the commitments you have made. Who wants to exposing themselves to embarrassment and possible ridicule? The desire not to be seen as a failure by others drives the accountability group. The ego hates to be revealed as a fraud or a failure, and so will do anything, even keeping unrealistic promises, so that it doesn't have to confess to failure. To be sure, this kind of accountability is helpful and gives hope in certain situations. I'm thinking now of recovery work, the healing role of a sponsor and the power of a 12-step meeting where accountability comes from honestly naming the way things are, rather than hiding behind fear. The role of this kind of group "support" cannot be discounted. A safe setting of honest accountability can certainly bring a measure of healing, but that healing must also include a more interior dimension for health and wholeness to be long-lasting.]

Contemplative spirituality is the only spiritual "system" I know of that addresses human behavior or "righteousness" from the inside-out. It is not a grit-your-teeth method of self-improvement, not a self-help strategy that you can manipulate to your own good. Rather, it is a slowly evolving stance or way of being with God, self, others, and the world that fundamentally shifts the inner landscape . . . re-formed, renewed, re-created as our interior is re-shaped by God.

This less willful approach actually leads to long-term change, an inner transformation rather than temporarily adjusted behavior. The painfully slow inner shift happens over time, as old ways of thinking, seeing, and being soften, then are gradually re-shaped. It takes a long time for the old pathways of thought, action, and will to be rewired, to be redirected. But all of contemplative prayer and practice seem to soften this hardened soil, to deepen who we are in God, to slowly alter how we see ourselves, others, and the world.

In essence, by seeking to address the core or the center -- in Jesus' image -- we address causes, motivations, and the underlying influencers within us . . . not just the behaviors that are manifested for the world to see.

Religion as mere behavior change is hollow. It has no center, and thus no power for lasting change, either within the human person or within the world.

Jesus advocates another way to change us and to transform our world. "But I say to you . . ."

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