Sinning In Thought And Deed

As Jennifer and I were getting ready to go to our favorite Bridgeport cafe, I was mulling over a conversation I had earlier in the morning with my “daughter,” Michaela. (I put daughter in quotation marks because, well, she’s my daughter by proclamation. There’s nothing formal or legal or biological about it. Like most good things in my life, she just walked up to me one day a couple of years ago and simply claimed me. “You shall be my daddy, and I will be your daughter,” she said. And that was that.) I won’t say what that conversation was about, but as I was mulling it over in my mind, and something Jennifer noted afterwards, I began to think a bit about some things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.

There’s a long passage, after Jesus tells those gathered (disciples and others) who is truly blessed in this world, that they are the salt and light of the world, and that Jesus himself came to fulfill the “law” or “teaching” (νομος nomos in Greek, תּוֹרָה torah in Hebrew) that God gave to Israel in the Wilderness. He then tells everyone listening something that sounds both stunning and harsh:

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19-20 ESV)

It’s a rigorous teaching that Jesus gives here. None of it can be dropped, none of it can be relaxed. Even as he fulfills God’s teaching, all the word’s spoken by God to Moses (and through Moses, to Israel) in the Wilderness remain true. All of it.

What does Jesus preach in Matthew 5:17-32? That even thinking of killing, even being angry, even insulting one’s neighbor and brother, puts one at risk for judgement (a very earthly and temporal judgement, the council and the fire of Gahenna). That even thinking lustful thoughts makes one guilty of adultery, and that it is better to “lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Again with Gahenna.) In fact, Jesus tells those assembled to hear him that anyone who divorces, or married someone who is divorced, “commits adultery.”

He then follows with a teaching on oaths, an admonition against retaliation (“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil”), and the command to love enemies, followed by one final command that seems utterly unreachable to all but perhaps the most dour Calvinist or most committed Catholic traditionalist:

48 You therefore must be perfect [τέλειος, with an implication of completeness], as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 ESV)

While the teaching here is rigorous, and can be read literally (and may even be meant literally), I think there’s also another reading here, one that fits in well with the way many Torah teachings sit in tension with the actual lives of many of the characters in scripture.

One example. (There are many others…) Leviticus 18:9 states, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home.” And yet, Genesis 20:12 reports during the second time Abraham pawns off his wife Sarah as his sister to avert a potential violent death, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” [Emphasis mine.] Granted, Abraham does this long before the teaching in Leviticus is given to Israel, but the editors of scripture left this intact purposefully, I believe, to note that the lives of even the best of God’s people — and this whole story really begins with Abraham and Sarah — are messy and frequently out of sync with God’s teaching.

And that we would not exist as a people — the people of God — had these people not lived messy lives. We are the product of their messy, disordered, sinful, and law-breaking lives.

With that in mind, I look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-32 and think that perhaps this is a reminder to those who have not murdered, or committed adultery, or divorced (or married someone who was divorced), or sworn an oath, or even sought vengeance and hated an enemy, that there isn’t that much difference between thought and deed. If we take what Jesus says here seriously, we are all sinners. (I know this is what Lutherans teach and generally believe, even if it isn’t what they practice. Because it isn’t what they practice.)

The point of the teaching here, then, is to provoke both conscience and humility. “At least I’ve never killed anyone,” I can say. And it’s true. I’ve never killed anyone. But I have been angry, so angry I have wanted to. And so, rather than allow me to sit in smug self-righteous, this teaching reminds me that I too am a sinner, little different, and little better. (Think of what you can truly, honestly, and self-righteously claim to never have done.) To use an example from my upcoming book (and the reason I am no longer being considered for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), the one who has never actually committed adultery should look upon someone who has with a little humility. Who has not contemplated someone else lustfully? Because not all that much separates the thinking from the doing.

Certainly not in the eyes of God.

And note, Jesus speaks in this passage not of eternal consequences for sin in one’s heart and one’s soul, but of temporal consequences. This is part of the coming judgment that will overtake Israel. I’m not entirely sure what that means. On the face of it, there is a incredible harshness, a brutal mercilessness to this. Just as there is to all of the judgment talk in Matthew. (And Matthew is very focused on the coming judgment.) “Don’t think those of you who haven’t actually done anything will be safe, or safer than the rest of you, when the hour comes,” Jesus might be saying here. (This is why we need to take judgment seriously in Matthew.) And yet, the point may also be that when we argue among ourselves over who is more sinful, or more righteous, we are no longer paying attention to what’s going on around us, and the judgment to come will overtake us — all of us, even the supposed righteous who have sinned in thought but not in deed — when we least expect it. “Watch therefore,” Jesus tells his disciples later in Matthew, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

In fact, it may be that in the judgment to come, those have actually sinned, in thought and deed, and who have acknowledged that sin, will have an advantage over those righteous who have lived far more exemplary and respectable lives. Because perhaps they are paying attention, and know to flee when the time comes. While the righteous will stay. And fight. And die. (Evoking Jeremiah 21, as so much of Matthew’s judgment talk does for me.)

I don’t like to mix my gospels when I do this kind of thing (contemplate and teach), but this understanding brings to mind a passage from the Gospel of Luke:

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. ’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)