sermon on the mount: anger, lust, speech

February 9, 2011

Wouldn’t you know the reading for the Sunday before Valentines would contain a warning from Jesus about lust!

A preacher could be tempted to make himself and his congregation feel guilty about desires they all have which, like disobedient dogs, will not always heel on command. “Bad dog! Bad!”

But that would miss the point.  Jesus is pointing out that even disciples have urges to anger, lust and deceit. Such reflexes rise spontaneously, unplanned. And when they do we become aware of on what thin ice how our virtues skate.

Another purpose could be served than inviting us to feel weak and ashamed.

I want to take a tack suggested by Stanley Hauerwas that what Jesus is addressing here is not simply individual virtue, but the virtue of a  community.  The problem of focusing only on individual integrity is that we may think that virtue is for our private welfare only. And if it is a matter of what is good for us individually it is easy to go on to excuse our lapses of lust and anger and dishonesty. Maybe they only hurt us. Maybe our failures humanize us.

LUST. Jesus is casting a vision of community that can thrive over unlimited future. For such a community to survive, lust is not enough. Lust does not think about creating space for another generation. Adultery is wrong because it disregards the fabric of stable community and undermines the tenacity of the bonds which make family possible.
Lust is desire without commitment, without faithfulness. The opposite of lust in desire which can depend on a covenanted future.

ANGER. Then what shall we say of anger? Jesus speaks here of anger which is the well spring of homicide. The desire to be rid of another. To have them out of my life. To despise them. To make a decision about whether their existence is necessary.

We can no more do without the capacity to be upset than our capacity to desire. The redemption of anger is is not apathy. Anger is brought back into healthy relationship by treating people with whom I disagree with respect, even as  I confront them. The redemption of anger is that I leave the path to reconciliation open. Even my enemies will be treated with humanity.

DECEIT. As to speech, Jesus highlights our nervousness about complete honesty. That I am nervous about telling it straight is betrayed by my efforts to flatter, or puff my position up, or play some inconvenient piece of information. That I am inconsistent in telling it straight is betrayed when I feel I must prop my statements up with guarantees: It is as if we are saying “I swear, (this time) I am telling you the truth.”

Redeemed speech does not overextend itself. Let it be what it is, without drama.


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