The passage in this Sunday’s lectionary gospel intrigues (Mt 5:21-37). In it, Jesus tells his audience to get to the heart of the matter; the law is important, but not enough. Yet in Mt 5:21-37, what Jesus seems to set out as ‘the heart of the matter’ sounds impossible. How are we to never anger, never curse someone or call them an idiot, never look lustfully at someone, never have unreconciled conflict with others, never have marriages end, never make promises we can’t keep. All of this sounds good, but in the day-to-day, decade-to-decade struggles of life, such prescriptions run into our and others’ imperfections, the imperfections of life itself. And besides, is perfection what Jesus seemed to value overall? Jesus spent a lot of time befriending imperfect people; he reserved the harshest rebukes for those who held up moral perfection and thought they had it in hand. If you’ve met someone dead-set on moral perfection, you may have noticed they’re insufferable! In my experience, folks fixated on moral perfection often don’t emphasize love and compassion, which Jesus elevated. So why in this passage does Jesus seem to elevate moral perfection and raise our collective anxieties about it?
First of all, hyperbole. Hyperbole is a rhetorical technique that uses exaggerated statements to make a point, exaggerated statements that are clearly not to be taken literally. To a degree, Jesus is using hyperbole. An example of this is the suggestion that if you lust with your eye, you should pluck it out. Hyperbole is a teaching tactic—a way of driving home a point. What is the point behind this exaggeration? That it isn’t okay to objectify people. We should try not to diminish people in that way.
The law was tremendously important to Jesus and his people and he wasn’t about tossing it out—though he emphasized the essence of the law; and the essence is boundaries, boundaries that keep us from trampling one another. The essence of the law directs the heart. In other words, when we proceed with love as our ethic, caring about the well-being of others as we care about ourselves, we will naturally proceed with boundaries that protect their well-being. Our hearts will lead us in that direction. Not rules or moral strictures for their own sake, but love for the sake of others.
Sometimes focusing on achieving moral perfection makes us so self-oriented we miss the point about others’ boundaries, about letting others have their own journey. When I look back, the actions that trouble me most are not times I committed ‘sins of the flesh,’ but times I walked over other people along my do-gooder path, thinking my moral effort made me a better person, a worthy person—when I was really propping up ego and ignoring people. On the other hand, some of the times I felt closest to God were times when I had broken several rungs of the moral ladder yet was so full of love I saw myself and others, all at once, through love. I could see the brokenness and the broken (including myself) with so much compassion it was like—for brief moments—I recognized our God-nature. In those moments, compassion simply flowed.
Maybe this is why Julian of Norwich and other mystics blessed ‘the fall.’ Julian famously said: “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.” How can this wise mystic call any moral fall ‘the mercy of God’? I think she knows the fallen often see others with greater compassion. We become conduits of God’s mercy. In our lowest times—if we are lucky—we can experience God through other people, the hands and feet of the divine. That includes our experiences of God’s mercy during times when we’ve broken the hearts of others and ourselves; or when we got caught doing something we regret. Almost always, our experiences of God’s mercy happen through people who have fallen themselves and who have arisen with a much more realistic and tender self-identity; with a deeper understanding of the heart of the matter—a more tender, love-oriented understanding of boundaries.
Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publisher Award Bronze Medal