Unlike some Episcopal priests I know, I have always enjoyed math. For the most part, it comes naturally to me, though I’ve often had some help along the way. Coming of age in the mid-1990s, I found myself reaping the benefits of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator. In high school, I had a TI-83, the swankiest model available at the time. It could do algebra, trigonometry, and graph parabolic functions. Of course, the favorite feature for me and my friends was that you could program it to play Tetris. In preparation for studying engineering at Pitt, I upgraded to the TI-92 for use in my calculus courses. College calculus was the first time that math didn’t just make sense to me, and so I used my TI-92 as a crutch through Calc 1. Why they let me use it, I have no idea, but it made it all the more difficult when I got to Calc 2 and the professor uttered words that struck terror into my soul. “Show your work.”
No longer was it sufficient to have the right answer, which my TI-92 could so easily provide, now I had to show the stuff below the surface. My professor had a good point, even if I didn’t like it very much. The key to math isn’t getting the right answer, but learning the process by which every right answer will come. One’s motivation shouldn’t be an A on the exam, but the reward of having learned the concept inside and out, and that can only be proved by showing your work. The same is true in the life of faith: it isn’t about doing the right things so you can get to heaven when you die. Instead, it is about what is happening on the inside, the unspoken motivations, the work of holiness.
Last Sunday, Jesus invited his disciples to show their work, and just like when I heard it from my calculus professor, I really wish Jesus had never said it. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now mind you, the scribes and the Pharisees were the professional interpreters of the Law. They were the ones who defined the right answer. How far is too far to walk on the Sabbath? Ask a Pharisee. Do I wash this pot or that spoon first to keep kosher? Ask a scribe. These men were the holders of all that was right and holy, and Jesus was so bold as to say that we should be more righteous than that. How could anyone possibly live up to that standard, we could reasonably ask. Jesus answers my concern with six of his own interpretations of the Law that at their core teach the profound truth that having the right answer, living the right way, isn’t really enough, it is about knowing what underlies that right action that really matters.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.” Jesus was not one for subtlety, but rather he jumps right into the deep end on this line of teaching. One of the Big 10, “thou shalt not murder” is as well known a law as any of the other Commandments. It is also one of the easier ones to keep. Most human beings are not predisposed to taking the life of another human being in anger. It would be fairly easy to feel morally superior for having not murdered anyone, but Jesus pushes it further, “show your work.” “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to the same judgment,” Jesus says. It is a lot harder to hold oneself as smugly self-righteous if the bar is now “being angry.” Who hasn’t felt anger toward a brother or a sister, be they actual siblings or figurative ones? If you insult your brother or sister, literally in the Greek it says, “if you call your brother an idiot,” you can be brought up on charges. If you say “you fool,” you’ll go to hell. I am liable to the fires of hell thanks to my ride into work on Thursday morning, but I’m sure y’all are better Christians than I am.
Notice what Jesus is doing there, he’s not abolishing the law, but taking it to its core. The commandment “thou shalt not murder,” isn’t about killing someone in anger, it is about the destruction of relationships. If we are really honest with ourselves, a whole lot more damage is done on a daily basis by those who harbor anger, who hang on to resentment, and who look down on their sisters and brothers than any murderer can accomplish. God cares deeply about our relationships, and in order to make them life giving and fulfilling, we are called to show love and compassion rather than anger and contempt. In fact, God cares so much about our relationships, that in verses 23 and 24 Jesus says he would rather we spend time tending to our broken relationships than come to church. Jesus is serious about us showing our work, checking our motivations, and examining our hearts in this relationship stuff.
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Another perfectly reasonable commandment from God that Jesus takes deep to its roots. “But I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It isn’t enough to simply not have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, but it is about how we treat our neighbor. God did not create human beings to be used by others simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh. In fact, the way we treat one another is so important that God would rather us injure ourselves before we harm someone else.
The same is true for divorce. In Jesus’ day and time, women could be divorced by their husbands for any number of ridiculous reasons including burning a loaf of bread. Jesus is clear, just because there is legal precedent for something, doesn’t make it right. People aren’t disposable; we can’t just throw them away when they no longer meet our needs. Show your work, check your motivations, and know that these life-long relationships matter deeply to God.
Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the swearing of oaths. “But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Here again, Jesus cuts down deep to the fundamental meaning of the commandment not to bear false witness by asking us to consider why an oath is necessary at all. It seems to me there are two possible reasons. On the one hand, we swear oaths because the stakes are too high not to. In a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth because the ramifications of lying are so very profound. When an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the Republic. On the other hand, and more, I think, to Jesus’ point is the need to swear an oath because one can no longer be taken at their word. If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question. If I have promised to love my neighbor, and later I am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted? Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted. Indeed, how is the whole of the Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.
Jesus invites his disciples, and by extension each of us, to show our work when it comes to developing fruitful relationships. It isn’t enough to sit comfortably and say, “Well, I haven’t committed murder or adultery” when inside our hearts there exists a cesspool of anger and lust. It isn’t enough to simply fulfill the letter of the Law, but as followers of Jesus, we are invited to go deeper, to check our motivations, and to work to make our inner-lives match our outer-lives. Of course, this ethical standard is so high as to be impossible, and Jesus knows that, but it is the work that matters. By constantly examining our own hearts and our deepest motivations, we learn, slowly but surely, the core concepts of holiness, and in so doing, we find ourselves coming ever closer to the heart of God. Amen.