Princeton University Religious Life

Higher Ground

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:21-37

            The text that we’ve just heard from Matthew’s gospel is best known to most people because of the several verses that, in a literal reading, advocate for the ripping out of one’s own eye or the chopping off of one’s own hand.  This is hyperbole on the part of Jesus Christ, I assure you!  He offers an outrageous example, beyond the pale of human experience or of divine expectation, in order to make his point about how seriously we must reckon with every temptation to sin.  This morning, let’s leave our eyes in their sockets and our hands attached to our wrists and consider Christ’s deeper point in these verses – his call to us not simply to meet our religious or civic obligations, but to turn everything that happens to us into an opportunity to testify to the righteousness, love, mercy, and justice of the Gospel.

            Jesus starts with the example of murder.  Religious and secular laws agree that we are not to do it.   I have never been tempted to commit murder and I really don’t see it as a possibility in my life going forward.  I imagine the same is true of you.  But we don’t deserve a medal; we are following the most basic of laws for decent behavior.  Christ is talking to us about what we do live with, and constantly – the feelings of anger that are the first source of an action that might swell into murder.  Jesus does not say that anger is wrong or bad.  It’s a feeling that every person experiences, including him.  Anger is fundamentally a sign that something is wrong, something is unjust, and it needs to be addressed.  Jesus teaches us to initiate reconciliation, to resist the urge to hurl insults, gratifying as that feels.  Jesus pays particular attention to those times when we are the cause of the anger – when “a brother or sister has something against you.”  He tells us that the responsibility is ours to initiate reconciliation.  We aren’t to wait around and say, “If that person has an issue with me they know where to find me.”  Our faith teaches us that in any situation of conflict or anger we are to pursue wholeness, we are to pursue reconciliation, we are to practice love, mercy and to seek justice.  When we are the source of wrong, we apologize, we seek forgiveness as readily as we are to offer it.  A relationship is thus restored.  Righteousness prevails.  Patting ourselves on the back for not resorting to murder is specious.  Being the agents of love and righteousness is our gospel mandate.

            Jesus also gives us the examples of adultery and of divorce.  Of adultery he says that it is not simply wrong to do it, but to imagine it.  As we are to heal ourselves of our anger by addressing it, we are also to heal ourselves of our lust.  When we engage in licentious thinking we are already breaking relationships, breaking the wholeness and integrity with which we are called to live in community.  Jesus’ teaching on divorce acknowledges that in his day it was only men who could initiate divorce – a real challenge to women who might be subjected to violence in the home, or other cruelty.  Jesus tells men not to walk away from the commitments they’ve made, leaving the women and children they abandon very vulnerable.  Even if the law permits them to divorce their wives, they should choose to stand on higher ground. 

            Jesus turns to the issue of swearing oaths, noting that we have religious license to do this as well.  And again he says, “Even though you are permitted to do it, stand on higher ground.”  An oath is sworn to supplement the value of one’s word.  An oath is sworn to assure someone else that you are going to do what you’ve said you will do.  Jesus notes that no oath is necessary if a person has already earned a reputation for being good for their word.  Jesus says, “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no, and live in such a way that no one will ever think to ask you to take an oath, because you are so well known for your honesty and integrity.”  The law may permit us to swear oaths, but by our living we are to render that law unnecessary, outdated, useless. 

            In so many parts of our lives we can follow religious or secular law or custom yet miss the opportunity to testify to the richness of the Gospel’s call to reconciliation, honor, integrity, love.  Our goal always should be deeper integrity, wider mercy, higher ground.  The things that happen to us, and especially the most challenging things, are opportunities to inhabit the Gospel – when we are really angry at someone, when we are tempted to do what we know is wrong, when our marriages are on the rocks, when we make promises or take stands.  Jesus announced that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, and his teachings in our scripture passage today are about how we are to do the same in our daily lives.  We do not abolish or disregard the law, we fill in its precepts and complete it by the righteousness of our living in every way that we treat other people.

            What other laws might we apply ourselves to?  There is the commandment not to steal.  Theft can be about property but also ideas, and we know that plagiarism is wrong.  Can we fulfill this law perhaps by being relentless in acknowledging the influence of others ideas upon our own, in giving generous credit wherever it is due, in encouraging others in whatever is their work rather than appropriating it for ourselves?  Similarly, we are never to lie, but how might we move to the higher ground of being relentless in telling the truth in all moments of our lives?  Truths of every kind?  How might we call out the lies and deceptions in our public and private lives?  We understand that we are not to tell lies ourselves, but shall we not also refuse to live with any lie in our midst?

            Let’s think about what this means in our common life.  We are taught in our faith to welcome the stranger, to believe that in doing so we may be entertaining angels unaware.  We are to practice in all moments a ministry of hospitality.   We are to remember that the infant Jesus became a refugee with his family, fleeing the murderous rage of Herod.  As our country wrestles with very different ideas of religious and secular mandates on whether to welcome immigrants, refugees, students, teachers, doctors, and even tourists, what is the higher ground towards which we should be climbing in welcoming the stranger?  The stuff that fills the pages of our newspapers is absolutely questions of religious ethics.  If the current court ruling continues to stand, this country will continue to admit strangers regardless of which country issued their passport.  What does it mean to welcome a stranger?  Is it simply to permit them entry?  That observes the law to welcome the stranger but does it fulfill the law?   How do we fulfill that law?  How do we not rest on our laurels regarding laws we were never going to break but move to the higher ground of fulfilling the ethics of the deeper reality?

            I think that, in a Christian understanding, fulfillment of the teaching to welcome the stranger isn’t simply allowing people on our soil but making sure that they thrive here.  “Welcome” is about truly seeing the other and ensuring their welfare.  “Welcome” is about creating a home, about welcoming someone into our home.  Welcome is about a caring and close community, safety, a house that can become a home of one’s own, relationships, food security, education, acceptance, love, generosity, inclusion, respect.  This is what I hope that we who are Christian will be allowed to provide, and that we will step up to higher ground to truly fulfill.

            Deeper integrity, wider mercy, higher ground.  Commandments, laws, and Executive Orders abound in our lives.  Jesus asks us to interrogate them and to interrogate ourselves so that we might turn every prescription for our behavior into an opportunity to testify to the Gospel.  And it’s not just about laws – so many things happen to us in our lives, wonderful things, mundane things, painful or ugly things.  Where, in each of them, is our chance to testify?  To peel away the visible layers of what is required of us and to shine a light upon the testimony that is enabled for us?  What does the law of love command us to do, regardless of what we are actually allowed to do?  Where is our opportunity to testify to love, mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness, honesty, integrity, generosity, the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  The days and years ahead of us are going to give us untold opportunities to reach for higher ground, higher than what simple law or custom will ask of us, and I pray that God will light the way for us on that uphill path.




Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, eds. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008), pp. 356-361.


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