Matthew 5:21-37

Let me begin this morning by being frank with you. We’re all basically screwed. There is no way that any of us here is going to live up to Jesus’ measure of righteousness. Even my father, who I considered to be a highly principled person, liked to check out a pretty girl in his rear-view mirror thinking no one was any the wiser. So, let me see if I can make this more palatable for you. You have heard it told, the story of the old Cherokee chief and his grandson. The wise old elder says to his grandson, “An eternal fight goes on inside each one of us and it is between two wolves. One is evil; he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good; he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson askes, “Which will win the fight inside of me?” The wise older elder replies, “Whichever one you feed.”
This is not news to us. In our Christian tradition, we have known that ever since a bite was taken out of that apple, the one grown from the tree said to have contained the knowledge of good and evil, that humanity has been struggling to return home to that paradise, that place where our essential natures were given birth. Our human struggle ever since we learned of evil, has always been to stave off the evil wolf that threatens to devour any society and build that Utopian society that Moore and many more have dreamt of.
Laws were developed to help us behave in ways that would help us build a world where we could all live well together. Yet, for some, the building of this world becomes a very narcissistic venture for the evil wolf always feeds on self-interest. They want to build their own paradise, where they can take on the role of a god. They build walls around their kingdoms to keep the unwanted out. They will defend these kingdoms at all cost. There is no grace, compassion or empathy extended to others, or any real friendships. Only alliances with those who are loyal to cause, who are appropriately rewarded. Yet, if you are not with them it is understood you are against them and you are then cast out beyond the walls. The wolf devouring such kingdom builders is narcissism.
But the other wolf never lives for itself. Listen to the good wolf’s attributes: kindness, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith. These are all relational attributes. You cannot feed these without an ability to open your spirit to those around you. Love is not love unless it is shared. This wolf is fed with a love for community.
I think of the crowd Jesus is facing that day on the mount. These people, some of whom are hearing his voice for first time, are a people who have known nothing other than slavery at the hands of those who feed the evil wolf. The only way they can see a way to their own salvation is by trying to be righteous and winning a place in the next kingdom. How do you do that? You follow the law, the law of the land and the law of Moses. No one wants to be punished. Life is hard enough. Try to be a good person, don’t make waves, fit in and do what you are told, and you might just avoid an eternity in hell. You have heard it told, so that is what you discipline yourself to do.
But then Jesus throws up a red flag. “Not good enough!” “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of even the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Oh, come on Jesus! How can our righteousness ever exceed those who spend their entire days studying your laws, performing the rituals of the church and in prayer? We don’t have that kind of time. We have a living to make. If we tried to dot every ‘i’ of the law and cross every ‘t’, our prisons would be filled with people who can’t pay off their debt load, and the rest of us would be walking around with a patch on one eye and one of our arms in a sling.
Now, there are those who say, “Well, that is the whole point. None of us can earn the righteousness of God so we are driven to Christ for mercy. That is why Jesus died on the cross, to pay the cost of our sins, our shortcomings.” I have to confess that I have a little trouble with, no, I have a lot of trouble with that theology. I am not dismissing the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. But did Jesus really suffer this kind of pain just so we could have the Ten Commandments on steroids? If the chief value of God’s law is to drive us to mercy, doesn’t that just empty God’s law of any significant context? It implies that when God gave us the law and Jesus intensifies it for us, neither one of them ever really expected any of us to keep them. Doesn’t that make God’s law rather extraneous?
At this point I hear Jesus say, “I have not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.” To fulfill the intent of God’s law, which has been forgotten by our reducing it into a ritual formula. We have become in danger of making he commandments of God a self-justifying check list.
-No murder today- check.
-No adultery- check.
-Returned my neighbours rake, no theft here- check.
-Didn’t participate in the gossip with my neighbour over the fence this morning-check.
“I’m feeling mighty righteous today,” we whisper, pretty pleased with ourselves. Even the ancient prophet Micah said, “It is simply easier for us to go to God’s altar and make a sacrifice than it is to do justice.” Jesus contextualized that wisdom into one for his day. “If you are at the temple offering sacrifice and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, then leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled with your brother or sister.”
It seems to me that Jesus is taking the law deeper, wishing to inscribe it on our hearts. Jesus is addressing the wolves inside of us and which one we are going to feed and for the advantage of whom? Jesus says, “You have heard it said, Thou shalt not kill. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” To paraphrase, I believe Jesus is saying how can you consider yourself righteous simply because you have not committed the physical act of murder, yet hold resentment and anger in your heart for another? How long before your verbal abuse fueled by this resentment starts wounding the soul of another with deadly force? Prohibition of taking another’s life always includes a prohibition against death in any form.
Jesus says, “You have heard it said, Thou shall not commit adultery, but I say to you when you cast aside a woman for burning bread, (which was a stoning offense in Jesus’ day) when you see a woman as property, when an objectifying gaze becomes an obstacle to seeing this woman as a child of God, as a bearer of God’s image, then you destroy the dignity of one of God’s own and have in fact, already committed adultery in your heart.
Here’s another way to look at it. What kind of community do you want to live in? What kind of community do you want Wesley Church to be? Do you want to live in a community where the evil wolves are held at bay by laws which try to pen up their actions, keep them contained? A community that is in constant fear that those wolves will be trying to nip at you through the fencing or may indeed dig their way under the wiring and get loose? Or, do we want to live in a community where the abiding laws of God have descended deep within? A world where people are intent on feeding the good wolf within themselves. A wolf that is fed on empathy, compassion and grace for others. A wolf that understands that love means loving another. A wolf that sees others in the image of God. The opposite of death is reconciliation. Jesus is always about the transformation of the heart, soul and mind so that we may align ourselves with the abiding divine values. Those values which prompted God to so love this world and God’s creation that God was willing to step off the throne of heaven, place upon God the mantle of our humanity and come to us on the mount to explain to us the ways of salvation. That sacrifice is the way of reconciliation. That is love.
The truth still stands. The kind of community we will live in depends upon which wolf each of us decides to feed.

About Wesley Church

Please note that the church building has been closed in response to the COVID-19 procedures until further notice. Worship Services are available by visiting our YouTube channel. If you need assistance, please call 905-735-5912 or email