Last week I reflected on Jesus’ comment that we Christians are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13), a seasoning presence in what might otherwise be a tasteless world. If we simply live our faith as authentically as possible, like salt is simply salt, we might make a tasteless world a little more savory and pleasing to God.
How do we live faithfully as the salt of the earth? As Jesus continues teaching his disciples in today’s passage (Matt. 5:21-37), he tells us that living faithfully is not about obeying the law, even God’s law. It’s about being a different person, living in a different quality of relationship in creation. It’s about living with integrity, with wholeness, with completeness. It’s about living in our character as an image of God (Gen. 1:26).
You’ve heard it said, for example – here Jesus quotes the Mosaic law in the Ten Commandments – “You shall not murder” (v. 21), and he follows that with a comment about a way of being, an orientation of spirit. Don’t even be angry, he says. If you so much as insult another person, you’re no longer living in the fullness of life I’m offering. Work on healing your strained or broken relationships, he says, or you’ll never heal the strain in your relationship with God, you’ll never live according to your true character (vv. 22-26).
It’s not enough that you don’t break the law against adultery, he says. You mustn’t even think of using another person to satisfy your needs. Don’t tolerate in yourself such a breach of integrity, such lack of character (vv. 27-32). And don’t take an oath, don’t look to any external authority for your credibility. Live from the heart, with such integrity that your simple “yes” or “no” is enough. Let your character speak for itself (vv. 33-37).
In 1871, Scottish author Samuel Smiles began his book Character with these words (I’ve slightly abbreviated the selection): “Character exemplifies human nature in its highest forms, for it exhibits [people] at [their] best. It is natural to believe in such [people], to have confidence in them, and to imitate them. All that is good in the world is upheld by them, and without their presence in it the world would not be worth living in. Although genius always commands admiration, character most secures respect. The former is more the product of brain-power, the latter of heart-power; and in the long run it is the heart that rules in life.”
We’re not Christian because we follow certain rules, even rules we identify as laws of God. We’re Christian because we live as people of integrity, people whose deepest inward values as creatures made in the image of God are in harmony with our most ordinary outward actions. And at the heart of that kind of life for us is the Christian gospel, the good news of reconciliation, the good news that God “settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other” (2 Cor 5:19 MSG).
Living the Christian life, the life Jesus teaches us to live, is not about following rules of behavior or a code of conduct. It’s not about what to do and what not to do. It’s about recognizing that there’s no difference between healing our relationship with God and healing our relationships with each other. To draw closer to God is to draw closer to one another, even those who hurt us, the strangers, the foreigners, those whom we fear, closer even to our enemies. You can’t do one without doing the other. We live a Christian life, as salt of the earth, when we recognize that no one is left out of God’s grace, no one is left behind, that we’re all in this together, and when we treat each other accordingly.
Questions for reflection
- Jesus shifts the focus from murder to anger and insult, from actions to their source (vv. 21-26). “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment . . . and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire’” (v. 22). How are murder and anger essentially related? Why in Jesus’ view do they have the same effect on a person? Why do they produce the same result? What is that effect, that result?
- Why would Jesus say that the act of adultery and the feeling of lust are equal violations of God’s law (vv. 27-30)? What basic principle of life is violated equally by the way you treat someone and the way you view that person?
- People were once warned not to swear falsely but to carry out the vows they made to the Lord. But Jesus says, don’t swear at all. Don’t take any oath. Let your simple “yes” or “no” suffice. What important shift happens when you do this?
- Jesus teaches these things to his disciples to guide them in living more fully in the reign of God (“the kingdom of heaven”) that he proclaims has “come near” (Matt. 4:17). a) What do these teachings suggest about the nature of the reign of God and where it is to be found? b) What do they suggest about when, and especially how, it is to be entered? What do they suggest about what is required of a person wishing to enter the new life Jesus offers?