Ever taken something too far? Yep. For me one of the best examples is with pranks. My motto for many a year was that if somebody pranked me, they better know I’d respond swiftly and terribly, the idea being that then they’d learn never to do it again. In college fellowship at Clemson Wesley we got into quite a prank war over the course of time, in traditional “boys vs. girls” fashion. There were several retreats a year, and it started innocent enough, little jokes and gags to pick at each other and flirt or whatever else. But things escalated like they always do, I don’t even know who took it too far to start with, but it came to a head at our year-end retreat to a local camp.
A friend, Ryan, and I were making our way into the middle of nowhere to the camp, and we realized the ball was in our court on the pranks, but we’d forgotten to plan or buy anything. Lo and behold we came upon the only retailer for some 30 miles, a corner country store in the hamlet of Cleveland, SC. There wasn’t much in the way of prank supplies, until we came to the hunting/fishing section where there were aerosol spray cans of catfish stink bait. *Ka-ching* And then we spotted a product that I didn’t know existed: bottled fox urine (for deer luring or something). So we had our supplies, and a code-name for the prank mission: Red Fox.
That night when everybody headed to dinner, we doubled back and ransacked the girls’ cabin, spraying these substances everywhere, even into the heating unit on the wall. To give you an idea of the power of the stuff, the trigger-finger that I used on the catfish spray stunk for about 10 days (it’s pretty waterproof). It was heinous. We were ecstatic.
Until later that night when our fellowship/worship time really sunk in. It was a spiritual retreat, and the speaker was solid, we shared Communion, and things were going really well. So well that Ryan and I were feeling ridiculous because we didn’t want the excellent tone of the retreat to be overwhelmed by our pranking. So before we headed back up to the cabins, we let the girls know we’d done something, went ahead and apologized, and vowed not to prank again.
All of that is to say that what started innocent enough, and was meant to be playful and fun anyway, turned pretty sour in the hands of the two of us because we took it way too far. Don’t knock us for what we did. You’ve done it, too. In some context. Geez, think about sports fans and how warped that kind of devotion can be. How about the recent story of the poisoning of hundred-year oaks at Toomer’s Corner? A 62-year-old Alabama football fan came and sprayed plant killer on the roots of these two majestic oaks where Auburn fans celebrate victories. Because Auburn beat Alabama this year. Egad.
And, speaking of devotees that go way too far, how about the religious ones that get such a bad wrap? Well that’s a part of who we’re dealing with today. In Matthew 5, we’ve heard Jesus preaching from the mountainside to the crowds. For the past few weeks it’s been pretty good news, the blessings for the common folk, calling the people the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” Jesus, speaking with the authority of Heaven, is building up these folks, one and all. We might say, where’s the down side? Why’s Jesus just buttering them up?
Well we gotta remember the landscape of religious belief in that day. Then we’ll see that he’s not buttering them up, he’s just offering them some relief. In a lot of ways, to be one of God’s average, everyday followers at the time was horrendous. For decades, a fistful of elites and the intensely-educated claimed to be the only gate-keepers to God. The Pharisees, teachers of the Law, chief priests — they were often the few skilled to read or interpret Scripture, they ruled over the Temple and worship, and their words were pretty binding. If we’re among the people, our access to God comes through them.
And to give you an idea of their attitude, they prized the Law of Moses above all. They’d had it for thousands of years before Jesus lived, so they had plenty of time to dig into what they thought it meant. Some of us are familiar with parts of the Law, particularly, say, the Ten Commandments, right? To take one as an example, think about #4: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” I’ve asked folks today what that means to us, and we interpret it differently. For some it means we have a special time of worship on the Sabbath, on Sunday mornings. For others it means you’re not allowed to mow the yard or do the laundry on Sunday, because it’s Sabbath and you’re supposed to “rest.”
That’s exactly what the Pharisees and rulers and teachers of the Law had done with Scripture for, again, thousands of years. There were huge traditions built around the simplest lines. For example, with commandment #4, resting on the Sabbath:
Somebody once said, “Well, if we’re going to rest on the Sabbath…how do we define rest?” And it was decided that rest meant not working, duh.
But somebody else asked, “So what counts as work?” Ugh. It was decided that all sorts of things counted as work like, for instance, carrying a burden.
Somebody else asked, “What actually counts as a burden?” So others came up with extensive lists to define different burdens.
For instance, how much milk can be carried on the Sabbath before it is a burden, and work, and breaking the Sabbath? It was decided. A gallon? No. A mouthful. Yikes. And how much wine would be considered a burden (it didn’t come in boxes back then)? A gobletful. And so on.
How much writing could I do before it was considered work and breaking the Sabbath? A couple of emails? Negative. No more than two letters of the alphabet. I wouldn’t be able to write my name.
Volumes and volumes of this stuff was recorded and enforced. Breaking Sabbath meant separation from God, and worship, and the people. If anybody ever took anything too far, the Pharisees and other Law-rulers did. They lost a view for the heart of things.
So Jesus’ word to the whole crowd, not just those special leaders, was blowing the hinges off of things. He was telling the meek, humble, poor, and beat-down that they were blessed in the kingdom of God, that they were made with purpose and value. And he wasn’t using any Pharisee middle-man to transmit the message. The good news was offering them some relief. And with it was a warning to all others against polluting true devotion into religious nonsense. Plenty of us struggle with taking things to that extreme. We emphasize what our faith looks like. We think it’s enough to have perfect attendance on Sunday, smuggle Bibles into dangerous countries, sing choir solos, protest civil war abroad, protest domestic injustice, preach every Sunday, etc. etc., fill-in-the-blank. But all those things without a heart attuned to God turns our devotion into manipulation, control, self-glory, and utter selfishness.
Continuing in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus draws us away from just what we do towards what goes on in our hearts.
And in doing so he warns everybody not to go too far to the other extreme of faith: not being devoted at all. He makes clear that all this standing up to the teachers of the Law isn’t to destroy the Law. It isn’t to say, do nothing. But do it right. Live into the Law as it was meant to be lived, which is to do far better than the Pharisees who call themselves so holy.
Plenty of us struggle with that opposite extreme. Have we ever been so scared that we might turn into a Pharisee, or zealot, or crusader (or our parents), that we choose a devotion to nothing? Have we feared choosing the wrong devotion, or a devotion that excludes too many others? Whatever the case, Jesus dares us to consider that there could be a true way somewhere in there, a deeper, truer, right devotion. And that, however rare it might be, is what God desires. And that is what we were made for. And that is by far the most difficult option.
It is just easier to be an extremist and twist faith into whatever self-glorifying thing we want. It is just easier to choose no faith at all. It is drastically more difficultto pursue true obedience, daily. Jesus seems to say that our connection to the kingdom of heaven is what’s at stake.