Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
The rose is red, the violet's blue
The honey's sweet, and so are you
Thou are my love and I am thine
I drew thee to my Valentine
The lot was cast and then I drew
And Fortune said it shou'd be you.i
Tomorrow we celebrate Valentine's Day, whose sentiments are typified in this old nursery rhyme from the eighteenth century.
The symbol of the day is the symbol of a heart, and it calls to mind love and affection between intimate companions.
Tomorrow the question of the day is “What is in your heart?” People will ask this of themselves, of others. People will hope for good things in store in each others hearts.
It's a good question to frame our Gospel reading today.
Perhaps you experienced this reading as hard to listen to. It's pretty demanding, and it has us perhaps uncomfortably aware of what is in our hearts. If there's a bitter or hateful attitude in our hearts, it gets called out in this reading. If in our heart of hearts we know we've offended, this reading calls us out. If we've strayed mentally or emotionally in our affections from the one to whom we've pledged our marriage vows, this reading calls us out. The divorced among us may squirm uncomfortably. If we've gone back on our solemn word, we're called out.
We're in the Sermon on the Mount now, which Jesus has opened with the Beatitudes, which express a way of seeing the world; the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. He's called those who want to walk this way with him “salt” and “light” for the world.
And now he's offering a challenging teaching based upon several of the Commandments. He does so after challenging his hearers with these words: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the king of heaven.”
What's challenging to his hearers then, and to us now, is his insistence on making us go inward to our hearts to find out what lives there.
And the reason he's doing so, I think, is to have us consider well our commitment to the one we say we love. It is easy to say we love God. He's asking us: “what's in your heart?”
He's just said in the Beatitudes that it is the pure in heart who will see God.
In other words, it is those who set their hearts on knowing and having a relationship to the living God who will come to see and know God.
Jesus' teaching takes us very close to the heart of things for Christian life today.
As a priest, I'm often with people who half-jokingly – or perhaps not so jokingly – want to have my opinion as to whether something or other is against the rules, so to speak. If they utter a course word around me, they exhibit embarrassment. I'm often amused by this, and I try to defuse their embarrassment.
It's easy to turn Christian faith into a matter of rules, and to try to see ourselves as best we can as those who keep the rules. It's easy to reduce Christianity to one more system to enforce moral rectitude.
Hearing today's reading can reinforce that sense in people. We're all walking around with some knowledge or other of darkness in our hearts, and we don't really like to be reminded of it. On response is to think “well, I'm not all that bad, I'm as good as the next guy, aren't I”. Then along comes Jesus showing us that just the intent of the heart to do wrong is a violation of the moral law. What are we to do? Try harder? Give up?
I think this is where the Good News of Jesus comes into focus.
Let me say that I think Jesus is here not prescribing some impossible path to moral perfection as a condition for receiving God's favor. Jesus has already begun as he says this to live out a life demonstrating mercy to those considered the worst sinners. He's showing God's heart of mercy.
I think Jesus is talking about relationships here: relationships with God and relationships with others, and the kingdom of God as the gift which makes possible renewed relationships.
I think Jesus is asking his disciples, and all who hear: what's in our hearts? Can we imagine a whole new set of relationships with each other based on the Beatitudes? Can we see ourselves as poor in spirit, hungering for what is right, longing for mercy for ourselves and mercy for others?
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”, Jesus has just told us.
I think there is a logic in the Beatitudes. One leads to another. Just before “Blessed are the pure in heart” is “Blessed are the merciful”. The merciful will obtain mercy, and the more they obtain mercy, the more they will show mercy, and the more they show mercy, the more they will long for God's mercy, and the more their hearts long for God's mercy, the more clearly they will see God.
I think Jesus is asking the Scribes and the Pharisees and his disciples “what's in your heart?”
In so doing, he's not disrespecting the Law of Moses. On the contrary, he's upholding it.
He's upholding it by upholding the first thing the Law enjoins upon us: a relationship with God. “Love the Lord your God” is the first commandment. It is upon the foundation of a relationship with God that a relationship with the other is built.
That's a matter of the heart.
Turning Christianity into a system of moralism is a slippery slope to losing the Good News and with it the heart of the Church. We have ways of writing the rules to excuse ourselves from living in a relationship of mercy and loving-kindness with others. We can avoid adultery while neglecting our spouse. We can avoid murder while going around destroying someone else's reputation. Jesus challenges that in his teaching today, by showing what a dead end that is. We all need mercy, because in our hearts we are still being purified.
Is there in our hearts the mercy that comes from knowing we need mercy? Is that working in us a purer intent to seek God's mercy?
South African Methodist pastor Peter Woods writes:
“...I am convinced that the church will continue to decline on the left and become rabidly rigid and rule bound on the right, until we realise that the gospel is not about rules. For the Gospel to be Good News it has to be proclaimed in a way that shows that it is about relationship....”ii
“Externals are the consequences of interior processes. We avoid interiority at our peril. Was it Carl Jung who said, “If you do not go within you will have to go without”
What's in our hearts?
Dan Clendenin writes:
“...in showing mercy we approach divine perfection. The novelist Reynolds Price (1933-2011) of Duke University, who died on January 20, was an outspoken if unorthodox and non-churchgoing Christian. He once told the Georgia Review (1993), "The whole point of learning about the human race presumably is to give it mercy.iii
At the end of our last Gospel reading Jesus said to his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the Scribes and Pharisees, they would not enter the kingdom of heaven.
In what state does this righteousness begin to form itself in us? In the state in which we consider what is in our hearts, and open ourselves to mercy.
On his blog, Dan Clendenin gives us as an exercise in receiving God's mercy this poem of Edwina Gately. Consider it an early Valentine, if you will.
What's in your heart?
Let Your God Love You
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God —
i Gammer Gurton's Garland (London, 1784) in I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), p. 375.