“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (3 of 3)

Part Three: Rules, what are they good for?

There is a moment in one of the Terminator movies that perfectly encapsulates one of the key tensions in the Sermon on the Mount. In this scene, a young boy learns that his future self has sent back a killer robot (played by a pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger) to protect him and make sure that he grows up to save humanity and stuff. Naturally, the boy is nervous about hanging around with a killer robot, so he makes a rule: no killing. Being a robot and all, Arnold Schwarzenegger has to follow rules, so the kid makes him take an oath not to kill anyone.

About ten seconds later, they are stopped by a security guard who tries to prevent them from entering a compound. Without saying a word, Schwarzenegger pulls out his gun and shoots the guy twice. While the poor guard is writing and screaming on the ground, the boy shouts, “what the hell are you doing?”

“He’ll live,” says the Robot. And they go in.

The humor in this scene comes from the tension between two different understandings of the “don’t kill anybody” rule. For the young boy, this meant something like “don’t be the sort of robot who solves every problem by shooting somebody” or “don’t be a violent, amoral killing machine.” For the Schwarzenegger robot, it means something much more precise: “Make sure that none of the injuries that you cause result directly in death.” He remains a violent, amoral killing machine (he is “the Terminator” after all). Killing people is still his essential nature. But he is now bound by an external rule to stop just short of killing the people he attacks and maims.

These are the two basic understandings of rules and laws that we have to understand to see what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5. One can understand a rule as something that tells us what sorts of things to do, or we can understand it as something that tells us what sort of person to become. For the sake of illustration, let’s call these Position 1 and Position 2. Yes it’s more complicated than this. Yes this is a false dichotomy. And yes everybody understands rules both ways to some degree. But it can still be useful to separate these two positions out and look at them more closely:

  • Position 1 sees rules as regulative constraints on one’s behavior. To follow such a rule means to draw a line around certain behaviors and not cross them, not even once. This does not require any fundamental change in the type of person one is. Rules are something external to oneself–something for which one has accountability to another person or institution. One can still WANT to engage in the proscribed behaviors. One must simply avoid crossing the lines. The correct term for trying to obey these kinds of rules is “behavior modification.”
  • Position 2 sees rules as constitutive elements of one’s character. To follow this kind of rule is to understand the principles behind it and try to acquire the character traits that are embedded within it. Rules are primarily internal, and accountability for them is wholly to oneself, and the proper goal is not to constrain a set of behaviors, but to acquire a set of characteristics. The best word for trying to obey these kinds of rules is “repentance.”  

Position 1 is a lot easier that Position 2 because it can be measured and assessed. There was nothing unique about Second Temple Judaism here. Pretty much every culture ever has settled on a Position 1 understanding of rules–be they religious, political, legal, or linguistic. Position 1 maps nicely onto the way that institutions work. It lets us draw lines, identify an inside and an outside, reward obedience, punish defection, and keep track of how we are doing. You don’t technically need a net to play tennis, but it makes it a lot easier to know who is winning.

But, if we believe what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, Position 1 cannot bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus identifies four areas where obedience to rules has become automatic and behavior-based when it should be purposeful and principle based. All four areas continue to be issues today with people all over the world, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (who no longer call themselves “Mormons” because that would be against the rules). The four areas that Jesus mentions in Matthew 5 are as follows:

Anger

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5: 21-22)

This is basically the principle of the Terminator clip that we began with. As a regulative commandment, “thou shalt not kill” leaves a lot of room for awfulness, including wounding, maiming, and incapacitating, but also including slandering, hating, backstabbing, and just generally being mad all the time.

I am convinced that there are a lot of murderers walking around free today because they have never had a good opportunity to kill someone. They have never crossed that line, but they would under the right circumstances, because they are angry and spiteful and prone to violence. Not killing has to be about more than not having a good opportunity.

The Position 1 response to what Jesus is saying would be to draw up a bigger list of behavioral constraints: no maiming, no wounding, no punching, no insulting, no raca-saying, no thou-fooling, and so on. But this just misses the point again. What he is saying is that there is no set of rules that can make you a loving person who treats other people the way that you want to be treated yourself. You have to change your nature.

Sexual Morality


Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

Latter-day Saints probably hold the world record for multiplying Position 1-type regulations about sexual behavior. Most of us probably remember the “appropriate behavior” lessons from our Young Men/Young Women classes, complete with charts and diagrams of what triggers a required confession to a bishop. And most of us probably remember agonizing over what exactly constitutes “light” vs “heavy” petting, when exploration ends and “masturbation” begins, and what stage of photographed undress rises to the level of “pornography.” Worrying about stuff like this is our superpower.

What we need to talk more about is the way that our understanding of sexuality, and our sexual behavior, embeds assumptions about the value of other people. Do we see and value people primarily for their ability to contribute to our pleasure? Do we reduce others to mechanisms for satisfying our desires? If we do, then we need to repent, and change, and develop the capacity to see other humans as beings of intrinsic worth and divine potential whose value in this world has nothing to do with fulfilling our desires.

The sin of “committing adultery in our heart” is not a sin of impure sexual thoughts–this formulation reduces the other person to the status of “temptation to be avoided” instead of “human being to be loved.” When we look at another person as a mechanism for gratifying our sexual desires, we are committing a sin against that person by negating their status as anything other than an extension of ourselves. It has nothing to do with zones of propriety. It has everything to do with what other people mean in the context of our lives.

Oathing

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)

“Swearing” is probably the best example we have of a rule that has been turned into something that it isn’t by rote obedience. The original commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain meant something like, “don’t swear by God’s name that you are going to do something and then not do it, because that is dishonest.” What Jesus says here is “don’t swear by God’s name at all, because the only reason you are doing it is to get people to believe you, which makes it easier to lie. Just say, “I’ll do it, and then do it.” In both cases, the core of the instruction was “do what you say you are going to do.”

In contemporary religious thought, this has gotten reduced to “don’t say God’s name in non-religious contexts.” We have focused on linguistic issue of saying a word rather than the character issue of being honest with other people. And we have turned the word “swearing” into a way to say “using bad words.” This is how Position 1 thinking about rules generally works. It empties the rule of all of its substance and then turns it into a box that can be checked. And lost in all of this is the need to become a trustworthy person who can be counted on by other people to mean what they say.

Reciprocity

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5: 38-39)

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5: 33-34)

In these final two injunctions, Jesus makes the underlying logic of the first three clear: The rules are not about you; they are about other people. The point of the rules is not to keep you free from some abstract nature of sin so you can return to God pure and undefiled and inherit the Kingdom of God. The point is to get you to see other people differently than you do now so you can become the kind of person who can work with other people to build the Kingdom of God right here and right now.   

The Gospel is other people, and the Kingdom of God is the natural consequence of people who have internalized these rules and used them to become something other than natural human beings. That’s a tall order, and it takes a lifetime of repentance and a mighty change of heart. Behavior modification won’t do it. We don’t have to change what we do; we have to change who we are. And another word for this is “the Gospel.”

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    A great trilogy, many thanks!

  2. Kristin Brown says:

    “Behavior modification won’t do it.” This was Elder Renlund opinion in the October 2018 General Conference. He said, “Our Heavenly Father’s goal in parenting is not to have His children do what is right; it is to have His children choose to do what is right and ultimately become like Him. If He simply wanted us to be obedient, He would use immediate rewards and punishments to influence our behaviors.

    But God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient “pets” who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room.3 No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business.

  3. Kristin Brown says:

    Sorry, Elder Renlund’s opinion.

  4. Jared Livesey says:

    God will not save us in our sins, but he will save us from them upon our repentance from all of them. If we die in our sins we are cast off (Mosiah 15:26-27; Mosiah 16:2). If we hear and will not do what he said to do, he will not change us so that what he said to do becomes part of our nature. We do not want it; if we did, we would do what he said[1].

    We may well struggle for a lifetime doing what our leaders or our neighbors or our peers approve of and never do what the Lord has asked of us, which is repeated in the scriptures in triplicate (Luke 6, Matthew 5-7, 3 Nephi 12-14), and thus we may never be rendered fit subjects for the kingdom of God. And if we are not fit for the kingdom of God, even if we may say we keep the “spirit” of the law whilst breaking the letter thereof, we will go dwell with all the others who likewise disobey the spirit of God, which the spirit which gave the letter (John 14:10; Mormon 9:4-5).

    The point of rules is to resolve conflict between people. The Sermon is the solution to all interpersonal conflict. Those who will do it as it is written can live with the others who likewise do it, and do so eternally. God remakes their natures such that these are the things they do by nature. These are the ones that agree with God – who actually believe his words, and believe in him, and therefore do what he said. The rest are in conflict with God. How can they live peacably with him eternally when they don’t believe him, when he does things they wouldn’t do, says things they wouldn’t say, and when they don’t love him (Mosiah 16:5)?

    [1]Incidentally, this was the entire point at issue in the “war in heaven;” whether salvation – being made into exactly what God is – would be imposed on us regardless of our disagreement with it, or whether it would be given only with our fully knowledgeable consent. We are only here to make our agreement or disagreement known (Abraham 3:25). If you want to know what salvation is, read the Sermon, understanding it as literalistically as a small child – say, of 2 or 3 years of age – would understand his father’s words. Those are the things Jesus would do. That is Jesus Christ. That is salvation.

    Behold, I am the law and the light.
    Look unto me and endure to the end and ye shall live.
    For unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life.
    Behold, I have given unto you the commandments.
    Therefore keep my commandments;
    and this is the law and the prophets,
    for they truly testified of me.

  5. Mike, this is so great that I hesitate to quibble, but nevertheless, I’ll quibble with the last couple sentences, just to the extent that it suggests that we can change who we are. I think the reason we like to focus so much on changing what we do is because what we do it at least theoretically in our power to change, but changing human nature can only come as an act of grace. A lifetime of repentance won’t do it, but repentance can unlock the grace that make that mighty change of heart happen.

    But maybe this is all premature at this point in the New Testament. At this point, Jesus hasn’t really given us anything about how the change of heart happens. It will be Paul that really asks that question and tries to answer it. Jesus here mainly just tells us that it has to happen.

  6. Michael Austin says:

    Jared, I think that you are correct on the macro level. Completely shedding the natural human being and replacing it with something else is beyond our abilities. But I think that there are a lot of things about our human nature that we can and must change ourselves. And maybe “changing” isn’t the right word. Human nature has all sorts of awful things about it. We are tribal, aggressive, selfish, and really bad at math. But it also has a lot of good things in it. We have a capacity for empathy, a desire for friendship, an innate sense of justice–the sorts of things that Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It is within our ability to learn to de-emphasize the rotten stuff and appeal to those better angels, which, I think, is the main point of the Sermon on the Mount. Some of us can even learn math. Just not me.

  7. Yeah, I don’t think we disagree much, if at all. I guess for me it goes back to the fact that we have a dual nature. And while I still think it’s beyond our power to fully submit our human nature to the divine nature within us, it’s certainly within our power to try, and sometimes to even succeed, to listen to the divine part of ourselves. I go back to Abinadi on this.

  8. Really got a lot from this. Thank you.

  9. Mike, I too love this and hate to quibble, but I am concerned about your paragraphs on Sexual Morality. I fully agree that if we’re viewing someone else as “mechanisms for satisfying our desires”, we need to repent. But thinking about the flipside, I highly suspect that lots of extra marital sex has occurred where neither party believed that they’re relationship was based on contributing to pleasure, that they did love each other, and did view each other as a “human being to be loved.” The sex was an appropriate part of their love.
    From your paragraphs it seems you’re saying that extra marital sex is acceptable, so long as you believe that you love each other. I suspect that you don’t actually believe that. Zones or propriety help too.

  10. Jared Livesey says:

    Michael,

    The Lord gave all who wish to follow him the same commands.

    *Give to everyone who asks.
    *Lend to all comers.
    *Do not ask for your stuff back from anyone.
    *If anyone hits you on one cheek, present the other to them so that they may hit you again, and do not revile them.
    *If anyone sues you, settle with them for the amount they sued you for, and don’t forbid them from suing you for more besides.
    *Do not store up for yourself in this world anything that can be stolen or corrupted, but instead give your immediate excess to the poor.
    *If we wish to be called great by those in the kingdom of God, and be saved therein, teach others to do these things as well.

    There are more commandments in the Sermon, but this suffices to illustrate that these are not things we strive to do – we either do them, or we do not. By doing these things, we discover for ourselves what it means to be oppressed, and to be persecuted – and this for Christ’s sake, because we do and teach what he asks. This is how we learn good from evil, and discover what Jesus is, and, in contrast, what we are. Not coincidentally, the society where everyone does these things is a society where social justice, peace, and equality reign.

    This is the grand adventure of the gospel.

  11. Mary Bliss says:

    To add to your essay: In the midst of this is Christ’s statement that he has not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it. (5:17)
    One common Christian understanding of what “to fulfil” means in this passage is that Christ came to fill up, or complete, our understanding of God’s commandments, teaching more fully their meaning by revealing the essential principles that are at the heart of them: 1) a clear sense of God’s holiness and 2) a pure love towards all persons.
    That makes sense to me. Understanding, embracing and living those principles at the heart of God’s commandments would help to effectuate in us the kind of changes that Jesus is giving examples of the second half of Matthew 5.

  12. To the point of the OP, my thought has long been (and I quote myself):
    “At the (figurative) gates of heaven, there is one question only. What have you become? Who are you, standing here today?”

    To the question of a change of heart, I believe in continuous change and do not believe in a dual nature, and I expect to stand at that figurative gate like this:
    “I am worn to the quick. I am covered in scars. I have learned and I would not cut in all the same places again. But the scars are me. Take me as I am. Or not. It’s all I’ve got.”

  13. This was so good. I’m really missing Sunday School this year, now that I’m in another part of the building that hour. Please keep writing.

  14. Matt 5 is my favorite chapter of scripture, but I understand it completely differently. I believe the message is not in any way connected to obedience to rules, and in v 20 he says we have to do differently than the Pharisees, and they were very good at obedience.
    The whole message is to become a person who loves as God loves. V48 be ye therefore perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect, is that we love perfectly as God does.
    When we have a change of understanding, and realise that the message of the gospel is not to obey some rules, but to become a person who loves as God does we are on the right path.
    If you love perfectly there is no place for discrimination on any grounds. Loving and discrimination are not compatible. Of course there is so much more to loving than not discriminating, but more difficult to describe.

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