A church worship service, like the one we are experiencing, is a phenomenon, a remarkable thing. Once a week, across the land, millions of people come together, and they assemble in buildings that none of them personally own, even though many of them have keys to those buildings. Once inside, they greet as friend those they know and those who they never have met. The people gather in a room that is set aside for a specific use, often that room is used only once a week. Once together, someone begins to lead the group with announcements about what has happened, is happening, and will be happening. Not too many people listen to that part of the service. Then the group rises and prays in one voice to God. You would never see that sort of thing in a local shopping mall. After the prayer, musicians start playing the instruments and the people begin to sing. In some places, the words being sung a quite old, like seraphim and cherubim. Those words only get said one time. In other places the words sung by the group are everyday words, like love, soul, and praise. Those words are repeated in the song, seemingly without end. Then after singing, someone gives a sermon, a message, or a homily. Sometimes those speaking do so for 10 minutes, and others go for an hour or more. Sometimes the speaker’s words leave the people feeling encouraged, or challenged, or deflated, perhaps on occasion terrified, and sometimes the people are left bored. After the speaker goes silent, the people sing a couple more songs and then leave to resume their normal activities of life until the next Sunday when the people gather again to repeat the phenomenon.
Why do the people participate in this phenomenon? What are the people’s motives in participating? Perhaps you have not thought about this question before or for a while. I thought I might share my answer to these questions.
When I was a kid in the Catholic Church, my family participated in the phenomenon, frankly, because we were afraid not to do so. We feared being sent to hell for not at least attending. Fear of going to hell was the same reason we ate fish on Fridays. Our motives were self-serving based on fear.
In my late 20’s, my motives for going participating in the phenomenon we call a church service changed. I participated not out of fear. I participated, again frankly, because I was asked to attend by the woman I was dating. That woman later became my wife. Once church with her, my motives for participating soon changed again. At church, I came to realize that something, someone, was missing in my life, namely Jesus Christ. I did not know in any real way who Jesus was and what he had done for me. I was someone who knew him not. As I got to know Christ, I gave my life back to him, and my motives for church changed again. I continued to attend because I wanted to remain close to Christ and to his living body in this world, the church. For in this fellowship with Christ and his followers, there is closeness to God, there is opportunity to reform my behaviors to become more like Christ, there is an opportunity to serve others, and an opportunity to be encouraged in times of trouble. I guess my motives still sound self-serving, so I suspect God has some more refining to do with me.
Our motives in life matter because motives reveal much about our inner life, our thinking, and our heart. I have given my testimony as to the changing motives I have experienced in life for participating in the phenomenon of weekly church services. There are other motives that play heavily in our life. Consider for a moment our motives for sinning. Say what? When we sin, we comfort ourselves with the motives that caused us to sin. Motives console us. We justify ourselves by conditions that preceded the sin. Consider a childhood example. “It is not my fault! He hit me first! I was just defending myself when I hit him in the nose!” The child was saying, “I would not have sinned had he not hit me first.” We are comforted with our motives for sinning, in that example, someone else’s prior behavior caused me to sin. We learned that sort of answer from the Bible. Consider when God asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Genesis 3:11). Adam answered, ““The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Adam was saying, “If you had not given me that woman and had she not given me that fruit, I would not have sinned.” We always seek motives for sin.
Our motives, whether for positive activities in life or negative behaviors, are important to us even if we do not think about our motivations. Our Scripture reading today from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is about having our motives shaped by righteousness.
Jesus began teaching his disciples and the crowd behind them about motives again by citing something that the people knew. Jesus said, “27 You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery’” (Matthew 5:27). That is number 7 on God’s top 10 list of commandments. The command is very straightforward. Sexual relations are to remain between a married couple. The people Jesus was speaking to understood that. That was the known part of the discussion. Jesus then said, “28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). You can almost sense a little stirring in the audience and a bit of body shifting going on as people began to think about the implications of Jesus’ words.
Jesus’ point was that righteousness expressed in marriage is to be motivated by a faithfulness. To be faithful to a spouse is a very human way to see, experience, and model the faithfulness between God and his people. In the Old Testament, adultery was often used to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. There is some hint in Jesus’ words about faithfulness coming from righteousness found in the first of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shall have no other God’s before Me.” In the New Testament, Jesus is often described as the bridegroom and the church his bride. So to look at other women and dream about sexual relationships with them, is a break in the motivation of human faithfulness and a break in the model of faithfulness to God, and it is in some ways a form of idolatry. Faithfulness then comes from righteousness in which the person is motivated by a pure heart. Jesus had just told his audience, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Purity in heart, purity in motives guided by righteousness is the avenue to God.
You can almost hear the wheels turning in the minds of his disciples as they thought about this situation of faithfulness to their spouse while perhaps in the company of other women who they found attractive. As those wheels turned, Jesus added these words, “31 Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32). Jesus’ words meant, “Guys, if you do find yourself attracted to woman other than your wife, do not think you can divorce your wife and be free to pursue a new wife and therefore be innocent of lust! For if you did that, your motives would not only be an expression of unfaithfulness, but your motives would be the cause of many to sin by being wrapped up in adulterous relationships.”
Faithfulness is a motive fueled by righteousness. Faithfulness in marriage is an expression of our human capacity to maintain a faithful spiritual relationship with God. This thought is presented to the church this way, “11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). Our motives matter.
Jesus then continued to express the matter of motives more broadly and applicable to everyone whether single or married. Jesus again started with what the people knew so that he could share with them what they did not know but needed to know. “33 Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ [That is the known.] 34 But I say to you, [This is the unknown.] do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).
The issue Jesus was taking on was righteousness in our motivations for speaking and giving testimony. Here too, there are some hints about commandment 9 of 10, “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’ and commandment 3 of 10, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” Let’s look at this just a bit.
First, Jesus said that people were not to take an oath by those things that are of God. Do not swear by heaven for that is God’s dwelling place. Do not swear by earth for that is God’s creation. Do not swear by Jerusalem for that is God’s city. Oaths based upon God and what is his are all ways of taking the Lord’s name in vain, using God’s name in a useless and non-worshipful manner. Then Jesus added, and don’t also do something ridiculous by swearing upon your own head because you are not your own creation. You cannot, on your own, change the color of even one hair, but God can. So do not swear upon your head as though you have some power like that of God. Jesus’ point was do not use the Lord’s name in vain to prove that you are not being false witness. Righteousness will never demand that you break one commandment to prove you are keeping another.
In my prior occupation with the federal government, I interviewed hundreds of people for various reasons. Sometimes it was to collect information. Other times it was to confront someone who had been suspected of engaging in unauthorized or illegal activities. When I interviewed the latter group, those who it was believed had been engaged in wrongdoing, I always knew we were getting closer to the truth when the individual I was interviewing spontaneously took an oath in the interview. Let me give you an example. When asked directly about the alleged wrongdoing, the person would say, “I swear to you, on my mother’s grave, or on my children’s life, or as God is my witness, that I did not do it.” Almost without exception, we would later determine that the behavior being denied under that spontaneous oath did, in fact, happen. Why was there such a correlation between the use of an oath and the commission of a lie? Because an oath is perceived as a bit of sacredness. Using the sacredness of your children or God to encapsulates a lie causing the hearer to not want break what is sacred to examine the words within. Jesus was saying righteousness, not some made up or spontaneous oaths, must shape our motives for our testimony.
Secondly, Jesus said, “Let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.” Well, what does that mean? Think of it this way. Why might we take an oath? We might take an oath when we go to court where a court officer may ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And as a witness, we would be expected to answer, “I do.” The idea behind an oath is that from the moment someone takes an oath, until they have completed their testimony, their words will be and must be the truth. The implication is that prior to taking the oath or after giving testimony, telling the truth is optional. There is a hope that we and others would tell the truth but there is no requirement to tell the truth and no penalty for lying.
Jesus was saying in righteousness, with a purity of heart, you must always speak the truth by saying “Yes” for “Yes” and “No” for “No.” If you always tell the truth, then there is no reason or cause for you to take an oath.
Lying, with its many motives, is a widespread concern in our country. Studies have shown that nearly 96% of American adults admitted to lying about something either as a kid or as an adult. I think the remaining 4% lied in the survey! In one survey, 40% of those surveyed admitted to having lied within the past 24 hours.
I teach a ten-week class in Christian Ethics. One of those weeks we look at the Christian life and lying. There are some Christian writers who argue that as a Christian is permitted if one of three things is true. The lie is for a good cause. Or the lie arose out of necessity. Or the lie was “medicinal,” meaning the lie is necessary to correct a larger problem. Do you see how motives can lead us to do what we think is noble even if we must break a commandment or two to be so noble.
The ancient theologian, Augustine, had a very different view about lying. Augustine said, “God is the Father of the Truth, and His Son communicated the Word of Truth. Lying, regardless of the motivation, stands opposed to the truth.” Therefore, Augustine said, “to lie is to abandon God.”
I think Augustine was on the right track. God is Truth and so to is His Son. Jesus said simply, let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” Just tell the truth. Lying makes for a bad witness to unbelievers.
Jesus confronted his audience with a known commandment of God, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” which is the seventh of the ten commandments. From that opening, Jesus revealed to his audience and to us that at is core, adultery involved deception, lying, and unfaithfulness not just toward the spouse but toward God. Righteousness whether for married or single people requires that there be no mixed allegiances. We must be faithful to God for He is faithful to us. We must not be adulterous in our relationships with others for those relationships model the intimate faithful relationship God desires with each person. We must not be deceptive or lying in our words or make others believe our words are true by stating them with an oath. Instead, we must be faithful and true in our words, always. We must let righteousness shape our motives so that we are pure. We must not break one commandment to prove our faithfulness to another one.
Jesus came as the truth, and the life, and the way. Jesus came to forgive my sin and not to endorse my motives for sinning. Jesus came as the righteousness of God that I am be filled with Him and be righteous as He is righteous with pure motives in my heart. Let us be pure of heart and motives following Jesus’ words and example. Amen and Amen.