719) “Fencing In” Our Sins

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Matthew 5:21-22a…27-30  —  (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…  You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”  (From the Sermon on the Mount)

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From Sitting at the Feet of the Rabbi Jesus, by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, pages 169-170:

     Imagine for a moment that you are packed into the hillside along with the rest of the crowd, above the glittering waters of the Sea of Galilee.  The longer you listen, the more uncomfortable you become.  The crowd is hushed, as though everyone is holding their breath, listening as Jesus compares lustful thoughts to adultery and anger to murder.  His examples are hitting a little too close to home.  Then it dawns on you that Jesus is himself employing the rabbinic method of “fencing in” the Torah by telling the crowd that small sins lead to greater sins, advocating that you set up boundaries against great evils by avoiding small ones.

     This idea of linking small sins to greater ones was common among the rabbis.  Listen to a rabbinic comment on laws in Leviticus:  “He who violates, “Love you neighbor as yourself,’ will ultimately violate, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,’ and ‘You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge,’ until in the end he will come to shedding blood.”  The rabbis wisely noted that the consequences of sin slope ever downward: not loving your neighbor deteriorates to hating him in your heart declines further to taking revenge on him and finally falls to taking your neighbor’s life.

     Both Jesus and the rabbis were preaching that the time to avoid sin is when it is small, before we slip any further down the slope…  Later rabbis also preached about sin by comparing small sins to greater ones.  Listen to what they had to say about gossip:  

To which is gossip more similar, robbery or murder?

Murder, because robbers can always give back what they’ve stolen, but gossips can never repair the damage they’ve done.

     Such comments remind us of Jesus’ striking exhortations to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye should they cause you to sin.  The rabbis knew the great damage that even tiny sins can do.  A little bit of gossip can ruin a reputation.  One sharp retort can ignite a war.  The goal of their exaggerations was to impress upon their listeners the dire consequences of sins.  Jesus, too, was urging his listeners to avoid evil at all costs.  His strong warnings express his anguish at the destruction that ensues when we do not resist temptation at the very beginning.

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Martin Luther on resisting temptation:  “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair”

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In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray for the forgiveness of our ‘trespasses.’  The use of that word gives the image of sin not as breaking the rules, but as going beyond the boundaries God has set for us.  God does not want to restrict our every move with an endless list of rules.  Rather, God gives us only a few rules (ten), and a wide range of area in which we may live and move about freely; while still, for our own good, setting boundaries and commanding that we stay within those boundaries set for us.  As the old rabbis taught, God’s Law ‘fences in’ our destructive behavior.

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Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

–Jesus

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