This sermon is part of the sermon series "No Wonder They Crucified Him". See series.
When I ask you to give me an adjective that describes Jesus of Nazareth, what comes to mind for you? How many of you instantly thought of the word fun? Not too many, I imagine, and that's too bad. I say that because there is simply no way to closely read the gospels, or human nature, and not conclude that Jesus Christ lived with a spirit of joy and humor and warmth in whose presence other people genuinely enjoyed themselves.
Have you ever known children to throng around someone who wasn't fun? Yet the Bible pictures Jesus as someone often mobbed by kids. Have you ever known a bunch of working men who'd voluntarily leave their jobs and families to go road tripping with somebody who wasn't any fun? Yet that is precisely what fishermen like Peter, and government workers like Matthew, and political activists like Judas were willing to do for the chance to be with Jesus. Women like Mary and Martha kept the light on in their home, just hoping Jesus might drop by. Burned-out businessmen like Zaccheus climbed trees in hope of meeting him.
People found the teaching of Jesus "fun" to listen to. He regaled people with marvelous images of camels grunting to get themselves through needle eyes, and old women scavenging under tables looking for lost coins. "Did you hear the one about the player from Illinois who got mugged on his way down to the NCAA tournament," Jesus would say. "You'll never guess who stopped to help him. It was that guy, Samaritan, from the Connecticut team." "You're kidding me!" people would roar.
Christ's teaching was filled with humor, satire, and irony; his vision of God and his kingdom was jammed with joy. Jesus described God as an amazing Dad who's willing to forgive unbelievably stupid acts by his kids, and even by criminals, when they come to their senses. Jesus pictured the kingdom of God as a place where people's tears got dried up and replaced by singing, where there was rejoicing over people being found or coming home, and where banquet tables were overflowing, and more and more chairs kept being hauled out of the closet, so that anyone who was willing to accept his invitation would be sure to find a place there.
The first miracle Jesus ever did was to change water into wine so a wedding party could on. One of the last things he did for his disciples was to host a final Passover feast, tell his friends how eagerly he'd desired to share this meal with them, and then speak of his hope that they might know his joy.
No wonder they crucified him
You can say a lot about Jesus. You can call him the sacrificing Savior who gave his life to save the world. You can call him the greatest teacher who ever lived. You can regard him as the most brilliant ethicist this world has ever known. You can name him Son of God and God in human flesh. And you'd be right on every count.
But there's one thing you can't say. If you know what ordinary people are drawn to, and what the gospels say about Jesus, you can't say he wasn't fun. You can't conclude that Jesus was some kind of kill-joy, some kind of red-faced prude, some sort of sponsor for a pinch-lipped, Church-Lady religion.
It's important to remember this for two crucial reasons. First, because it helps us understand why he so bugged the Pharisees, some of the most conservative religionists of his day. They looked at this life-affirming, joy-producing, freedom-celebrating aspect of Jesus' nature and said: That just can't be God speaking.
They looked at the way Jesus embraced such ordinary, imperfect people and thought: That just can't be God acting.
They listened to Christ's critique of their way of life and the radical claims he made about himself, and they said: We've just got to get rid of this guy.
But there's a second reason to keep this side of Jesus in focus. It not only helps us understand why the Pharisees sought to kill him. It also helps to balance our perspective when, in a few minutes from now, we may want to crucify him, too.
When Jesus is not much fun
You see, there are times when Jesus does not sound like much fun. There are times when he says things that, frankly, smash up against our sense of freedom and fulfillment. There are moments when Jesus looks us right in the eye and says: You've got to learn to patrol your pleasures.
And this Word he speaks to us in Matthew 5 is one of those times. Maybe you've heard the joke about Moses coming down from the mountain and saying to the Israelites: Okay, I've just been in conversation with God, and I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I've got God pared down to just Ten Commandments. The bad news is that the one about adultery stays.
Truthfully, of course, we're generally okay with this commandment at the start. I've yet to go over wedding vows with a couple I'm marrying where anyone says: "Um, we were hoping we could leave a multiple partners option in there someplace." When Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery,'" a few of us wince because we know we've failed badly someplace; but virtually all of us get, in principle, the importance of faithfulness to one partner.
It's the sentence that follows that is so much harder to take. Jesus says: "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Wow. Is Jesus really saying what it sounds like he is? Is he saying that even a little fantasizing is not okay? What could be wrong with a little derriere-staring if we're committed to not touching? What's so bad about looking at an explicit magazine or website image so long as we're not actually breaking our commitment to our marriage?
Carry the idea out further, because it isn't just sexual connections after which we lust, is it? Suppose we get the notion that we're not supposed to be owned by things, and that we're meant to be wise stewards of our resources. So, is there really a problem with a little lusting after the things we see in catalogues and shopping malls, so long as we don't actually pull out the credit card? Suppose we honestly want to take better care of our bodies so that they'll be healthy temples from which to continue God's mission for us in life. Is there really any problem if we just browse the refrigerator or candy aisle? What could be wrong with this kind of innocent fun?
The battle for the human heart
The only way to answer that question helpfully, I think, is to understand what the Bible says about the how the battle for the human heart is won or lost. Dallas Willard points out that, so far as the Bible describes it, the human "heart" (or "will") is the executive center of our lives. The writer of Proverbs says: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." A spiritually healthy heart pumps out choices and conduct that influence for the better all your external relationships and activities. When my heart is healthy, I am better as a husband, as a parent, as a co-worker, and in all the other spheres of my life.
The Bible teaches that the health of our spiritual heart is influenced primarily through two arteries: our reason and our emotions. The Bible pictures the destruction of the human heart as coming from the invasion of ideas, images, and impulses that clog our reason and corrupt our emotions to the point where the health of our heart is severely compromised.
The preeminent example, of course, is the story of the Fall recorded in Genesis 3. First, the Serpent attacks down the artery of reason: You can't really trust God. He's making demands of you that are unreasonable. He just wants to keep everything for himself.
Then the Serpent attacks down the artery of emotion. We read in Genesis 3:6that Eve was led to see "that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom."
First, the reason gets compromised: "You can't trust God." Then the emotions get breached: "That forbidden fruit would sure taste good. It's desirable." And then the heart fails, the will falls. Genesis says: So Eve "took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." Another poet put it this way: "'Who's there?' I cried, 'A little tiny sin.' 'Enter,' I said. And all hell came in."
Victory is won at the perimeter
I have tasted hell myself in places, and count as good friends several people who've lived there. One of these friends gave me permission to share his insights, gained from years of struggling against the pull of pornography, the habit of lusting and fantasizing about other women, and finally the full-blown heart-attack of adultery.
"The battle for the human heart, and all the health or horror that flows from it," this friend told me, "must be waged at the perimeter of our lives." You can't retreat into the sanctuary of comparative righteousness, telling yourself: 'At least I'm not like so-and-so … or at least I haven't done such-and-such yet.' You've got to post guards at the perimeter of your life. You've got to patrol even what appear to be innocent pleasures."
This, I've come to understand, is exactly what Jesus is saying to us in our text from Matthew 5. On the surface of it, Christ's words sound absolutely draconian: "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away …. And if your right hand causes you to sin, 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." I don't think Jesus is really advocating self-mutilation here. An early church father named Origen took Jesus' words at face value here and literally castrated himself, only to discover that he still had challenges with lust. Origen came to realize that what Jesus really was saying is that, if we are serious about having healthy hearts, then we have to be willing to take extreme, even drastic, measures to control what our eyes dwell upon and what our hands take hold of.
Few things so affect our reason and emotions as what our eyes fix upon and our hands touch. If your eyes and hands are working for God and you, they will keep potentially dangerous ideas and images from crawling their way so deep into your camp that your heart is conquered by them. If your eyes and hands are failing in that function, says Jesus—if those intended sentries are actually actively bringing the enemy in—what measures are you going to take to redeploy them?
It may sound medieval, but Doug Weiss, one of the nation's leading experts on handling compulsion and addictions, suggests that people struggling in this area wear a rubber band around their wrists. When you find your eye or your hands straying in the direction of trouble, he advocates pulling back on the rubber band a good long distance and giving it a snap. One friend who uses that technique says: "Believe me, the pain that is produced by doing that makes me completely forget about the pleasures I was contemplating!"
The Desert Fathers of ancient Christianity called this technique the "mortification of the flesh." It can certainly be taken too far, as Origen found out, but what are the measures that we will use to guard the reason and emotions that influence our hearts? I know a person who's learned to throw out the catalogues as soon as they come into the house, and to turn off the advertisements, because she found her heart being invaded by desires for things and more things. I know a guy who's taught himself not to even turn on the television when he's away on business, because he knows the desires it's going to feed. I've learned that I have to turn off the morning radio programs because I find that the incredibly crass and cruel way people speak of others there simply affects my heart toward others.
What are the measures you take to patrol the pleasures offered at the perimeter of your life? Maybe even more helpfully, what are the ideas and images that you are replacing the destructive ones with? That's the function of the spiritual disciplines I commended at the start of this series. The disciplines offer us a way to gainfully deploy our reason and emotions in a manner that builds the strength and health of our heart. The apostle Paul says: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:8-9).
But then again
Maybe, however, we're not really all that interested in peace. A titillated, adrenaline-rushed life feels better. Perhaps we're not all that motivated to pursue a life that is noble, pure, lovely, or admirable. A life like everyone else is fine with us. The apostle James says: "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (James 5:16). But maybe we'd just like forgiveness for our obsessions, not healing.
Then let's just keep doing what we've been doing with our eyes and our hands. And while we're at it, look at that guy Jesus over there, will you. Can you believe his nerve in saying what he's saying—telling us to patrol our pleasures? Let's just crucify him.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.