In 2007, three Yale psychologists put on a puppet show for six-and ten-month-old infants In this puppet show, a “climber” puppet was struggling to climb up a hill. As this was happening, sometimes a second puppet from below would come along and help the climber up the hill. Other times, a different puppet appeared at the top of the hill and repeatedly bashed the climber down the slope.
At the end of the experiment, the helper puppet and the hinderer puppet, the mean puppet, were put on a tray in front of the infants. Again and again, the infants were much more likely to reach out and take the helper puppet, the nice puppet. This experiment has been repeated over the years by others with similar if not exact results. And, it is said, that this shows that the ability to evaluate individuals on the basis of their actions is universal and unlearned. Or, to say it another way, even infants have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. So, here is my question if an infant, a baby, was to observe you. Would that child find you to be a good person? Would it choose you? Are you a good person?
Now, a bigger question here is what makes a person good? Questions of morality, questions about what is right and wrong, this is a hot topic today. We, as a society, do not necessarily agree as to what is right and what is wrong, which makes it hard to nail down what makes someone good. And there is ultimately a reason for this confusion. You cannot have morality without religion and, in general, many have tried to take religion out of morality. And this isn’t just my viewpoint as a Christian pastor, no, much smarter men have made this claim. Maybe you’re familiar with guys like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, these men, these reputable authors, and philosophers, have all said if there is no God all things are allowed. If there is a god then we have to do his will, if there is not, it’s all preference. You like this or you don’t, and you can’t tell me that I’m wrong or right. There is no real morality without religion. This brings us back to the Christian faith and to Jesus’ words today.
Jesus, God, the Word made flesh, the center point of the Christian religion, tells you and me in verse 20 what it takes to be a good person, that is a person worthy of entering his kingdom and being with him in heaven. Here is what he says, in verse 20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” I think you know this but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were considered to be the epitome of righteousness. These were good people, the morally best people…supposedly. And so Jesus says, if you think you’re good, if you want to be good, you gotta be better than them and, in the next verses, he tells you what that looks like.
Take a look with me. There is a lot here and we can’t dive into it all, so we’re going to need to summarize quite a bit…um… In four sweeping corrections, Jesus shows us what a good morally good, righteous-surpassing-that-of-a-pharisee person looks like. He says a variation of this phrase four times, “You have heard that it was said…” And then says, “But I say to you…” – right? In that section on murder, verses 21-26, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder’…But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” In the next section, verses 27-30, he again says, “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.” In verses 31 and 32, Jesus shifts to divorce and says, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery.” Finally, in verses 33-37, you hear it one last time, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not break your oath’…but I tell you do not swear an oath at all…” Now, all this needs a little more explaining. Let’s use the murder section as an example.
You know often some of our greatest comedy involves people fighting and insulting each other. The funniest jokes I would say are insults. There is a great book titled “The Most Famous and Best Insults in History” – and they are funny – there is this one about Winston Churchill. A lady named Esther wrote to Churchill and said, “Mr. Churchill, if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” And Churchill writes back, “Lady Esther, if I was your husband, I’d drink it.” That’s funny! Dislike, insults, and broken relationships like that are funny when you’re reading about them, but not so much when you’re going through them. It’s not a laughing matter when it’s you. When someone doesn’t like you, it hurts. The pain is real. Now, what does this have to do with murder?
Well, here is Jesus and he says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder’ Now, let’s be clear Jesus isn’t referring back to the Old Testament. When Jesus refers to the OT he says what? “It is written.” Here Jesus is talking instead about this being the religious leaders’ interpretation and teaching about the OT commandment – this is what they say. And they say that only the physical killing of someone is murder. “…But I tell you,” Jesus says, “that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Do you see this?
Just so we understand what he is doing here, Jesus is not ‘taking the law to a higher standard.’ He’s not adding on to his commandments. No, He is showing us how we often, like the Pharisees, have taken God’s law to a lower standard. Murder is more than just me stabbing you and killing you. It’s me treating you with indifference. It’s you ruining someone’s reputation or you destroying their confidence. That is murder. And you can do this with those other three examples that Jesus gives in these verses In all three, Jesus is saying the standard is higher than you think.
When it comes to committing adultery, we often say, “it all depends on how you define that word, commit.” I’m not technically, committing adultery, as I sit in front of that screen looking at inappropriate images. I’m not technically committing adultery when I have those thoughts about that other person or check out that individual at the gym or at work. And with all of our technicalities and exceptions, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’ve kept this commandment even while we treat others as pure objects for our own pleasure.
We’ve done the same with divorce. Often we are tempted or have been victimized by someone who has reduced God’s wonderful institution of marriage to a matter of certificates. Whether it’s a certificate of marriage or a certificate of divorce, we think we’ve kept this commandment as long as we have the proper paperwork. The idea of a lifelong commitment means nothing.
That last one about oaths is kind of an interesting one – it’s worth a deeper discussion sometimes – but here Jesus is saying, the way you talk matters. A good person is honest and truthful all the time. You don’t make up excuses and half-truths and hide behind those slightly dishonest words so you can look better or feel better about yourself. You simply let your “yes be yes” and your “no be no.”
Now, there are a couple of ways you and I can react to these words from Jesus and I’ll put it this way there is a good, better, and best way to react to these words from your Lord. Here is the good reaction. You get angry. “Jesus this is a ridiculous standard who could do this?” What makes this a good reaction? Well, a week ago I came back from vacation, and I stepped on a scale at Anytime Fitness apparently I gained four lbs. in a week, and I thought, “That can’t be right. There must be something wrong with the scale here; it must be broken.” But, lo and behold, when I got home, my scale said the same thing.
We might look at these words from Jesus and be angry, “Jesus, your standard is broken. This isn’t right.” And though it maybe sounds strange, anger is a good reaction because there is no mistake here. Jesus’ standard is actually good. It’s not broken. And all that is happening is you’re seeing the real you, and you don’t like what you see. But anger doesn’t really solve anything so let’s move on to the better.
If it’s clear that I don’t live up to Jesus’ standard, what can I do? Well, look at verse 29 – we can’t skip over this verse. Here is the better, Jesus says, “if your right eye causes you to sin”…it’s better to lose that part of your body. In verse 30, Jesus says the same thing about your right hand, it’s better to cut it off than “for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Here is Jesus’ point if your hands or your eyes cause you to sin it would be better for you to lose those things than to lose heaven, but you know that if we took out our eyes and cut off our hands it still wouldn’t solve the problem because the problem is here in the heart. And, by Jesus’ standard, you’re still not a good person. So, what’s the best?
If there is a part of you that’s hearing these words and, according to Jesus, I’m a murderer, an adulterer, and a liar, you’ve now realized the point. You’re not a good person. You’re a sinner. And, going back to those infants observing and choosing mean or nice puppets, if an infant, a baby, were to observe you. Yeah, most of you could fool a baby into thinking you’re a good person. (Not my baby because my infant dislikes everyone equally). You can’t fool God though. He sees into your heart. He knows that your righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees.
And let me tell you what happens when you realize that. It makes you a great person, how? Because now the only thing you can do is rely on Jesus. The only thing you can do is fall on your knees and give thanks that Jesus is holding up that mirror of his law and you see what he sees – it’s not pretty. You’re not pretty. And, that makes what he did…unbelievable. That Jesus came down to this earth for me? That he lived up to the standard of God – that he kept the law in every way – for me? That makes him not just good, but great. And, here is the best part he gives you that greatness. “Trust in me,” he says. Nothing more nothing less. And, it’s in this way, and only in this way, that your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees. This is how you become great, through Christ Jesus. He makes you that great child of God. He gives you that place with him in heaven.
So, are you a good person? Well, it depends who you ask I guess. But looking into the mirror of God’s law, you gotta admit, “I’m not.” But, thanks be to God, you know that, because now through Jesus you can be, and you are, great. You see your sin. You confess it and you live by God’s great grace knowing that one day you will be good, perfect, in heaven. Come soon, Lord Jesus! Amen.