Grace it Forward
Many years ago, a woman called me at my office telling me that she was the wedding ceremony that I officiated the day before. She started out by saying that she was deeply touched by my wedding homily and decided to call me for some advice.
“Pastor Sam, I’m having an affair with my boss,” she said, “what should I do?”
It sounded like a confession session. I said, “Do you love each other?” She said, “Yes we do. We are deeply in love.”
I said, “Then, why don’t you get married?” She said, “The problem is, he is a divorced man.”
I said, “Good Lord, I thought you were going to tell me that he is married.”
She said, “According to the Bible, you are not supposed to be remarried even if you are divorced, until your spouse died. Otherwise, it will be deemed adultery.”
(She is pointing to the passage of today’s scripture lesson.)
I said, “You told me that you are having an affair, right? Isn’t it adultery?”
She said, “Yeah, but he is asking me to marry him. Do you think I should?”
I said, “You have two choices. You must either marry him right now or stop the affair immediately.”
She said, “But the Bible said we are not supposed to marry a divorced man.”
I said, “It sounds like you already have an answer, then why do you call me and ask me?”
She said, “Are you sure I can marry him?”
I began to feel as if she is looking for a partner in crime.
I said, “What’s worse? Continue your affair and live in darkness, or come out to light and honor God by building a new future?”
To make the long story short, we spend almost an hour on the phone going in a circle. At the end, she still stubbornly insisted that the Bible doesn’t permit her to marry.
Then, I said, “Are you going to end the affair?” She didn’t answer me.
Later I wonder why she called me with such a determination not to take my advice. Maybe she thought I wanted her business.
Any case, this is an example of how Christians get caught up in legalism. The reason is, they don’t understand the Bible and take the certain passages out of context.
What is the context? If you have been paying attention to the messages of the previous weeks, you would realize that the theme of the Bible is grace. So, grace is the context. Without grace, you will misinterpret most parts of the Bible and fall into the trap of legalism.
Grace is the key and today we will use this key to open the Bible. Let’s look at today’s scripture lesson, where Jesus sounded awfully legalistic. He brought up some laws and tighten it so much that makes you cringe. The passage begins with,
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mat 5:21-22).
Jesus is saying that if you are angry at someone, you already commit the crime of murder. If you verbally insult someone, you are a murderer. Is it how you understand? The text does sound like that on the surface, doesn’t it? What if we put it in the context?
As I said, the context is grace. Last week we talked about Jesus telling us that “You are the light of the world.” What is the light, if you remember? The light is grace.
In the context, Jesus is telling us that disgrace does not just happen with murder. Disgrace happens with anger. Disgrace happens with insult. Now, I hope you know how to interpret the Bible using grace as the key.
Jesus was pointing out that following the law without grace is as bad as breaking the law. You might say, I’m not a murderer. I’ve not killed anybody. Jesus is saying that the a person lack of grace is as bad as a murderer.
I remember when we were young, we like to warn each other, “Oh no, Jesus said you are not supposed to get angry at your brothers or sisters?” “Oh no, you are not supposed to cuss. Jesus said you will go to hell if you do.” We were legalistic because we took the Bible out of context.
The problem was not with the anger, the problem was not with the cussing, but the problem was the lack of grace. The lack of grace is a sign of not receiving the grace of Jesus Christ given to us on the cross. If you have the cross of Jesus Christ in you mind, you have no room to treat others with disgrace. That’s what Jesus is talking about.
So, each time you get angry and want to curse someone, ask yourself, “Is it a gracious thing to do?”
Then Jesus gave another example,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mat 5:27-28).
A lot of men find themselves guilt-ridden by this passage. I have not yet seen a man who has never looked at a woman with lust, unless he is totally abnormal. If you take this passage out of context, you will feel extremely pressured by Jesus’ standard. You will ask, how could I control my eyes? How could I control my thoughts?
However, if you put it in the context, you realize that it is all about grace. If you have grace, you will not look at a sister with lust. It is the lack of grace that cause you to commit adultery.
Next verse talks about divorce. This is where the woman in the story I told you at the beginning got stuck.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mat 5:31-32).
Again, it is the lack of grace that is the problem, especially in the Biblical time, where women didn’t have the education and the means to make a living on their own. They were very dependent on their husbands to provide. If a woman was abandoned by her husband, she might be forced to sell her body to make a living. In that case the sin of the adultery goes to the husband who divorced her.
Again, Jesus was not trying to intensify the law, but to point out to us that following the law without grace is as bad as breaking the law.
So, the woman in the story missed the point of this passage. I advised her to accept the grace of Christ together with her boyfriend and establish a life of grace. However, she couldn’t do it because she was stuck in legalism. She was afraid of going to hell for marrying a divorced man.
She failed to understand, or I failed to help her understand, that Jesus was talking about the lack of grace that sends us to hell.
The only way to work around it is embrace the grace of Jesus Christ and grace it forward.
The Gospel According to Matthew is full of grace because Matthew understood grace very well. Matthews as a tax collector, a man despised by his own people. He was an outcast and no rabbi wanted to take him as a student. Jesus took him as his disciple. Matthew has experienced grace. His gratitude might be like that of Zacchaeus. As a recipient of grace, he graced it forward.
We must stop asking what is lawful according to Jesus and what is unlawful. Instead, we must ask what is gracious and what is not gracious. We are saved by grace alone. We must live by grace alone. As recipients of grace, let us grace it forward.
May God bless you all. Amen!