According to an online news source, a couple of regular customers of a Loveland, Colorado, fast-food restaurant, ages 52 and 85, ended up in court after disagreeing over a parking space. Assault charges were filed after the younger man swung open the door of his vehicle knocking the older to the ground.
As in all criminal trials, the issue before the court was not only what happened, but why? If the knockdown had been merely accidental, there probably wouldn’t have been a case. What mattered was whether there was evidence for intent and malice, willful recklessness, or undue negligence.
In this instance, there were indications of more than an accident. Witnesses said that while the 85-year-old man was still on the ground, the other man grabbed him and, with a clenched fist, asked if he wanted to fight.
Jurors, therefore, found the accused guilty of felony third-degree assault. Their verdict reflects an important legal principle. Degrees of judicial responsibility are found not only in a hurtful act, but in the state of mind that gives birth to it.
A similar idea shows up in the moral and legal considerations of the Bible. Jesus, for example, describes scales of justice that are sensitive enough to weigh personal motive and intent even when no law appears to be broken. According to the teacher from Nazareth, those who harbor sexual lust are like those who commit adultery; those who have hatred in their hearts are like those who commit murder; and those who take oaths to reinforce their promises are like those who cannot be trusted to keep their word (Matthew 5:21-37).
What is most unnerving about Jesus’ comments, though, is that He didn’t seem to be talking moral idealism and theory. He went so far as to tell His disciples that unless their rightness exceeded the rightness of the religious leaders of their day, they would not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
Why would Jesus make such a severe statement? If He was only looking for a few good people who hadn’t broken the laws of God even in their hearts, where on earth would He find them? If He was going to be that restrictive, why would He present Himself as a friend of sinners, heal all kinds of diseases, and declare the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23-25)?
We don’t have to look far for an explanation. Before Jesus made His case that both guilt and innocence begin in the heart, He made it clear that He had come to bring good news. Consistent with His acts of physical healing, He showed that He had come not to judge but to rescue.
Even though the teacher from Nazareth was not ready to declare Himself the long-awaited King of the Jews, Jesus was giving those who came to see Him reason to know that He was doing more than deepening their sense of morality. By the power of His miracles and by the way He put Himself at the center of His teaching, He was giving them reason to hear Him saying something like,
Only when you lose confidence in yourself will you see your need of Me.
How can I comfort you unless you begin to mourn your attempts to live apart from Me?
Only when you stop fighting Me and give Me permission to begin reordering your inner world will I give you more than you ever hoped for.
I will fill your life to overflowing when you begin to hunger and thirst for the kind of rightness that comes from My heart rather than your own.
Being right with Me will give you a heart of mercy for others.
Mercy will wash the windows of your heart and enable you to see the reassuring presence of God, above, beneath, in, and around you.
Once you begin to see that the battles of your lives are in the hands of your God, you will see why I’m changing your self-protective ways to the heart of a peacemaker.
If this paraphrase of Matthew 5:1-12 captures Jesus’ intent, it shows His desire to be the Savior and King of our hearts. Its progression of thought also reflects a plan. Here we find the wisdom and path Jesus uses to transform our hearts.
The implication of such good news is that none of us need to hire an attorney to defend ourselves in His court. Neither do any of us need to worry about pleading guilty to countless sins of the heart. Our hope and confidence is in His mercy and in giving Him permission to patiently transform our self-centered nature that can no more change itself than a leopard can change its spots.
Father in heaven, in Jesus’ name we want to thank You for so patiently helping us to realize that the intent, plans, and purposes of Your heart are infinitely better than our own.