Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

The Telltale Heart

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37


Edgar Allen Poe wrote a very short story called The Telltale Heart.  A few of you might have read it recently.  Most of us have probably not.  The story is about a man who commits murder and almost gets away with it, until he confesses because he thinks that he can hear the sound of the heart beat of his victim, its continuing thump-thump, thump-thump giving him away.  My reading of the story was that the murderer heard the sound of his own heart which led to his confession.  In today’s section of Jesus’ teachings, he deals with passionate matters– love, lust and marriage, anger and murder.  It seems that in these things, what happens in our hearts is key. 


But before we get to the Matthew reading, let us consider the message we heard from Deuteronomy.  It is part of Moses’ farewell speech to the Hebrew people – just before they cross over into Canaan, just before his death.  He says “I have set before you life and death . . . choose life.”  The better choice is obviously life.  Choosing life, according to Moses, means choosing to love God and to obey God’s commands.  Verse 17 says “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to serve other gods . . . then you shall perish.”  There it is -- that heart thing again. 


Before this beautiful final speech has come a whole lot of laws.  A whole lot of laws about a wide range of things, like allocating pieces of the land to each tribe and the rules of eligibility for priests and prophets and how to treat women captured in war and the importance of returning lost property.  It is a very interesting assortment of things that must have mattered enough to be written down.  But towards the end of the collection is a list of cursed behaviors.  These are the behaviors which represent choosing death. 


“Looking back to Deuteronomy 27:15-26: Cursed is anyone who makes and worships an idol in secret, who dishonors their father or mother, who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone, who leads a blind person astray, who withholds justice from the foreigner, orphan or widow, who has inappropriate sexual relations, who secretly kills their neighbor, or who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person.  The actions leading to cursedness appear to have little in common, but Jewish rabbi from the Middle Ages by the name of Samuel ben Meir identified a common thread—they are all actions that happen in secret. Only the perpetrator and maybe one or two others were aware of the injustice that had taken place.”[1]


Someone has said that the true test of a person’s character is what they do when no one is watching.  What we do in secret matters.  What happens inside us, our thoughts and feelings, matter.  Like the thumping of a beating heart, they move us towards life or death. 


This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching as well.  There is a pattern to this section.  The pattern is “you have heard it said . . . but I say unto you.”  If we don’t pay careful attention, we might misunderstand the pattern.  We might think that Jesus is changing the old rules.  We might think that he is un-doing God’s law, because that has been a common Christian teaching.  But just a few verses earlier, Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  So the pattern must mean something else. 


The pattern does not mean that the old law is done away with.  The pattern actually means that the spirit of the law is more radical than the letter of the law. 


Jesus is saying “Here is what the law says, and I am going to the heart of that law to show how children of the kingdom of heaven live out its deepest meaning.”[2]


The law says “Do not murder,” but Jesus says that the spirit of the law is about how you think about your brother or sister and what you do when you are angry at them. 


The law says “Do not commit adultery” but Jesus says that the spirit of the law is about not objectifying people, not using them for your own satisfaction.


The law says “Do not swear falsely” but Jesus says that the spirit of the law requires you to tell the truth all the time.


Jesus is talking about rules and laws in order to get to something deeper. Rules work from the outside.  We obey laws to avoid the consequences of not obeying them.  But Jesus wants us to live from the inside, from transformed hearts.  To live with maturity, even when no one is watching.  As one commentator says, “The Sermon on the Mount is not law to be obeyed, but theology to be internalized.”[3]


Jesus says some strong things here.  The kind of behaviors he describes are hard to fulfill. We are tempted to defend him, to say “Well, he didn’t really mean to be so harsh.”  As a preacher, I might look for the wiggle room, for the explanation that makes this easier.    I am trying not to do that today.  I am trying to let Jesus speak for himself.


But . . . if this is more than just a list of rules, but some deeper principles to be internalized, then it is important that we understand his words in context.  So, two quick digressions.


First about divorce.  Jesus’ words were very much rooted in his own culture, a culture in which men could divorce women on a whim. They would be left destitute, since they couldn’t support themselves independently. To divorce a woman was essentially to abandon her. Jesus is saying that his followers will not do that. 


“But later generations have used his words as a chain to bind people – often those same vulnerable women – instead of letting them find freedom and hope. People have been forced to stay in abusive or loveless marriages because there was no option to do otherwise, and many parts of the church still refuse to allow them to marry again, even if the new marriage is clearly full of healing and hope.”[4]  The divorces I know about have always occurred in a context of sorrow and a sense of necessity


When we rip his words out of their context, we do the exact opposite of what Jesus meant us to do. Jesus challenges us throughout this passage to see beyond the letter of the law to its spirit, to have the courage to ask, “what’s the loving thing to do, the thing that will bring freedom and life?”   The answer to that question is usually much more difficult than a one size fits all rule.


A second digression – these words of Jesus sound especially strong when we read 22, for example “If you call your brother or sister a fool, you will go to hell.”  Well, then.  No wonder my Mom had a rule against saying “stupid” to my brother.  


Jesus uses the word Gehenna eleven times in the New Testament.  It is usually translated “hell.”  We translate it “hell” and we think of hell as a place of eternal torment.  But is that what Jesus understood?  That question deserves more than a sidebar. 

Let me just say this.  Gehenna was the name of a real place on earth, a valley south of Jerusalem.  In Jesus’s day, scholars think Gehenna was a garbage dump, a place where the city’s trash was incinerated. If we take Jesus’ words literally, he is saying, when you treat your brother or sister with contempt, that’s garbage. 


But at an earlier point in history, Gehenna was known as a place of child sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:31-32).  Even though child sacrifice was against biblical law, it was practiced on occasion.  And so, Gehenna represents a place where human beings do some of the worst things that people can do to each other.  Gehenna then, is not a place that God creates or desires, but a place of human violence.   Every time Jesus refers to hell, this is the word he uses.  


An Australian Baptist colleague preached a wonderful sermon about this in which he argued that Jesus’s teaching about anger and hostility and murder are about how those things escalate out of control.  He says, “. . . when Jesus says that if you continue down that track you will end up in the Gehenna fires, he is not talking about anything God will do to you after you die.  He is talking about what this pattern of behavior can degenerate into right here in this life, just down the road.  He is warning people that this ends up with people burning their own children on altars as sacrifices, or authorizing deadly drone attacks in which hospitals and kindergartens full of children are dismissed as collateral damage, or locking up the children of asylum seekers in remote concentration camps and turning a deaf ear to their cries as they plunge into despair and mental illness.  . . . He is warning us that the violence we think of as necessarily employed in the service of good and keeping us safe is actually still part of the same horrific problem and not part of the solution.”[5]


It begins with calling your brother a fool, with treating your sister with contempt, even if you just do it in your mind, in your heart.  Jesus says in your anger, take care, be reconciled, lest it escalate out of control.


An eight year old boy named Frank started arguing with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. In response, Frank reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!


That’s the law: God’s gift to protect and care for God’s children. We may sometimes think negatively about the rules, but it is because God cares so deeply about God’s children…all of God’s children. “No you can’t hoard everything. No you can’t discriminate and exclude. No you can’t violate and exploit. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.”[6]


What we do in secret matters.  Our thoughts, our attitudes, our pet sins, what lies unseen in our hearts  -- these are all part and parcel of how we practice being loving or not-loving.  We are called to be faithful in secret and in public, to be people of character in and out of crisis.  It is who we are that leads to life or death. 


“See,” God says,  “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  Choose life.”


Choose life.


May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.





[1] http://www.aplainaccount.org/epiphany-6a-1st-reading

[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew:  The Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 55.

[3] Bonnie Bowman Thurston,  “The Freedom of Obedience,” in Christian Reflection:  Sermon on the Mount,  (Waco, TX:  Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics, 2008)  p. 21.

[4] From her sermon Tough Statements by the Rev. Anne LeBas, shared with the PRCL list-serv, February 11, 2017

[5] Nathan Nettleton in his sermon Who Lit the Fires of Hell? http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/who-lit-the-fires-of-hell/

[6] http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-6a-on-love-and-law/