The Disposition of the Heart

When I was about ten years old, and the world was my oyster, and I didn’t actually understand many of the things I saw on TV, I was introduced to the most wonderful sentence in the world:

“The devil made me do it.”

This came courtesy of a brilliant African American comedian, Flip Wilson, who died much too soon, but whose variety show brought us his character, Miss Geraldine Jones, who lived pretty much by her powerful physical instincts. Her response to any accusation that she had acted improperly was:

“The devil made me do it.”

And it was said with a laugh, and the flip of her wonderful hair. Miss Geraldine Jones was letting us know that there were powerful forces at work, and what was a girl to do?

Jesus has some suggestions.

(Our scripture passage can be found here...)

I’ll be honest. I’m tempted to say about this passage, “The Lectionary made me do it.”

Why else preach this weird passage that seems to advocate engaging in physical self-harm as a response to the problem of human sin? (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. When Jesus says those things, he is speaking metaphorically. Back to that in a bit.)

Sin is, after all, what Jesus is on about here, as he continues his Sermon on the Mount. He is speaking of sin.

It’s a new topic in his sermon. Up until now, he’s been talking to people about God’s love for them, and God’s confidence that they have a light to shine and a saltiness that will add flavor and goodness to God’s creation.

Now, suddenly, Jesus is reminding us: It’s not all about us. It’s also about how we affect one another.

The word “sin” has gone out of style in the last half-century or so. The wonderful preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, speaks of having parents who helped her learn about the kind of behavior they wanted her to have without ever using the word “sin.” Instead, they set limits, and helped her to understand that there were certain things that would bring them closer together as a family (such as telling the truth, helping around the house, and being a good big sister to her younger siblings), and there were certain things that would push her parents away (such as trashing her room, breaking things, and smoking cigarettes).  But, she writes,

Other children I knew were not so lucky. They lived with people who believed you could beat the sin out of a child, and they spent most of their time in hell. If those spiritually battered souls had any appetite for God left when they grew up, then they had an enormous amount of work to do, before they could conceive of anything close to a loving judge.[1]

We’ve all witnessed this kind of physical and spiritual abuse. Some of us have our own stories. We’ve also seen the kind of abuse that labels people as sinful for who they are, for, who God created them to be… and we begin to understand that we are faced with an issue that is so tricky, in certain ways, that we shy away from even talking about it.

But it sounds like Jesus wants us to talk about it.

And Jesus does it by saying, over and over, this formula: “You have heard it said… But I say…”

And each and every time, Jesus moves from a traditional, legalistic way of thinking, and from external action, to internal forces. Jesus instead talks about the disposition of the heart.

Jesus is trying to move us from thinking about what we do, to thinking about why we do it. He sets limits, limits that help us to understand that there are certain things that draw us closer to God, and other things by which we try to push God away.

Jesus is saying, How’s your heart?

You don’t have to be a murderer to be heartsick. You don’t have to break every commandment to be in need of healing.

Take anger.

There is a lot of anger in our world today. We see evidence of it all around us, from the headlines to the nightly news, to the stories we bring home from work, to the near-misses with drivers filled with road-rage. We see it and share it on social media, and we find ourselves in the middle of strained relationships with people we love.

And, let’s face it. Our anger can be satisfying. It can feel good—especially my favorite kind, self-righteous anger… that anger that makes us want to compare ourselves to Jesus, flipping over tables and taking names.

The Presbyterian writer, Frederick Buechner said, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel of both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways, it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback, is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”[2]

The problem with anger, or lust, or pretty much any the Seven Deadlies is this: they are a sign we have forgotten who we are, and whose we are. We have forgotten that everything we believe in is built on the twin foundations of loving God, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We’ve fallen into the deadly habit, Taylor would say, of treating other people as someone we can “use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince, or control,” instead of someone who can help to “spring us from the prison of ourselves.”

We don’t have to kill someone to treat them as an object.

I began today by sharing with you that fantastic all-purpose excuse, “The devil made me do it.” And, of course, scripture has a tradition of bringing tempters into the story from the moment it described a conversation between a serpent and a woman, about a certain piece of fruit. This can be a useful, even slightly humorous metaphor. Those “devils” that infect our hearts are really only a problem the moment they turn us away from relationship and towards self-interest, and self-protection. I’m happy to share with you my two worst devils: they are the desire to be right and the unwillingness to feel sad. Those things sound so reasonable, even innocent, until I realize that they have me living in my own little hell. We have to kick the devils out. Or, at least, have good conversations with them that rob them of the power they have over us.

So, how’s your heart? Jesus is asking. And… what are the things in your life that keep your heart on the verge of that dangerous forgetfulness—forgetting that we are all, in the most essential ways, the same: created by God, who longs for us to understand that we are beloved children?

How’s your heart? What particular “devils” do you need to let go of, in order to be fully and joyfully and peacefully in relationship with, first of all, God; and then, yourself; and then, with all your neighbors… the ones at home and the ones far away?

You have heard it said: obey these commandments and you will live. Jesus says, hold fast to God, and live in God’s love; remember who you are, and whose you are; and you will easily obey those commandments.

How’s your heart?

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2001).

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993).