The Theology of Everyday Life: Sinning in Your Heart, Part 2, "Hedges"

Yesterday I noted that, due to differing folk psychologies, Jewish and Christian persons differ in the way they moralize mental events. Jewish persons, due to their folk psychology, consider the mind to be a kind of battlefield, where two competing impulses--the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov--fight it out. Given that the mind is a battleground, Jewish persons do not moralize thoughts the way Christians do. What is critical for Jewish persons is choice, the decisional outcome of the "battle." Sin, therefore, is more behavioral than cognitive.

Christians, by contrast, do moralize mental events. Christians believe that they can "sin in their hearts." That is, even if you make the right moral choices, you can still be a bad person.

Personally, I like the Jewish vision here. The minute you moralize mental events, things get sticky.

But what about the Sermon on the Mount? When Jesus speaks about “adultery” and “murder” in our “heart,” many scholars think that Jesus was using a time-honored rabbinic strategy of "putting a hedge around the Law." That is, by making the moral requirement STRICTER we "raise the bar," so to speak, and, thus, protect the core commandment. This is a really bad analogy, but think of it this way:

Command: Do not drive above 70 miles an hour.

Rabbinic Hedge: Do not drive above 55 miles an hour.

The wisdom of the rabbinic hedge is that by making the commandment stricter, we are much less likely to violate the original, core command. For example, to continue with the analogy, if I live my moral life at “55 miles an hour,” there will be days, due to inattention or moral weakness when I glance down at the “speedometer” of my life and see that, whoops, I’m going 63 miles an hour! But, due to the hedge, I’m never pulled over by the “police” (i.e., God) since the hedge keeps me “law-abiding.”

Ever wonder what was going on in the NT about Sabbath-keeping? Well, it was all about different hedges around the Sabbath command. What constitutes work on the Sabbath? Well, that is tough to say, so we put a wide hedge up to feel safe that we are keeping the Law.

So, in Matthew 5, is Jesus simply putting a hedge around the Law? Or, is he really saying we can sin in our hearts? That is, is Jesus protecting the Law "Do not commit adultery" by requiring of us the much stricter standard of demanding no "lust in the heart"?

If this is what is going on in Matthew 5, I think it is perfectly reasonable. Jesus is correct in noting the intimate connection between thoughts and behavior. Thus, I agree that we need to vigilantly monitor our thoughts. We need to note surges of lust, envy, and anger. And, when we notice these things inside ourselves, we should become alarmed.

But what I still wonder about is if any of this can be called "sin." Is Jesus saying “Pay very close attention to your hearts” or “You can sin in your hearts”? Or both?

I didn't get to the ACU research today...I'll continue on tomorrow...

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