Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

February 16, 2020
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Scripture readings – Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 and Matthew 5: 21-37

When the old-time vaudeville comedian, W. C. Fields, was dying in 1946, his friend – another old-time comedian named Groucho Marx – visited him.  When Groucho entered the room, he found W. C. Fields pouring over a Bible.  Groucho was surprised by this since Field had never attended church, nor had he ever expressed any interest whatsoever in the Divine or anything remotely associated with religion, and he was an avowed atheist.  Furthermore, W. C. Fields had lived a life filled with virtually constant alcohol, partying, women, and various excesses.  Groucho asked him, “Bill…what are you looking for in the Bible?” 

W. C. Fields reportedly replied, “Loopholes…loopholes.”

Whether this tale is true or not, it points to an uncomfortable truth.  Even though laws, rules, procedures, and even common sense decisions are part of everyone’s daily lives, we tend to look for loopholes that allow us to follow the laws, rules, procedures and decisions to the letter – while still getting to do what we want.  The exact letter of the law is supposed to include intent, but clever human beings can often find a way to work around both the law and the intent – and still tell themselves that all is well.

I know a family that I will call the Carlsons that just loves to play card games.  The Carlsons are a large family with lots of kids, lots of relatives, and lots and lots of friends.  Whenever they get together for anything, there is always laughter, food, singing, and finally card games.  And they know lots of card games.

One family rule – let’s just call it a loophole – is that cheating in any game is acceptable, as long as no one catches you doing it.  I played cards with them several times, and I will admit they are a fun group to play with.  However, they all seem to save their highest, gleeful satisfaction for catching one of their number cheating.  When the game is over, whoever is the winner is usually accused of cheating and forced to stand up.  When illicitly hidden cards are found on the winner’s chair, the shouts of triumph are louder than those of the winners.  It was funny, but it was certainly an interesting loophole: if you play the game, play to win; if you cheat, don’t get caught.

I’ll confess that the word “loophole” usually makes me curl my lip with disgust.  I associate the word with those who follow the letter of the law – but also find a way around it.  Polluters and tax cheats immediately come to mind.  Texas is infamous as being a place where pollution of dangerous materials can easily and regularly until a tragedy occurs – such a large spill in a beautiful natural area, or a chemical explosion near a residential area.  Then we all scream about loopholes being exploited for a while.  Then business as usual resumes later on.  And don’t get me started on tax loopholes…they are never for us regular taxpayers.

An example of a loophole that doesn’t seem to hurt anyone exists in the starting date for all Texas public schools.  There was a day long ago when school began on the Tuesday immediately following Labor Day.  That was a tradition that many folks of my age or older can remember.  When schools began to be reformed at the state level back in the early 1980’s, part of the law was that all Texas schools began on the day after Labor Day.  I remember that for once – all the kids showed up on the first day of school.  That only lasted one year.

The next year, school districts began applying for a waiver – a legal loophole that was included in the original law.  By receiving a waiver, school districts would move their starting date back earlier in August if they could provide a good reason. 

That didn’t take too much creativity, and soon everyone was starting school on different dates again.

Then the Texas Legislature stepped in again and passed a new law that set the starting date for all Texas schools for later in August.  Unfortunately, the Texas House set it for the fourth Monday in August; the Texas Senate set it for the last Monday in August.  No one caught the mistake.  The first year of the new law, it was not a problem.

The second year, the fourth Monday and the last Monday were on different dates, and a new loophole for Texas school districts was born.

To make matters even more confused, if any district can demonstrate that it is a “district of innovation” they can set their own starting date.  I wonder which districts are NOT “districts of innovation?”

As you can see and as we all know, loopholes allow existing laws to be followed – except when they’re not.  Jesus pointed out loopholes that were being commonly exploited and used, but they were commonly used by the religious authorities; those same authorities were quick to point out the sin of not following the Law to the common people.

I think this galled Jesus, and I think it is why he was so adamant about it during his Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus insisted that by including intent in the value of the Law, he was explaining, teaching, clarifying, and fulfilling the Law that had been so lovingly given to the people by God. 

Jesus followed an interesting pattern in this part of his sermon: first, he repeated the well-known parts of the Ten Commandments, but then he followed it with the intent of how each Commandment was supposed to be followed.  Listen again to what Jesus had to say:

“You have heard, ‘You shall not murder’ but I tell you anyone who is angry will be subject to judgment.”  Jesus wondered about murderous intent in our hearts.  Ask yourself how angry you actually get sometimes…you have not actually murdered.  But were you ever angry enough to consider it?  How lucky have you been that you never actually got the opportunity?  Did it keep you from violating this Commandment?  That is what Jesus is saying.

“You have heard, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I tell you that anyone who looks lustfully at another has already done so.”  And also, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  Both of these statements point to how easy it can be – even in the days of Jesus – to break the Commandment against adultery.  In the days of Jesus, religious authorities were expected to be married and to live pious lives.  However, they were the same people who came up the loophole – just give a certificate of divorce to a wife you no longer want and you are free to marry again – or to pursue multiple relationships, to look at all other women lustfully, as long as you provide for your own children and dependents. 

This was particularly harsh for people to follow when they knew their religious leaders would condemn them while often living double-lives with multiple families.  Perhaps Jesus was saying that divorce needed to be handled in a different way in order to preserve the moral authority, and especially the intent, of the Law.

“You have heard, ‘Don’t break your vows,’ but I tell you fulfill all the vows you make – and don’t bother swearing by the Lord or by heaven or by earth.”  We all know a few people who say what they mean and mean what they say.  We know that they don’t lie.  We know that if they make a promise they will move heaven and earth to keep it.  To people like this, swearing on a Bible in court would be a waste of time. 

You get the truth out of them – just like the Lord intended for all his children to do. 

Swearing by a whole list of other things almost makes the one doing the swearing sound like a liar at the outset: “I swear on my mother’s grave” or “I swear on my children’s lives” or “I swear on my father’s good name.”  If the people who are talking just regularly say “Yes” when “Yes” is intended, or “No” when “No” is intended, why are all those things needed to be included in order for a statement to be accepted as honest?

If this is done, there can be no loophole for the truth to hide within.

One final word on intent: we just finished celebrating Valentines’ Day last Friday.  Were they any loopholes in your expressions of love to those around you on that day?  If so, then all the rules and laws in the world will not help. 

On the other hand, if your love was expressed honestly, openly, and completely to someone you truly love, loopholes are unnecessary, right?

Love is why the Lord first gave us Commandments to follow.  Love is supposed to be why we keep them.   Amen!