We are suffering from a cultural delusion. This deception is so deeply embedded into our collective understanding that to challenge it doesn’t necessarily make sense. This big lie is that we believe we can act as individuals, independent of other people. That what we choose to do doesn’t affect anyone else. That we can be somehow autonomous, that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that don’t need anyone and can fully take care of ourselves. You see, we cannot ever act alone. Never. Because everything we do affects everyone around us. Everything anyone else does affects us.
The worlds of philosophy and physics have both known this for over 200 years. More recently this awareness that everything affects everything else has been made popular in the weather example of the so-called “Butterfly Effect.” It’s complicated and usually misunderstood, but basically goes like this: “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas.” A butterfly obviously doesn’t cause a tornado, but what this reveals that the universe is a complex, interconnected web. Everything is affected by everything else. This is not new to us in the church. We have referred to this as God who is the creator of all things, who holds all of creation in divine hands.
If this is true for inanimate parts of creation, it is even more true for humanity, we who are created in the image of God.
Believe it or not, that’s really what this part of the Sermon on the Mount is about.
Jesus continues in this third week by taking the Law of Moses and calling to our attention that we affect other people. He’s saying that how we see others and think about others and relate to others matters, because it has an effect. The reality is that as we try to do the right thing and so forth, we are not just working for our own righteousness individually and independently. No, we are affecting the flow of God’s purposes in the people around us. And likely well beyond that.
Instead of feeling righteous as an individual because I haven’t murdered anyone this week, Jesus understands the Law to be about how we live together, because everything we do affect everyone else. So it’s not just that I haven’t committed murder, and therefore I’m fine—regardless of how you’re doing—but that my choices affect your well-being also—like an interconnected web of creation. So if I take out my anger on you, or call you a name, or hold a grudge, or look with lust, or lie to you, I’m affecting you. Whether I’ve committed murder or not. Jesus is pointing out the reality that we simply are not living just for ourselves, and that if we aren’t lifting up those around us, we ourselves are sinking too.
So when he uses these powerful and dramatic hyperboles to say things like cut your hand off if it’s causing you to sin, he’s not literally telling us to remove a limb. He’s saying that the hand affects the entire body. He’s not literally telling us to pluck out an eyeball. He’s saying that an eye affects the entire body. The way we think about someone else has an effect well beyond that person. Even an offering given in church is affected by our relationships with other people. It’s that understanding that we cannot be righteous independently that he’s bringing into the conversation about marriage and divorce and adultery. Jesus points out that women can’t be disregarded or disrespected just because a man thinks he can justify it. If women aren’t respected, no one is. It isn’t just about our individual righteousness, but that we’re all connected to and affected by each other. Jesus isn’t giving a morality checklist. Everything we do affects everyone else. So there’s no such thing as just looking out for ourselves and our own righteousness. No such thing as justifying my behavior and attitudes apart from anyone else. Jesus calls out that it actually doesn’t work that way.
It makes sense, then, that God is constantly calling us to care for the least, the lost, the victims, the helpless, those pushed to the edges. It’s easy to treat those higher up or those who are like us with kindness. But the effect of how we treat those at the bottom is just as significant. As God’s children, how we treat each other matters. If we disregard one person or a category of people, it affects more than just them, it affects all of us. If there are people that we don’t recognize as God’s beloved ones, created by God in love, that has a widespread affect in the world.
And therefore it’s also true that whenever we show compassion, it affects more than just the person receiving it. It affects everyone. Whenever we show mercy and reconciliation and forgiveness and love, it impacts the world. Since we are all held in God’s love and connected together in God’s love, we impact the world with that reality of love.
Since we are all God’s children, all interconnected, all interdependent, it doesn’t matter who’s more righteous and who’s less. It doesn’t matter who is from what country or what color their skin is or who they love or what their income is. I can claim nothing just because I haven’t murdered someone. According to Jesus, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring refugees, and the poor, and Blacks and Hispanics, and the LGBTQ community, anyone who does not have a place at the table. We literally change the world when we are compassionate and merciful, when we listen and seek to understand.
If a butterfly in Brazil can affect a tornado in Texas, then our acts of love and grace in the name of Jesus can alter the trajectory of the whole world.