Some of you may not recognize the name of Jack Gleeson, a young actor from Ireland. But you may be familiar with his most famous role: Joffrey Baratheon, the wicked, selfish, and cruel King of Westeros on Game of Thrones. Given that he was only 23 when he left the show he may have made this decision anyway to spend some time out of the limelight, but Gleeson stepped away from acting because people would hurl insults at him as he went about his life because of what his TV character did. People could not distinguish the character he played from the person he really is. Some people are surprised to see behind the scenes photos of Daniel Radcliffe and Tom Felton laughing and enjoying each other’s company on the set of Harry Potter, because the characters they played – Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy – were rivals and even enemies. We have trouble separating characters played and the actors who portray them.
In Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus contrasts outer behavior – refraining from murder, adultery, and violence – with inner attitudes of anger and lust. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks of hypocrisy. This word simply means “actor.” Its someone who plays a role in public that may have nothing to do with who they actually are. In these teachings Jesus calls us to align our inner thoughts, feelings, and impulses with our outer actions.
But before we get into that, I need to say a word about the Jewish laws against murder, adultery,
and retributive violence that Jesus is building on. There is a temptation to dismiss the Old Testament as violent and outdated. While it is true that the Old Testament allowed a maximum penalty of death for committing adultery, there is no evidence this was ever carried out. While the “eye for an eye” clause allowed for proportional punishment, this was almost always carried out as a financial penalty and not by inflicting bodily harm. Jesus is not leading us from crude and outdated moral codes to an enlightened, modern way of living. As Jesus said prior to these teachings on Old Testament Law, he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.
Let’s face it: refraining from killing someone does not make me merciful. Refraining from committing adultery does not make me a good spouse. Both are good starts, but they are the beginning of sharing in God’s mission at not the finish line. Jesus doesn’t want us to be actors playing a role. He wants us to be
unpretentious human beings. Rob Bell was a young, evangelical megachurch pastor. Thousands of people worshipped at his congregation each weekend. He was a best-selling author and created and produced short films; he is an incredible communicator. But at the peak of his success he found himself in tears while curled up in the fetal position. While there were no dirty secrets, no misconduct, no abuse of pastoral authority on his part, he didn’t want the pressure of keeping up appearances as the golden child of the evangelical movement. He found himself becoming an actor playing a role and not a human being following in the way of Jesus.
In building upon the Old Testament Law, Jesus is inviting us to live an undivided life, one free from the pressure to become an actor who has no real character behind the part they play. The first step in this is to acknowledge our anger and lust when we experience it. I have no doubt Martin Luther King Jr experienced profound anger at they way he and other African Americans were treated. But he chose not to act out of anger. We all get angry. But what do we do with it? Do we let our anger distort how we view the person with whom we are angry, or do we see it as a warning sign that there’s something going on with us we need to understand and address? Why is it we feel the need to say something snippy about someone else? What does it say about me that I feel better after putting someone down, even if that only happens within my own head or heart?
Jesus experienced disappointment, anger, and pain. But he didn’t react to these experiences in a way that caused others pain. He responded to them in ways rooted in God’s love and mercy. Jesus doesn’t want me to play the part of a disciple. He wants me to be one to my core. Jesus wants me to do more than refrain from killing someone, he wants me to understand my anger so I don’t feel compelled to act on it and can choose love, mercy, and justice instead.
A simple but profound thing we can do when we feel driven by an emotion or impulse is to ask, “Why do I feel this way? What course of action will make things better? How do I listen to my anger or fear or worry without it dictating who I am and how I treat others?” Jesus doesn’t want us to be actors whose inner lives are disconnected from our outer behavior. Jesus leads us to be unpretentious, where our outer behaviors do not mask our inner impulses, but where our thoughts, feelings, and deeds are rooted in God’s mercy.