The teachings of Jesus are compelling for many reasons, not the least of which is His masterful use of striking imagery. He uses many charged statements, including “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mark 9:43) or “if anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother… He cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). These shocking commands force us to look deeper at what He’s truly saying. At the end of the day, they leave us asking, “What does Jesus want from me?”
We often come to God wanting a list of straightforward commands. This is where we get our tendency to develop more and more religious legalism over time, because we as humans want to know we’re following the rules and not treading on dangerous ground. The Israelites and the Jewish community had devolved in this way by Jesus’ time, and the Christian church has gone through the same cycle multiple times throughout history. This spirit is much of what Jesus came to address in His ministry. Following the letter of specific (and seemingly arbitrary) laws is not the point, and it never was.
When the Lord asks us to cut off a hand or hate someone we love, is this really what He wants? No. The extreme examples He uses are teaching tools meant to highlight His message. He wants us to ponder and understand the gravity of the situation – physical self-harm is preferable to sin, and devotion to the Creator of the universe is of greater importance than loyalty to blood family. These are matters of the heart and of motive.
God is in the business of weighing hearts. He wants not only our actions to be righteous, but also our motivations and our intentions. Jesus confronts our hearts with His teaching, causing them to burn (Luke 24:32). The gospel message is about a transformed heart and a renewed mind. When our hearts are transformed, the sin that separates us from God is done away with. When Jesus becomes the master of our life, then we can walk in true love for others. If we place anyone or anything higher in our priority than Him, we are unable to walk in proper love. God is most concerned about how close our hearts are to His. The goal of our life is not to avoid doing evil, but to do good in Christ. If we are to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” our motivations must be the unconditional love of God (1 Corinthians 13).
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