Your Cheatin' Heart

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter 6
May 14, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: More than 70 years ago, "Your Cheatin' Heart" was released and instantly became a country music classic. Jesus knew something about cheating hearts. In fact, his words to his disciples recorded in today's text were uttered within days of his betrayal and death. Judas betrayed him in the Garden of Gethsemane and did so with a cheatin' kiss. And the cheatin' would continue.

Your cheatin' heart will make you weep.

You'll cry and cry, and try to sleep.

But sleep won't come the whole night through.

Your cheatin' heart will tell on you.

"Your Cheatin' Heart" might be one of the most famous country songs in the canons of Nashville musicology. It was released a little more than 70 years ago following the death of Hank Williams Sr. in Canton, Ohio, where he had a concert.

The song was a runaway hit, and still gets a ton of airtime.

When tears come down like fallin' rain.

You'll toss around and call my name.

You'll walk the floor the way I do.

Your cheatin' heart will tell on you.

It's a common country music theme: jilted lovers, unrequited love, hopeless causes, abusive relationships, and add to this lazy laments, complaints with dollops of desire, a good amount of self-pity and written by broken hearts caught in the doldrums of deceit and desperation. These ballads of bad behavior are accompanied by a cowboy playing a steel guitar or a dance hall tickler playing honky-tonk piano. Country music might be bluegrass or hillbilly boogie, but whatever it is, "Your Cheatin' Heart" is front and center of everything called country music today.

Jesus knew something about cheating hearts. In fact, his words to his disciples recorded in today's text were uttered within days of his betrayal and death. Judas betrayed him in the Garden of Gethsemane and did so with a cheatin' kiss. Peter, after rashly declaring, "Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you ... even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,"1 went out into the night and promptly deserted Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, like a deadbeat loser in a Vegas marriage. Then that dadgum rooster crowed, and Peter realized his cheatin' heart had told on him, and his "tears come down like fallin' rain."

Jesus, then, had no illusions about promises made and vows broken. He had read the Torah. He had read the prophets. He had studied the history of the Hebrew children from the Exodus to the Promised Land. He was conversant with the anarchic chaos of Israel's history when "all the people did what was right in their own eyes."2 He had been schooling the elders of Judaism concerning "his Father's business" in the temple at Jerusalem since he was a preteen.

When, therefore, Jesus added yet another commandment, he knew what he was doing. He did not want to make an authentic walk with God more difficult, but he did hope to clarify what it meant to walk honestly and faithfully with each other.

Rules and regulations

Obedience or faithfulness or, shall we say, no-cheatin' behavior, is the sine qua non of true love. Those who are cheaters cannot be said to love the victim of the cheating in any way, shape or form. This is self-evident in all human relationships, and it is certainly true of the spiritual one that exists between Jesus and his friends,3 and even the covenantal relationship between God and the people of God.

So, when Jesus says, "If you love me, keep my commandments," it was not as though the disciples had not heard something similar during their visits to the synagogue. In fact, the "If ... then" construction was common in the Hebrew scriptures with which they were familiar. They knew, for example, the words of the chronicler: "If my people ... shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."4

The Judaism of Jesus had 613 commandments and these consisted of 248 do's and 365 don'ts, the commission and omission laws, respectively. The laws could be further sorted in terms of light commandments and severe ones.5

But the larger question raised by Jesus' statement concerns the two-letter possessive pronoun my. What commandments are specifically his, and not simply the many, various commandments enshrined in the rules and regs of first-century Judaism? Here are some ideas:

There are more of course. But these are a few of the standards, rules and regulations or commandments that Jesus laid down for those who wanted to follow him; anything less would be considered an act of faithlessness and betrayal.

Don't cheat on the top two big rules

Yet Jesus also broke rank with tradition and deftly slid like a Tetris genius two commandments right past the other 611 to the top - two commandments that summed up everything that had been written in the Torah and the prophets. When asked which of the 613 commandments was the most important, Jesus answered, "The first is, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' ... And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."11 These two rise to the top like cream in a bottle. The creme de la creme. These are the sweetest, most important commandments of all, and notice that love is at the heart of both of them.

Don't cheat on the new rule

But Jesus has another requirement, and he calls it a "new commandment." According to the chapter prior to today's reading, Jesus says, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another." Then he added, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."12

This is a startling utterance because we don't find it anywhere in the gospels except here. It is a very private and personal communication - the kind that only close friends might have. Clearly, by now, Jesus not only regarded this small group of followers as those who would carry on the mission after his death, but as his dear friends. Now, he gives them a new and final admonition. Going forward, everything will depend on their willingness to love each other. Without this, all is lost.

Nothing has changed. Today, if we in the church cannot love each other, how can we expect to love those beyond the community of faith?

This is not about affection, certainly not eros. It is about self-denial. Jesus explains what this love should look like: "As I have loved you ...." How did Jesus love them and how does he love us? Jesus was all in. He laid down his life for them. He denied himself just as he asked his disciples to deny themselves.13

Jesus explicitly asks them not to cheat on himself or others in the community circle. To do so would create distrust and constitute betrayal every bit as damning as a country singer's ballad.

When we cheat

What is surprising is not that we may cheat or disobey, but that we will insist that we aren't cheating or haven't cheated! We are too often like the second son of the Parable of the Two Sons.14 We insist that we will do the will of God, but we don't. Like the Israel of old, like the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes of Jesus' day, we appear to be religiously obedient, but often we're not. Our relationship with God, such as it is, seldom interferes with daily life.

If one thing is true of a faithful lover of Jesus, it is that love always interferes with the normal routine of daily life. Love very much interfered with St. Paul's life. He wrote, "If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, and do not have love, I am nothing."15

Cheaters are repeaters - notoriously so. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Thus, if we see a weakness in ourselves, we must treat the weakness ferociously and without mercy. We must emulate the example of one of the most notorious of biblical cheaters, King David, who in Psalm 51 wrote a primer for cheaters who want to come clean. Like him, we must ask for mercy.16 We must acknowledge and confess our sin: "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me."17 We must seek repentance and ask God for forgiveness, and, like David, ask God to "wash" us and cleanse our cheatin' heart.18

Only then are we in a position to pray David's prayer: "Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit."19 Only then can we say to Jesus in the spirit of our text in John 14:15, "I love you, and I will keep your commandments."


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