[Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:21-37 ESV)
We are a breath away from last Sunday’s Gospel and Jesus has just confirmed that life is not easy street with his “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV). Now the fact that this righteousness is Jesus’ righteousness given to us because of who he is and what he does for us on the cross – that this righteousness is a gift to us! – doesn’t mean that Jesus needn’t have said the rest of what he said in what we call the Sermon on the Mount!
And last Sunday’s sinners’ ears which always will turn God’s Word to our advantage asks, “If this righteousness is a gift, why do we have to do anything?”. And so because Jesus said more things – such as today’s Gospel – sinners’ hearts mutter, “I knew it – this righteousness is really about me doing good things” and not believing the gift, this in turn leads to pride (I can keep the rules and while I’m not perfect, I’m at least trying and I’m much better than lots of other people). Or it leads to despair. (Listen to what Jesus is saying! I can never get it right and I am trapped and why bother?!) God is the slave driver. I’m the rat in the maze.
Our reading today, Jesus’ entire sermon, and much of the New Testament which speaks directly about behaviour give answers to the question all followers of Jesus ask, “Now that we are saved, what do we really have to do?”.
It’s all about getting the perspective right. If the final reason we do anything is the Law – because of fear, or self righteousness, or wanting a reward – then our foundation isn’t the gift of the Gospel. In effect we have said that the Gospel makes the Law possible. The Gospel then exists for us to build a better life – to fulfil the Law – to the glory of God, of course. And that is not the radical perspective of Jesus, nor, by the way, of Martin Luther both of whom want people to live under God, following Jesus, and not being slack but keeping the Gospel as our firm foundation. Jesus wanted this from the beginning. Luther would learn it later in life and he would share it in his understanding and teaching of justification.
We – the disciples and crowds – hear Jesus intensify the commandments – specifically the 5th Commandment – you shall not murder – where
Jesus does not look at the outside deed per se but at the inside heart – and anger inside it.
The 6th Commandment – is Jesus speaking more to men here? – maybe there were more men on the mountain? – isn’t focusing on an outside deed – a single specific deed – how we like to categorise deeds in this sphere of living! – but at the inside heart – and the lustful intent inside it.
And Jesus acknowledges that inside lustful intent becomes the outside sexual immorality and says to his followers that cutting hands and gauging eyes is a way to go and we interpret it metaphorically and not divorcing with one exception or forcing others into sexual immorality the Church has interpreted variously through the centuries but the intention of Jesus is clear. Get the heart under control and behavioural consequences follow and we can use behaviour to help our heart struggle – especially in regards to our sexual identity and behaviour.
Then there’s the 2nd Commandment – possibly with a garnish of the 8th Commandment – where Jesus addresses the tongue and, of course, we all know that the tongue really does reflect what is going on on the inside. Our species is defined – we define ourselves as unique because of our speaking, our speech, because words reveal consciousness, reality, thoughts and feelings! And so Jesus’ addresses the issue of our identity in relation to God and the words reveal whether we follow God or use God for our own ends. I’ve said for decades that humanity is happy to have God around – as butler or maid and does as we say. The moment God is more powerful, independent, and not in our control then we are threatened and God has to be dismissed or controlled somehow. And there is no clearer indicator of what is going on on the inside in this regard then the words we use. May they always reflect the right heart, the right attitude – that of trust and a desire to follow God’s Word with our words and deeds, our promises and behaviour – in all the walks of life.
Our perspective with rules and regulations is that we will behave in certain ways to minimise defilement and sin and problems touching us, affecting us. And if everyone behaves similarly we shouldn’t be too harmed. Jesus’ perspective is inside out! He’s talking about us stopping the evil within getting out and hurting others and ourselves!
Jesus is getting those who heard him not look at deeds in the first instance but to look at hearts. And the only heart we have access to … is our own! Where are you with your response when things don’t go your way? Where are you when you look at others for your needs or pleasure? Do they exist to serve you, orbit around you, make you secure? Where are you with your words and promises? Are you the star of your life with God as the Robin to your Batman – or do you live on any part of the stage – sometimes centre, sometimes on the edge but always following God? When we look within, what do we see? …
I’ll leave you to answer your own questions.
This morning I declare to you that no matter what you see, no matter how grim or murky or dirty, no matter how much struggle or how tired you are struggling, Jesus is there and he is still saying – remember his first words to you! ‘I love you!’ Remember his cross and empty tomb. Remember your baptism. Remember that all baptised are new creations in Christ who have received Jesus’ righteousness. Remember Jesus’ promises and he does strengthen us when we hear him next say, ‘Come on, follow me’ as we go back into our lives and relationships.
And whether this looking within and responding to Jesus is a once per day thing or a once per hour thing – it should be a regular thing – it is this perspective – that words govern reality and relationships govern behaviour – that shapes us. Yes, deeds and the outside can be seen and they indicate something of what’s going on in the heart but they don’t necessarily define the heart. For the Christian, what Jesus gives is his perspective – not to lead us to pride or despair – but it keeps us focused on him. We are loved. Our hearts are full of all sorts of yuck. Jesus recreates us and we live this new identity in bodies that will still die. It is a struggle. But anyone who struggles in this discipleship, who wrestles with their behaviour learns over time that what makes this so sweet – bearable – possible is the grace of God. The Gospel is at our heart because Jesus says so and the cross and empty tomb guarantee it. And there is no better way to live!
- Matthew 5:21 - 37