Amongst all the rules, where’s the good news?
[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)
Our Gospel for today doesn’t at first glance live up to its name. From the Sermon on the Mount, what we hear more often than not is Law. Do this. Don’t do that. Be careful about the other thing. In fact in these last Sundays after The Epiphany – before we, like Jesus, turn our heads towards Jerusalem as we journey through Lent, we hear Jesus on the mount teaching his disciples and eavesdroppers. In the last verse from last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus says: ‘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).
This week we hear Jesus explain about this better righteousness, the righteousness that is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees … you’ve heard it said … about murder, about adultery, about oaths and testimonies … yes, there are lots of things we’ve heard and still hear – contexts, boundaries, consequences, it’s part of growing up and learning right from wrong, rules ad more rules … and then Jesus says, ‘But I say to you …’ and he makes things harder!
Where the rules and laws previously talked about behaviour – the things we do – Jesus talks more about what’s going on inside of us that leads to our behaviour. The law rewards or punishes behaviour, not the thoughts and attitudes behind them. Jesus, however speaks to the inside of us – our choices before they are visible as behaviour.
‘Don’t murder’ is obvious but Jesus targets inside – don’t be angry so that you are sinning and therefore watch your words and attitudes as well as your hands so that you don’t regard your brother as a fool – that is, one who says that there is no God – and cut him off from you. Anger is our response when we’re not in control and is an expression of our desire to be God – to judge – to punish. Hence when we’re angry it is easy to blame the other person and forget that this is our
behavioural choice and, very often because it involves sin and selfishness, we become blind to our part in whatever is happening – hence the more scandalous expectation from Jesus that if we’re angry we need to seek reconciliation, we need to take the first step. How often have you heard an angry person say something like, ‘He/she/they caused this mess; they made me angry; they have to make the first move’?
‘Don’t commit adultery’ is also obvious but Jesus targets inside – how you look at a person – men at women – and by implication, women at men – and when we see them as objects, as things you can use (if you had a chance) then adultery has begun. And what sort of advice is bodily mutilation in response to this? It is not to be taken literally because the sinful desire can still exist without those body parts – and that’s the point! Jesus is firstly speaking to our insides – our inner self / being / identity – the one we so often mask with deeds and hypocrisy and struggles. And then Jesus returns to the practical, the obvious – that lust ruins relationships and again he doesn’t go laissez faire about divorce but instead promotes marriage and faithfulness and staying together.
‘Don’t go on about your words adding oaths and witnesses and promises and guarantees – especially bringing God into it.’ Jesus isn’t actually forbidding oaths as much as saying that for his disciples they are unnecessary when you tell the truth – plainly, simply, constantly. To bring God into your speech, as your personal guarantor, makes him your lackey or servant and you the Boss and that is simply a dangerous – but very human – situation.
Again, it doesn’t take too many thoughts, words, or deeds to reveal what is going on inside – our desire for control, our self centredness, our rebellion towards God.
By showing a better righteousness, Jesus, it seems, has condemned us; has lifted the bar too high; and has made it impossible to follow him like this. This flies in the face of what is often viewed as the main reason for religion – and especially Christianity – that it is useful to us. Much of Christianity has the implicit – and at times, not so implicit – atmosphere that when you do the right thing by God, follow Jesus, then your life is good and prosperous. ‘The blessings will come’ we are promised. If problems come then try harder and God will reward your effort. Many testimonies of Christians seem to follow the ‘formula’ of God rescuing and helping people or their victory over this or that problem or sin with God’s help and now life is much better. So people conquer sins, get through problems and move on to better things and life with God is a steady improve.
What is missed often – and this can trip Christians up big time – when tragedies strike, when temptations spring up, when we find we’re still falling into sins, and suffering doesn’t abate, when doubts and despair whirl inside of us and we wonder just what’s the point of living or of Jesus when the mess just doesn’t improve – is that we live in the tension of being sinners in this world and being Christians through faith – faith alone – faith which trusts God’s Word over us and to us – especially when it doesn’t square with our experience or our wants.
The danger for people who know the true God – and you can see this with the people of the Old Testament – and if you’re honest – within yourself at times – is that we remain the centre of our lives and that God – even the God who has rescued us (and thank you for that!) slowly becomes not our Lord whom we should follow but our ‘get out of goal card’, our genii, our butler (Alfred to our Batman). While we live in sinful flesh, in this world that rejects God, and in the ‘gun sights’ of the Devil and his hordes, we face the struggles that come our way as we all slowly slide to works righteousness.
That’s why the Sermon on the Mount is so challenging – not because it sets a new ethic – which it does – but because it gnaws and unsettles us by-passing our behaviours and looking within and getting us to look within too.
Jesus doesn’t relax the 5th, 6th, and 8th Commandments – try a bit because you’ll be forgiven anyway – but intensifies them – you must live to a better righteousness – so he doesn’t set us up to fail but reveals that in and of ourselves we will never live this better righteousness.
So why bother? Why did Jesus gives us these teachings?
So that we would live according to them. He expects this. But not as ethics we master (and become smug about) but as sinners who are always struggling. So why bother?
Because in these teachings that reveal the depths of human sin, we come to see the mystery of the teacher. We so often wonder about Jesus – what was he like – how did he feel – for men, how could he look at a woman and not sin at some point? – and Jesus’ humanity remains mysterious to us. It is only confirmed at his death – so he can die – he did die – we think. But who else is Jesus?
Well, he’s the one whose anger is not his selfish desire for control but the righteous anger that flares when God is rejected. His anger is not for his own sake but to help and care for those with whom he is angry. We find that so hard because sin is so entwined with our anger. And then Jesus shows us – sinners – how to do it – and he comes to us – who have rebelled against him, humanity nailed him to a cross and yet he still forgave – and still forgives sinners today. He forgives you.
He looks at us – not as prey – he honours marriage – elevates it and doesn’t look at women or men as objects for him to use. His dealings with people were always from the perspective of what was best for them. He wasn’t people’s ‘yes man’ for he could challenge and rebuke where necessary because he wanted what was best for people. He sought to serve them – even as those around him wanted him to serve them. ‘Stay and keep feeding us’ said the crowd. ‘You can’t go the way of the cross because that would mean I’d have to too’ said Peter. But Jesus remained focused on seeing us as we really are and responding to us as he thought best and thus was someone people couldn’t control. And it is still the same today – as he comes to you – and serves through Word and Sacrament – leading you how to live your life this week; dealing with things you might not want to; facing your sins squarely that you’d prefer to dodge; finding more opportunities to serve those around you.
Just as Jesus fulfilled the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms so he also fulfils his own sermon. He speaks truth. He is Truth. No oaths – just himself speaking. And his heartfelt message – his message from the heart – begins ‘I love you’. The Law is in service of the Gospel, not the other way round.
And that is why we keep listening today – every Sunday – to all the Bible – and struggling with it – and seeking to live by it – not as laws to make us smug or despairing – but because it draws us closer to Jesus and, with eyes fixed on him, we live in the world.
- Matthew 5:21 - 37