But I say to you
Sermon preached at Enmore, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 12th. February 2017
Reading: Matthew 5.21–37
Well, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t get any easier. Today’s reading from Matthew is our third from the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ keynote address to his disciples and the curious bystanders listening in. We began two Sundays ago with the Blessings (Beatitudes) Jesus pronounced over his followers. He declared that the blessed were not the rich and famous but the poor in spirit, the mourners, the peacemakers and those who hungered for righteousness and justice. In short he turned on their head many of the values of our society. Last week we read Jesus’ words to his disciples telling them that they were salt and light in the world. They were not to be some kind of secret society shut off from the world but were to live in such a way that others would be drawn to them. He also made the extraordinary statement that he had come into the world to fulfil all that had been promised in the Scriptures, through the Law and the Prophets. He was the final chapter in the unfolding story of God’s covenant relationship with his people. Jesus also made the equally astounding statement that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the Scribes and Pharisees they wouldn’t get to first base in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was in fact redefining what righteousness looked like. It was no longer about a strict observance of rules, it was about allowing the Spirit of God to change the heart and mind. This new higher righteousness was a gift from God and was modelled in the life of Jesus himself.
In the reading before us today Jesus spells out what this new kind of righteousness will look like in practise. This is in some ways a hard passage to preach on because it can easily become a guilt trip as we place the standard that Jesus sets us against our own conduct. Consider the first statement, for example, ‘You shall not murder.’ I suspect most of us here this morning can truthfully say, ‘not guilty’ to that one but what about the standard Jesus sets? Can any of us truthfully say I’ve never been angry with a Christian sister or brother or I’ve never said something hurtful to a person? I know that I can’t.
But we completely misunderstand this passage if we read it as Jesus giving us a new set of laws much tougher than the old ones. At the heart of the four scenarios Jesus’ describes lies a broader more sweeping demand that confronts every listener and gives to him or her a picture of life in God’s new age. In each case Jesus moves beyond the letter of the law to a deeper question and the text invites us to do the same. Furthermore in each case Jesus addresses issues that were hot topics for his contemporaries and remain relevant for us today.
Looking again at the first scenario and the commandment, ‘You shall not murder’, Jesus refrains from getting into a debate about contexts in which killing may or may not be justified and instead admonishes his followers not to harbour any anger towards their brothers and sisters and calls for a concrete act of reconciliation. That is why in our liturgy we have the confession of our sins, followed by the absolution and then we share the greeting of peace, as sisters and brothers who are in fellowship with each other. The old Book of Common Prayer contained an invitation to Holy Communion read by the priest which included the words, “You then who truly and earnestly repent of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to live a new life, following the commandments of God and walking in his holy ways, draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to strengthen and comfort you.” In my experience unresolved conflict between members of a congregation is one of the most destructive things that can occur in a church community. We will always have disagreements over various issues in a church but if we allow them to develop into anger and resentment we end up harming the whole community.
The second and third examples Jesus uses are to do with adultery and divorce. In both instances Jesus calls for a complete reappraisal of relationships between men and women. Adultery in the Biblical world was defined as a man having a sexual relationship with another man’s wife. The prohibition against adultery grew out of the property laws in ancient Israel. The wife belonged to her husband and the extramarital relationship violated the rights of her husband. A man could have such a relationship with an unmarried woman and not be guilty of adultery. Jesus’ words about lust are designed to protect women from sexual exploitation and to give them a status beyond mere property. The word translated as ‘lust’ implies a desire to possess a woman. Shortly after Jimmy Carter received the nomination as Democratic candidate for the Presidency in 1976 he gave an interview with Playboy magazine in which he confessed that he had lusted after many women and this immediately became headline news. However, I think Jimmy got it wrong, given his otherwise very moral behaviour I suspect that what he was guilty of was normal physical attraction. Lust implies an attraction which becomes all-consuming and possessive. Lust is to be shunned- plucking out eyes and cutting of hands are deliberate exaggerations but they make the point very clearly. In a society where pornography has become so pervasive Jesus’ words have obvious relevance for us today.
Divorce was a contentious issue in Jesus’ day. Deuteronomy 24.1 stated: ‘Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce puts it into her hand and sends her out of his house.’ This law left women in a very vulnerable situation. The crux of the matter lay in the interpretation of the phrase ‘something objectionable.’ There were two schools of thought on this issue. The school of Shammai took a very conservative approach and defined ‘something objectionable’ as meaning adultery and nothing else. On the other hand, the school of Hillel, the more liberal party defined ‘something objectionable’ in the broadest possible terms. A wife could be dismissed and made homeless because she made a meal with too much or too little salt, or if she went in public with her head uncovered. According to some Rabbi’s, a wife could even be divorced if her husband found someone more attractive. So Jesus’ words about divorce have to be understood in that context. Jesus was seeking to give protection to women by emphasising that God’s original intention for marriage was that it should be for life and divorce was not to be entertained for trivial reasons. But to make Jesus’ words about divorce into a binding commandment keeping a woman or a man in a toxic broken relationship is to go against the spirit of his words.
In the ancient world the taking of an oath was a serious business. In Jesus’ day a custom had arisen whereby oaths were divided into two classes: those which were binding and those which were not. Any oath containing the name of God was absolutely binding and any oath which was carefully phrased to avoid God’s name was held to be not binding. This may help to explain Jesus’ words about oaths. Bonhoeffer observed that oaths are a sign that we live in a world of lies. His words have been proven true in recent days. Jesus’ followers are committed to plain speech. Our speech takes place in the presence of God. To quote Bonhoeffer again: “the disciples of Jesus should not swear because there is no such thing as speech not spoken before God.” The taking of an oath to guarantee one’s word implies that otherwise one’s word cannot be trusted. Some Christians have argued that Jesus’ words prohibit them from taking an oath in court but again Jesus was not giving us more rules, rather he was calling us to truthfulness and faithfulness (whether under oath or not). In a world where the truth is frequently distorted for reasons of national security, public relations, or to hide inconvenient facts, Christians are called to speak the truth because we follow the one who is the way and the truth and the life. Amen.