St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

But I say to you


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.

Philip Brad­ford