· Continuing with the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we learnt (a) Disciples are salt and light i.e. they are to be a pervasive influence for good, healing and transformation in society and (b) Jesus’ claim to FULFIL the Law[i]. What he meant should become clearer today.
· Why were such big crowds following Jesus (4:25)? Because he was radically inclusive – especially of “sinners”; people who would normally be despised and excluded by the religious.
· So when he calls his disciples (the 12 + others?) up a hill to teach them, you might expect him to relax many of the religious Law’s requirements.
· Well he did amend the requirements of a number of central Laws, claiming the authority of God (“You have heard it said X, but I tell you Y”)
· The problem is that instead of relaxing the Law, making it easier for people, he seems to make it a thousand times more demanding – apparently almost impossible to comply with. As if he’s saying: “You thought the bar was this high, but actually it is SKY HIGH!”
· But why would Jesus, who criticises the Scribes and Pharisees for loading people down with heavy burdens of Law, make those burdens even heavier?
· Why would Jesus who never hesitated to break the Laws of Sabbath and purity in the course of his mercy mission, require far more rigorous, stifling and all inclusive compliance to the Law from his followers?
· Typically our study notes skirt around this obvious problem by saying that the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount represents some future ideal, perhaps the way things will be in heaven or when the kingdom of God fully comes on earth; but with no expectation that people will be able to live up to these standards in the present age.
· I think perhaps this is an inadequate way of engaging with Jesus’ words and I want to propose a different approach which takes the text far more seriously.
A Fresh Approach
1. What was the purpose of the Law (and Prophets)? To make peace between God and humanity and between people and each other. Another biblical word for this is RECONCILIATION.
2. When Jesus says he has come to fulfil the Law, he means he has come to successfully complete what the Law was intended to do.[ii] In 2 Corinthians 5:19 Paul writes “God was
reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
3. But what the Law had become in Jesus’ day was a means of avoiding God, by reducing God’s moral requirements to mere external obedience to rules, with plenty of loopholes for the insincere religious to exploit.
4. So a religious person might pray “Dear God I have not murdered any of the brainless[iii] or immoral[iv] people I am angry with and so I have obeyed your Law. What a good person I am. Amen.” But Jesus says NO! Being angry with people or despising them and calling them names which diminish their value are in the same category as murder. The person who has these attitudes to others will not be saved from God’s fiery judgement by the fact that they stopped short of actual murder.
5. Or a religious person might pray “Dear God I have not actually committed adultery with the person I have been lustfully desiring all day, and so I have complied with your Law’s requirements. What a good boy I am. Amen.” But Jesus says NO! If you are looking at a person lustfully, thinking about what you would do with or to them if only it wasn’t forbidden, that sinful attitude is in the same category as adultery, putting you in danger of hell (5:30). This is more than just noticing and admiring someone who you find attractive, but I do think what Jesus is warning against includes TV and internet images we might dwell on. He is saying his followers need to avoid all these harmful attitudes in order to protect ourselves and our relationships with others. He is exaggerating when he talks about gouging your eye out or cutting off your hand, but only to emphasise the seriousness of these dangers and to say that radical action may need to be taken to separate ourselves from temptation. Don’t be a “Porn Again Christian”! Don’t be drawn in by the thought that it will be OK so long as it is not the actual act of adultery. It won’t.
6. Next Jesus turns to divorce and in his day an old Law designed to discourage divorce for trivial reasons (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) had been twisted in meaning to allow that very thing. So a man might say “I have divorced my wife for burning my calçots and butifarra, but that’s OK because I wrote out a divorce certificate as God’s Law requires.” But Jesus says NO! Marriage must be taken far more seriously than that and divorce is only allowed in very limited circumstances.
7. Finally in the section we are looking at today Jesus forbids the use of oaths. In Jesus’ day the old commandment to never misuse the name of God had been twisted into the casual adding of “in God’s name” or “by the Holy Temple” or something similar to a promise. Again Jesus rejects this practice. His followers need to be so transparently honest that their “yes” or “no” is utterly reliable. Adding any kind of oath is not just superfluous, it is offensive to God.
What does all this mean for us?
This teaching of Jesus is startling and hard hitting and let’s face it we all fall short in one way or another most of the time. In one sense I think he is setting the bar so high that no one realistically
has any chance of getting over it. It gets even more demanding in the rest of the chapter as we get onto turning the other cheek and love of enemies. So what’s it all about? Are we doomed to fail and be damned for it?
I think the answer lies in that word reconciliation which I suggested sums up what the gospel is all about. Let’s turn back to verses 23-24:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24 TNIV)
Reconciliation – making peace with God and each other - is the key. And according to Jesus there can be no real peace with God unless we have made every effort to make peace with one another. Worship is a corporate act and we have a corporate responsibility to be peacemakers and not just recipients of peace. We symbolise this in the way we celebrate the peace, usually just before we bring ourselves forward as a gift, an offering and participate in Holy Communion, the sacrament of unity. But how seriously do we take this teaching? How different might things be if we took pains to do the hard work of making peace with each other?
So the standard set by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is incredibly high. But it is a standard we aim for and fall short of together, as a community, filled with the Holy Spirit and with the example of Jesus before us. We are not without help and so Jesus can give the reassurance that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28). The best any of us becomes in this life is “working towards” being the person we are called to be. The important thing is not which religious rules we have each transgressed but that together we are becoming what we are called to be, not conforming to the pattern of this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).
We are going to end with a prayer, but I also want to say that if I have said anything which has touched on difficult or sensitive areas for you, do come and see me. Let’s pray:
Thank you Lord Jesus for this beautiful vision of the calling of your people and the reconciling purpose of Law and Gospel. May we never use the words of Scripture to justify ourselves or to despise, harm or exclude others. May we never use religious observance as a way of avoiding you and your deep but benevolent discipline. May we always seek peace and reconciliation with all our neighbours and with you and may we see the fruit of your kingdom grow. AMEN.
The Gospel of Matthew William Barclay (St Andrew Press 2001)
[i] And the Prophets.
[ii] The Prophets had pointed out that the Law was failing to do this because of human shortcomings and they had looked forward to some new intervention by God in the form of a Messiah/Suffering Servant to sort things out. Romans 8:3 “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering.”
[iii] “To call a man Raca was to call him a brainless idiot, a silly fool, an empty-headed blunderer. It is the word of one who despises another with an arrogant contempt.” Barclay p.161
[iv] The Greek word which NIV translates ‘Fool’ (5:22) is ‘Moros’. “To call people moros was not to criticize their mental ability; it was to cast aspersions on their moral character; it was to take their name and reputation from them, and to brand them as loose-living and immoral.” Barclay p.162