This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound on 12 February 2017 at the Ashburton Baptist Church. The reading in Matthew is one of the lectionary readings as we flexibly follow the Revised Common Lectionary. At the end of the sermon there is a prayer and some questions for personal and group study.
Reading: Matthew 5: 21-37
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.[j]
A pastor was summoned to the bedside of a dying insurance agent. The agent was a professed atheist, but his family was hopeful that he might be open to the Christian message as he faced his demise.
The family waited outside his room as the pastor and the insurance agent talked together. The conversation went on for such a long time, that the family began to nurture the hope that a religious conversion was taking place.
When the door finally opened and the pastor emerged, they discovered that the dying insurance agent had remained in his unconverted state – but the pastor had been sold a new insurance policy!
Have we become a new person different from our culture or has the culture sold us a new policy?
Last week we heard Christ’s call to us to be different, to be salt in the food, light in the darkness. Our reading ended with a measure of the extent of how different Christ’s followers are called to be:
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [i.e. the super devoted], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In today’s instalment from his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus selects four examples from the Jewish law, and far from showing any sense that he was abolishing the Law, he fleshes out their meaning, he probes our inner most motivations and he shows the extent to which our lives must be lived.
These four examples are introduced with the common formula:
“You have heard that it was said… But I say to you.” 21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34.
Jesus is not giving an exhaustive lesson on murder, adultery, divorce and swearing, but they’re examples of how Christ calls us to look beyond the letter of the law to the intention of the law and how we might live an exemplary life.
In promoting today’s sermon and service I did think of writing:
“Come to Ashburton Baptist on Sunday when our theme will be: “Murder, adultery, divorce and swearing.”
How exciting would that be? And to add more drama Jesus mentions ‘hell fire’ three times!
Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, steal and add in a few more heinous sins. Isn’t this the way so many people define what Christianity or religion is all about?
This reminds me of the woman who was in a church where they regularly chanted the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. She said to one of the pastors:
“Please, let’s not have the Ten Commandments so frequently. They give me too many ideas.”
Can you imagine getting to the end of the day and saying to yourself:
I have not murdered anyone. Tick.
I have not committed adultery. Tick.
I haven’t divorced anyone today. Tick.
I haven’t sworn falsely against my neighbor. Tick.
God must be happy with me. I am happy with myself. Now I can sleep in peace.
If that is where we have set the standard for righteous living, see now how high Christ raises the bar.
Let’s examine how this works out in his first example:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
We might have passed the ‘You shall not murder’ test this week, but how did we fare on Christ’s reframing of this law? He doesn’t underestimate the seriousness of taking a person’s life but he goes right to the heart that fuels the anger which in turn fosters insults and eventually festers to such an extent that we wish that person would drop dead!
If you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgement.
Twenty years in the clink!
If you insult them, you’ll be liable to the court (Sanhedrin).
If you say ‘You fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
A student reading this in a Sunday School class said: “I don’t understand this.”
Another student tried to interpret: “It means what it says—you’re not supposed to call somebody a fool, you idiot.”
Isn’t Jesus getting somewhat harsh? Too close to the bone?
When somebody accuses you of something, do you sometimes react by saying, “But you do this too”? When Jesus says to me: “If you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgement”, I feel like saying: “You are making me angry saying that and what’s more when you were in the temple and you saw the money changers, you got angry and you whipped them out of the temple. So, what do you mean?”
What’s so wrong with insulting a brother or a sister? It happens every week in Federal Parliament. This week they started with a church service, and then one party leader called the other ‘Mr Harbour-side Mansion’ and then the PM went ballistic and called the other a ‘sycophant’ and a ‘parasite’. Their supporters all whooped and cheered and they get paid for it. What hope is there for us and our children when our leaders squabble and bicker and hurl insults?
See where we’ve got to thus far: from the basic law, ‘You shall not murder’ to Jesus saying, “Every person must have dignity and we’re to treat each person with utmost respect.”
Jesus knew that relationships are fragile. They take so long to build and they can be torpedoed by just one insult. One murderous remark.
While Jesus doesn’t give a complete lecture on what to do when conflict arises, now he puts out some useful, practical tips (v23).
23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
First be reconciled. Don’t take broken down relationships as the norm. Don’t let conflict drift because like gravity it drops and deteriorates. Reconciliation must be such a definite action that it must come before worship. Reconciliation takes priority over worship. God won’t accept our offering of worship if we are at loggerheads or out of joint with our brother or sister.
So, worship is not all about God. Worship requires us to examine our hearts and our relationships and to get ourselves right with one another when we come together.
Doesn’t this throw a new light on ‘The Passing of the Peace’, this ancient Christian practice that we observe each Sunday? Some Sundays we might need to walk across this place of worship and say: “I’m sorry for my cutting words. I’m sorry for my negligence” and such acceptance and forgiveness can truly lead us to say to each other ‘The Peace of Christ be with you’.
Jesus is calling us to take the initiative regardless of who said what. Rather than waiting and saying: “He insulted me so therefore he must make the first move toward reconciliation” Jesus says: “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you.”
So, it may not be your fault, but if we know there’s a frostiness, then we leave our gift and give ourselves to the reconciliation whether the other person wants to be reconciled or not.
25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Sure, it’s OK to be angry. The Bible says elsewhere: “Be angry but sin not” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (wrath).” (Ephesians 4: 26) Which is another way of saying what Jesus says here: “Don’t harbor your anger and come to terms (literally ‘make friends’) quickly.” Settle it between yourselves and if not, do it with your Christian community and then the law courts should be the last thing not the first.
If things are not settled quickly conflict has a strange and unhappy way of being blown way out of proportion, distorting our perspective and making our lives absolutely miserable.
Look at Christ’s second example in v 27:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Again, Jesus starts not with the last act (in the bedroom) but where things begin. He’s not ruling against having sexual attraction but he’s warning about the ongoing desire to covet and possess what is not ours, to treat the other simply as an object to satisfy our own desires. He’s calling for purity of heart.
Again Jesus uses such hyperbole—“tear out your eye…cut off your best hand” in order to call a halt to such addictive and damaging behavior that might give fleeting enjoyment but ends by messing up so many lives.
We’re on a roll now and we know how to interpret the next example on divorce (31-32). Again, this is not the final word on divorce. It must be read in conjunction with lots of other texts and filtered through the cultural lens which here has only men doing the lusting and only men doing the divorcing.
Again, Jesus calls his followers to value and nurture our closest relationships, to shun the attitude that quickly and so easily abandons and disposes of a relationship in favour of another.
His final example (33-37) is the law against swearing falsely or frivolously against our neighbor.
We’ve seen new politicians put their hands on a Bible as they vow to be true to the demands of the law and their new role.
We’ve heard people say: “I swear by God almighty.” Or “I swear on my mother’s grave”, “Cross my heart and point to God” and Jesus gives further examples from his culture.
Jesus simply says we are to be people of our word. People of integrity who keep and honour our promises. People who trust and are able to be trusted. No fudging. No bending our statements and watering down. He says: 37 “Let your Yes be ‘Yes, and your ‘No, No’…”
There’s no indication of how Christ’s followers responded to his teaching. But maybe at the coffee break they might have said to him: “This is so hard. You have set the bar so high. This is so different. It flies in the face of our Middle Eastern culture.”
And Jesus probably looked them straight in the eye, as he certainly would with us, to say, “Yes. That’s completely the point.”
Loving God, you were born in a manger.
You entered the messiness of our lives, coming to heal, to save and restore.
Save us from the approach that thinks life is only about keeping the law.
Lift our sights to see how your light shines into every nook and cranny of our lives—into our thoughts, our feelings, our passions and our promises.
In your own life, Lord Jesus, you lived with respect, you valued all people, you were faithful in your relationships, you did not harbor grudges and you kept your word.
With your poise and peace, come to us now and in this new week.
Think through our minds
Love through our lives
Strengthen our relationships
Be in our mouths and in our speaking
That we might truly be salt that seasons and light that shines.
Questions for Personal and Group Study
1. Read over the section about murder and reconciliation (21-26) and highlight the key matters that are important for you in resolving conflicts.
2. What are the significant ideas and actions for you, drawn from Christ’s teaching about adultery (27-30), divorce (31-32) and our words and promises (33-37)?
3. Call to mind a relationship that is important to you. What is it that makes such a relationship good, healthy and sustaining?
4. Call to mind a relationship that is important to you but which has suffered some damage. In the light of Christ’s teaching about relationships, what is it about this and other relationships that can be done to repair and renew?
Hold your relationships before God with gratitude.
As you hold a relationship before God which is severed or strained, seek God’s blessing and see if there is any further action on which you are being drawn.
 Sigmund Freud, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Random House, 2001, 165-166.