Matt 5: 21-37

Sermon Date: 
13 Feb 2011
Bible Base: 
Matt 5: 21-37; 1 Cor 3: 1-15

David Jeans

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A young police officer was taking his final exam at Hendon Police College in North London, when he came to this question. It read: 'You are on patrol in London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street. On investigation, you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby. Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants, a man and a woman, are injured. You recognise the woman as the wife of your Chief Inspector, who is at present away on a conference in the USA. A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realise that he is a man who is wanted for a series of violent armed robberies. Just at that moment, a man runs from a nearby house shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent. Another man is crying for help, having been thrown into an adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim. Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take.' The young officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen, and wrote these words: 'I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd’.
The Gospel passage we have just read has a bit of that effect on me as a preacher! But one of the guys I read most on studying the Bible (John Goldingay)says that not only are the texts we find difficult still part of the Word of God, they are also the texts through which God can speak to us most.
So while I am aware that the detail of this passage can be difficult and painful hearing for some, please bear with me (and more importantly, bear with God), while we look at the passage as a whole before wrestling with the detail (which is always a good principle in reading scripture – the big picture determines what the detail means, and not the other way round!) 
In this part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is getting at the real purpose of the Law given to the people of God in the Old Testament. The law was given to them after God had rescued them from Egypt. It was about how they were to live on their journey to the Promised Land, and when they arrived in the Promised Land. It was not an examination they had to pass, it was to be a help for them to live as the people of God.
The people of God over the centuries had lost the principles of what it meant to be the people of God by concentrating on the detail of what the written law said, thinking that if they could keep that, then they had passed some sort of examination. It’s a bit like confusing SATS results with real learning. Education is not about passing SATS results, it’s about preparing our children for life. SATS results are a measure of progress in education, but they are not the purpose of education. The written law is a guide to living as the people of God – but the reality goes beyond the written law. As Jesus has just said in v 20 unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
And the calling of the people of God is to reflect the character of God in their behaviour. As Jesus says at the end of this chapter, the calling is to be perfect as God is perfect – which does not, I think, mean to get 100 per cent in the holiness SATS (which makes us give up) but means that the perfection we are to aim for to live our lives reflecting who God is.
And Jesus then begins to earth this with some examples. But the point of these examples is to show us what reflecting who God is looks like.
Our church Bible headings (which of course are not part of the inspired word of God) try to persuade us that this teaching is about Murder, Adultery, Divorce, Oaths and (next week) an Eye for an Eye. Which limits Jesus teaching to being about avoiding doing wrong that breaks the law. That is not what this is really about.
What it is really about is the positive qualities of the character of God that we are called upon to reflect in our own behaviour. And those qualities are:-
Forgiveness and Love
We are to be forgiving and loving people because our God is a forgiving and loving God.
We are to be faithful in our marriages because our God is faithful to us.
We are to be truthful because our God is truthful.
These are the things which are taken into the life of eternity. These are the things Israel were supposed to build upon the foundation of their rescue from Egypt. We have been rescued from sin and death by the work of Jesus on the cross. As 1 Corinthians 3 insists, this is the foundation laid for us by Jesus Christ, a foundation that cannot be removed. But what do we build on that foundation? What are the gold, silver, precious stones of 1 Cor 3 v 12? They are things like forgiveness, love, faithfulness and truthfulness, which last into eternity. We are called to build these precious qualities into our lives.
But the opposites? Having an unforgiving spirit and bearing grudges,  being casually or deliberately unfaithful or untruthful are destructive of who we are as the people of God and we need to allow God to rescue us from them; we are to root them out from our lives (that is the meaning of Jesus’ drastic and exaggerated pictures in this passage) and instead build the gold and silver of a forgiving spirit, of faithfulness and of truthfulness into our lives.
That is the big picture of this passage – what about the detail? Let’s look at that always remembering that the purpose of Jesus’ teaching is to get behind the detail to the reality behind the detail.
We begin with the section on murder. Now hopefully very very few of us will break the letter of this commandment. But Jesus goes beyond that to casual insults of others which we know can have such a devastating effect on their self-esteem and well-being – and while we may not take up physical weapons, we all know how easy it is to take up verbal weapons. So easy in fact that all too often we do not notice what we are doing. And while we may not murder,  we are vulnerable to the corrosion of grudges and an unforgiving spirit; and love of others means rescuing them from that corrosion by acknowledging our own wrongdoing and need of forgiveness. Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. As Christians we need to be the first to move on making peace with others – although, of course it always takes two, and our overtures of peace being rebuffed is a very painful process. But as we will see next week, the distinctive quality of the people of God is love of enemies. Grudges do not belong here.
Next is the section on adultery. Again Jesus goes beyond the words to what lies behind them. I do not think ‘looking lustfully’ includes simply finding someone attractive; it is about entertaining thoughts of improper sexual liaisons. If anyone thinks they are beyond such thoughts, I suspect they do not know themselves very well. And the good quality of fellowship within churches means that this is a temptation to be aware of.
Then the section on divorce which is not easy – partly because our understanding of it is too easily coloured by 2000 years of the church’s interpretation of it.
The first thing to say is that Jesus’ target is casual divorce for trivial reasons.  In Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought in Jewish teaching. There was the ‘liberal’ school which allowed a man to divorce his wife for trivial reasons like spoiling a meal, or because he had found someone he preferred. There was a ‘conservative’ school which only allowed divorce for serious breakdown of the marriage such as adultery . In a ground-breaking book David Instone Brewer argues (successfully, I think) that serious breakdown of the marriage also included on biblical grounds (eg Exodus 21:9ff) abandonment, neglect or abuse. These two schools were labelled as ‘for any cause’ (liberal) and ‘for sexual unfaithfulness’ (conservative); Jesus is here siding with the conservative interpretation rather than the liberal one, but his intention was probably not to limit that to adultery and exclude abandonment or abuse. When Jesus says that remarriage involves adultery he is talking about the situation of trivial divorce. The second thing to say is that allowing divorce for the more serious reasons would have included allowing remarriage in those circumstances - because divorce in those days automatically included the right to remarry. (Instone Brewer has discovered a 2nd century divorce certificate which includes ‘you are able to re-marry’). The ideal remains faithfulness – but when things go seriously wrong Jesus allows a way out.
Finally, there is the question of oaths – and Jesus says truthful people should not need them!
I want to finish by going back to the big picture – be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, which involves a forgiving spirit, love, faithfulness and truthfulness (against which there is no law). But that is very difficult for us, and living as the people of God should was too difficult for the people of Israel.
But there are two messages of hope to end with.
So God had to help them – and us. The original covenant of ‘I have rescued you, so live as my people’ was too hard because of their sinful hearts. So God promised a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 saying I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts; and I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more; and in Ezekiel 36:26-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean;  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
In the Gospel there is a double hope – first of all of forgiveness when we fail; and secondly of power to change. The people could not reflect the character of God on their own – and nor can we. We need the work of the Spirit to change us from within, growing the character of Jesus in us – that character of forgiveness, love, faithfulness and truthfulness. So there is hope of growing towards that perfection – may God make us more like Him.