Sermons from St Faith's   

Hard Words

Revd Denise McDougall,  Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Matthew 5:21 – 37

I don’t believe there are many Gospel messages which challenge us more than Matthew’s hard and unsettling words today. Where do you start? Firstly we have to consider the text in the light of what comes before and after it. The Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ interpretation and extension of The Ten Commandments. Jesus is in no way attempting to abolish Jewish Law laws; he is in fact taking us to the heart of Jewish tradition of faithfully wrestling with the laws and is continuing to apply them in ever-evolving situations. Jesus saw his role as fulfilling the Law and bringing it to perfection by broadening the scope of the Commandments.  He was forcing his listeners and that includes us to look beyond our attitudes and actions, and whatever we do we are called to love God and our neighbours wholeheartedly.

The Beatitudes and the proclamation that we are the Salt of the Earth and Light of the World on which Fred preached so eloquently on last week come before today’s reading and immediately after comes the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we hear of many ways that we are blessed by God and his love, and Jesus highlights the fact that if we sincerely enjoy a loving relationship with our brothers and sisters then we will also enjoy a loving relationship with God.

These words from the mountain top teach us about reverence for God, each other and ourselves. If our relationships with each other are broken or wrong then then it is unlikely that we will enjoy a good relationship with God. I suspect that like some Jews we smugly think we follow the Commandments but we need to look beyond that to our attitudes and how we live our lives, be honest to ourselves and be honest with God.
Jesus uses loaded words, adultery, divorce, murder and the text today has the potential to hit us hard and cause profound unhappiness due an extreme feeling of guilt but equally damaging could be the dismissal that the message applies to different people in a different age and has nothing to do with us.

There are four themes, each with a statement from the Law, a reinterpretation that moves us far more deeply into its meaning and some startling and very challenging examples. Jesus moves us from the rules of the behaviour to the root cause of the behaviour. And there’s no place for any excuses or denial on our part because to God, all hearts are open, all desires known and no secrets are hidden. We may be able to fool others from time to time but we will never fool God or our consciences.

You shall not murder, says the Law and I would be extremely surprised if anyone here had ever committed murder. But Jesus tells us that it is just as serious to harbour resentment, act in anger, be abusive, have evil thoughts etc. and with those things in mind I would be equally surprised if any one of us here hadn’t been guilty on more than one occasion.

We may genuinely believe to keep the Commandments but at the same time do we murder others with prejudice, hostility or cutting remarks. If murder is reprehensible then so are its sources and in this passage Jesus says that to be angry with a fellow Christian makes us liable for judgement, no one is beyond reproach and it is therefore crucial to mend broken relationships. We can’t offer our gifts to God if we hold a grudge against another and if we aren’t willing to listen to others then it is unlikely that we will listen to God. Reconciliation is the firm foundation for all our worship and if a relationship needs repairing then it must be given absolute priority.

You shall not commit adultery, again Jesus looks at where trouble begins, he says that exploitation of women and any behaviour that violates the sanctity of marriage is sinful. Adultery begins with the eye and the heart. Anyone who abuses another comes under judgement because they are abusing one of God’s children. Sadly we all too frequently hear of trafficking, pornography and now phone messages and pictures known as sexting; all are acts of indecency and each a serious form of abuse. Only this week the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the Church, apologised to survivors for the appalling abuse to young victims at the hands of John Smyth in the 70’s and 80’s.

There’s the issue of divorce, something so common place in 21 century but Jesus tells us that those who divorce are violating promises made and the sanctity of marriage. My parents were divorced and my mum lived
with the guilt that she wasn’t able keep her marriage vows for the rest of her life. Many here will know of a family member or close friend who has experienced the trauma of divorce and know that the answer isn’t as simple as diminished moral standards? It is very complex and again Archbishop Justin has recently announced that the Church of England’s teaching on marriage remains unchanged, that means no same sex marriage. There is a huge depth of passion on both sides of this debate and although some will celebrate this outcome others will find it painful and disappointing.

Then the last few verses of the Gospel remind us of the Commandment not to bear false witness, oaths are thought to ensure absolute honesty and truth but Jesus tells us that there shouldn’t even be the need for an oath because if we are genuine people of integrity and honesty then our word should be enough. I suspect for various reasons we have all told falsehoods throughout our lives and possibly a serious lie but Jesus tells us we must always tell the truth, so developing an impeccable reputation. Donald Trump took his oath of office with his hand on his family Bible but does that actually prove his integrity, his respect for diversity, inclusivity and tolerance? The words of a person’s mouth should always match the thoughts of his or her heart.

So we have stark examples of the Law but also examples of situations outside the core Commandments. We, and all our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion have to wrestle with these antitheses, we have to be true to ourselves and God and be open to their deepest meaning.  Jesus’ new Law of love is a law that does not hide behind pious words and manipulative ways. Righteousness is an expression of being right with God.

As Christians travelling on our journey of faith, we are challenged to take stock, to examine our lives, our thoughts and the motivation behind them, both personally and collectively. It’s certainly no easy task and Jesus’ commandments verge on asking the impossible but the important thing is to never give up working towards perfection and ensuring that our motives are always sincere. We need through our worship, reading and prayer to let Jesus’ words live in us and through us, disturb us and change us.

After all his words at the end of the chapter make it very clear, “You, therefore, must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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