A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 by Nathan Nettleton
In the TV guide for this coming week, I noticed a French movie called the Libertine, which is apparently about some bloke in the eighteenth century who was trying to write an article on morality for an encyclopaedia while at the same time carrying on a wild adulterous affair. I suspect that there will be some people — hopefully not so many in this congregation — who will think that that sounds a bit like me trying to preach on this passage from the Gospel: an extract from the Sermon on the Mount containing some of Jesus’ teachings on understanding and living the moral law, including some words on sexual morality and divorce. I have a reputation in some circles for being something of a libertine on sexual ethics, in part because I have been divorced and remarried, but more because I have advocated the acceptance of homosexual couples in the church and have not advocated a hard line prohibition of sex before marriage. And today throws up this reading — one which doesn’t come up all that often — and so I think I have to face its challenge and examine our approaches and my teachings in light of the teachings of the Lord we are seeking to follow.
If we read the words of Jesus as first and foremost a code of law, then they label at least half a dozen people in this one small congregation as adulterers, starting with me. Now, if we were playing fine-toothed-comb legal games, then I can legitimately claim the escape clause. Here in Matthew’s account, Jesus speaks of “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity,” and I am both covered by that exception and can argue that I didn’t divorce her, she divorced me. But there are two serious problems with depending on that defence. Maybe three. Firstly, only Matthew even includes the exception. In the other gospel accounts, there is no escape clause, so if Matthew don’t get me, the others will. Secondly, and more importantly, those sort of fine-toothed-comb legal games are exactly the sort of thing Jesus is so critical of, even in this Sermon on the Mount. Earlier in tonight’s extract, we heard Jesus making fun of the way the religious lawyers liked to codify everything to within an inch of its life when he made up a mock scale of punishments for anger and insults: get angry and you’ll face judgment; throw an insult and you’ll face the council; call someone a fool and you’ll burn in hell! The fine-toothed-comb approach might get Margie, Alison and Jenny off the hook too, because strictly speaking the words only call you an adulterer if you married a divorced woman, and they married divorced men! But I think Jesus would have a few more jokes up his sleeve to gently humour such a defence.
And the third problem is that divorce seems to be pretty much taken for granted in our churches these days, and to such an extent that we don’t usually even look at these circumstances. Even the more legalistic of our churches now mostly don’t try to enforce this one, and most of them contain divorced people who could not even claim the escape clauses. But what then are we making of these words? Now if you are neither divorced, married to a divorcee, or contemplating the possibility of either of those things, stay tuned anyway, because as I hope you noticed, the lines on divorce were only a short section out of a longer treatment of various ethical and legal issues, and the principles we develop for one have to stand up for the others, and there is not one of us who won’t get nailed by the legal application of something in the Sermon on the Mount.
This whole section of teaching is prefaced by a couple of big statements from Jesus. Firstly, he says that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it, and that there is nothing in it that he is planning to do away with. And secondly, he says that unless your righteousness — and people understood that as meaning your compliance with the teaching of the law — goes way beyond that of the most rigorous religious legalists of his day, then you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
So let’s try to draw the lines between these statements and his illustration of them with regard to the laws on divorce, sex, hostility and truthfulness.
The first statement about not abolishing the law but fulfilling it was really important because it not only tells us something crucial about Jesus’ attitude to the Bible’s moral teachings, but it also tells us that he and the early church were under attack about this. People were accusing them of abolishing the law, and they had to answer the charge. That’s one of the reasons I don’t get too stressed when people accuse me of throwing out the Bible on these issues. I know I’m in good company, and I know that the charge is not true. What the charge against Jesus clearly tells us is that how ever rigorous his approach was, it was not the same sort of legalistic approach that was popular among the religious hot shots of his day.
But that is where it connects with his second statement about righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees. Jesus is saying that his approach to ethics might look lax and libertine to those who think only in terms of rigorous compliance with the letter of the law, but in practice, it is really about exceeding the expectations of mere biblicism. Or in other words, if you think that religious righteousness is only about avoiding breaking any biblical laws, then your guiding question will be “how bad can I be without breaking any laws?”, whereas Jesus wants you to stop worrying about the wording of the laws and make your guiding question, “how good and loving and just can I possibly be?”
So when Jesus tells us that we have to be more righteous than the Pharisees, that could be a liberation or a death sentence, depending on how you hear it. If you measure righteousness the way the Pharisees did, in terms of meticulous compliance with the letter of the law, then it was a death sentence. It would have sounded in the ears of his hearers at the time a bit like if I was to say that unless your charitableness made Mother Theresa look selfish and stingy, you’d be going straight to hell. But if you hear it the way I think Jesus wanted it to be heard, as saying that God couldn’t really care less how many check boxes on the religious law test you could tick — kept that, kept that, kept that! — but cares intently how you are growing in love and peace and justice and mercy, then it is majorly liberating. But it is not liberating in the way that says, “All bets are off, you can now do anything you feel like doing.” It is a liberation to begin to be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect, not weighed down by burdens of guilt and anxiety.
I once met with the head of one of those well known “family values” Christian ethics organisations, to see whether we could get anywhere in understanding our differences over the ethics of homosexuality. He was and is one of the most vociferous condemners of any acceptance of gay couples. But as we talked, we discovered that we were both remarried divorcees, and as I probed his thinking on that, it because apparent to me that one of the things that drives him is a deep anxiety about his own acceptability to God because of this. He was anxious that he will stand before God labelled as an adulterer, and it seems that he is trying to make up for it by being the most hard working opponent of all other sexual vice. It was very sad to see a Christian leader with so little faith in the mercy of God.
You see, one of the big things that changes when you get a handle on what Jesus is saying here is that it lifts much of your anxiety about the past. And this is why it often looks like being liberal and lax to those with more legalistic mindsets. What it tells us is that Jesus is not going through the records of your past looking for reasons to write you off. Instead, he is quite happy to draw a line under your past and focus on how you are going to live tomorrow. Any recovering alcoholic will tell you that it doesn’t really matter how many drinks you had yesterday, it is how many you have tomorrow that makes all the difference, and it is no different for the rest of us recovering sinners. Jesus is all about a generous mercy that forgives the sins of yesterday and sets us free to be joyously and extravagantly good and loving and righteous and just tomorrow. And in his mercy, he challenges us to set our sights on being exactly that. He calls us to lift our standards and aim for the stars, limiting ourselves to neither the standards of our past performance nor the minimum requirements of any written code of law, biblical or otherwise.
So, yes, I stand before you as one who has fallen short of pretty much every line we heard from Jesus’ sermon on the mount tonight. I have lost my temper. I have insulted people. I have called someone a fool. I have looked lustfully at women I wasn’t married to. I have failed to tear out my eyes after doing so. I have been divorced and then remarried. I have told lies, and I have made vows I should not have made and have not kept. If Jesus had meant his words a a strict legal code, then its Murderer? Tick. Adulterer? Tick. Bearer of false witness? Tick. Even on paper, on minimum legal requirements, my righteousness has come no where near that of the average Pharisee of Jesus’s day. Am I destined for hell? Well, I guess we’ll find out in due time, but I don’t think so. Because everything that Jesus is on about says that he is not looking for an excuse to condemn me, or to condemn you, but for ways to set us free to be all we were created to be, to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Yes, he is calling us to lift our standards and take seriously the lofty vision of righteousness and integrity that the law was intended to embody. But yes, thanks be to God, his call is so full of love and mercy and gentle humour that it lifts our guilt, heals our wounds, and sets us free to really give it a red hot go.