A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 & 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 by Nathan Nettleton
Jesus made frequent use of exaggeration and hyperbole to illustrate his points, and the extract from the sermon on the mount that we heard in tonight’s gospel reading contained some classic examples. Jesus does not literally mean that anyone who calls someone a fool will be sent to hell or that you should pluck your eyes out or cut your hands off if they cause you to sin. Nor does he exactly mean that anger should be worth twenty years jail and that an erotic thought is just as serious as a full on adulterous affair. And there were more examples of hyperbole than those in just tonight’s extract. But, and this is a very big ‘but’, that does not mean that Jesus was not calling us beyond what we can readily imagine. Far too often when dealing with his teachings from the sermon on the mount, people conclude that there is hyperbole, and that therefore they don’t need to worry about it. There is plenty here that we need to allow to challenge us. In fact, I wonder whether it is a bit like what the Apostle Paul was talking about in our second reading when he distinguished between the milky teachings for spiritual infants, and the solid meat teachings for those who were ready for it. I think perhaps Jesus is saying that the things covered in the law, like don’t murder and don’t commit adultery are just a starting point for those whose lives need some basic limits to restrain the worst excesses, but that it doesn’t really tell us much about what God would really like us to become. What Jesus really wants to teach us, his solid meaty teaching, is not about simply restraining some animalistic excesses, but about total transformation from the inside out, to lift us to a whole new level of humanity — glorious, wonderful, full humanity.
What Jesus is saying is that he doesn’t want us to be the sort of people who barely manage to keep ourselves out of jail. He doesn’t want us to be the sort of people who are seething cesspools of bitterness and hostility even if we do manage to pull ourselves up short of actually killing someone, just. He doesn’t want us to be the sort of people who can’t relate to any attractive person without our imaginations turning into seedy degrading porno cinemas, even if we can still say “I did not have sex with that person” will somewhat more truthfulness than Bill Clinton. Jesus’s intention for us goes a whole lot further than just constraining the extremes. Jesus wants us to be whole, to be free, to be life-givers and peacemakers and community builders and generators of love and mercy and joy. Jesus wants us to be like him. And that doesn’t start by curbing behaviours, but by going to the core, going to the roots. As I said two weeks ago when we looked at the beatitudes that open the sermon on the mount, the kind of behavioural standards we are now hearing described in the sermon on the mount are the things that naturally flow if the beatitudes describe the core of your being, the shape of your heart. They are not impossible to live, but you’ll never produce them without first having your heart freed from the normal patterns of selfish and competitive human culture.
I’m going to give most of my attention tonight to unpacking what Jesus says about anger and murder and reconciliation. It is not that I’m afraid of the divorce and adultery part. Most of you know that I have been divorced and remarried, and I have addressed those issues quite often in my preaching, including the last time this passage came up. It is just that I think the things Jesus says about anger and murder get us to the heart of things more quickly and it then becomes easier to see what he means with the other teachings. That’s probably why Jesus did it this way round himself, and since we don’t have one hour sermons here, I’ll just start where he started and settle for that tonight.
So, what is Jesus getting at here? We have trouble with it because we are so locked in to thinking about these things as law, and therefore as part of a legal system of prohibitions and punishments. And in such a system, there is always a scale from smaller offences with light penalties through to major crimes with heavy penalties. And if you are approaching it with that mindset, then Jesus appears to be saying that every offence is just as bad as any other — angry insults are as bad as murder — and every offence will be punished equally, and therefore the whole world is reduced to absolute black and white. One strike and you’re out. Only the perfect will escape the fires of hell. There is no doubt that it can be read that way, because that is what Jesus says if you take it all literally, but I’ve not come across even the most literalist of churches treating every angry insult the same way they would treat a murder. So the churches are probably all agreed that such a literalist reading doesn’t get us to the heart of what Jesus was saying, but where do we go from there?
By starting with this thing about anger and murder, Jesus is going straight to the heart of a basic truth about how the world works, and the change that is needed to save it. Over and over on the news we see stories about how conflicts have started over something small and escalated. And it is as though we are still stuck in that infantile state that Paul names, as we stand in the playground, yelling “he started it, and I’m going to get him back.” An offence is caused, and the offended one responds in kind, because we have trouble imagining any possible way of responding other than by balancing the scales. But hardly ever does the recipient of the retaliation respond by walking away saying, “Oh well, fair enough. I got exactly what I deserved and now we’re quits.” Hardly ever. Almost always, even if there is an admission that there was any fault in the first place, the retaliation is seen as excessive, and it therefore deserves a further, heavier retaliation, which is, in its turn seen as excessive. So we see it played out all over the world where something that began as a minor insult between two people escalates step by step, through insults to fists to weapons or legal proceedings, and to the involvement of relatives and friends who are now trading insults and blows as well, and sometimes it even blows up all the way to a full scale tribal or ethnic conflict. One of your lot insulted one of our lot and before long there are angry mobs chanting in the street and to back down would be to dishonour the whole group, and there will be murder for sure.
So Jesus is suggesting that it all starts with our determination that no insult or offence can be let go until the guilty party has paid. Offenders must be made to pay, and we dress it up and call it a justice system, because at least that way it is regulated and less likely to keep escalating, but Jesus is saying that whatever you dress it up as, the basic principle that underlies it is still payback or revenge. If you injure me in any way, I will ensure that you are made to pay. So, Jesus suggests, the only difference between the decision to cherish and feed your anger and an actual murder is a progression over time. They are just different stages of the same journey, and Jesus did not come to call us to cut short our journey on that track, but to take the whole journey on an entirely different track.
Basically Jesus says that when it comes to how you live in this world, you can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution. You can contribute to the sum total of anger and bitterness and hostility in the world, or you can be one of those who absorbs whatever comes your way and returns none of it, thus reducing it. But you don’t become part of the solution by just not going so far down the payback and retaliation track. You have to change tracks completely. You have to get on the model-yourself-on-Jesus track. You’re modelling yourself on others either way, because retaliation is always about modelling yourself on your enemy. I see what you do, and I feel compelled to copy, to do it back, and with each step we double our contribution to the problem. Jesus calls us to copy him instead, to model ourselves on him.
When Jesus was insulted, he sought no payback. He absorbed the venom and returned only love. When Jesus was ridiculed and mocked, he didn’t return it in kind. He swallowed the barbs and returned only love. When they came after Jesus with clubs and spears and swords, he didn’t call down the armies of heaven. He told his followers to put away their knives, and he handed himself over with his head held high. When Jesus was dragged before the courts on false charges, he didn’t pour forth a string of counter charges against his assailants. He answered their questions, maintained his innocence and returned only love and dignity. And when Jesus was tortured to death on a cross, he didn’t curse his killers and scream out prayers for God’s anger to be poured out on them in full come judgement day. He prayed for their forgiveness, and rose from the dead three days later, not to bring down vengeance, but to continue his offer of forgiveness and reconciliation and love.
Those who say that the ethics of the sermon on the mount are impossible to put into practice are failing to notice that Jesus has already lived them to the full. He does not call us to do anything that he has not already done to the max. He simply calls us to repent, to turn our backs on the ways that we have always done things in the past and to model ourselves entirely on the the radical self-offering love of God that we have seen played out in a human life to remove all doubt about whether it is possible. It is difficult, sure. It takes guts and prayer and the support of one another, but Jesus has proved beyond all doubt that it is entirely possible. And that it changes the world.
In a few minutes time, we will be symbolically playing out a part of this reading, one of the more ordinary practical examples that Jesus gives of how it all looks when it is not quite at the blood and gore crucifixion stage. The church’s practice of exchanging greetings of peace with one another before we share the bread and wine at the Lord’s table is based on the words we heard from Jesus tonight about going and being reconciled to anyone who has something against you before proceeding to offer your gifts on the altar. The point is that in sharing bread and wine here, we are accepting an offer of love and peace from Jesus, and that love and peace is not really offered to us as isolated individuals, but as people in community. It is not so much about you and Jesus as it is about you and his body, the whole community of those he loves and died for. It is an invitation to share at a table with others, and so it demands of you that you be willing to set aside any grudge or hostility that would stop you from sitting down at table with these others. The handshakes that really matter when we share the peace are not the ones with the people you like and are glad to see, but the ones with those who your are finding it difficult to be in the same room with. Obviously a quick handshake doesn’t make everything right, but if it is offered as a pledge of willingness to be reconciled and to work out that reconciliation in reality then it is a starting place, a healthy starting place. And starting places is what Jesus is really on about here. It is all about starting at the core, giving up anger and bitterness before it takes any sort of root or bears any sort of fruit.
Jesus has shown us that it certainly isn’t easy, but also that it certainly isn’t impossible. It is about lifting our humanity to a new level, and it is nothing less than the guts of the gospel. The pathway of payback is the problem. The pathway of mercy, led by Jesus is the solution, the salvation of the world. It is time to change track and follow him.