Sermon: Matthew 5:21-37
I want to start today with a story. It’s about a minister of religion. He was very smart, capable, and well-loved within his church and the denomination he was part of. From the outside he was an outstanding preacher, a loving husband and father, a great teacher, and a shining example of successful ministry. When people had questions regarding their faith, about the bible, about life, quite often he was the first person they would turn to. As far as the denomination was concerned, he was on the rise; a future leader of the movement, and someone to keep an eye on.
But it was all a shell. Hidden beneath the surface was a broken man. The image he had become accustomed to portraying to the world was not the reality of what was happening beneath the surface. One day, not so long ago, cracks appeared and the shell was broken and everything came crumbling down. He lost his wife, his family, his ministry. He lost everything.
Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon story. What makes this story a little different is not that it is unique, because it’s not, but that it’s mine. This is my story.
A little over two years ago Sonia and I first entered into this church. I was broken, exhausted, desperate for forgiveness and hope, and longing for community. I remember that first Sunday weeping as Norm led us through the intercessions. I remember hearing the words of forgiveness as Victor pronounced them and feeling them deeply within myself. I remember the welcome from people I’d never met. I remember Victor’s kind and pastoral words to us both the next week when he took us for coffee to get to know us better. Having heard our story, in much more detail, he said to us both “I hope this church can be a place of healing for you both.”
So, here I stand before you, looking back on the last two years and still wondering in amazement at the grace of God. I stand before you wondering how this all happened. And, more importantly, how did a divorced and remarried man, standing alongside his divorced and remarried wife, end up being rostered on to preach on this passage today!? If nothing else, God, or Victor, or both, have a sense of humour.
We’ve all heard it said that reading the text in context is really important and this passage is a prime example of why. On its own, this passage could be considered Jesus making the rules even harder to follow. But the passage is a part of a bigger section of Matthew’s gospel; what we’ve come to know as the sermon on the Mount.
This sermon, the first of five sections of teaching that Matthew has grouped together in his account of the gospel, is the first and the most well-known of Jesus’ teaching. It’s important we know who the audience of this sermon is. Matthew 5:1-2 lets us know; “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he began to speak and taught them.”
The disciples, not the crowds, were the audience for this teaching. This is a message for insiders, not outsiders.
Secondly, the section comes from a set of six sayings where Jesus reframes existing teaching. Six times he says “you have heard that it was said… but I say to you.” We have heard four of the six sayings in today’s gospel reading. The other two appear in next week's reading. Last week we heard the words of Jesus at the start of these six sayings “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20) At the end of the section is the seemingly impossible imperative “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). In between both is today’s passage.
Call someone a fool and you will be liable to the hell of fire. Lust after a woman and you have already committed adultery. You’re better off poking out your eye or cutting off your hand if they’re causing you to sin. Married a divorced woman and you’re causing her to commit adultery as well. Carry out the vows you make and let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything beyond this is from the evil one.
This is really hard teaching. And if we take it out of context, that is if we don’t read around this passage, we’re likely to become very disheartened by this passage. We might think that Jesus is just taking legalism to a whole new level. Taken on its own, there is very little hope for those who have failed. There is no word of grace. At least not in this section.
I want to promise you, though, that there is hope. There is grace. There is mercy for the sinner. We just need to consider more than this passage alone.
Before we get to that I want to highlight how Jesus is not making the rules even harder for his followers. There are some other aspects at play here. In particular, I want to draw your attention to the two sayings that focus on sexual ethics. Pay attention to Jesus’ words at this point. Who is benefiting from Jesus’ teaching?
Listen again to this section
“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.”
Who benefits from this teaching? (Women)
Who has greater expectations placed upon them? (Men)
This is vastly different to the teaching of Jesus’ day, and even the narrative you will commonly hear in the world today. Many times, when you hear of a woman being assaulted by a man, questions will be asked about the woman – “what was she wearing?” “was she drunk?” “was she on her own?” “was it late at night?” and on and on it goes. Rarely do questions get asked about the man’s behaviour. “Was he drunk?” “was he trying to impress his mates?” “Did he have her consent?”
Here Jesus places the emphasis exactly where it needs to be. Upon the men. Upon their attitudes, behaviours, and treatment of women. Looking at a woman lustfully? Cut your eye out! Cut your hand off! Change your behaviour. Don’t expect the woman to change hers because you can’t control yourself. You are the problem.
Now, given I’m looking around with
two eyes and two hands and I’m seeing lots of two-eyed, two-handed men around
the room, we know instinctively that interpretation of the passage is
important. Was Jesus really expecting men to gouge out their eyes or cut off
their hands if they lust after women? Probably not. Rather, the emphasis upon
this teaching, and the teaching around it, is upon the attitude that lies
Call someone a fool? Well, you may not have actually murdered them but you’ve considered them less worthy than you and treated them with murderous contempt. Look upon a woman lustfully? Even if you haven’t committed adultery with her in your heart you’ve treated her as an object that is there for your sexual gratification; not a human made in the image of God, worthy of love, respect, and honour. Promise to do something and then not follow through? Your word is worthless and your integrity is lost.
These teachings are about love. Love for others. Love for women. Love for yourself. Whilst that may not be immediately clear within this reading today it becomes even clearer as we read on. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (5:43). The expectations are high and they go beyond behaviour to attitudes of the heart.
And the most difficult expectation of all comes right at the end. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48)
How is that even possible?
We might have attained something close to perfection if Jesus had just said “Be perfect,” but then he went and made the comparison that makes this imperative well beyond our reach. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How? Is this even possible? Is Jesus just setting a bar that is infinitely beyond our reach and then expecting us to jump over it? Is that what is happening here?
Again, context is critical here.
Back at the start of this section, in the passage that was read last week, Jesus gave us the word of hope. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (5:17).
That word “fulfil” is a major theme
in Matthew’s account of the gospel.
Matt 1:22 “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”
2:17 “Then what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.”
8:17 “This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
26:54 “But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
Jesus came not to abolish the law, and the attitudes and ‘heart’ that lay beneath it, but to fulfil it. To do for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is the word of grace. This is the word of hope. The expectations are not lowered making grace something cheap and easy to attain. The expectations are raised and then fulfilled by Jesus on our behalf. This grace is costly and expensive; costing Jesus his own life.
Now, the good news keeps getting better. When Jesus says “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he’s not raising the bar to a level that is impossible to attain. No… he’s giving you a gift. The perfection that is rightfully his becomes gracefully ours.
This is grace. Even “the vilest
offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” When we
are united with Christ his perfection becomes our perfection. And so even a
failed, former minister of religion, whose fall from grace was very public, can
stand again, restored and renewed, perfect, in Christ, as his heavenly Father
is perfect. But only by his grace.