Judgement and Grace (A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. ‘but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-29)

Yes, we’ve reached the pointy end of the Sermon on the Mount, and in many ways it’s hard to believe that this is the same sermon that began with such an effusive outpouring of blessings:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are the peacemakers

We started on such a positive note with Jesus, and then the blessings seem to give way to curses or sorts, and it gets worse – particularly if you’ve been divorced:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

What do you do with that? Well, we know what the church has historically done with that. It has reviled and excluded divorced people – forcing them out of the church or, at the very least, treating them like second class citizens. I shouldn’t say ‘them’, or course. They treat people like me as second-class Christians. Mene, mene, tekel and upharsin – we have been weighed in the balance and found lacking.

Of course, it all depends on which side of the ledger you stand. If you’re one of the many church-goers who have a perfect marriage (or seem to), this is one of those pieces of Scripture which gives you a bit of a platform from which you can look down on the great unwashed, and the beauty of it is that it’s very clear on which side of the ledger you stand in this instance. Are you divorced or not? If so, fail. If not, well done!

I remember hearing someone say how his grandmother’s marriage had been “saved by her death”. My grandparents had hated each other for years, he said, and she was always talking about leaving him, but she never did. At the funeral everyone spoke about how the two had stuck it out through thick and thin and stayed in their for the long term – a virtual archetype of marital fidelity, whereas if she had got up the guts to leave their marriage would have been considered an epic fail! That’s how our society still works in many instances. I just didn’t think it was how Jesus worked.

Mind you, when it comes to the warnings about lust and the associated sin of anger, I’m starting to feel a lot more smug myself about which side of that ledger I’m on.

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27)

Yes. There are a lot of people out there like that – consumed by lust and the associated sins of the flesh! I don’t include myself anymore in that sorry league of the great unwashed, and there’s a good reason for that. I’m 58 (tomorrow). I’m old!

For those who have read Plato’s Republic, you may well remember that it begins with Socrates on his way to the temple, talking about the benefits of old age – the chief of which is that you find yourself increasingly released from the temptations of the flesh!

Oh … I remember when I was all of 18 years of age and the pastor of one of the churches I was attending then sat me down to counsel me over what was blocking the spiritual gifts from properly emerging in me (the gift of tongues in particular). He looked at me with searing eyes and asked me whether I struggled with the temptation to lust, and he even questioned me about the ‘m’ word (masturbation).

I wish I could go back now and look straight back at him with the confidence of someone who is his moral equal! Actually, I’m glad I can’t go back, because before he died, he confessed to a series of crimes of sexual abuse against children. I was never one of his victims, but perhaps I should feel morally superior to him now?

And it’s the same of course with anger.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21,22)

I’ve been working my way through a rather lengthy book of late by Professor Angela Duckworth, entitled “Grit”, in which the author tries to assess the contribution personal ‘grittiness’ makes to long term success. ‘Grit’ is a very American term, of course. We might prefer ‘determination’ or ‘stubbornness’, but you get the idea. At any rate, one of the studies she discusses tries to assess whether people get more gritty as they got older, and there is apparently no evidence that they do. What the evidence does suggest though is that as we get older, we get calmer.

So … yes, despite the fact that I almost got into a fist fight with a group I found in the old rectory this week who were there without permission, I do find that I am getting calmer as I get older (on most days, anyway) and I suspect most of us do.

It seems to be a very divisive passage – this piece from the sermon on the mount. There seems to be a stark division being drawn between the over-sexed and the under-sexed, between those who are rowdy and violent and those who are calm and serene, between the pillars of marital fidelity and the wreckages of family breakdown, between the righteous and the unrighteous. If you are old and calm and serene, the Church of Jesus Christ is waiting for you! If, on the other hand, you are young and over-sexed and full of passion, give it a few years. We aren’t going anywhere. Is that the message from today’s Gospel reading? I don’t think so.

As I say, how you feel about these teachings from Jesus will depend very much on which side of the ledger you see yourself on, but I want to suggest to you that maybe, just maybe, the whole point of some of these teachings is that nobody is on the right side of the ledger.

“You have heard that it was said … ‘You shall not murder … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21,22)

Does that sort of exhortation from Jesus really allow us to point the finger at someone else? As I heard one commentator say, “I keep really well to that commandment until I get in the car and drive to work” … “Fool!”

Perhaps part of the point Jesus is making here is that everyone is guilty. We’re not all guilty of murder, literally, but we may well have been angry enough at some point in our lives to have murdered someone. Perhaps the real difference between the person who murders and the person who is murderously angry is just opportunity?

And likewise, when it comes to lust. If you think you’re morally superior to other people because you’ve never committed adultery, have you ever really wanted to? Have you thought about it? Has it taken place in your heart plenty of times? Is the only difference between you and those adulterers who you despise opportunity?

I’m not suggesting that Jesus isn’t saying that being angry and lustful is a bad thing. Anger and lust can be horribly destructive human emotions, but they are emotions that, at one time or another, we all experience. Maybe it’s time we recognised that we are really in no way morally superior to those for whom anger and lust become their undoing. Maybe, but for the Grace of God, there go we all!

Maybe it’s time we stopped feeling superior to the lustful and the rambunctious just because we’re old. Maybe it’s time I stopped looking down on that pastor who was a pedophile? Maybe it’s time we realised that no one is righteous – no, not one!

And what about the prohibition against divorce? That seems clear, isn’t it?

It’s curious, I think, when you read through today’s Gospel in Matthew chapter five as a whole, there are lots of disturbing lines in it:

  • “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (vs. 22)
  • If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (vs.29)
  •  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (vs.30)

I don’t think at any point in the last 2000 years has the church ever taken any of these statements from Jesus literally. For some reason though, the snippet about divorce and remarriage has repeatedly been taken completely literally as an eternal command from Jesus, forbidding divorce under any circumstances and forbidding those who are divorced from ever re-partnering. That is not the Lord Jesus I know.

I don’t think you have to be too brilliant a scholar to work out what’s going on here:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’, but I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

Yes, it seems that a law that was originally designed to help people make a transition in cases of marital breakdown had become a tool of oppression used by men (specifically) to retire partners who no longer suited them for the sake of an upgrade. Jesus is simply calling a spade a spade – saying that adultery is adultery, regardless of whether you can produce a certificate to legitimate it.

I don’t think I need to say more on that, but what I believe we really need to see is the broad way in which Jesus, who ‘did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it’ (Matthew 5:17), reinterprets these ancient laws of God to make them relevant to the people He is dealing with. His goal, I believe, is not to divide people into the righteous and the unrighteous, any more than it is to penalize those who fail in their marriages. The goal, I would suggest is simply to clear the path for love.

If you’ve read the Gospel stories, you know that there were really only two groups of people that Jesus ever took issue with, and it wasn’t the weak and the sinful. It was – the very rich and the very religious. His problem here is with the very religious, and the way the law of God can be used and abused to block the path to love. When it comes to how we are to treat the weak and the sinful, Jesus’ command is clear:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 16th of February, 2020.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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