“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, ‘You must not murder,’ and ‘Whoever murders will be subject to punishment.’ But I say to you, anyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be subject to punishment. And whoever says to his brother ‘Raka!’ will be subject to the Council. And whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hell fire. …”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, anyone who stares at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So 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 to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away from you. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.”
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But I say to you, any man who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, ‘You must not swear an oath falsely,’ but ‘You must fulfill your oaths to the Lord.’ But I tell you not to swear at all, neither by heaven, because it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, because it is his footstool, nor by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the Great King. Nor should you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. Instead, let your word be ‘Yes’ for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ for ‘No.’ Anything more than that comes from the evil one.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evildoer. On the contrary, whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go two with him. Give to the person who asks you for something, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow something from you.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you will become children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and he lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? And if you greet only your brothers, what great thing are you doing? Even the gentiles do the same, don’t they? So be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Last week, via a miracle in the preaching roster, I was given the opportunity to avoid preaching on what must be the most painful part of the Sermon on the Mount – the section that deals with those apparently harsh mandates of Jesus that target both those who lust and those whose marriages have broken down (Matthew 5:21-37). This week’s passage, on the other hand (Matthew 5:38-48), focuses on far more nourishing mandates such as ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ – verses that are far more appealing to me as a preacher.
Even so, call me masochistic, but I felt it would be cheating to skip over the apparently nasty bits in order to bathe in the more inspirational verses, and so I’ve decided to try to deal with these two sections of Matthew chapter 5 as a whole!
These passages combined, I believe, are the very heart of Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount – and so it makes sense to take them as a whole. Even so, the problem with doing that, as I have already suggested, is that these different sections of the sermon don’t fit easily together!
On the one hand we have the powerful pacifist teachings of Jesus that inspired persons such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. to lead crusades for social change relying entirely on the power of non-violent resistance:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evildoer. On the contrary, whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.” (vss. 38-39)
Yet on the other hand, only a few verses earlier, Jesus gives some unambiguously violent instructions to those who find themselves struggling with lust or anger:
“So if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. Better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell.”(v. 29)
On the one hand we have the command to show love and compassion to everyone:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbour’ and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (vss.43-44)
And yet on the other hand we have what seems like complete intolerance shown to persons whose marriages have broken down:
“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But I say to you, any man who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (vss.31-32)
And these two seemingly incompatible voices are heard not only in the commands given by Jesus in Matthew chapter five but equally in the depiction that He gives of God who, on the one hand, is easy-going and merciful to everybody – “making his sun rise on the evil and the good, and letting rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (vs.45), and yet who, on the other hand, demands complete perfection of His followers: “You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect!” (vs.48)
Those who know me at all know that I don’t see it as my role to try to take the hard edge off the teachings of Jesus by diluting the force of His more painful statements.
The issue here though is not that Jesus’ commands are hard but rather that Jesus appears to be schizophrenic – speaking of love and mercy on the one hand and yet advocating violence and showing callous indifference on the other!
And so we do need to push more deeply into this passage as we know that Jesus was not schizophrenic and that He was never indifferent to the needs of those who are struggling. And I want to take as my starting point the verses in this passage that have troubled me for the longest:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, anyone who stares at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (5:27-28)
And when I say ‘troubled me for the longest’ I mean that quite literally, for I remember struggling with these verses after I was first converted as a teenager.
You’ll have to forgive me if I share a personal story at this point concerning this rather personal issue but I couldn’t think of a better way to illustrate the point.
I had my rather dramatic conversion experience shortly after my 18th birthday – almost to the day in fact, thirty-one years ago. And in my early years as a believer I attended two churches, one being a Pentecostal church which had a big emphasis on speaking in tongues. And I couldn’t speak in tongues, and so was sent to the senior pastor – a man who I knew was very close to God – for counselling.
And this great man of God listened to me as I spoke to him of my failure in the tongues department and then asked me only one question: ‘Do you have a problem with masturbation?’
And I was astonished by the piercing insight of this man who evidently had powers that could only be attributed to the special indwelling of the Holy Spirit that he experienced.
And so my respect for the pastor’s greatness deepened even further, and I naturally put into practice every word of advice he gave me, which involved practising extended periods of fasting and praying, none of which though ever achieved the result we were hoping for. I still don’t speak in tongues.
Years later I discovered that this same pastor had confessed to committing a series of sexual assaults on young men, and I don’t know whether he’d had any hidden agenda in my case. I had realised though by that time that this man could have asked any teenage Christian male – in this country or in any country in the world – the exact same question that he had asked me and have been almost 100% certain of the answer he was going to receive!
It’s not just a teenage issue of course, but it is one that is rarely discussed in church and it is one that Christian women, in particular, are often very ignorant about.
As you know, I run a series of websites, a number of which deal with issues of depression and addiction, and through these and my other websites I have received a lot of emails, mainly from Christian women, who write to me because their husbands have sex or pornography addictions.
In almost every case the issue has been that these good women have discovered that their husbands have been looking at X-rated websites, and now they are wondering who it is that they really married and how it is that their husbands can still sit there in church and try to look respectable while all the time hanging on to their grubby little secret.
My answer to these good Christian women is always the same. “Sister, every man in your congregation has looked at a pornographic website at some time or other.” After they receive that reply from me I almost invariably never hear from them again!
And I remember recently hearing a rather well-known radio preacher railing against the horrors of Internet pornography and going into (what I thought was) unnecessary detail about just how degrading some of these sites are, and then adding, “or so I have been told”.
The hypocrisy of these men is, I suspect, as great as the ignorance of their women. And by saying this I don’t mean to minimize in any way the nastiness of Internet porn which I do think is the scourge of the virtual world – degrading women and exploiting men in ways that are not only immoral but regularly criminal – and yet I don’t think that the Christian community is likely to make much headway in this area until we can be a little more honest about where we are at.
Interestingly, my time spent with the Islamic community suggests to me that Muslim people in this community are, on the whole, far more realistic about issues of sexuality (male sexuality, at any rate). We might not like the way they deal with it -segregating themselves and forbidding physical contact between the sexes – yet my conversations with Muslim friends suggests to me that they are, on the whole, far more aware of what we are dealing with. It’s the Christian community that lives in denial, and I’d suggest that the final proof of that is the way we’ve covered up so many cases of sexual abuse by our clergy.
Now I do have a point I’m trying to make in all of this, and not simply a pastoral point but an exegetical one as well and it is this. When Jesus says, “anyone who stares at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” He is not referring to a tiny number of grubby little men who pretend to be Christians but who are actually no better than adulterers. He is referring to every man.
Jesus knows full well that everybody struggles with lust at some point in their lives, just as everybody struggles with anger, which He also targets. So why on earth would Jesus want to make us feel worse about something that we all struggle with? Well, when you look closely at these verses you realise that this is not actually what He’s doing at all. For there is no actual command – ‘thou shalt not lust’ – here at all, but only a comparison between the person who lusts and the person who commits adultery. For what is it that separates the person who lusts from the person who commits adultery? Only one thing: opportunity.
The person who lusts commits adultery in his heart. So what makes him think that he is any better than the adulterer? This, I would suggest, is the key issue. It’s not so much that lust is despicable and unforgiveable, but that none of us have the right to judge adulterers, for we’ve all been there in our hearts.
And the same applies to the angry person, Jesus says, ‘Do you take pride in the fact that you haven’t murdered anybody and so look down on all murderers? If you’ve ever been murderously angry you’ve been there in your heart, and the only thing distinguishing you from an actual murderer has been your circumstances!’
The issue on view here and throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount is, I’d suggest, the way we religious people manipulate the law of God both to justify ourselves and to excuse ourselves from doing what is actually required of us.
And so we self-righteous hypocrites look down upon the prison population because they are all murderers and thieves, and yet even if we have never murdered or stolen anything in our lives, we have been angry enough to kill and covetous enough to steal, so what makes us think we are any better than any of them?
We good, respectable church people – we don’t smoke, drink or chew or go with girls who do, and so we look down upon the promiscuous rabble because we have been righteous and maintained our sexual purity. Yet if we are honest with ourselves we know full well that the only thing that separates us from those who have spectacularly fallen from grace is our differing circumstances and opportunities.
It is a similar issue with those who get rid of their partners in order to trade them in for younger and more attractive models. It’s an act of violence against your partner and you don’t somehow legitimise it by coming up with a certificate of divorce.
I’ve mentioned before how when I was in Melbourne as a guest on one of John Safran’s shows I met a woman who had been a professional wife while in Iran. In this country we would say she had been a sex-worker or ‘prostitute’, but of course prostitution is illegal in Iran but, on the other hand, polygamy is not. And so men – married or unmarried – could go to the flat of this woman and marry her on the way in, spend half an hour with her, and give her a certificate of divorce on the way out.
And the beauty of the system of course was that these men had nothing to confess to their wives when they get home. They had done nothing wrong. They had not committed adultery but had simply found a loophole in the law of God that allowed them both to have their cake and eat it. And Jesus says ‘rubbish’!
If you’re going to trade in your faithful wife for a younger and prettier model at least be honest about what you’re doing and don’t hid behind the law of God and make out that you’re doing something virtuous because you’ve issued a certificate!
It’s the same issue with those who use the law as an excuse for vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was supposed to be a law that limited retaliation and never an excuse for vengeance, just as the command to show love to those who do good to you was never supposed to be an excuse to be bad to those who don’t!
You must be like your Heavenly Father, says Jesus, “who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God, in other words, is not trying to work His way around a law because He is not guided by any law but is instead guided and motivated by love!
And so we must be perfect, says Jesus, like our Heavenly Father – not perfect in the sense that He keeps a perfect score, but perfect in the sense of ‘complete’ (which is probably a better translation of the Greek word ‘telios’). And the complete person, in this case, is someone who moves beyond the simple letter of the law in the way they live and is instead guided and motivated by love, as is their Heavenly Father.
This is the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount – not an unrelenting task-master laying down a new law but the one who fulfils the law and helps us to see it in a new way. For the goal of the Christian life is not simply to play by the rules with a view to achieving a perfect score, but to allow the Spirit of God to live in us and through us and so to live in love and become complete persons, just like our Heavenly Father. Amen.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 20, 2010.