Summary: We’re to be counter-cultural in the way we fight against the social pressures of our world where the norm is to respond to hurt with anger and revenge, where lust is seen as normal, faithfulness as an option. Rather we’re to respond with the servant love
According to the Age this week, the seven deadly sins have been knocked for six. No longer do we worry about sloth, gluttony or lust. In fact most respondents to a recent survey carried out by the BBC said they rather enjoyed those particular vices. The trouble is, according to a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick in central England, the word sin can seem "terribly old-fashioned and judgmental".
You sometimes hear people say that they don’t worry about the 10 commandments, they just live by the sermon on the mount. It’s almost as though the sermon on the mount has become the Mrs Beeton of the Christian household. It’s the answer to all your questions on how to keep your life in order so you’ll be good enough for God.
Well that’s all well and good, unless you actually get around to reading the sermon on the mount. Because here we don’t actually find much in the way of comfort and certainly no escape clauses. Rather we find a fairly radical reinterpretation of God’s law that doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvring or slipping through loop holes. In today’s passage Jesus begins by reinforcing the seriousness of God’s law, then proceeds to address the issue of what it really means to avoid murder, followed by a look at sexual purity and marital fidelity.
Fulfilling the Law
First Jesus assures his listeners that he hasn’t come to diminish the importance of the law at all. In fact his coming will fulfil the law. Far from turning people away from God’s word, he emphasises it’s value; so much so that he issues a dire warning to anyone who seeks to lessen the impact of that word: "whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." And how do you become great in God’s kingdom? By doing and teaching God’s commandments.
You see, Jesus wants us to take Scripture very seriously. He certainly does. He came to bring the Old Testament Scriptures to fulfilment. So here’s the first thing we need to take away from today’s reading: knowing and understanding the Scriptures is vital for a Christian’s walk with God. That’s one reason we encourage members of the congregation to belong to a small group, particularly one where they can read God’s word together and let it speak to their lives. And despite everything we know about salvation by grace alone, God still expects us to live upright lives; lives, as Jesus describes it, that are even more righteous than those of the Scribes and Pharisees.
You see, what we’ll find as we read through the following verses is that Jesus isn’t interested in a simple literal reading of the text. His desire for the value of Scripture to be upheld isn’t an anti-intellectual desire. Rather what we find is that as he reads the Old Testament law he reads it in the knowledge of the character of God that he’s encountered within the pages of those Scriptures.
Murder, Anger and Hatred
So he says, 21"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ’You shall not murder’; and ’whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’" At face value, it seems a simple question of law: ’You mustn’t kill people’. Well, we passed that one, didn’t we? What’s next? But hang on a second. It’s not quite that simple is it? He goes on: 22"But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ’You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire."
Murder is about destroying people isn’t it? But what Jesus is saying is that there’s more than one way to destroy someone. Anger, contempt, ridicule, hatred, are all emotions that destroy. Sticks and stones do break bones, but words are just as effective if not more so, at hurting people.
A good modern example of what Jesus is pointing to is road rage. We all know abut road rage don’t we? It’s the flavour of the month at the moment. In fact it’s really a sign of the times. People are under such stress that when someone does something unexpected they completely lose it; they become totally irrational in the way they respond. And what’s at the root of that response? It’s a desire to destroy the person who’s done whatever it was. The sign of just how irrational this sort of behaviour is, of course, that generally whatever the misdemeanour was, it doesn’t warrant even an approximation of the sort of response it engenders. But it’s the sort of anger that equates to murder, even if it doesn’t quite get there in a literal sense.