A Sermon for Epiphany 6
TEXT: Matthew 5:21-37
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
Most of the time—as perhaps you’ve noticed—I try to keep my messages simple. And that’s as much for my benefit as for yours! Most of the time, I base my sermon on the gospel reading for the day; I look at what it says, and then I talk about just what that passage says, without ranging too far afield and bringing in a whole bunch of other stuff. I treat the day’s text as if it was in itself a complete meal, and I don’t order any side dishes.
Today, however, I have a problem. Today’s gospel meal calls out for a side dish or two. Today’s gospel might even give you a bad case of indigestion. So I feel like I need to offer some theological Alka-Seltzer.
Today’s sixteen verses from chapter five of Matthew are, of course, part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” It’s a long one—stretching through three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel—and in it, he says a lot! However, because it is a sermon—and because it’s a particular type of sermon—there’s also a lot he doesn’t say.
This is one of those cases where—by taking Jesus’ words out of context—you can wind up hearing quite a different message than he intended to give. And in this case, the context that’s needed is the context of Jesus’ entire body of teachings.
So, what am I on about? What is there about today’s gospel meal that might give you heartburn?
Well, some of you probably already know. Even something as apparently benign as the Beatitudes—which begin this mountain sermon—can produce in us some embarrassing rumblings. At least, that’s the way it is for me.
For instance, when I hear “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” I tend to ask myself: “Am I poor enough in spirit?” And then I’m afraid that maybe I don’t even know what that means!
Or, when I hear “blessed are the peacemakers,” I think about how weak my own commitment to peacemaking is. And then I feel guilty.
But then I remember I’m missing the point. Jesus is not setting up conditions or terms, but rather is just plain blessing people. All kinds of people. All kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, bottom-of-the-heap people.
And similarly, some of us—when we hear “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement”—our hearts sink, because we are angry with someone, and we don’t know how not to be. Maybe we even feel our anger is justified … yet here, Jesus is saying we’re like murderers!
Or—maybe some of you men can relate to this—we hear, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and we think, “Oh, man! Just thinking about it’s a sin? There’s no credit for good behaviour?”
Maybe we laugh at that, a little bit. But those of you who’ve gone through the intense pain of watching a marriage break up—of watching love die and then turn into something else—you won’t be laughing when you hear Jesus say: “anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
We hear Jesus say that, and it’s like a stab in the heart. Maybe you remember other things he said, like: “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:6). You hear those words and you feel condemned. You hear those words and you get angry. What kind of loving God is it that says you only get one shot at happiness, and then that’s it? What kind of just God would forbid someone to leave a marriage that’s full of misery and abuse?
You see what I mean about the Alka-Seltzer? I know people—and probably, we all know people—who’ve been turned right off of religion because of passages like these. But that’s a terrible shame.
It’s a tragedy, in fact, because—if you consider the whole message of Jesus, if you take the entire body of his teaching into account—you realize that he is not speaking words of blanket condemnation.
What do I mean? Well, let’s use this adultery thing as an example. Does the Bible say that adultery is bad? Of course it does.
Jesus himself said as much in today’s gospel reading. But that’s not the only thing he says about it. We need to look at his whole message, as presented in the entire gospel record.
There’s this story in John’s Gospel (8:3-11)—I’m sure you all know it—where the good religious people drag this poor woman in front of Jesus. She had been caught in the very act of adultery. They ask Jesus what he thinks they should do with her, and they remind him, “Moses commanded us to stone such women.”
Well, you remember his reply: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Of course, they realize that none of them qualify. One by one, they drop their stones and quietly slink away. Now alone with the woman, Jesus asks her: “Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she replies.
And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
No condemnation here. He simply urges her not to sin that way again, and—in a culture where an evening’s indiscretion could get you the death penalty—that’s pretty good advice! Jesus doesn’t excuse her sin, but notice this: he doesn’t condemn her, either. Even though there are solid grounds for condemning her, he chooses not to. Instead, he chooses to show mercy.
And throughout the gospels, we hear Jesus saying that this is what God is like. God—who has the right to judge us—would much rather forgive us. God prefers to show mercy.
Do you remember the story of the “prodigal son” in Luke (15:11-32)? A man had two sons. The youngest son demanded his inheritance early—which is kind of like saying he wished his father was dead! Then he blew it all on “dissolute living.” When he ran out of cash and really hit bottom, he decided he’d better go back home, apologize profusely, and see if his father would take him on as a hired servant.
But of course, when the father saw his son coming down the road, he ran to meet him, and he embraced him. The father did not even want to hear the boy’s apology. All he cared about was that his son—whom he had never stopped loving—had come home again. “That,” Jesus says, “is what God is like.”
So, when we hear provocative statements from Jesus—especially when we hear him say things that tempt us to lose heart, to lose hope, and throw in the towel on this discipleship thing—we need to remember the larger context of the Gospel. The Gospel is good news, not bad news.
Does Jesus condemn sin? Certainly, he does. But does Jesus condemn sinners? Apparently not. In fact, what he most often condemns is self-righteousness. He condemns those who think they are not sinners—those who think they are a cut above ordinary people like you and me, with all our weaknesses and poor judgment.
In fact, that’s actually what I think he’s doing in this morning’s gospel passage.
The law forbade adultery: “You shall not commit adultery.” That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?
So, on the surface of things, you might think that—as long as you managed to resist temptation—you could consider yourself far superior to those weaklings who gave in. Certainly, that was the conventional wisdom in Jesus’ day … because, after all, everybody has these feelings, right?
But what does Jesus say? He says, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Or, to paraphrase those words a bit: “If you have lust in your heart, and know what that is like, then you ought to show some compassion for people. If you really know what temptation is, and how strong it is, then you can show some pity for the person who gets overwhelmed by it.”
People in the Alcoholics Anonymous program have a saying: “You’re only one drink away from a drunk.” What that means, of course, is that—for the recovering alcoholic—relapse is a constant concern.
But it also means that, in AA, the person who does relapse—who “falls off the wagon”—is treated sympathetically, because every person in the program realizes: “Tomorrow, that could be me.”
That, I think, is the point Jesus is trying to make here, in the Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t say murder is acceptable. But to those who would cry out for the murderer’s blood, he says: “Consider where your own anger might lead you.”
God’s love and mercy toward us are not contingent upon our good behaviour. God’s laws and commandments were given to make our human lives better—but God understands how difficult our human lives can be. He understands that because—in the person of Jesus the Christ—God lived our human life.
In Jesus—who welcomed and embraced what we might call the worst of sinners—we see what God is like. In the words of Jesus, we hear God speak. And to those who come to Jesus—having been condemned by their neighbours, perhaps even condemning themselves—these are the words he speaks: “I do not condemn you.”
Whoever you are, whatever you have done (and I truly mean whatever) God is reaching out to you, offering not only forgiveness, but also blessing, and a way forward, into newness of life. It’s a wonderful gift, and it’s offered to every person. If you haven’t yet accepted that gift, I hope you will accept it—and soon.
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).