Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXT: Matthew 5:21-37

“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. 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.” (Matthew 5:29-30)

Over the past couple of Sundays, our gospel lessons have been leading us through Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”—perhaps his best-known discourse.

This sermon on a mountainside starts off with blessings. Remember? “Blessed are the poor in spirit … the meek … the pure in heart … the peacemakers …” Jesus goes on to tell us we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” That stuff is pretty easy on the ears, isn’t it?

But then, in verse 17 of chapter five, Jesus turns left, onto a less comfortable avenue: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (vv. 17-18).

Then, picking things up in today’s reading, Jesus gets even more serious: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement …” (vv. 21-22a).

And: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (vv. 27-28).

“Moses said this … but now I tell you this …” Moses said: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But Jesus says: “Anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (vv. 31-32).

What is happening here? Has Jesus given us a new—and tougher—set of rules?

If the “Sermon on the Mount” simply replaces the laws that Moses brought down from that other mountain, then Jesus has made our burden heavier. In fact, I would say he has made our task impossible. This weight is too much for our weak shoulders to carry. If the teaching of Jesus is a new set of laws that his disciples must fully obey—or get booted out of the Christian club—then I think we’ve all had our memberships cancelled!

So … what is happening here?

To be sure, Jesus does intensify the law. In fact, he pushes it much further than Moses did. He pushes it far beyond outward actions, to inward thoughts and feelings and motivations. But how can this be a “gospel of grace”? How can this be the teaching of one who claimed that his ministry was not to the righteous, but to the lost?

Often—usually in reference to difficult passages of Scripture—you hear it said that context is important. And I think context is very important here.

Consider whom Jesus is addressing, from that mountainside. He’s speaking to his disciples, and he’s speaking to “the crowds.” So there are all kinds of people gathered there—farmers, merchants, fishermen … And no doubt some scribes and Pharisees, too.

Jesus was speaking to ordinary Jewish people of his time. They had all been raised to believe that pleasing God required strict obedience to the law of Moses. And for most of them, that meant the letter of the law. The more perfectly you kept the law, the more righteous you were—and the better God liked you, according to that reasoning.

Now, some in that crowd would feel better about this than some others. Those who considered themselves to be good, religious people … Well, we can presume that they thought they were safe. After all, they figured they had kept the law. They had never killed anybody. They had never told any lies … at least, not any big ones … and they had made the required sacrifices at the temple … so they had that covered.

None of them had actually committed adultery. Oh, perhaps some of them had divorced their wives, more or less forcing those poor women to choose between starvation or lives of prostitution … But that was not against the law, as long as all the correct procedures were followed.

So—amongst those who gathered at the foot of the mountain that day—the fine, upstanding, religious people felt quite comfortable sitting near the front, certain that the rabbi would be pleased to see them there. (“Hi, Jesus! Look at me!”)

But the others …

  • The fishermen who, having caught little or nothing during the week—and having no fish to bring to market—cast out their nets on the Sabbath day … early in the morning, so no one would see …
  • The merchants with their thumbs on the scale …
  • The poor who had to steal the bread they could not afford to buy …
  • The accused who had sworn false oaths out of fear of consequences …
  • The “fallen woman” with nothing to trade except her body …

These folks sat further back. They already knew they’d lost the righteousness game. They weren’t comfortable at all … And yet, they felt drawn here. Perhaps, somehow, they dared to hope for something like good news from this travelling rabbi.

This is the audience facing Jesus. He looks out over the gathered multitude. He sees who is sitting right in front. He sees who is sitting further back … and who is sitting way, way back, trying not to be noticed.

So Jesus opens his mouth to teach them. And he begins by praising virtue. He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness …” And all the righteous people feel their chests swelling with pride.  

He says, “Blessed are the pure in heart …” And all the chaste and moderate people feel puffed up.

He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit …” And all those who are proud of their humility take notice.

“You are the salt of the earth.”

“You are the light of the world.”

And Jesus says, “Do not think that I’ve come to abolish the law …” Because the law is important. The law shows where you fit in the kingdom of heaven. The law shows how far you’ve climbed up the ladder of holiness.

And then, Jesus says: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).

And the folks in the front row go, “Huh?”

Say what?”

“Moses told you, ‘Do not murder.’  But I ask you: have you ever wished harm to a neighbour?”

“Have you ever felt justified, seeking revenge?”

“Have you ever torn down another person with your words?”

“Moses said, ‘Do not swear falsely.’  But I ask you: why do you need to swear oaths at all? Why does your word count for so little?”

“Moses told you, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I ask you: have you ever wanted to?”

Jesus pauses. He looks out over the crowd again. All eyes are open wide. Many jaws have dropped. And the people way in back have forgotten to hide their faces. He has everybody’s attention, now.

He begins to speak again, and now his language becomes even more intense. Jesus advocates plucking out eyes and chopping off limbs, if those members of the body are causing us to sin!

If you take every word of the Bible literally, raise your right hand …

Jesus is going out of his way to tell us something: he is not going to change the rules to make it easier for us to win the salvation game. But he tells us something else, too.

He tells us that the rules are so difficult to follow that no one could possibly do it. And if it’s really all about the rules, then none of us—not even the best of us—can possibly avoid the punishments of “hell” he mentions here.

No one can win at this. We are not allowed to relax these rules. And keeping them is beyond us. If we try to play this game, all we get is defeated.

Jesus wants to set us up with a new understanding. We shouldn’t ignore the rules, but rule-following is not the path to God. Jesus’ very presence demonstrates something about our relationship with God. It is not based on our getting things right. No. God comes to us while we are still getting things wrong.

In Christ, God has committed to our humanity by joining us in it. Jesus knows the things that can go wrong in our lives. Jesus also knows that it is not our eyes or our hands that cause us to sin. No. It’s our hearts that do that. It’s something ingrained in our human nature. We literally cannot help ourselves.

What God has come to do, in Jesus, is not to set us on a new and improved moral pathway. We would (and, actually, we do) fail on that path, just as surely as we fail on any other.

And yet, most of us are legalists at heart. We want to prove that we are nice, acceptable people. We want to “pay our own way” and prove our worthiness.

That’s why, when we hear the Sermon on the Mount, we’re tempted to play delusional games. The temptation—and it’s a strong one—is to pick and choose. To emphasize some of Jesus’ words … and quietly ignore others.

For example, some of us make a very big deal about sexuality, marriage and divorce. We take the moral high ground and are loud in our condemnation of those who appear to us to transgress. Yet, many conservative Christians pay little or no attention to what Jesus teaches about non-violence, or the terrible dangers of money, or the cancer of pride and self-righteousness.

And then, there are those who see themselves as radical believers who make much of the sins of wealth and possessions … yet excuse their own laxity in affairs of sex and marriage.

In each case, people become legalistic. They bitterly condemn others while zealously protecting their own hard-won self-righteousness. But that simply will not do! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms about 25 moral values—affirms them without qualification. We should not dare to judge a fellow Christian for transgressing any one of those values, unless we are prepared to equally judge ourselves on each of the other 24.

If we take to mind and heart the whole 25 (without any sneaky provisos) then one result is certain: all of our supposed superiority—every bit of our spiritual and moral arrogance—will crumble into dust.

And then we shall know for certain that we have nothing at all to boast about. Like everyone else, we have fallen short of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We have nowhere to turn … except to saving grace—to the healing mercy of the sinner’s Friend.

Yes, Jesus raises the spiritual and moral bar to new heights. But—alongside it—he allows himself to be lifted up, high upon a cross. And there is the throne of grace.

If you want to earn your salvation by playing the righteousness game, you have to follow the rules absolutely perfectly. And then you will absolutely fail. None of us can keep the law, consistently and flawlessly.

But here’s the good news: Jesus, as he said, has come to fulfill the law on our behalf.

That amazing grace is freely available to all of us who aim high, yet fall short. Because of that cross up on Calvary’s hill, we have been set free from the law of sin and death. Because of that cross, you and I no longer stand condemned.

Now, many today—including many within the church—will protest, saying, “That doesn’t make any sense!”

And I suppose it doesn’t. How could Jesus, by taking our punishment, remove our guilt? How could the old covenant—which rested on strict obedience to the law—simply be set aside, just because we could not live up to it?

Who could make a deal like that?

My friends, only God could make a deal like that. Only God could tear up our old contract and offer us a new one. Only God—in Christ—could say to us, “Things are going to be different from now on.”

Only Jesus offers us this kind of grace. Our part is to accept this new deal. This new covenant. This generous offer that sounds too good to be true—but which is in fact more true, and more real, and more wonderful, than anything else we have ever known.

Our part is simply to say, “YES!” Thanks be to God.

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