By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 16, 2020
Matthew 5:21–37 (ESV)
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
A couple of weeks ago we began looking into Jesus’s most famous sermon. We often know it as being the sermon on the mount. This sermon began with the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven and the following. These statements of blessing could be shocking to many. The poor, the meek, the pure of heart, those that perform acts of mercy are nice people and all, but do we really think that they will be the ones wielding power?
Jesus’s teaching like John the Baptist’s were shocking to the religious society of his day. John withdrew from the community, even though he was born into that communities’ power complex. He withdrew not only from the community but from the general society, and he lived in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan. He lived on the boarder of the land of promise crying out to those that came to him to listen, “Repent for the Kingdom is at hand.” He cried out, and in his cries, he told all of Israel that they were not worthy of their perceived honor, because they had turned from true devotion and replaced it with something else.
John cried in the wilderness, and his teachings offended those in power. And that offense lead to his betrayal, arrest, and eventual death. The arrest of John marked the entrance of Jesus into full time ministry. John prepared the way; he initiated the ideas within the nation of Israel that all was not well. Jesus joined John in the waters of the Jordan and as Jesus stood from the waters, the spirit of God was seen descending and resting on Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven proclaimed that He was God’s beloved Son. John looked at Jesus and he knew that there was more to him than most people though. To most, Jesus was a simple crafts man, a builder, stone mason, or handy man. He had lived in this role for the past seventeen years and many that were listening to the Sermon on the Mount could have had Jesus using his skills of trade in their homes.
Jesus worked for seventeen years as a professional tradesman. He did not attend rabbinical schools, but when he had come of age, he joined his earthly father Joseph in the family business, working along side his family from the age of thirteen till his entry into the ministry at approximately thirty. I really think we need to remember this aspect of Jesus. John was the son of a temple priest, he had the pedigree for his ministry, but Jesus was just a common man to the eyes of many.
Jesus moved from Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum. This is not a large metropolis, but a small village. He lived his life, within a community where everyone knew everyone. They knew Jesus. They knew that he came from a family of craftsmen, yet this man was not what he seemed. They expected him to fix the doorways or to repair a foundation, but as Jesus became integrated into their community, he was repairing lives.
He went out to the neighboring villages and came home, and people began to gather so turned to them, opened his mouth and began to teach. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek. These words challenge them, because these things are not what they expected. To be honest these things are in many ways the opposite of what they expected.
This introduction intrigued them, because they were poor. Everyone that lived in that area, even the wealthiest among them were poor. They lived in the rural expanse of Israel. They labored growing or gathering food with the hope that they could feed their family and have enough to sell their excess for a marginal profit. These people lived a life of subsistence. And when Jesus said blessed are the poor, he had their attention, because they knew their need. Every person listening to his words were just one bad harvest away from starvation, yet Jesus was saying that the kingdom of heaven is theirs. He has their attention, and he continues his message. If I would have brought the message last week, I would have focused on verse twenty, “For I tell you , unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He had just told them that the poor will have the kingdom, but unless they are more righteous than the pharisees they would still miss it.
Remember the era of history that these words were spoken. If we think that there is income inequality today it was vastly greater during Jesus’s days. We often think of the people as being oppressed and they sought a king to liberate them from their oppression. When we think of this oppression, we often see that oppression as being from the Roman overlords that came into their region to help them maintain the liberty they had won from the Greeks. But that may not be the full truth. Israel had prospered during this time. Their temple to God was a marvel throughout the Empire, it was the envy of all of Rome. The power of this single piece of architecture gave the people of Israel far greater influence than their population ever should have had within the Roman Empire, because they were a minority. The religious industrial complex of the temple was efficient, so efficient and so successful that there was so much excess wealth within its coffers that they were not debating when or if they could paint their exterior walls, but they installed seamless siding of Gold. The temple gained this wealth and power through the devotion of the people. Every year, those of Jewish decent would travel to this one city to this one temple to offer sacrifices to their God. While they made their way to the temple, they would see the various teachers teaching in the courts, with their disciples gathering close. The people would listen, and they would be amazed at their learning. These scribes and pharisees were the elite of their culture. They would devote their entire lives to teaching and living the law. When the festivals were not being observed, these teachers might travel around the country speaking at the various synagogues and as they traveled, they would receive from the people wages.
Part of their teaching was that because they were so righteous God had provided them with the wealth they received, and if you did not have the wealth that they enjoyed you probably were not as righteous as them. Yet Jesus is telling them that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees. He had told them that they were blessed because they recognized their need, now he is telling them that they need to be more righteous than the scribes. They are now looking at Jesus in total confusion, because he is about to turn the religious world upside down.
Today Jesus give us four points of righteousness. He speaks of anger, lust, divorce, and oaths. I look at these and think this is not a single sermon, but a four-part series that would take at least a month. Jesus said this all in one setting. There is something similar in each of these points. They each deal with relationships.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘you shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” This is a teaching associated with the ten commandments. I love the ten commandments because they give us some very good guidelines to construct a civil society. I want to live in a community where people do not murder and when they do that justice will be provided. But often we do not look deeper into these commandments. We say well at least I did not kill someone so I must be a pretty good person. We fulfill the letter of the law, but have we fulfilled the spirit of the law? Jesus takes things to the next step. It is not enough to simply allow annoying people to live, but we must take the next step. We must interact with them to the degree that we will not allow any bitterness to take root among us. If we have offended someone, we need to make every effort to restore our friendship. And if we have been offended, we need to be willing to reconcile. The command to not murder, is more than just a demand to not kill. It is a command to respect that of God in all people, to honor and preserve life, because every person around us bears the image of our creator.
“[W]however insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘you fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” I must admit that this is extremely difficult. Every two years our nation has elections for various representatives, and every four we have elections for our president. Through each of these campaigns we are bombarded with ads and publications that inform us of how foolish it is to support someone other then this or that candidate. And every election cycle our nation debates, insults, and criticizes each other because of opinions. I have engaged in these activities. I have called people fools for holding opinions contrary to my own, and I have even called criticized the candidates with terms I would discipline my children for using. I look at these verses and I stand here judged, because I have disrespected God by dishonoring someone that He loved enough to die for. Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes. How are we doing?
“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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Again, Jesus is telling us that our righteousness is found not in fulfilling the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. And the spirit of the law is based on relationships. The law against adultery is one that was interpreted differently in the first century than it is today. In ancient times adultery was considered a violation of the husband’s exclusive rights to his wife and the assurance that children born to her were his own. They viewed adultery as a sin committed only by women, not by men. Yet if you notice Jesus does not speak to women when he is speaking about lust, but men. As I studied these passages this week, one of the commentators titled this section, “Love is not predatory.” If we are looking at others lustfully, we are not honoring that of God in them, we are disrespecting our creator because we are looking on his creation not as an individual of worth but as something to consume. When we look at others as items of consumption there is no relationship, no respect, no encouragement, only the carnal satisfaction. And when we live only by satisfying our desires, we are bound by the law of diminishing returns. Nothing satisfies, and we become an empty shell.
The next section Jesus speaks about divorce. Again, I want us to remember in the first century it was believed that only women could commit adultery, but Jesus is taking that burden from the females and placing it on men. When it comes to divorce, he again places the responsibility on the men. Jesus does not condemn divorce. There is a place for the dissolution of marriages in society. But when divorce occurs the issue resides again in a breakdown of the relationship, the we that was formed with the union of two individuals becomes I again. And when an I is not focused on we, the relationship fractures. We once wanted to do whatever we could to honor the other, but we are no longer focused on honor and we think of only how the other member of the union has failed to meet the needs of the other. Jesus says we are causing our wives to sin.
The fourth section Jesus says, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Of all these things, I think this is one of the most important. Each of these deal with relationships between ourselves and others within our community. We should strive for reconciliation, we should protect the honor of others, we should not view others of objects for consumption, or cause them to sin. But all of this comes down to one thing, are we people of integrity?
Our Faith and Practice says, “Friends seek to evidence Christian holiness by conducting their personal, family, business, and civic responsibilities with honesty. Personal integrity includes consistency of speech. In allegiance to Christ and obedience to His clear commands, Friends refrain from profanity of speech and from swearing to legal oaths. One should tell the truth whether under oath or not.” How often do we consider the words that we say? Do we even realize how often we bind our words with oaths?
There are laws going around encouraging mandatory participation of students to recite the pledge of allegiance. Words mean something and we should be people of integrity. When we say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” That is an oath. We are pledging our allegiance to the banner, the symbol of our nation. When we make such a pledge, we cannot speak out against any action that nation participates in, even if it opposes our beliefs. Why, because we pledge our allegiance to the nation that commands the flag. I love this nation. I think it is the best place to live. I cannot think of any other place I would rather live, and I can tell you several places I would never want to even visit. But when we say I pledge allegiance to something we are bound to that.
What happens when we cannot fulfill our word? What happens when we break a promise? We can no longer be trusted. If I say that I will do something and have no intention of following through, I cannot be trusted even when I swear to do something later. And when we make a pledge and do not or cannot fulfill that pledge, we are no longer people of integrity. Our words should always be true. Our actions should always reflect our words. Even in something, like honoring our nation. I do not pledge allegiance to the flag, because there might come a time where my allegiance to Christ might require me to oppose something our nation is doing.
Our words and our actions should always be the same. And when our words cannot be trusted we place a barrier between every person we meet. Our words can cause anger. Our actions can become predatory. Our broken promises can cause others to sin. And we can try to cover our lack of integrity with vain attempts of honor. What all this boils down to is that our righteousness must be greater than the religious leaders, and we fall very short. But blessed are the poor in spirit because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I know my need. I know I fail, and I fail often. I know my need, and I know that God will meet me in my need. I know this because He came from his throne in Heaven to be born by Mary. He lived thirty years struggling in a job, and then he began to teach. He taught us how to live with God and humanity, and he taught us by word and action. And his greatest action was to take my failure on himself. He would not let my sin keep me from God, and he died for me and for you on the shameful cross. In my failure, he died, but in his strength he rose again. And in that renewed life I can stand here, a failure covered in Christ’s success. And in Christ I can strive to renew the life between all those I have offended and broken my word.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us consider the words of Christ again. Are we men and women of our word, and do our words and actions meet?