Jesus is still on the mountain, still talking to his disciples about how to live the good life, and he doesn’t mean about living indulgently with your every whim pandered to. Jesus is talking about how you live as a good person, and he tells his followers, as he tells us, that being a good person is not necessarily what you think it is. Jesus is always trying to challenge your assumptions.
This time, he’s challenging those people around him, who think that if you follow the rules, you’ll be fine, so you don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, honour the older generation, and so on, and when you have done all this, or not done all those wrong things, you think you’re safe and there’s a comfy chair in heaven with your name on it.
There’s a poetry in the way that Jesus gives his teaching. You hear the pattern of his words. He says it 6 times in this part of Matthew’s gospel, 4 times in the portion we had just now, and the other 2 in subsequent verses. He says: You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …” They have heard it said in the scripture that they all know so well, and Jesus is supplementing what they already know from their holy books. He is going deeper into the rules; he is taking them further.
Jesus says: you have heard that it was said … You shall not murder, but I tell you, if you are so much as angry with someone else, you need to go and sort it out. If you’ve got problems in your relationships with family or friends or the wider community, it’s no good ignoring the difficulties, you’ve got to address them and sort them out. Phew! That is a much tougher standard.
I met families at funerals, and sometimes there have been fallings out in the past, and people don’t talk to each other for years, and then there is a death, and people go to their graves without any resolution to the tensions. That is so sad! And it is wrong! Jesus says – go and sort it; wherever you can, work out a way forward.
If you’ve got an issue with someone, go and talk to them about it. It’s no good moaning to everyone else and not dealing with the problem.
The implication is that if you don’t sort things, if you nurture your resentments, if you cut people off, it is like murder.
The standards of living the Jesus-life are so much higher than you find in the rule-books.
And you get it again with the other examples. Jesus says: you have heard that it was said do not commit adultery, but I say to you that if you look lecherously at someone, that’s just as sinful. Jesus says: you have heard that it was said if you’re going to divorce someone, do it legally and properly, but I tell you that marriage is for life. Jesus said: You have heard that it was said: don’t swear falsely, but I tell you don’t make oaths at all.
Jesus sets an impossible standard! Anyone would have great difficulty following the rules the way Jesus interprets them. But that’s the point, I think. None of us can, by our own efforts, live up to those standards. Humans cannot live perfectly. We should try to live good lives, but we can never ultimately succeed. But it isn’t a competition for salvation. Salvation has been given to us by God’s grace. It is a free gift. God loves us just for being us, not because of our success at living up to a moral standard.
Jesus is also making us think about the way we read scripture. Jesus was addressing those who take what they read in the bible at face value. As far as they are concerned, the bible sets out the rules that must be obeyed, and if you follow them, you’re OK. And Jesus is saying: Scripture is the start of the study, the beginning of the conversation, but you need to look at the ideas and intentions behind the scripture and think about what it means in your life, in your context.
People play fast and loose with scripture. You see this when they are fighting over any important issue: whether it was the ordination of women or what to do about homosexual people or the other big issues of the past. There are always those who say: This is what it says in the bible, and they will quote chapter and verse about why women shouldn’t be allowed to lead worship or lead communities and gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to love one another. But they are playing fast and loose with scripture because they are only taking the superficial meaning and not looking to discover God’s will. In Scripture, you will find demands that are contradictory, and you have to look beyond the surface meanings to what God is saying here and now, in this place, at this time, to this community. You always start with scripture, yes, but you need to study it wisely.
And people can be selective about which biblical rules they follow and which they ignore. They will tell you that a loving gay couple can’ get together, but they will happily eat shellfish, when the bible tells them not to, or wear clothes with mixed fibres. The rules are not pick and mix. If you are not following some of them, you have to have a rationale. Sometimes it means setting some of the rules against Jesus’ core message to love one another. Some of the instructions get in the way of the golden rule.
I take scripture very seriously. I read portions of the Old Testament and New Testament every morning and every evening. I wrestle with scripture every time I sit down to write a sermon. And I am trying to understand what God wants of me here and now, and wants of this community, and the world. And it’s not as straightforward as following a rule book.
In the Old Testament reading we had first, Moses is setting a choice before the people of the Hebrews: Choose life, by loving God and obeying God, and persevering even when you are struggling. That way you will and gain God’s promises. Choose life!