Related Scripture: Matthew 5:21-4
Last year, I was at a meeting of Kowloon Union Church’s Worship Group. We were brainstorming ideas. One member said, “I’d like to hear a sermon series on the difficult sayings of Jesus.” Now, we usually follow the lectionary readings like many churches around the world, so we were thinking how to fit this in, maybe a summer series. It seems though we dropped the idea for the moment. Maybe too many difficult sayings to choose from, maybe it would mess up the preaching calendar if the same bible reading came up later in the lectionary.
Today, however, the Gospel lesson would be a prime candidate for a series of sermons on the difficult sayings of Jesus, all in one passage. We could spend a whole month on it or at least a series of weekly bible studies. But you only get one sermon on it – today – because Transfiguration Sunday is next week and we enter the season of Lent after that. So, I will try to do justice to this challenging passage from the Sermon on the Mount without overwhelming you with too much information. I won’t have time to go into detail though of every verse or you’re going to have a one-hour sermon. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with a one-hour sermon if you are a good Baptist preacher. But I’m a Presbyterian and we were trained to preach for 20 minutes. And then sit down. So, let’s see what we can do in 20 minutes this morning. And then I will sit down.
These difficult sayings of Jesus concern the following topics: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation and loving your enemy. If this seems a bit like curriculum overload, remember what happened In Matthew before this. In Matthew Chapter 4, we saw Jesus ministering to huge crowds throughout Galilee. He was preaching good news and healing many, many people who were brought to him with every kind of sickness and disease. Then in the Beatitudes at the beginning of Chapter 5 he proclaims blessings upon those suffering in this life. He promises that they are not forgotten by God. Jesus thus ministers to their bodies and spirits before asking anything from them. He offers hope and encouragement before demanding ‘something more’. As one minister put it, grace comes before task.
That said, if we take Jesus’ teachings in today’s Gospel reading seriously, we’re going to need all the grace we can get. Because that ‘something more’ is nothing less than showing the world what total obedience to God requires. As we heard last week, we have to be salt in a world that’s lost its taste for righteousness. We have to be light to a world that has no idea how to give glory to their Creator.
So just how do we do that?
Obviously, it takes more than just following the rules down to the letter. The scribes and Pharisees were already doing that better than anyone. But Jesus warned unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.
We might be thinking, it shouldn’t be that hard to surpass the scribes and Pharisees. They were a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites anyway, right? But if we had been right there at the Sermon of the Mount, we would’ve been shocked at Jesus’ words. Remember his followers were for the most part just grassroots people. They looked up to the scribes and Pharisees as religious experts. Scribes were experts in preserving the Jewish law, Pharisees experts at putting it into practice. If the experts were getting it wrong, how do we get it right?
Let me give you some examples, says Jesus.
- You’ve heard it said, “Do not murder.” I tell you, don’t even be angry. Don’t call your brother or sister an idiot or yell that someone is stupid. Hostile feelings and cruel words can also kill.
- You’ve heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery.” I tell you, if you’ve even got the desire to go to bed with someone who’s not your spouse, that’s the same as doing it. Get rid of anything that even tempts you to be unfaithful.
- You’ve have heard it said, “Don’t swear to tell the truth and then lie.” I tell you don’t make an oath necessary in the first place – always tell the truth so help you God.
- You’ve heard it said, “Revenge is OK as long as the punishment fits the crime.” I tell you don’t retaliate at all. Find a better way to get justice.
- You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” I tell you, love even your worst enemy. Pray for those who persecute you. That’s what children of my Heavenly Father do. They are perfect, just as God is perfect.
Wow. Is Jesus serious? If the Old Testament law and prophets weren’t hard enough, why is Jesus making them even harder? Isn’t he the one who said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest?”
I pondered this Scripture passage for a long time, trying to make sense of it. And then it came to me. Jesus is a Master Teacher, just like the sages of old. A master teacher never presents students with the least they can do to pass, right? Good teachers start with where they want you to be when you’re finished. They show you what’s required to get an A+, if you really want to shoot for the stars. And really great teachers just don’t talk about what you have to do to get that A+. They demonstrate it in their own lives.
So that’s exactly what Jesus is doing here – 1) he’s telling his followers how to get a genuine A+ in holiness and 2) he’s going to show them how to do it by his own life. A Master Teacher indeed but there’s even more. For you know, many of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount can be found in similar form in other ancient literature. But they become Holy Scripture here because it’s Jesus who is speaking, not someone else. For you see, nobody, nobody had the authority to add ‘something more’ to the law and prophets except Jesus. And nobody, nobody had the right to ask his followers to obey that “something more” except Jesus. Because Jesus is the Son of God, and the Son of God lived and died by those teachings all the way to the Cross. For your salvation and mine.
So, friends, a life truly pleasing to God requires way more than just ticking all the right boxes – even if those boxes represent good things. You and I are children of the living God! A God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. If you and I believe in Him, we are capable of so much more than a C- in holiness.
Let me share a story from the Desert Fathers to illustrate. Abbot Lot came to visit old Abbot Joseph to seek his counsel. “Father,” said Abbot Lot. “According as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to purify my thoughts. Now, what more should I do?” Whereupon Abbot Joseph stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, as he said to him, “Why not become all flame?”
Why not? Why not? That’s what Jesus is asking you and me. Don’t settle for a C- when you could have an A+. But we tremble in our boots when we hear his words. We are afraid. We’re afraid it requires too much, we’re afraid we’re going to fail. If we can just pass with a C-, it’s good enough. We never pretended to be a saint. Let someone else knock themselves out for that A+, and we’ll admire them from afar.
But, you know, Jesus never made two categories of people – saints and the rest of us. Even if some churches recognize a few extraordinary Christians as models of virtue, the reality is we’re all held to the same standard of conduct as children of our Heavenly Father. We may be far from perfect at the moment (I know I am), but that doesn’t change what perfection is in God’s eyes or God’s desire that this be our goal.
N.T. scholar Dale Allison said: Would a mother not bother teaching her children to be generous simply because she knows they’re going to be selfish anyway? We know from experience that a standard must be upheld even when failure is almost certain. The ideal is necessary. It may not raise humanity to the heights, but it can lift us up from the depths. And we might just surprise ourselves what is humanly possible with divine guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit.
O.T. scholar Jack Lundbom compares Jesus to a doctor who tells you to do something you think you can’t do. He tells the story of being in this situation years ago when he had both hips replaced. After the first surgery, on the same day, the doctor came into his room. “I want you to get out of bed and stand on your feet.” Lundbom said, “I can’t possibly do that”. However, the doctor and the nurse provided help. And with effort he did stand briefly on his two feet. During the next few days he had to walk to the door of his room, then a short distance down the hospital corridor, and later he had to do therapy exercises in rehabilitation. He says, “I remember wishing on some days that the nurses and therapists would forget to come and leave me in my bed. Many times, I thought I could not do what was being asked. But with effort, and with help from the therapist, I did do it. In each case it was a ‘stretch’. But that is how I regained my health, was able to walk again, and became the whole person I so much wanted to be.”
Lundbom remembered two very elderly women in the therapy room who were also in rehab. One had to be 90 years old or more. She cried at her therapist, “I can’t do it.” Lundbom felt so sorry for her. The therapist was a compassionate man but someone who in earlier days had trained Olympic gymnasts. The therapist remained firm, saying: “If you don’t try, you will never walk again.” The woman dried her tears and with effort took a few steps. As the days went on, she progressed to the point she too was able to walk out of that hospital.
Lundbom says the Sermon on the Mount is meant to stretch us spiritually. Jesus asks us to do more than we think we can do, but nothing he asks is impossible. As a Master Teacher and the Great Physician, Jesus knew his disciples must aim for higher than a C-. Otherwise, we are never going to enter the Kingdom of heaven. He knew if we didn’t reach for the stars, we’d remain earthbound forever.
Needless to say, however, living up to the Sermon on the Mount is hard. And we will make mistakes and have setbacks along the way. But thanks be to God we have a Savior who will not give up on us. Who forgives us when we fail, who gives us courage to start anew, each and every time. But we do have to try. Because if we don’t try, we’ll never become the healthy, complete and mature followers of Jesus Christ we so much want to be. For truly, we are not only asked to do ‘something more’ for Him. We’re asked to be ‘something more’ through Him who shows us what it is to be holy, to be perfect in the eyes of God.
So, to recap:
- You’ve heard it said, “Do not murder.” I tell you, don’t even be angry. Hostile feelings and cruel words can also kill.
- You’ve heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery.” I tell you, if you’ve even got the desire, that’s the same as doing it. Get rid of anything that even tempts you to be unfaithful.
- You’ve have heard it said, “Don’t swear to tell the truth and then lie.” I tell you: always tell the truth so help you God.
- You’ve heard it said, “Revenge is OK as long as the punishment fits the crime.” I tell you don’t retaliate. Find a better way to get justice.
- You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” I tell you, love even your worst enemy. Pray for those who persecute you.
Because that is what children of my Heavenly Father do.