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Sunday Worship 10 March | Sermon on the Mount: You Have Heard It Said...

I have said in the past that the church could do worse than listen to the Sermon on the Mount on repeat until we fully understand its meaning and live out its teaching. In 2019 we did a series on the Lord’s Prayer, in 2022 we heard three different translations or interpretations of the Beatitudes, and then in 2023 we did a series digging into those “blessed are...” sayings in more detail. This Lent we are going to look at a few other sections from that most famous preach.

Matthew 5:38-48 (NIV)
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We continue this morning with a mini series on some aspects of the Sermon on the Mount. The verses we heard come at the end of a longer passage in which Jesus challenges established teaching, using a refrain that goes something along the lines of “you have heard it said...but I say to you...” It's a lot to take in all at once, which is why we started with a shorter section, but we're going to work our way through from verse twenty one. First though, it's important to be clear that Jesus prefaces all of this by saying he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Christians sometimes act as if everything that came before Jesus was entirely wrong, or as if his teaching was something entirely new, but that's not what he is saying here at all. The fundamental premise of the law, which he summarises elsewhere as being “love God and love neighbour” has always been there and has always been true, and Jesus’ ministry was about helping us to understand it more clearly and live it more fully. Jesus is not removing or even rewriting the law, but rather he is refining it, a process which I believe is ongoing for us, as we seek to interpret and administer his laws under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to borrow language from the Baptist Union’s Declaration of Principle.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement.” We quickly see that in fulfilling the law, Jesus is exceeding what we understand to be the law. It is not enough not to murder another person, but we must not be angry with them either. That may seem at odds with Jesus’ apparent anger when he declares woes to the Pharisees and overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple, but I would suggest that in those instances, his anger was directed at groups and systems rather than individuals, and was constructive in being driven by justice rather than destructive in being driven by hate. Anger directed at individuals and driven by hate can be damaging long before it reaches the point of murderous violence, so we need to do more than just avoid the extremes, and in order to do that we need to recognise that our thoughts and feelings are as important as our actions, and so we need to be doing the deep inner work that transforms our attitudes and relationships.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, Jesus is drawing attention to what goes on in our hearts and minds. Indulging in lustful thoughts can reduce people to objects of desire, and I don't think it's a coincidence that Jesus assumes that the problem is men lusting over women. Of course women are also capable of lust, and men can likewise be lusted over, but the dynamics of power that have long existed mean it is the objectification of women by men that has historically caused the greatest problems, contributing significantly to abuse and oppression. As awareness of sexual violence has grown in recent years, people have pointed to this verse, and the subsequent advice that it is better to put out your own eye or cut off your own hand than let it lead you into sin, to argue that Jesus would have had little patience for the victim blaming that wants to know what a woman was wearing and how much she was drinking when she was assaulted, or the purity culture that says girls must be modest or boys will be tempted, both of which shame women and girls into believing they are responsible for their own harrassment and sexualisation. If you look at someone or lay hands on someone with less than pure intent, that is entirely on you.

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” These verses have kept many people in unhealthy marriages and have been a source of guilt for many others, but I cannot believe that was the intent of the one who promised abundant life, and so I cannot believe that they are the whole word on divorce. Matthew is frequently harsher and less nuanced than the other gospel writers, so I wonder if some of what we read is his own understanding. In fact when Jesus is asked about divorce in Mark, he says simply that it was given as a concession and that no one should separate what God has put together, which is far less judgemental and far more open to interpretation. Sexual immorality is not the only thing that causes harm or destroys happiness in a marriage, and so it cannot be the only reason that divorce may be the best choice for the wellbeing of those in it, however sad and difficult a process it may be. It's also worth remembering that divorce now is not the same as divorce two thousand years ago, and in first century Judaism a man could very easily divorce his wife for any reason he chose, while women had no rights to instigate a divorce at all, leaving them vulnerable to abandonment and abuse. In that context, perhaps what Jesus is doing here is emphasising the seriousness of divorce as a protective measure, and it is a caution against treating divorce lightly that is the most important message for us now, rather than a fairly blanket condemnation of it.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all...All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” One of my tutors at college has refused to swear on the Bible when called as a witness in court on the basis of these verses, a position also held by the Anabaptists. That is a very literal reading of these words, and I have great respect for those who are willing to stick their necks out to stand by it, but I think the point here is that simple honesty is all that is required, not elaborate words and promises. We need to be trustworthy in all that we say, both to God and to one  another.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” We've considered this text before, and we saw then that “do not resist” seems to mean something closer to “do not revenge”. This is not about being passive in the face of evil, but about being creative in our response to it. Masters would strike slaves with the back of their hand, and so if the slave turned the other cheek, not only did they say “your first blow did not work because it did not humiliate me”, but they also put their master in impossible position, as they would then have to strike with an open hand or a fist as they would strike a peer in a fight, or they would have to use their left hand which was considered unclean, or they would have to back down and walk away. In the same way, most people only wore two garments, so if a person was to hand over their coat as well as their shirt, they would be left naked, revealing the injustice of the situation. And Roman soldiers could force civilians to carry their pack for a mile, so to carry it for an extra mile was to take back the power and the initiative. This is what Walter Wink calls Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance, which stands against the violence of the world without returning it. And it is not empty rhetoric, because remember Jesus himself was struck and stripped naked and forced to carry his cross, and in choosing not to return that violence with more violence, he broke its power forever.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I said earlier that Jesus summarises the law as love God and love neighbour, but here he pushes us even further, and how very different the world would be if we heeded these words. Watching the way the church has threatened to tear itself apart over female ministers and same sex marriage and safeguarding failures, not to mention the petty bickering on social media about the right colour vestments and silent discos in cathedrals, it is sadly apparent that we are not always very good at loving one another, but imagine how transformative a presence we could be in the world if we were known for our radical practice of both neighbour and enemy love. Loving someone who we do not understand or agree with, perhaps even someone who has caused us great pain and fear, may not come naturally or easily, but it is a choice we need to make every time we encounter them. And perhaps if we are not yet ready to say we love that person, we might start by reminding ourselves that God loves that person.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus ends this section of the Sermon on Mount with these seemingly impossible words. Perhaps they are meant to be aspirational, setting the bar higher than we can reach so that we will reach as high as we can. Or perhaps they are not quite as impossible as they seem. We have inherited an understanding of perfection that is something like flawlessness, but I'm not sure that is the meaning Jesus had in mind here. I don't know what the original Aramaic was, but the Greek of the gospels uses the word teleios, which is something more like completion. We are meant to be completely ourselves just as God is completely Godself. We strive to do all that Jesus has said, because in so doing we become most truly who we were made to be. That may not be flawless, but it can be glorious.

God, as we are guided by your Holy Spirit, may we understand your word more clearly and live it more fully. May we do the inner work that leads us to look on one another with love, and not anger or lust. May we be serious and honest in all our relationships, and may we respond with peace and creativity to the evil and violence of the world. May we be completely who we are created to be, so that even if we struggle to be flawless, we might yet be glorious. Amen.

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