As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Living lives of love, was given at Devonport Salvation Army on Sunday 16 February, 2014. The Bible reading was Matthew 5:17-37.
I wonder what your families were like when you were growing up. Were there any topics of conversation that you didn’t talk about? Maybe football was completely off the table – bring it up and you’d get sent to your room. Or maybe it was politics, or religion. In my Dad’s family, the taboo topic was divorce. You didn’t talk about it when my grandparents were in the room – it just wasn’t done. And I don’t know why, because it was the sort of thing that, while we did ignore it, it didn’t ignore our family. In fact, the only one of my Dad’s family who hasn’t got divorced is my Dad. All this in a family where Divorce just wasn’t talked about. Looking back, I would say that the divorce was a good thing for all of my aunties and uncles. So when I look at today’s reading, and I read Jesus speak out so harshly against divorce, I have a bit of trouble accepting that. I’m not saying that I advocate divorce – I think it’s a shocking indictment on the church that there are just as many divorces within the church as there are outside of the church – but I feel like there must be more to this passage than the first, initial reading.
And there is a lot more meaning in the passage that we heard today than just these two verses on divorce. We heard last week about the Beatitudes, the start of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus was essentially saying “These are the people who are part of the Kingdom of God. These are the things that are wanted.” In this passage, Jesus is expanding upon that message, and he gives us some “practical” examples. I’ll get to those in a bit.
Jesus opens this section with a warning about the law. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill.” Many in Jesus’ time thought that when the Messiah came, they would no longer need to follow the laws that Moses set down in the books of the Torah, particularly Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Jesus states quite plainly that not one letter, not one jot of the law will be scrubbed out until all is accomplished. The question is, what is it that needs to be accomplished? It is Jesus’ death on the cross? Is it his second coming? He doesn’t say. But he does say that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now, the scribes and Pharisees, these were the ones that had studied the law and the prophets, and lived them out to the letter. If the law told them to do something, they did it. If it told them not to do something, they didn’t do it. And they let people know about it. These were the most “holy” people in Israel. Jesus was telling the crowds – many of whom would have been the poor, those who might not be able to read, let alone study the scriptures, which were generally only read by the scribes and Pharisees – that they had to be more holy than them. That’s in effect telling the poor of our world that they have to be more holy than the Pope and his cardinals to get into Heaven. Or to put it into a Salvation Army context, to be more holy than the General and his commissioners.
The interesting part is that even though Jesus says that not one jot of the law will be abolished, his teaching on the law departs from the written law quite significantly. Through this section, and the few sections that follow, Jesus states the law, reaffirming that it still matters. Then he expands upon it, then applies it to their lives. Let’s take a look at the first one on Anger.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
This is Jesus reaffirming the law as found in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:18), and also paraphrasing several legal texts as to the judgement (Exodus 21:12; Lev 24:17; Num 35:12; Deut 17:8-13).
22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister,you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Here Jesus radicalises the law – he expands it and takes it further. No longer is just the physical act of murder liable to judgement, but also just being angry with someone, insulting them, or calling them a fool. But this is a little bit odd as well. If we look closely, we seem to have a diminishing response, but an increasing punishment. Anger is one of the very strong emotions, and very dangerous. To quote that great philosopher, Yoda, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” When we are angry, it is very easy to do things that we later regret. Jesus says that this makes you liable for judgement, most likely from the local council. He goes on to say that if you insult someone – the NIV uses the word Raca, which we don’t have an actual translation for, but it’s an insulting term such as “airhead”, you are then liable to the council, which is the council of the Sanhedrin, which – while also being the spiritual head of the Jewish Faith, also acted as the judicial court on behalf of the Roman Empire in their jurisdiction. Finally, if you call somone a fool, then you’re liable to the fires of hell.
So, in today’s terms, if you’re angry with someone, then you will be taken to the Devonport City Council for them to give you a fine. If you insult someone and call them an airhead, then you’ll be taken to the Magistrates Court, and if you call someone a fool, then you’re going to hell.
23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
So here, Jesus gives us some practical examples as to how to apply the law. But again, we need to get into the context to give us some understanding as to what Jesus is saying. If you were to go to give a gift at the altar, there was only one place you could do that – Jerusalem. So if you were living in Capernaum, you would walk to Jerusalem to offer your gift – which would probably be a burnt offering of a pigeon or a lamb or some other animal. Jesus is saying that if you were about to give your gift, then remembered an issue you had with your brother or sister back in Capernaum, then you should leave your gift at the Altar and walk back to Capernaum, resolve the issue, then walk back to Jerusalem.
Now, to put it in relatable terms, that’s about equivalent from walking from Bicheno to Hobart, which Google Maps suggests to be a 3 day round trip, if you were walking continuously. Which they wouldn’t, so you’re probably looking at about a week round trip. I don’t think that you’d be wanting to offer your gift when you got back… that’s if it’s still there when you got back.
Jesus takes the application of the law, and makes it so ridiculous, so insane that while “practical” it could never be followed exactly to the letter of the law. And that’s his point. Through all the examples, his “practical” example is to the extreme, so that we don’t try to live our lives to the letter of the law, but rather to the message of the law.
If we were to live out these rules to the letter of the law, I’m guessing that we would have a not insignificant number of men walking around with one arm and one eye. That’s not what Jesus is saying. We need to live to the message of the law.
Instead of living lives of anger, we need to live lives of love that shows no hostility. Instead of committing adultery – whether in the physical or in our hearts and minds – we need to live lives of love that is not predatory. Instead of living lives where marriage vows are not “til death do us part” but “till I find a better offer”, we need to live lives where our marriages show love both within and outside of it. Instead of living lives where we only tell the truth if we take an oath on the bible, we should live lives of love where every word that comes out of our mouths is unconditionally truthful.
Jesus calls us to live lives of Love. Love to all, whoever they are. When Jesus is asked what the two greatest commandments are, his response is to love – to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. When we read why Jesus was sent into the world, we find it was because of Love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In 1 John 4, there’s a wonderful passage on how God is love. Part of it reads “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. … There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”
In order to live these lives of love, we need to open ourselves up to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, because we cannot do it on our own. We ask for the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, to live out the lives of love in our everyday, to change our actions from those of hate to those of love. This is what we are called to do.
So this morning, You’re invited to come and commit your life to living this message of the law. To commit to living a life of love in all aspects of your life. As we sing, you’re invited to come down to the Holiness table. This is a place of prayer, which is open to anyone. Someone will come and pray with you, over whatever God has placed on your heart. And we sing, asking God to purify our hearts, to let them be as gold and precious silver, to cleanse us from within and make us holy, so that we can go and live lives of love.