Sermon - 16th February 2014
Anger, fidelity, divorce and promises
Scripture - Matthew 5:21-37
Let’s begin today with a quiz – a memory test on the 10 Commandments, with the twist of getting them in the correct order.
Worship no god but the Lord
Do not make any idols
Do not misuse the name of God
Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy
Respect your father and mother
Do not commit murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not accuse anyone falsely
Do not desire things belonging to another
Just before our Gospel reading, we had our prayer of confession which began with what we call liturgically as the Summation of the Law:
[Jesus said,] “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22:37-40)
So, the Ten Commandments we reviewed in our quiz can be summed up in these words of Jesus. It is an easy trap to fall into to make sweeping generalisations about Jesus’ words: that is, to say Jesus – good, Pharisees – bad; Christianity – good, Judaism – bad; spirit of the law – good, letter of the law – bad.
Let us look at what Jesus was doing in His Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was born a Jew; He grew up in the Jewish faith; He became a travelling preacher: His teaching drew crowds of mainly Jews. He was doing nothing different to other travelling preachers: namely, interpreting the Jewish Law.
Another easy trap to fall into, particularly in the context of the Gospel passage read to us today, is to step outside the context. Two weeks ago, when Philip looked at the start of the Sermon on the Mount, we heard a string of exhortations beginning “Blessed are…”, sometimes translated as “Happy are…” Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a doctrine of how to live life, striving towards something better. And last week, Andy looked at the role Christians might play in the world: to be salt, to bear Christ’s light in the world, and Jesus as the fulfilment of the Jewish Law.
Nevertheless, these first two sections of the Sermon on the Mount contain concepts and ideals. Today’s reading reaches down into everyone’s everyday life, and Jesus speaks about four very real issues: anger, fidelity, divorce and promises, and to Jesus’ Jewish audience these were rooted in the Ten Commandments.
Firstly, looking at anger: it an emotion we all feel from time to time. As is common in many of Jesus’ teachings, He uses hyperbole, which means giving an example by going to the extreme. In Jesus’ words, He alludes to the ultimate end for anger to be murder.He is echoing back to the Commandment: “Do not commit murder.” There’s a scale from angry thoughts, through angry words, to angry and ultimately violent deeds. For Jesus, it seems like it is all the same.
As a magistrate, I have sat and heard literally hundreds of cases of violence. Sadly, many of these occur in a domestic context. Recently, I heard of how a man’s niggle that his girlfriend kept her towel over the top of the bathroom door so it wouldn’t close, and she refused to get a hook for the towel on the back of the door. He didn’t like going to the toilet when he couldn’t close the door. Within a couple of weeks, this had snowballed into full-scale argument and a physical fight, Police involvement and ultimately a long trial in court.
Another aspect of our modern life is that disagreements, which even 10 years ago would have been wholly private, are frequently thrust into the public domain through social media such as Facebook. Similarly, personal reactions to events in our lives and the world are so easy to make public.
Jesus recognised that anger is part of our humanity, but His advice to us is simple: to keep short accounts with people. I am sure we have all heard the advice never to go to bed angry. Jesus puts it in the context of going to worship: make sure that we are at peace with those we know, and that includes being reconciled to ourselves. This explains why the Confession is placed towards the start of most church services, including ours.
Nevertheless, I think it important to mention righteous anger. The Gospels tell us of how Jesus was angry at the way in which the Temple was filled with those whose business deflected from the true purpose there, and He upturned their tables and drove them out.
Righteous anger is evoked in us when we sense injustice. Recently, our righteous anger at Jacqueline’s detention spurred us and thousands of others to express their feelings to the Home Office. Our outcry was heard.
The next two sections of today’s passage concerns human relationships. Again, Jesus reflects the Commandments and takes us to the extreme – adultery – and then revisits the notion by saying that adultery, like murder, begins with a thought in a human mind. To Him, it all seems much like the same thing. To Him, the intent and the action are the same.
Jesus, then, once again employs the use of hyperbole. It is merely an extreme example to illustrate the dangers of adultery. Jesus is not expecting us to gouge out our eyes and cut off our hands. His words are a shocking way in which to emphasise the destructive power of how we treat fellow humans.
Many of us will have had the experience of a relationship going wrong, and many of us will be aware of the shallow nature of some aspects of LGBT culture. Some of us may have had the experience of being told that our then partner had met someone else: someone better, someone younger, someone fitter.
The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is about living a life which is better, based on love for God and for others. Jesus’ teaching is more radical than that of Moses and the Pharisees: for Jesus, an angry thought is just as bad as murder; a lustful thought is just as bad as actual adultery.
The next section of Jesus’ discourse concerns divorce: again, Jesus is setting a higher goal. While His words on divorce here and later in Matthew Chapter 19 may seem inflexible and uncompromising, they do make sense when taken in the context of the teaching of the whole Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is pointing to an ideal a committed union: two people together forever.
I think it is important at this point to mention that these three real-life issues – anger, fidelity and divorce – are inextricably linked. The unrestrained angry thought can poison a relationship and lead to its end. The unrestrained lustful thought can equally poison a relationship, give rise to anger. And divorce is almost an inevitable consequence of anger and/or infidelity taking hold in relationship.
Jesus’ final live issue of the day is that of promises. In the 21st century, we are bound by promises and contracts: in our employment, in our home, in our financial affairs, our mobile ‘phones, in Civil Partnerships, in pre-nuptial agreements, and in the numerous “terms and conditions” we agree to online (but never read). Our language is littered with references to promises and oaths, but in reality, the only real scenarios when our spoken words become binding are in the formalising of relationships and in Court.
In Court, I am always interested to see how many people will choose to swear the Oath on the Bible, even though they have probably not been to a church in years – if ever. It is also interesting to observe how, having made an Oath, witnesses and especially defendants giving evidence will mould the truth and become evasive, as if the promise to be truthful had slipped their mind.
Jesus’ guidance on truth is simple: “Let your word be 'Yes’ or 'No'.” With simplicity in mind, I am impressed with the oath made in the Youth Court: “I promise to tell the truth.”
Returning to the context of the Sermon on the Mount, being truthful and being honest is at the very core of the real-life issues we have looked at today. Others are less likely to be angry with us if we are honest and truthful. Similarly, our relationships are less like likely to fall apart if we are honest and truthful.
It is not easy to be a Christian. Jesus made that abundantly clear in other parts of His teaching. In this sermon, I have largely focused on how Jesus’ teaching might influence our dealings with others. In conclusion, I would like us to reflect and consider these: as we keep short accounts with others, let us keep short accounts with ourselves and with God. As we seek to be faithful to others in our relationships, let us be faithful to ourselves and faithful to God. And, as we are honest and truthful in our dealings with others, let us be honest and truthful with ourselves and with God. By keeping short accounts, let us live each day, one hour at a time.
I finish with a quotation from the late Brother Roger of the Taizé community in France:
"Christ came ‘not to abolish but to fulfil’. When you listen, in the silence of your heart, you realise… that [Jesus] comes to change even what is most disturbing with you.”