Law and Order — 3rd Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:21-37

As we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, having heard the call to be salt and light, and having been told that our righteousness should exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, we’re now confronted with the details. And, as they say, the “devil is in the details.”

I chose the title “law and order,” because we often link the two terms together. These are words that everyone seems to understand. In fact, these words are so prominent in our society that they have inspired a series of very popular cop and lawyer TV shows. For most of us law and order means keeping criminals off the street so we can live safe and secure lives. We understand the meaning of these words, but rarely do we apply them to our own lives.

As we consider this set of verses from Matthew’s Gospel, the idea of “law and order” seems to move beyond the concerns of the criminal justice system, and begin to speak to our own daily lives. The words we hear in this passage seem harsh and foreboding. They speak to issues that we face every day – anger, lust, keeping our word, and maybe even divorce – and they suggest that if we don’t get our act together we could be in for big trouble. After reading this passage we might begin to wonder if we shouldn’t just skip the sermon and move to a prayer of confession and word of absolution and forgiveness – sort of like what we do on Ash Wednesday. But, Jesus’ point is about more than making us feel guilty so we will say we’re sorry and promise not to do bad things again.

Jesus speaks to the way in which we behave, because he wants us to understand what it means to live fully under the reign of God, even if the realm of God isn’t fully revealed in our midst.

As we listen to these words, and the verses that follow dealing with retaliation and love of our enemies, we’re reminded that we live in a broken and fragmented world. This brokenness affects every one of us, probably on a daily basis, in our church, in our families, and every other aspect of our lives. This is the way things are, but Jesus offers us a better way to live our lives.

If we’re to experience this better way, then we must first understand what needs to be changed. The way in which Jesus expands the commandments, also suggests that he wants to free us from our tendency toward self-righteousness. Not only that, but he also reminds us that there are consequences of giving reign over lives to a broken world. We may not believe in a literal fiery hell, but as they say, sometimes there is hell on earth.

1. Signs of Brokenness

In the course of 27 verses, 17 of which we read this morning, Jesus speaks to the brokenness that mark our lives and our communities. He speaks of anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and then he calls on us to not just to love our friends, but love our enemies. Jesus says – “you’ve heard it said, . . . but I say . . .” He starts with the Law as it’s written, and then pushes deeper, helping us understand that the brokenness that afflicts our world starts inside us. In his critique of the Pharisees, Jesus warned against merely focusing on the tangible expressions of the sins that corrupt our hearts and minds. Even if we’ve not killed anybody or committed adultery or perjured ourselves, the thoughts and feelings that lead to such acts could be brewing within.

As one commentator put it, the very fact that we take oaths, “means that we live in a world of lies.” [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary, (Brazos, 2006), p. 70]. And people kill people because they get angry, while adultery occurs because we covet something that we shouldn’t. As the saying goes, “something must be in the water.”

Laws by themselves can’t change hearts, but they can set boundaries and remind us as to what is permissible and what isn’t. As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, without the Law we wouldn’t ever have known about sin (Rom. 7:7ff), but even though the Law is holy, it doesn’t have the ability to keep us from sinning. Jesus hasn’t come to abolish the Law, but he does come to offer us the kingdom of God, where we can find the means of transformation. Our brokenness can give way to wholeness, if we’re willing to be reconciled with God and neighbor – even the neighbor who is our enemy.

2. Anger and Murder

Each of the four signs of brokenness that appear in today’s text deserves a closer look, but for the purposes of this sermon, I’d like to focus on Jesus’ statements about anger. I think I can safely say, that everyone in the room wrestles with anger. And even if you haven’t murdered someone, you probably have called someone a fool or an idiot. And Jesus says: that’s enough to get you in trouble. Calling someone a fool is the equivalent of putting a knife in someone’s heart, and as Jesus says – both get you the same punishment. That may not seem fair or just, but to Jesus the intent is as evil as the act.

I know that I get angry on occasion. I can even let it fester. In fact, at times I may take joy in feeding my anger, because it gives me power over someone else or it may feed my self-righteousness. Does that describe anyone else in the room?

But it’s not just anger that is an equivalent of murder. It’s also demeaning words and names that we say to others that get God’s attention and might we say, God’s righteous anger. As I hear Jesus say to us – if you call someone a fool you’re in danger of experiencing hell – I’m reminded that one of the biggest problems we face in our society is that of bullying. Bullying isn’t new. I know, because I experienced it growing up, and I recognize it when I see it. Unfortunately I’ve seen it pop up all too often in the church. And it’s not just children who are bullies. You can find bullies in every age group.

Bullying and anger, like murder, adultery, and lying are signs of the brokenness that afflicts the community. They are not signs of God’s reign, and therefore we must deal with them or we’ll suffer the consequences. Jesus says to us, before you come to the Table, let go of your anger and resentments, and be reconciled with God and with your neighbor, so that you might come to the table with a clean heart. But before we get to reconciliation, we need to deal with the matter of consequences.

3. Consequences

The stated consequences of sin that are found in this passage are rather harsh. Some of the suggested solutions to our problems even sound rather barbaric. They don’t sound like anything that we would expect Jesus to say, either. But, here he is telling people that if they don’t change their ways, they will experience eternal punishment. He even tells people that if you have a problem with lust, then maybe they should pluck out an eye and cut off one of their hands. After all, it’s better to enter the kingdom minus a few body parts than end up in hell with your body intact. I must say here that theologically I can’t reconcile a loving God with the doctrine of eternal punishment. It simply doesn’t make sense to me theologically. I also wouldn’t recommend that people maim themselves to keep from sinning. But, that doesn’t mean that our thoughts and our actions don’t have consequences.

Since this is Evolution Weekend, I thought it a good idea, to get something scientific into the service. While we’re not dealing with biology, there is a law of physics that applies to our situation – Newton’s Third Law of Motion: To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.  

Now this law of physics may seem rather obvious, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of this fact – actions do have consequences.

This idea is stated rather clearly in the Book of Deuteronomy, which says: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, . . . then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” (Deut. 30:16). Obedience leads to blessing. But, if you don’t do what the Lord commands, then you won’t live very long in the land of promise. The choice is yours.

Although the Sermon on the Mount starts with words of blessing, through which God extends God’s favor to the poor and the meek, the one who grieves and the one who is merciful, this sermon takes a rather realistic view of human behavior, and Jesus suggests that our behavior has consequences for our own lives and the lives of those with whom we share our lives. Jesus seems to be saying to us – when we fail to walk in the ways that God has set before us, then brokenness and destruction will increase.

4. Living in the Realm of God

So, why does Jesus address these issues? I believe that he raises issues like these, which form a representative and not an exhaustive list, because they are the kinds of behaviors that undermine the realm of God. These kinds of behaviors don’t represent the ways of God. If we speak harshly or act hatefully toward another person; if we objectify or exploit others; if we abandon those who are close to us or fail to speak honestly, then we are not walking in the ways of God. We may struggle with our ability to live fully into the realm of God, but Jesus reminds us to look closely at what the realm of God looks like, so that we can move toward that fulness.

It is a difficult path, and it requires much from us. It means changing the way we think and talk and act. Indeed, it means living in a way that moves from brokenness to wholeness. The good news is that we don’t have to take the journey alone. We go in the Spirit of God, who reconciles to one another, so that we might live in the company of the faithful.