Rev. Father Alan Heatherington, Grace Anglican Fellowship, February 12, 2017
This morning we are on our third of four passages from the Sermon on the Mount and here, as before, we encounter some challenging, fascinating and even somewhat startling statements from Jesus. The two that are most familiar to us are the ones where Jesus says that the evil intentions we try to keep to ourselves are just as culpable as though we had followed through on them. To be angry with someone is as bad as committing murder and to look lustfully at someone is as bad as committing adultery. The lust-to-adultery one is almost always left “as is,” with only men being the guilty parties. I seriously doubt that Jesus intended the exclusion of women from either statement; He simply was using the forms of expression universal in His day.
We were dealing with the anger issue last Sunday evening, where Paul in Ephesians 4 issues the commandment “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (verses 26, 27); then he adds that anger itself is among the sins that we are to “put away” (vs. 31). We asked whether it’s even possible to be angry without sinning. Jesus does not seem to be interested in softening any of His blows. Anger in our hearts towards another person renders us guilty. Is Jesus really equating anger with murder, or is this pure hyperbole? The same question applies to whether lustful looks are really to be equated with adultery. Suddenly a huge swatch of humanity that thought they could plead “not guilty” to breaking two of the most blatantly offensive among the 10 Commandments now may have to plead “guilty” to sins of the heart that Jesus says are just as bad.
If you’re wishing to get off the hook on the list of mortal sins that imperil your soul, you won’t get any help from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, His next words destroy the artificial hierarchies of sin that society and even the Church have devised, where Jesus says that simply calling someone a fool renders one “guilty enough to go into the fiery hell!” Later in Matthew He says, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (12:36-37). I don’t recall ever calling anyone a “fool” myself. But many of us address bad drivers of the “cutting off” variety as “idiots,” usually from the safety of our own cars. There’s no verse in Scripture that literally says, “Watch your mouth,” but there are plenty that come close. James says this about the tongue: “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (3:9). Returning again to Paul in Ephesians, it’s almost as though he had the Sermon on the Mount in mind when he was writing that epistle. In Ephesians 5:4 he wrote, “Nor should there be any obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, but rather giving of thanks.” That’s seriously good advice, both in terms of what we should not say and in terms of what we should use as a substitute: thanksgiving! This was a practice that Paul employed with great regularity, and it accounts for why in his writings he seems so often to interrupt himself by blurting out a mini-doxology in the middle of his arguments. By contrast, our daily television talk shows decidedly fall into the categories of “obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking,” relentlessly and virtually without exception! Are all those hosts under condemnation?
Anger issues plague many people in our culture, and the anger-management gurus are making a lot of money trying to help those for whom counseling is made mandatory. We only need to surf the internet or read the newspaper or watch television to see how thousands of Americans have reacted to the election of a new president with unprecedented fury. And this out-of-control anger is applauded by many others who feel that they are being well represented by the rioters and demonstrators and demagogues. Anger often morphs into hatred, and both anger and hatred have become the norm for internet bloggers, Facebook posters, media spokespersons and Tweeters. If we think that most of this is somehow justifiable and benign, then we’re listening to the culture and not to Jesus. Whatever Jesus really meant about anger, we need to be better guardians of our emotions and our tongues if we are persons who call ourselves by His holy Name. Anger is decidedly one of the strongest of all human emotions, and it’s only rarely a positive one.
What about the lustful looks? Today we are absolutely assaulted with images that stir up impure feelings. It’s no longer possible to be completely isolated from them. And whenever lustful looks are directed towards other individuals, whether they’re personal acquaintances or entertainment figures or anonymous subjects in magazines and on the internet or television, it’s easy for those looks to be translated into fantasies that are harmful to us. Yes, the words of Jesus here seem rather extreme. But sometimes extreme circumstances call for extreme language in order to safeguard ourselves against concupiscence of the eye, which St. Augustine identified as a consequence of original sin. We can sugarcoat it all we wish, and can do it with the approbation of our society, but Jesus will stick with His extreme position for our own spiritual safety. Internet pornography is absolutely rampant today, and Jesus is saying that it’s not a matter of harmless voyeurism. He’s willing to call it the sin of adultery.
What else do we find in this passage? One thing is very simple: avoid litigation whenever possible. Do an out-of-court settlement even if it’s the 11th hour and you already are on your way to the courthouse. Otherwise you may be a victim of the legal system and end up in jail. This sounds like sage and timeless advice with ample contemporary application.
There’s another thing that’s rather less obvious and significantly less comforting: the words about tearing out one’s eye or cutting off one’s right hand. While we assume that literal self-mutilation is not in Jesus’ mind here, there have been those down the centuries who have taken it that way. It seems safe to say that Jesus simply is admonishing us to take whatever drastic measures may be necessary to separate ourselves from any form of sin. What we never can do is to take these words lightly. Jesus is giving the sternest warning that whatever it is that causes us to stumble, that is, to commit sin, it must be identified and dealt with at once and firmly. He does nothing to soften the consequences of calling sin something else, refusing to acknowledge it or refusing to cast it aside. He says that “it’s better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.” For most of us, we hear these words with gratitude that they surely must apply only to someone else. But given the context, where Jesus is talking about sins of anger, loose talk, lustful looks and bad interpersonal relationships, the punishment of hell suddenly seems nearer at hand than we’ve been willing to contemplate.
Inevitably we hide behind our assurances that our God is a just and loving God Who forgives all our sins and has a place prepared for us in heaven. But the point that Jesus is making here is that those who continually indulge in sinful behavior without remorse, repentance or remediation are in peril of hell and will need to put such sin away at any cost. It’s the sort of thing that Jesus is not at all reluctant to tuck into His preaching, even though the modern preacher would prefer to avoid the subject altogether. But we’re called to preach the whole Gospel, not just the warm-fuzzy parts. Jesus preached both, Peter and Paul preached both, and we should do no less.
There’s definitely a down side to this job.
Every Sunday we say the words of John, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (John 1:8). But he immediately adds that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (verse 9). In other words, God has provided an option that stops well short of tearing out an eye or cutting off a hand. The spiritual mechanism is there but, once again, it requires naming our sins, confessing them, and meaning it when we say in our prayer of confession that “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
Which brings me to the matter I saved for last. Jesus says, “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23, 24). Paul wrote in more general terms, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:28). Jesus, of course, is not speaking directly about the Eucharist, which had not yet been instituted. But His principle of making things right with our fellow-believers before coming to the altar is behind our practice of exchanging the Peace of Christ before we “eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It’s not about saying “good morning” or “have a nice day;” we have ample opportunity in other moments to do that without completely disrupting the liturgy of the Sacrament.
By now you may be feeling grateful that there’s only one more Sunday on the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a sermon that starts out with a series of blessings that we call the Beatitudes, but it then moves immediately into some of the most challenging teaching in all of Holy Scripture. I have a book that I’ve treasured since its publication 35 years ago called The Hard Sayings of Jesus, by the great evangelical English scholar F. F. Bruce. My only regret is that it never became the first volume of a twelve volume series. The sayings of Jesus are hard, and there’s no softening of their blows. But they have been preserved for our instruction in righteousness. They set a standard of Christian ethics that few persons ever have imagined attaining in full. Some call it “Kingdom Ethics,” suggesting that Jesus never intended us to attain these lofty standards in this life. For those who feel that they measure up pretty well, Jesus wraps us His sayings in Matthew 5 with this conclusion: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” That seems to narrow the field to one Person: Jesus Himself.
I think it’s instructive that we offer our prayer of confession immediately before the Eucharist and then enter the Liturgy of the Eucharist first by offering each other the Peace of Christ. Behind those two actions lies the intention to safeguard ourselves against unworthy reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. No matter what we believe happens in the mystery of this holy Table, we all believe that here is a place of spiritual encounter with the risen Christ and that what we do here is done in the company of all the hosts who have gone on ahead of us. Never once should we come to the Lord’s Table casually or routinely or unworthily.
The very first chapter in F. F. Bruce’s book deals with our Savior’s words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. This morning is the first time that I will stand here behind this table as a priest in Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic Church, in the succession of millions who have gone before, doing the same things and saying the same words, being profoundly humbled by the awe-inspiring responsibility that we’ve assumed when accepting the call of Christ to serve Him in this particular way. Jesus is inviting you to His table to eat of His Body, broken for you, and drink His Blood shed for you. It’s He, not I, Who invites you here by His grace and love.
Please turn with me in your hymnals to #503, “Come, Risen Lord,” and follow along as I read this remarkable text that beautifully expresses what we are about to share together:
Come risen Lord and deign to be our guest.
Nay let us be Thy guests: the feast is Thine.
Thyself at Thine own board make manifest
In Thine own sacrament of bread and wine.
We meet, as in that Upper Room they met,
Thou at the table, blessing, yet dost stand.
“This is My Body,” so Thou givest yet.
Faith still receives the cup as from Thy hand.
One body we, one body who partake,
One Church united in communion blest;
One Name we bear, one Bread of Life we break,
With all Thy saints on earth and saints at rest.
One with each other, Lord, for one in Thee,
Who art one Savior and one living Head.
Then open Thou our eyes that we may see:
Be known to us in breaking of the Bread.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.