I Hope You’re Sitting Down – Jesus is Speaking!

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Jesus was sitting on the mountainside, and the disciples were listening to him speak about the expected behaviour of his followers, with each other and with God (Matthew 5:21-37).   Like Moses who came down the mountain to give God’s Ten Commandments to the Israelites, Jesus was teaching a fresh understanding of these laws, asking his disciples to think and act beyond the letter of the law. 

I’ve been reflecting this week on human brokenness: about broken relationships, the gap between what we say and what we do, our willful blindness when we don’t want to see the consequences of our actions, when we want something, we’re greedy and don’t care if someone else pays.  Such thinking and behaviour can lead to war, murder, betrayal, hatred, envy, broken promises, court cases, abuse and despair; not only for the victims of our greed, but for ourselves as we injure our own souls and our relationships with everyone around us, including God.

I’m using strong language to describe the real cost of continuing to do what the rest of the world sees as normal behaviour, business as usual, but Jesus tells us it is unacceptable if we want to be his followers. 

In Matthew’s Gospel 5:21-37, Jesus continues his sermon on the mount, and provides four strong examples of everyday behaviour to show how this is against God’s love and kingdom living. We hear about anger and conflict, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, and the final two examples (5:38-48) making six in total, concern revenge, and loving one’s neighbour.   

Jesus stated his teaching was not replacing or abolishing Moses’ law, rather he was reclaiming its original intentions, intensifying the requirements for the commandments. 

So, I hope you are listening hard, because his teaching and expectations of us are uncomfortable and clear. 

In all the examples, we are asked to look at our own behaviour in our relationship with God and with our neighbours.  If we are focused simply on our own sense of righteousness in comparison to others, we have missed the point of Jesus. 

Firstly, Jesus reminded us: ‘You shall not murder’.  However, Jesus pulls us right back to check our motives, before murder even enters our minds, when we are beginning a conflict with someone, and says, if you’re bringing an offering to God, even in prayer, while in a conflict: stop, go and sort out your differences and then come back.  We must not only be in right relationship with God, but also with our neighbours.  Carelessness and unchecked or unnoticed greed is not acceptable. 

Jesus sees wars and territorial aggression, apartheid, invasion and genocide because of this inability, or unwillingness to examine our motives.  We are driven to wipe out what we don’t want to face including evidence of guilt and shame.  Conflict with loved ones leads to broken families, loneliness, regret and despair, arguments generating bitterness and vindictiveness over generations.  Is this what we want for our lives lived as witnesses of God’s love?  Is this how we see God behaving?

The world may know ‘we are Christians by our love’, but a brief look at the history of the church, reveals our own anger, rage, judgement, discrimination, hatred, bitterness, envy and greed continuing our brokenness.  If we can’t learn how to work this out as Christians, we aren’t listening to God.  The priority is clear: having a right relationship with God is based on having a right relationship with our neighbours.  Jesus is not replacing the commandment about killing, but is pointing out all God desires for us and from us, and this means not killing, and also letting go  of anger that also kills.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote:

True reconciliation is based on forgiveness and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done….only together, hand in hand, as God’s family and not as one another’s enemy, can we ever hope to end the vicious cycle of revenge and retribution.

We know God’s grace and forgiveness come first, but our ongoing experience of grace asks us in turn, to share it with others.  Grace that is interrupted and not passed on is no longer grace.

Secondly, Jesus speaks of adultery and divorce, sounding a deafening alarm to a modern society marketing sensuality, sex, lust and desire, specialising in sexual exploits, abuse and violence.  Jesus pointed to the vulnerability of women at the mercy of men, who made the decisions about them.  In his culture and times, women belonged first to their fathers and then to their husbands as chattels.  Men could easily acquire and easily dispose of them.

Jesus moves beyond the act of adultery using Exodus’s narrow definition, to the motivation of lust and selfish desire leading to the devastation in relationships in adultery. Jesus reminds us not only the act of adultery is wrong, but the lust and desire preceding it are idolatrous as it turns the object of our desire into something to be possessed and consumed, breaking relationships with both God and those around us.  Whether we see adultery as sexual impulse or as a matter of property theft as it was in antiquity, existing relationships are set aside.

Thirdly, Jesus included divorce in this sequence of teachings.  He reminds us repeatedly, God is a God of mercy, forgiveness, healing and inclusion.  Jesus does not require or expect anyone to remain in broken or abusive relationships.  God is a God of love not of power, coercion, fear and abuse and however we resolve the issues of divorce, adultery and simply falling out of love, all of which are real and painful, Jesus reminds us the letter of the law is not the place to start or finish a relationship.  Our capacity to understand our motives and be accountable for them in loving one another honestly and God is how we as Christians are called to live.

The fourth and final teaching was about taking oaths.  Jesus said swearing on God’s name or some other standard is meaningless, if our intention is to try to avoid acknowledging the wriggle room we want in our commitments, the get-out clause hidden in our hearts.   We’re not talking about plausible deniability, being economical with the truth, or caveats, but being honest and not manipulative.  

Truth telling is at the heart of every everything: in politics, business, medicine and healthcare, religion, family life, the economy, international relations and the legal system.  At the centre of making promises are commitment, integrity, truthfulness, trust and respect.

Jesus’ ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are not just about promises, but about a deeper truth in our lives. In Jesus’ teaching, honesty is shown the life of discipleship.    

Jesus said, ‘The truth will set you free’ (John 8:32), but it does not always feel like that.  The truth can put you in jail, it can cost you your marriage, your job or a relationship with a friend or family member.  Saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is not easy, and this, Jesus knew to his own cost. 

My own reflection on these four issues tells me living as a disciple is a matter of personal integrity in my relationship with God and you.   Integrity is evidence of our Christian faith, showing how as disciples we are committed to Jesus’ teachings, so our lives together in God’s family are based on truth with one another and God, identifying us as a community where Christ is our Lord.


The Lord be with you.

Bibliography

Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds].  2013.  Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol. 1 Chapters 1-13.

Tutu, D., 2004.  God has a Dream.  New York, Doubleday pp. 53, 58.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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