Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
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The Law of the Kingdom

Matthew 5:21-48

Every six years, our federal government publishes a new edition of the United States Federal Code, our law book. Every single year, they publish an update to it, reflecting the most recent changes. The last copy of the US Code was published in 2012. It contained 51 “Titles” and is more than 200,000 pages long. Did you ever stop to wonder what’s in there? Does anyone even know?

You see, every “kingdom” has its own law, its own set of ethics. So does the Kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount, what we call chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, are clearly meant to be a New Testament equivalent to the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai in the Old Testament. God is again giving his Law from a mountain. And what I hope you’ll see in here is that the ethics of the Kingdom of God are very different from the ethics of any worldly kingdom.

First, we see that outward obedience to the letter of the Law is not enough. Why would it be when we have a King who knows our hearts? Internal obedience is also important. If it’s wrong to do it, then it’s wrong to say it, and even wrong to think it.

Anger has no place in the Kingdom of God. It is like murder in the heart.

Now, of course, we live in a broken, sinful world. Anger is inevitable. But what we do with our anger is not inevitable. In the Greek language that the New Testament was written in, there were two different words for anger. One word described a quick emotional response. It’s what we do when somebody cuts us off in traffic. The second word, the one used here, refers to a brooding, sulking, deliberate anger and hatred. We can’t help getting angry from time to time, but we can help what we do with it. We can choose whether or not we’re going to harbor that anger. We can choose whether or not we’re going to commit murder in our hearts or with our words. Slandering a person, tearing them apart with our words, is just another form of murder: Killing their reputation and their sacred worth, rather than their body.

Lust also has no place in the Kingdom of God. And again, there is a level of “lust” that is inevitable and another level that is a matter of choice. We can’t help but to be attracted to other people, including people that we shouldn’t be attracted to. But what we do with that attraction is a matter of choice. All behavior is a choice.

I’ve often wondered if Jesus is especially talking to men in this passage. They say that men are much more oriented to be attracted by sight. I can’t say whether or not that’s true because I’ve never been a woman. And I’m not planning to try it out either. But things like pornography seem to be so much more of a trap for men than women. Perhaps women struggle with sexual temptation in other ways that just don’t mean as much to me.

But we shouldn’t entertain sin. Being attracted to someone with whom we shouldn’t have an intimate relationship is not wrong, but entertaining the thought can be. That’s what Jesus is talking about with this whole “gouge out your eye, cut off your hand” thing. The sin that is given safe harbor in our hearts can be just as destructive as the sin that is lived out in our lives.

And we shouldn’t make a vow about something if we don’t intend in our hearts to keep our word. In Jesus’ day, the rabbis had created this whole elaborate system about which vows a person had to keep and which they could not bother to keep. Basically, it came down to this: They said if you swear by God, you have to keep it. But if you swear by anything else, you can let that go.

Jesus said, “Just be true to your word. If you are true to your word, people won’t need to hear a vow from you to be able to believe you.”

Jesus didn’t lower the bar on what is right and wrong. If anything, he raised it. He raised it by saying, “Don’t just do what is right in your actions, or even what is right in your words, but even do what is right in your thoughts, in your heart and mind.”

The second thing I want you to see in this passage is that if we want to have peace with God, then we must also make every effort to have peace with each other. The Old Testament teaches us that God only accepts the sacrifices of those whose hearts were pure toward God and toward their neighbor. In Jesus’ day, the rabbis understood and taught that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, could not make a person right with God if they had unresolved conflict in their life.

Verses 23 to 26 are very practical. If you have a conflict with someone, make every effort to resolve it and do so quickly. Most conflicts are rather easy to resolve early on, but become increasingly difficult to resolve as time goes by. The longer they linger, the longer the feelings of animosity grow, the less likely we are to have peace with each other. And then, how can we have peace with God?

Verses 31 and 32 remind us that of all places, we should certainly strive for peace in our most important relationship, marriage. We often lament about the sad state of marriage in our world today. It may have been worse in Jesus’ world. Marriage was a dying institution in Jesus’ day. Among the Jewish people, there had been a great debate about what were legitimate grounds for divorce. And the school that won out in that debate is the one that said that a man could get a divorce if his wife displeased him in any way, even if she simply burned his dinner or failed to be as attractive as another woman. In Greek society, divorce was uncommon, but that was because women were not allowed to seek divorce, and men were expected to visit prostitutes and have affairs. In Roman society, divorce was the most common because unlike the other two, the Romans allowed women to divorce, and so I guess the odds were twice as high. Jesus challenged the ideas of marriage and divorce in his day, not just ours.

If we can’t live in peace within the most intimate relationship in our lives, if we can’t reconcile within the bonds of marriage, then how can we have peace with God, whom we cannot see? How can we be reconciled to a neighbor that we don’t have to go home to every night?

Jesus even tells us to value reconciliation so much that we do not seek revenge.

The way of the world is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” By the way, that has often been called the world’s oldest law. And sure enough it shows up in the oldest law records we have. The purpose of it was to limit retribution. It was not meant to be a “barbaric law.” And it wasn’t practiced literally either. It wasn’t that if someone punched you and knocked out your tooth, then you were allowed to go knock out their tooth. The matter would be taken to a court, and the court would decide the financial value of the injury, and the pain and suffering, and the lost time from work, and the insult of it.

But Jesus says, “Instead of revenge, love your enemies. Pray for them.” In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and most of the rabbis interpreted the Old Testament to teach that you should love your friends and hate your enemies. The only prayer you should make about your enemies was for God to destroy them, they said. So Jesus said something pretty radical: Love your enemies and pray for God to bless them.

We should consider relationships to be essential, and other things to be disposable. Compare that to the world that says, “Hold on to what’s yours. If someone

wrongs you, blow ‘em off.” Jesus says, “If your enemy demands the shirt off your back, give them your coat, too, if that will bring peace. Ignore the insult of being slapped on the cheek if doing so will bring peace.”

This brings us to the last point I’d like to emphasize from this morning’s text: God calls his people to think more of their responsibilities than their rights. Our responsibility as Jesus’ people is to love our neighbors and live at peace with them. That’s more important than our rights.

Now I don’t think Jesus is calling us to be doormats. I don’t think Jesus is saying that if someone robs your house, don’t call the police. I don’t think Jesus is telling us to ignore evil or injustice in this world. We have a responsibility to fight injustice, to stand with the innocent who are wronged.

But there are so many occasions of life when we should think first of our responsibilities, rather than our rights. That is not the way of our world. Our society says, “I demand my rights!” And I think that too often, we Christians follow the way of the world.

I think of the story from earlier this year when that fellow from the television show Duck Dynasty said some things that the world considered to be offensive. An awful lot of Christians jumped on the internet and the radio and demanded that he have the right to speak his mind. Well, I hate to tell them this, but no one took away his right to speak his mind. They took him off a television show. No one has the right to a television show. Of course, the network they saw the dollar signs flying out the window, and suddenly we were reminded of their “real” priorities.

Or I think of the flap that so many Christians put up when a crèche is taken off of public property. It really doesn’t bother me. Honestly, it doesn’t. I don’t think anyone is going to come to know God because the crèche is in front of the courthouse instead of in front of the church. And no one is taking away our religious freedom when they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Maybe we just got too used to having preferential treatment in our society as Christians. But I don’t think these are things that are worth demanding our rights over. Instead, let’s think more about our responsibility to love and serve our neighbors and to live in peace with them. That is our great responsibility as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

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