The readings today continue the pre-Lent theme which began last Sunday. If you heard or read last week’s readings, you will have understood how we as Christians are called upon to live lives that are different to most people’s. Our standards, we learn, should exceed the ordinary standards of caring for those closest to us, of living decently in an ordered society. Our Christian understanding is that the rule of God requires us to aim higher and wider. But if you feel you are already trying hard enough in your life, you will not want to be told to try harder. If you’re trying hard already to lead a life pleasing to God, wouldn’t it be good to be told “don’t try so hard: relax, take the weight off your conscience”.
Well, if you have been trying hard to lead a decent life, there’s good news for you today, because that is pretty much the message we can take from to-day’s readings. Living an outstanding Christian life is not – perhaps I should repeat – is NOT about trying harder. Instead it’s about coming at life from a different angle. To understand this point, think back now to the gospel reading a few moments ago. The reading is part of a collection of Jesus’ teachings which the gospel writer has put together to make what we call The Sermon on the Mount. The key to the Sermon on the Mount is that it presents us with contrasts. It begins, you may recall this, with the Beatitudes – a set of founding principles by which we can recognise the rule of God. For example, Blessed are the peacemakers. Then comes the section we heard today, a set of four teachings on specific topics: anger, adultery, divorce and taking oaths. These four topics have a common pattern. In each one, Jesus reminds his hearers: if you’ve been well and religiously brought up, you will know that – dot, dot, dot…… BUT, I tell you dot, dot, dot…….
This is what Jesus meant when he said he had not come to abolish the Jewish Law nor the teaching of the prophets, but rather to fulfil them. When you fulfil something, you top it up, you amplify it. Well, that is what Jesus did: he fulfilled, he amplified that teaching. But he didn’t say try harder. Rather he took his hearers to the heart of the matter. He knew as well as his hearers the moral teaching of the Jewish Law and its founding principles. One of those fundamental principles was in our first reading from Deuteronomy (literally the Second Law [book]). “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God”. That phrase “choose life” is fundamental to Jewish thinking then and now. The Jewish people were told: here it is – life or death. Choose life…. and that is Jesus’ starting point in his moral teaching.
Let’s take his example of rules against adultery. Any Jewish or Christian person knows that adultery is a serious matter. Of course it happens, of course people like us are sometimes adulterers. But we know it is not an approved behaviour because it can seriously damage important relationships and families, and even break them permanently. Jesus didn’t say, incidentally, that adultery is the worst thing in the world, that everyone who does it is automatically consumed in hell-fire. But he did go further in favour of life. He pointed out that managing not to jump into bed with someone else’s partner is not the point. He amplified, fulfilled that understanding. Jesus pointed out that spending your life and energy longing for someone else’s partner is the point because if you do that, then you are living in a futile fashion. You withdraw your energy from whatever relationships you have already, thus depriving those people of your full engagement. And, to top it all, you misdirect your energies to where they can do no good and may well undermine someone else’s important relationships.
Or take the example of anger. In our culture, we’re frequently taught that any expression of anger is wrong. So much is this the case that we can really damage ourselves and – again – fail in important relationships precisely because we don’t properly deal with the anger we feel. Instead, we may try to score a hollow victory over ourselves by swallowing our anger. It’s a hollow victory because in practice our anger usually seeps out sideways to catch the other person unawares or else catch some other, uninvolved person, or even the cat. And that victory over yourself is hollow because it is a sure-fire route to your own ill-health. Jesus, as you would expect, does not decry the Jewish Law that condemns the anger which can lead to violence and even killing. Rather he amplifies and fulfils it. He points out that insulting behaviour is a form of violence – which he condemns. So what are we to do when we are angry with someone? Swallow it down and give ourselves a pat on the back for being good? and then give ourselves an ulcer from what we have swallowed over the years? No. Obviously not. Jesus has two examples in mind and two suggestions to make. One option is to be reconciled; the other is to come to terms.
Under the rule of God, we do not have to try harder not to be angry. Instead we are advised to take our anger and the cause of our anger to that brother or sister with whom we are angry. (Notice, by the way, the words brother and sister: they refer first of all to fellow Christians, then more widely to fellow persons). We have to have it out with them, to tell them honestly and straightforwardly what is going on from our side – that we are angry and why we are angry. And we have, of course, to hear from them their side of the situation or incident. Only then do we have the materials on which we can begin to look for reconciliation. Reconciliation, as Desmond Tutu pointed out before the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, can only come after all the parties have been heard, and have been open and honest. And, if you really can’t come to at least the beginnings of reconciliation, then you may have to negotiate some terms that do justice to your feelings and experience and those of the other parties.
None of this, please note, is about trying harder. The standards Jesus demands of us are simply more realistic, more profound, more socially useful and more likely to make for justice, and for human flourishing. The standards of the gospel are simply better – and a gift to us that we can share with the world. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.