A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, February 16th 2020
Murder, adultery, divorce and oath taking …
Previously, on Sermons at Saint Columba’s …
Two weeks ago, we had the beatitudes, the start of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. (5:1-12) Last week, from that same Sermon on the Mount, we had Jesus declaring, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ (5:17) I then left you hanging at the end of last week’s sermon by saying, ‘How Jesus went about fulfilling the Old Testament law and prophets is our model for doing so today. And Jesus was shockingly flexible with those rules to make them fit the situation: “he’s abolishing the law”, some thought. And we will discover that out for ourselves … in next week’s sermon.’
Well, next week’s sermon has arrived, and we are sticking with the Sermon on the Mount, to see how Jesus deals with rules and regulations contained in the Bible. If we can see what he did with them, then that will give us some idea about how we are to regard the rules that appear in our own Bible, which, let’s not forget, has an additional twenty seven books to ponder, on top of the Old Testament ones that constituted the scripture precious to Jesus and his fellow Jews. That’s challenging. And because we like a challenge, we’re looking at this passage where Jesus talks about about murder, adultery, divorce, and oath taking.
Murder, like adultery, qualifies for a place in the ten commandments: “you shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13, 14) In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses declares to God’s people, ‘if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today … by walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances … God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear … you shall perish.’ (30:16, 17, 18) So, it follows that if you claim to follow the biblical law you do not go around murdering people.
That doesn’t seem too big an “ask”: don’t murder anyone. Very few people murder other people, at least around here in North Shields. I’m pretty confident that adultery is more widespread than murder. Is divorce more widespread than adultery? And as for oath-taking in the context of truth telling (which might relate to the commandment about false witness (Exodus 20:16)), most people who take an oath probably don’t give a single thought to what God might command about that.
Every one of us is agreed that murder is a big thing. From the point of view of biblical laws, taking someone else’s life without permission is the ultimate form of stealing. It’s so significant that the commandment not to steal (Exodus 20:15) is not enough by itself; murder qualifies for its own commandment. Most people don’t need the Bible to tell them that murder is a bad thing. In our society, as in many or all societies, it’s the ultimate individual crime. In this country, until relatively recently, if you took someone else’s life then society would demand yours in return. Even now, it’s murders that command the heaviest prison sentence in our judicial system, and very few would disagree with that approach.
So, it seems that this religious rule against murder is not a great challenge to us. Very few of us ever get really close to killing someone else, though the thought might cross our minds on occasion. As far as keeping the religious law, or any law, is concerned, however, it’s an open goal. We’ve never murdered anyone. We don’t intend to murder anyone. There couldn’t be an easier commandment to keep. At least, there wasn’t until Jesus got his hands on it, and set about fulfilling the law and the prophets in his own unique way.
Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times [in the Ten Commandments part of the law bequeathed to us by Moses], “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the fire of hell. (5:21) If anger and insults towards others counts as part of “you shall not murder” then a commandment that was only for a few suddenly becomes applicable to all of us.
Anger is a universal. We all experience it, both as its object and as the one who is angry. Everyone gets angry sometimes. Some people seem to live in an almost constant state of barely suppressed rage. It only takes the smallest thing for them to get angry. By and large, we don’t like anger. We don’t like the way it makes us feel. We see what it does to others, both in its effect on those who get angry, and its impact upon those who are the target of others’ anger. All the same, if Jesus fulfils God’s law by identifying anger with murder then he turns murder from a commandment none of are likely to break during our lives into one that all of us have already broken. Where’s the good news in that?
Maybe there’s such a thing as good anger or righteous anger. After all, we used to be so much more comfortable with the idea that God gets angry, though maybe we got a bit too comfortable with that. Nowadays, when I preach that “God is love” no one bats an eyelid. If I preached ‘the wrath of God’, however, people would demand an explanation. They might think that I have time-travelled to this pulpit from a previous era; that I had been angered by a recent bad experience; or just that there is something wrong with me today.
Now, I’m convinced that God is love. The life, the teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus have convinced me of that. As Saint Paul put it when writing to Christians in Rome, ‘while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6, 8) So, yes, God is love, but can God get angry? You know, I hope so.
When you’re aware that a child is being abused or has been abused, or hear that another has been murdered, it’s natural to be angry, and I would think it strange if God was not. When I see refugees on the road in Syria, fleeing from murder by bombing and bombardment, and with the prospect of worse to come, I hope God sees it too and is angry. For me, it would be very worrying to think that God was not angry in face of perpetrated injustices and consequent human suffering. If a human being was untouched by it, we would see him or as lacking something in their humanity. If God is untouched by such suffering, then God’s lacking something in God’s divinity.
So, how does that fit in with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about the law against murder? ‘But I say to you …’ (5:22) says Jesus, if you’re even angry or insulting to others you’re liable to judgement. If you have ever gone as far as calling someone a fool, then you’re liable to hellfire. On that basis, anyone here today who’s liable to hellfire? The preacher raised his hand at this point, as did most members of the congregation.
Maybe Jesus was exaggerating for effect. Certainly, that’s possible. You think that you’re too good to ever be as bad a murderer? OK, but how many murders arise from those moments of anger we all know? How many arise from situations where insults were traded or where one person called the other a fool – like we’ve all thought or said at one time or another? Then, before they knew it, they’d lost it; fists were flying, the weapon nearest to hand was in someone’s hand, and it was used to deadly effect. There, but for the grace of God, go all the angry people in the world, including you and me.
Maybe one effect that Jesus wanted to have was to remind his disciples – including you and me – that we are not a cut above the other sinners, including even the murderers; to say that in certain ways we can’t even be sure that we can keep as easy a commandment as “do not murder”. Oddly enough, as well as having a role in keeping order in society, perhaps part of the point of God’s law is to remind us that by ourselves, dependant only upon our own powers, we, Jesus’s followers, aren’t able to keep the laws, and so are liable to God’s judgement as anyone else. So, Jesus fulfils the law by pointing to our need for something or someone beyond the law.
Ultimately, for our existence and for flourishing, we depend not upon the laws themselves, but on God, who is behind and above these laws. That brings us back to Jesus, the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, not just to the content of his Sermon itself. Jesus takes the opportunity presented by the commandment to preach against the murderous aspects and outcomes of human anger. God’s anger about what’s wrong in the world, however, is decisively different from our law-breaking sort of anger. We get angry and bad things follow. God gets angry and sends Jesus, not to insult us or call us fools, but to love us and call us friends. (John 15:15)
Where anger is concerned, Jesus fulfils the law. The law’s there to keep our communities and societies from falling into chaos. Yet, at the same time, it’s impossible for us to keep in every detail, says Jesus, even where murder is concerned. For that, we depend on God to be angry enough, which for God involves being loving enough, to respond with the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. So, first, we depend on God; and then, secondly, we do our best to keep God’s laws.