Sermon: Is Jesus Setting us up to Fail?

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, February 12th 2023

Matthew 5:21-37

Watch the whole service on YouTube.


According to Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s not just the commandments against murder, adultery, and misusing God’s name we should be observing. No! It’s much more demanding than that. His followers, disciples and apprentices – people like you and me – are not even to get angry against a brother or sister, never mind kill one; we’re never even to look at a woman in the wrong way, never mind marry a divorced one; and we’re never to use God’s name to back up what we promise.

Well, that’s me done for. (Though I’m not about to describe in detail for which particular failure or failings.) And I’d be prepared to make a bet that we are all in the same boat here. Never angry? Never a lustful look? Never an unbroken promise? I don’t think so. So should we all just give up? Jesus demands are so high that we seem set to fail, and if you know you are going to fail, why try in the first place?

So what is Jesus up to here in the Sermon on the Mount? Well, first he’s inspired by the Old Testament law; second he’s intensifying the Old Testament law (and protecting it in the process); and third, he’s challenging us his followers to have high standards, whilst reminding us that we depend upon God, not our own efforts, for salvation.

Jesus is inspired by what’s in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is as much a testimony to God and  a gift from God as the New Testament section of the Bible. It is the only scripture that Jesus and the first generation of his followers knew. The New Testament did not come along until after Jesus.

So, on this occasion, as he preaches and teaches, Jesus starts with what’s written in the Jewish scriptures. He references three of the ten commandments: against murder; against adultery; against misuse of God’s name. He also discusses what the scriptures say about divorce in the context of the practices of  Jewish society in time in which he lived.

Jesus, as he told his disciples earlier in his sermon, had not come to do away with the existing biblical religious law: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law of the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ (5:17) But Jesus way of fulfilling the law is to intensify it. He extends it beyond external matters, which can be seen by others, and so judged publicly, to include attitudes and passions; those things apparent only to ourselves, unless we betray ourselves in some way.

Speaking of the command against murder, Jesus says even uncontrolled anger against the other leaves you vulnerable to imprisonment in this world, and worse in the next. Speaking about the command against adultery, Jesus says that even a lustful look qualifies as a psychological adultery. Concerning the divorce practice of his time, whereby a man could divorce a woman (though not vice versa) simply by declaring it was so, Jesus said that the man here was forcing the woman to be an adulterer, which, I suppose, means that the man was one also. Then Jesus said that using God’s name to back up a promise, even if truly meant, would be cooperating with ‘the evil one.’ (5:37)

What on earth was Jesus doing? You might also want to ask, what is Jesus doing to us? Does he intend to set us up to fail? Does he intend to make us all miserable about our inevitable shortcomings. Actually, I think Jesus is doing some positive things here, though I grant you it’s not obvious upon first hearing.

First, Jesus is actually protecting people from breaking the original Old Testament law. So, for example, if you put effort into not being overcome by anger you are much less likely to murder someone.

If you are self-disciplined in the way you look at people, and think about people, you’ve stopping a number of steps short of entering an adulterous relationship,

If a first century Jewish man thinks for a moment about the consequences for a woman if he discards her, through the quickest of ‘quickie’ divorces, and what that says about him, then he’s less likely to indulge in such an unjust practice.

And if you think seriously about God as the sovereign of creation – heaven is God’s ‘throne’, earth, God’s ‘footstool’ (5:34, 35) – rather than as just a meaningless name, or an OMG acronym, then you will be such much more careful in your speech, and so in your relationship with the divine.

Jesus protects the original laws from being broken, and protects us from being the ones breaking them. And in so doing he sets high standards for his followers, and also reminds us of our need for God’s grace, God’s generosity in our lives.

Jesus sets high standards for us because he is wanting us to do God’s will in human relationships, as we interpret them appropriately across different times, cultures, and individual circumstances. For example, divorce laws in our setting are very different from those in Jesus’s setting. Also, the range of roles and relationships in our society are not so influenced by assumed male norms. Our culture is much more open to the possibility that women, not just men, may have sexual feelings lying behind how they look at others. Also, in our time, our more complex understanding of gender and human sexuality has to be negotiated.

So we are all called by Jesus to high standards concerning the ways we practice our social relationships. I imagine that we are all also aware that none of us match up to Jesus’s standards all of the time. Jesus thinks that’s important. He talks about being ‘liable to judgment’ (5:21), ‘to the fire of hell’ (5:22), ‘thrown into prison’ (5:25), ending up as adulterers (5:28), about it being better to lose body parts than transgress (5:29, 30), and being influenced by ‘the evil one.’ (5:37) This is serious stuff.

It could lead us to despair; to think it is better not to try at all to be good and to do good, if our best efforts are never enough to justify us before God. Actually , though, that’s just the point: none of us can justify ourselves before God through our own efforts. There is always going to be a ‘falling short of the mark.’

And that’s where God’s grace comes in; God’s generosity; God’s forgiveness. All of Jesus’s teaching, all of the Sermon on the Mount, all of the situations we are considering today, come with the understanding that God reaches out to us in Jesus Christ, not to condemn us, or to condemn the world, but to save the world, including each and every one of us. (John 3:17)

Jesus has high standards for his followers – try to meet them. Let’s try with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength. The nearer we get, the better our life together on earth will be. And as for the times we fall short (which we will) God is gracious, and will take care of us. After all that’s why God, in the person of Jesus Christ, reached out to us in in the first place.

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