(1 Corinthians 3, 1-9; Matthew 5, 21-37)
Our Secretary of State for Education recently made the statement that he wants all state schools to be above average. This has caused a great deal of hilarity among those less mathematically challenged than him! Because, of course, his aim is a mathematical impossibility. If all schools increase their ratings to exceed the current average, the average will rise. It is simply not achievable!
St Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth seems to be giving them a judgement of ‘satisfactory’ on the spiritual Ofsted scale. They are such infants in the faith, he says, that they can only be fed milk and slops. They are not yet ready to accept the deepest wisdom of the Gospel, the wisdom he described earlier in the letter as ‘the foolishness of God, the message of Christ crucified’. But note, it is not because of their ability to understand theological arguments that Paul marks the Corinthians down: it is because of their actions, the fact that they are continually quarrelling about who does what, and who follows who. In short, they see things from a human perspective, and so fail to achieve the depths of spirituality and love and unity that the message of the Gospel demands of them.
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus demands of his disciples (which includes us) that we become “above average” followers of his way. He wants us to be judged as not just ‘good’ but ‘outstanding’ in our spiritual Ofsted inspection, where judgements are made not just on outward actions, but on what goes on within our hearts.
As he said earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, in the passage we heard last week, he wants the righteousness of his followers to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. But it’s easy to misinterpret what Jesus is saying here, and to make the Sermon on the Mount into a new code of law, much stricter than the Torah, which the religious leaders of his time followed. Jesus‘s teaching, though is not about legalism, it’s about metanoia – a complete change of heart and attitude, which in fact goes to the heart of what the Torah was about. As he said earlier in this passage, he comes to fulfil the law, not to abolish it, to draw out the full and deeper meaning of the commandments.
So, the commandments talk about murder. Jesus talks about the anger that can so easily spill over into violence, and so lead to murder; and he warns against the distain for other human beings that allows us to dismiss them as idiots, lesser beings, and therefore not worthy of protection from the violence of those who think themselves wiser or better. The consequences of this sort of attitude can being seen in the unpunished violence towards gay people in Russia and Nigeria at the moment.
Whereas the law condemns adultery, Jesus warns agains the lustful thoughts that lead people to unfaithfulness, which all of us experience, even if it’s only for film stars we will never meet. Whereas the law allowed men to divorce their wives in some circumstances, Jesus points out the consequences of divorce for women in his society. A divorced woman would be disgraced, would have no support from her family, and would have no alternative to starvation but prostitution. In terms of his time, Jesus is warning the men of his time (for all these injunctions are directed to men) against treating women as their property. In modern terms, he is warning against treating women as sex objects. But though directed to men, these injunctions are relevant to both men and women. They argue for wholeness in marriage and human relationships, which puts others first, and considers the consequences of our actions on our partners and families.
Jesus doesn’t condemn swearing oaths on the Bible or any other scripture; but what he demands of his followers is that their word is trustworthy, no matter whether it is in a court of law or in the street. He is teaching that the standards of the Kingdom of Heaven are radically different from those of any earthly kingdom. It is not just keeping the law which matters, but a distinctive, more gracious way of living and relating, which arises from a change in inward disposition.
But the thing about Kingdom standards is that, like the Education Secretary’s ambition to get all schools ‘above average’, they are impossible to achieve! If we judge ourselves against these standards, we all fall short, we are all sinners. It is relatively easy not to steal, not to murder, not to commit adultery. As we hear the 10 commandments read out (as we often do during solemn seasons), it is easy to mentally tick off things with “Haven’t done that, haven’t done that” and end up very self satisfied. But every one of us has fancied someone we are not married or engaged to, and called someone whose views we don’t agree with, or who hasn’t done what we wanted them to do, or who has cut us up on a roundabout, a fool or an idiot.
So, in the Kingdom of Heaven, none of us has the right to look down on others, or to judge ourselves righteous. But we all do, don’t we?
Last summer, an American blogger called Rachel Held-Evans wrote an article headlined “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist till you mention gluttony”. She made the point that many Christians are happy to quote Biblical verses against divorce, homosexuality, stealing, abortion, women in ministry – but no-one ever quotes verses condemning gluttony (of which there are several), or forbidding calling people idiots, or taking interest on money, or lust, or (nowadays) insisting women cover their heads in worship. The sins we all commit, she says are not condemned with such fervour as the sins of the minority. “The more ubiquitous the biblical violation, the more invisible it becomes” she says.”Biblical condemnation is a numbers game”. We are all much more aware of the specks in other people’s eyes and lives than the logs in our own.
One of the reasons why so many people, especially the young, are not interested in the church is that they judge Christians to be hypocritical, judging other people, while not acknowledging the ways they themselves fall short of God’s standards. Many Christians also fail to observe the many verses in the Bible that forbid us to judge our fellow human beings. Paul in Romans 12.19 repeats the saying in Deuteronomy 32, that insists ‘Judgement is mine, says the Lord’. And later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples, ‘Do not judge, or you will be judged” (Matt. 7.1). And how often do people quote the story of the woman caught in adultery, saying “Go, and sin no more’ while ignoring Jesus’s warning “Let the one of you who is without sin throw the first stone”. Yet we go on behaving like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, judging other people harshly, and refusing to join in the new life that Jesus offers us in the Kingdom of Heaven, feeling confident that our good behaviour in this life will get us a place in heaven after death, while missing out on the chance to bring in the Kingdom in this life. But these attitudes are death to Kingdom living.
Though I am sure we are not meant to take them literally, it is worth noting exactly what Jesus says about punishment in these verses. He doesn’t command us to cut off the hands or put out the eyes of people who have offended against us (though our own society in the past, as well as many others has read it this way.) We are to judge only ourselves, and punish only ourselves if we know we have offended. And he doesn’t tell us to make peace with our brothers and sisters if we have mistakenly or unreasonably been angry with them; he just tells us to make peace, and remove any anger and resentment against anyone, however justified, before we come to worship. These commands give us guidelines for nurturing hearts that are overflowing with the divine love and forgiveness.
The challenge of this section of the Sermon on the Mount is not to be purer than the pure, and to keep ourselves unsullied by association with those who don’t seem as righteous as we are. It is not to surround ourselves with ever yet more rules and standards, designed to exclude ‘people who are not like us’ from the Kingdom. Law can control the worst of human behaviour, but it cannot motivate people to live up to the best that human beings are capable of.
The challenge of the Gospel is to allow the love of God, demonstrated by the life and death of Jesus, to transform us into our better selves, the people God created us to be.
As we act in imitation of Christ, as we judge ourselves but not others, so we we construct an inward bias in our thoughts that motivates actions that bring the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace and justice, until such a way of thinking and acting becomes second nature to us; and through that metanoia, that change of attitude, we hope to transform our families, our communities and the world around us into the Kingdom of Heaven.