Keeping the Law―yes. But…

Matthew 5.21–37


The great Talmudic sage Hillel was born in Babylonia in the first century BCE. As a young man he came to the Holy Land to study Torah at the feet of the sages of Jerusalem. He was initially a very poor, but brilliant student, and became a famous Torah scholar and eventually the Nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin. He is often mentioned together with his colleague, Shammai, with whom he often disagreed on the interpretations of Torah law: Shammai often follows the stricter interpretation, whereas Hillel tended toward a more lenient understanding of the law. In the great majority of cases, his opinion prevailed. Hillel encouraged his disciples to follow the example of Aaron the High Priest to ‘love peace and pursue peace, love all G‑d’s creations and bring them close to the Torah’. Hillel was a very humble and patient man, and there are many stories that illustrate this.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this―go and study it!’ ―


In the Sermon on Mount Jesus says, 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

How can Jesus say he is not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it, when he says ‘You have heard that it was said [in the law of Moses] … but I say to you…’ 

In looking at this, I want to spend most of my time this morning talking about sex and sexuality. 

Got your attention? 

Firstly though, a few words about anger. Jesus says, 

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement … 

I have never murdered anybody. It’s true. Believe it or not! 

But have I been angry? Why, yes I have. Is it wrong to have angry feelings? People often have angry feelings. We’re all subject to feelings of anger, some of us maybe more than others. Is Jesus condemning angry feelings? 

Can’t we be angry about the climate crisis? About a lack of integrity in government? Can’t we get annoyed that the Brisbane Heat came seventh in the Big Bash League? 

Yes, we can. And some of us may. 

Jesus isn’t talking about feelings of anger here. He’s talking about what we do with our anger. It’s possible to be angry for a while, and then calm down. 

Alternatively, we can nurse our anger. We can feed it and let it grow. We can justify it. We can say it’s all someone else’s fault. 

We can decide to get even. 

That’s where the real harm is. Not in getting mad sometimes, but in what we do with it. The Book of James helps here: 

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. [James 4.1–2a]

Anger often comes because we’re anxious or scared, or wanting something that isn’t ours. The Apostle Paul says,

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, [Ephesians 4.26]

I just wanted to spend some time here on anger, because we all get angry sometimes. You know what else we feel? We all have feelings of attraction to other people. We are sexual beings. 

We may be attracted to another person; who that is partly depends of course on our sexuality. People have varying degrees of attraction to people of their own or the ‘opposite’ sex.

Feeling angry is not a sin; what you do with the anger is the issue. Do I let it go, or do I let it build up so that I mistreat someone else? 

It’s similar with sexualised feelings. Do I accept them as part of life? Or do I dwell on them, do I let them grow in my thoughts, until I want to possess another person? Until I want to use another person for my own gratification? That is the issue. 

It’s easy to let this happen in our world. Porn is freely available, and it sometimes steers people to think it’s ok to demand something of another person in a coercive way. 

So, any of us may have feelings of anger or sexualised feelings; but is Jesus really talking to each one of us? 

Read the text:

… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart… ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’

Jesus is directly addressing straight men. Jesus is speaking into a specific context. If he were speaking today, he may say something different. I think he’d acknowledge that women are also sexual beings; and that he’d speak of same-sex and queer attraction. 

Still, Jesus is talking to straight men in the First Century. Let’s try to see why. Jesus said, 

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Realising a woman is attractive is not the same as looking upon her with lust. When a man looks on a woman with lust, there’s a power dynamic at play, one that could end in the man abusing the woman. 

We’ve long known that rape is not a crime of lust. It’s a crime of power over a woman. It’s feeling entitled to use use a woman to satisfy the man’s needs for power. 

Yet I read the other day that ⅓ of Australians believe rape is about a man’s natural desires getting out of control. That’s a very dangerous belief. If you believe that, you’re more likely to blame the victim for provoking the man. 

She shouldn’t have been walking alone at night. 

Did you see how short her skirt was? 

She’d been drinking, you know. 

No decent girl would hang around with a man like that. 

Blaming the victim is a game anyone can play. It’s also wrong. 

And here we can see why Jesus is talking to straight men. We have the power. We set the rules of the game. We need to take responsibility, and not blame the victim. 

But there’s more for us straight men here. If the very presence of women can cause us to sin just by looking at them, then we need protection. We need to police what women wear, and where they go to at night. We need to control women. 

And isn’t that just what happens in so many places? All to keep straight men from feeling threatened. 

It’s part of what we call ‘patriarchy’.

Sexuality is a good thing. Scripture contains other expressions of sexual love. Proverbs 30.18–19 says

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a woman.

Of course, the Song of Songs goes much further:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine … (1.2)
… He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his intention toward me was love.
Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head,
and that his right hand embraced me! (2.4–6)

And, the last for today:

Your lips distil nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments
  is like the scent of Lebanon. (4.11)

It’s all in the Bible, folks! Mutual love is a wonderful thing, a God-given thing. 

What about when love goes wrong? What about when a couple divorces? 

Back in the day, the people of Israel practised polygamy. So, if a man grew tired of his wife, he’d marry another. Problem solved (‽‽‽) 

Later, Israel moved towards a man having only one wife. What to do now with a wife the bloke was tired of? Divorce her. 

Remember, back then there was no social security; women were very definitely second-class citizens; a divorced woman brought great shame upon her family. A woman was very in a vulnerable position if she were divorced. 

She might be able to return to her family home; or she could remarry, not necessarily to get a good catch; she may resort to prostitution. 

So Jesus interprets the scriptural law in a way that defends the vulnerable, and counsels those with power to take care. 

Matthew gives one way out of marriage: adultery. It seems that back then, many considered that the act of adultery voided the marriage. Once there was adultery, the marriage was over and there was no possibility of reconciliation.  

Today, people may divorce for other reasons. Today, a couple may have a reconciliation after adultery. 

Perhaps Jesus would say something different today. 

I want to finish with something the Uniting Church has said about divorce, way back in 1997: 

In cases of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the Church acknowledges that divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take. 

The grace and healing of God are available to people who are divorced thus freeing them to marry again. (Uniting Sexuality and Faith, Eighth Assembly, July 1997) 

‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …’ 

We must go back to the law of the scriptures and look at it again in the light of life today. Just as Jesus looked again at the law of Moses in the context of his day. 

The scriptures give us the principle by which we should dare to look again at scriptural law. Paul said it, in Galatians 5.14: 

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.

So we are not afraid to re-examine scriptural law in the light of the love we know in Jesus Christ, particularly for the vulnerable and poor; indeed, we follow Jesus’ example in doing this. Amen. 


West End Uniting Church, 16 February 2020

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Filed under Church & world, RCL, sermon, sexuality

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