The Law of Love (part 1)
Notes for a sermon preached at the Marbury Church of God on February 13, 2011
Parts of the following are taken from a previously published writing of this preacher.
The Law of Love, Part 1
Background: Fulfilling the Law (Matthew 5:17-20)
A Higher Standard (v 20)
In general, people settle for controlling behavior; but he wants us to look deeper. We tend to say, “Think what you want, feel how you want, say whatever you want, it doesn’t matter as long as you don’t hurt your neighbor.” But Jesus holds his disciples to a higher standard: for us it matters how we think, how we feel, and what we say. Control over behavior is the least, loosest standard; to gain control of our thoughts, our passions, and our words: this is in line with the blessings of verses 3-12.
Murder, Anger, Conflict Resolution (21-26)
Nurturing anger is a danger zone; speaking out from it is worse; belittling another person is the worst of all. Compare James 3:13-18. Righteousness begins in the heart, and ends with proper behavior. Merely restraining the worst behaviors leaves us among “the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
Thus in the very first instance, all anger is to be forsaken. This is reaffirmed numerous times in the New Testament: James 1:19, Ephesians 4:26, Colossians 3:8. Then, any occasion for someone else to be angry with us is to be dealt with: hence the reference to “if your brother has something against you” (v. 23): the mandate is, that if at any time we are in the wrong or are the offending party in any dispute, it is up to us to do whatever it takes to make it right: “go; first be reconciled.” Our own anger has long since been dealt with, but under the higher standard which exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we can make sure that to the extent that someone may be angry with us (rightly or wrongly, through our own wrong action, a misunderstanding, or any other reason) we will take the initiative to set the relationships right.
The same principle applies and is reinforced when he says, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser…” Restoring the relationship is more important that winning the argument or proving a defense. Later, Paul also addresses the value of out-of-court settlements, in 1 Corinthians 6 where he discusses the travesty of brother or sister taking another member to court: “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7b)
Second Example: Unfaithfulness (27-32)
In the second example, he turns to the area of unfaithfulness in intimate human relationships. Here he rightly points out that such unfaithfulness begins long before an actual act occurs outside the marriage vows, and here again he points out that it is important to get control, not just of behavior, but of the thoughts and passions that drive that behavior, so much so that, using a bit of Oriental hyperbole, he drives the point home by stressing the importance of getting full control of the body, rather than let a part of the body cause you to sin.
You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Once again, the intention is as good as the deed. We are to surpass those Pharisees and teachers of the law by keeping a closer watch on ourselves than we do on those around us. Our critical, judgmental eye is to look inward at the desires of our own heart, not outward at the behavior of others. There’s a lot of mileage to be had in being a moral watchdog on the world; but Jesus would rather that we be watchdogs on ourselves.
It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
The admonition against divorce needs to be understood in light of a cultural background which gave a man the right to divorce his wife simply on his say-so; and a divorced woman meant a woman who had no means of support, no livelihood, no ability to survive. The certificate of divorce provided a minimal safeguard protecting women from such disaster on the strength of a man’s whim; but as he does later with respect to laws concerning revenge, Jesus sees the legal restriction only as a starting point, and insists that real relational issues take precedence over questions of convenience.
Third Example: Truth-telling (33-37)
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.” But I tell you, do not swear at all; either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No;” anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
An oath is a solemn promise, or a vow: a serious commitment that we make. It is an attestation of the truth of what one says, or of one’s intention to be true to what one says. But Jesus is pointing out that you have no ability to make such a serious commitment by calling in any higher authority than yourself. The taking of an oath implies that there are certain special occasions when we are more truthful, more to be trusted, than usual. Our religious tendencies would tend to separate some things out as special events, but he is saying our whole life consists of special events. Our entire experience as human beings is a religious experience in the sense of being related to God. There is no particular promise that is more holy than another, no particular way of promising that is more binding than another. Everything we do and say is said and done in the sight of God.
Thus, for one who tells the truth as a matter of course, no oath is needed, no stack of Bibles, because our word is to be trusted. Why? Because, in keeping with the entire tenor of the teaching he is giving here, God is at work within us, giving us the ability to gain control of our passions, our thoughts, our words as well as our behavior. And an honest representation of what God is doing within us will manifest itself in what happens through us, and what is said and done by us.
James 3 talks about the importance of controlling what we say, keeping ourselves to truth-telling. One who controls his tongue, he says, is able to control everything (James 3:2). And let us make clear that this is the Holy Spirit’s work in us: along with love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, and the rest, Galatians 5:23 identifies “self-control” as equally the fruit of the Spirit.
Continued Next Week:
The Really Hard Stuff!