New Testament in 6 months – day 3

3 Apr

Matthew 5:1-48
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. “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. “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. “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. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5 is one of the most challenging chapters I can think of when it comes to what it means to live life a cording to God’s will.
It starts off easily enough, with Jesus telling the 12 (note that He began to teach them i.e. the disciples) that those who were struggling in life would be blessed. Then Jesus tells them that those who do good stuff, like showing mercy and making peace, will be blessed. And then Jesus says that people who suffer in His name will be blessed. So lots of blessings available, which is never a bad thing.
However, it then changes to challenging how people live their lives. The first challenge is relatively easy – don’t hide what you believe. Then we have a reminder that the Law (i.e. the Law of Moses) and the Prophets are not to be abandoned. Indeed, Jesus says that until all of it has been fulfilled it remains in place. And since parts of Daniel and other prophecies are related to the end times, that means they are valid for all of time.
You’d think that would be hard enough, being reminded that the 613 laws in Exodus, not to mention any of the others, will still be in place until the end of the world, but Jesus then goes and makes it even harder. He tells them to obey the spirit of the law, not just the letter of it.
And then the most challenging bit of all, love your enemies rather than seeking retribution. Under the law those who were injured by the actions of another had the chance to exact punishment upon the person responsible. But Jesus encouraged mercy even when the law allowed retaliation.

For me these last 2 points are key because they speak to human nature.

As can be seen by the way the Law changes under Ezra and onwards from him, humans like to know what the can and can’t do. The law as it stood at the time if the return from exile was seen as not being detailed enough and the reason why the Jews had fallen to sin and been punished by imprisonment in Babylon. And so, by Jesus’ time, the Law was specified in minute detail about what classified work on the Sabbath, what classified misusing God’s name and so on. And it was followed up by the Pharisees checking up on people, like the thought police, to make sure that anyone they came across who was breaking the law was punished. But, whilst the aims of this were good in intent (they wanted to ensure they did not get exiled again), they lost sight of the meaning behind the law. That it is what is in a person’s heart that is important, the intent in their actions, rather than them staying out of trouble. After all, what is the point of following God’s laws if you resent God while you do it? Human nature also wants to know how far you can go before you are breaking the law. So we see questions starting with “Is it ok to…” as the boundaries are pushed as far as they can go. The law is no longer a gift from God and a guide to living a righteous life but becomes a tightrope by which we can live and do whatever we want, so long as we don’t do what it says we shouldn’t do.

And then we come to loving your enemy. Human nature always wants justice. And when we say justice what we really mean is we want revenge. As a youth worker I have regularly come across the comment of “They insulted my mum, so I’m going to slap them” because a young person has decided that the only appropriate response is to resort to physical violence. And, from conversations that I have had with young people, the idea that if someone starts a fight then you should finish, or at least escalate it, seems common sense to them. And if we have a look back through history we see humans doing exactly that. The Germans killing a group of civilians is retaliation for the death of 1 German soldier, for example, has been well documented with many cases having happened during World War 2. Gang violence in cities like New York in the 50’s and 60’s, as mentioned by Nicky Cruz in “Run, baby, run”. The bombing of Dresden in retaliation for the bombing of Coventry. All of this points to humanity’s desire to meat out retribution for slights, real or imaginary, that they have experienced. But the problem is that it can very easily go wrong. Look at the death penalty in the UK. The last person to be hanged was done so when it is still not certain whether he was innocent or guilty. A young man who had his throat cut outside his own house, here in East London not too long ago, was killed for something it was thought he had done, but was actually done by someone else. Or how about the war crimes inflicted upon Iraqi soldiers that were taken prisoner and then abused, just because American (yes, I know that other nationalities have done it too, this is just an example) soldiers were wanting to get their own back for 9/11, even though these prisoners had nothing to do with it. In this we see that humans are not good at loving our enemies. Indeed, we are shockingly bad at it. We could even go online and see how we often end up insulting people just because they not agree with us (and I am regularly guilty of that!).

Human nature does not want to forgive unless we see punishment. And human nature does not want to steer well clear of the areas we are weak in, it wants to know how far we can go. But Jesus calls us to be better than that. To look beyond our fallen default state and move past it, to live and love as God does. Because when we seek to live after the heart of God we find that we can shine a whole lot brighter to a lot more people.

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Archbishop Cranmer

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