A sermon on Matthew 5:38-48 by Richard Keith on Sunday 27 August 2023
The title of today’s message, “A Prophet Like Moses”, comes from the Lord’s promise to Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 18
I will raise up for them – the people of Israel – a prophet like you – Moses – from among their brothers. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.
With this promise the Lord is saying that he will not be silent. He will speak to his people the words they need to hear through his chosen prophet. For by his word he made the universe. By his word he maintains the existence of all things. By his word he directs his people and gives them hope and strength. The Lord speaks, his people listen. They do what he says and they live by his word.
The Lord’s promise was fulfilled, in part, in the prophets of the Old Testament. Like Samuel and Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. And last of all Malachi in about 400 BC.
And then silence.
It makes this collection of documents that we call the Old Testament feel a little unfinished. Like that series of books that fans couldn’t get enough of and they bought every volume, hoping that each new one might tie up all the loose strings the story and bring the whole series to a satisfying conclusion. But the author dies before writing the last book and all those readers are left with something that feels incomplete. Like all the hours they invested in that story was for nothing.
I am genuinely afraid that this is what is going to happen to George Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones books. The last one was published 12 years ago. The popular TV series based on the books finished 4 years ago. He’s now 74 years old and a millionaire. Why write another word? The books will probably never be finished. The last one finished on a cliff hanger. But where is the sequel?
For the same reason I believe that the Old Testament is like a book that is crying out for a sequel. Some word from God that will make sense of everything that has happened and that will tie up all those loose strings. And I believe that that sequel is what we call the gospel. For after the silence came the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.
Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus didn’t stay out in the wilderness. Instead, he travelled the towns and villages of Galilee, going to the people, sharing his message and calling students to follow him, not only to learn his message, but to live it. When he had collected enough students, we call them disciples, he went up a mountain, like he was a second Moses, and he preached to them a new law. It’s a message we call the Sermon on the Mount.
In this sermon Jesus quotes the law of Moses and then puts his own teaching on equal footing.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”
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.
With these two examples, Jesus condemns the inner thought that motivates the forbidden act. Hating your brother is just as bad as murder, because hatred often leads to murder. Lusting after another person is as bad as committing adultery against your spouse, because lust, when it is acted upon is adultery.
It reminds us that sinners are often no worse than respectable people. That respectable people are often just sinners who are too afraid to get caught.
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.
In this example Jesus is dealing with a wrong interpretation of the law. “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” is actually a sound legal principle. It asserts that the punishment must fit the crime. There can’t be one rule for the rich and another rule for the poor. There can’t be harsher penalties for crimes against people in power, and lesser penalties for crimes against the powerless. No, if something has gone wrong and a punishment is necessary to put it right then that punishment should be equal and proportional to the wrong that has been done.
Now, we aren’t used to administering corporal punishment in our legal system. And I’m not advocating bringing it back. But the motivation behind an eye for an eye was equity before the law.
It may be a sound legal principle, but it’s a terrible excuse for taking revenge. And this is the misunderstanding of the law. It believes that if you hit me, I’m allowed to hit you, because God said so. No, it’s not about letting you take the law into your own hands. It’s not about letting you become as bad as the evildoer. Like we were taught when we were children, Two wrongs don’t make a right. Instead, Jesus said that we ought not to return violence with violence. Violence only makes the conflict worse and makes us as bad as the person who hurt us. As the apostle Paul said,
Do not be overcome by evil. Rather overcome evil with good.
Jesus’ next statement also deals with a misunderstanding of the law.
You have heard that it was said, ““Love your neighbour” and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Well, the law certainly says, “Love your neighbour”. In fact, it says, “Love your neighbour as you love yourselves”. Jesus didn’t make that up. That comes from Leviticus chapter 19 and there’s no more Old Testamenty book than Leviticus. The Old Testament says, “Love your neighbour.” But it never, ever says, “Hate your enemy.”
It’s the false conclusion drawn from the previous statement. It assumes that if I’m only told to love my neighbour, the person I know, the person who lives in my town, the person who treats me like a neighbour, then I should act the opposite, I should hate the opposite of my neighbour, my enemy, who doesn’t treat me like a neighbour and has forfeited any right to be treated like one in return.
The conclusion, “hate your enemy”, and the assumptions on which it is based are proven wrong by considering the nature of God from whom all the laws come. Jesus said,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children 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.
The promise of the gospel is that Jesus became like us so that we may become like him. In all our trials he is our brother. He shared our flesh and blood. He was tempted like we are. On the cross he carried our burden and paid the price for our sin. So that his Father may be our Father. So that we may be the children of our Father in heaven and become like him.
It is, in fact, what we’ve been talking about all these weeks. A covenant. A relationship of belonging, founded on promises and leading to responsibilities and obligations. Jesus has made a new covenant with us in which God is our God and we belong to him. Salvation isn’t just about escaping hell. It’s about being brought into this relationship in which we become like God. Who is loving and kind and generous with his natural resources.
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good. And sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
You see, the new covenant through Jesus is not like the old covenant through Moses. Under the old covenant Israel was rewarded for their obedience with blessing, and punished for their disobedience with drought and famine. Jesus is telling us here that that old way is out of date. It’s obsolete. God is not punishing you when it doesn’t rain and the crops fail or when you get sick and don’t get better. You are simply sharing in the same trials as everyone else in the world. We go through everything that everyone else does to teach us compassion for those who are suffering and to learn contentment with the good things we have.
And we don’t come to church so we will have rain and sunshine at just the right times. Because when it rains on your farm, it rains on your neighbour’s farm who stayed at home on Sunday morning. And expecting anything different, like you should be rewarded for your attendance is old covenant thinking. Under the new covenant we remember that God is good to all regardless of their attendance at religious services and of their impeccable behaviour. God is good to the evil and good and to the just and unjust and he calls us, his children, to be like him.
God is not punishing you and you are not living under a curse. The things that happen to you are not a measure of your devotion to God. You are a child of God sharing the blessings and trials of this world along with everyone else.
I’ve made this point before and the last time I did someone asked me at morning tea this excellent question, “So why then do we say that the world is going downhill because it has turned its back on God? Isn’t that an example of being punished for our disobedience?” It’s an excellent question because it reminds us that our choices and actions still have consequences. If you tell lies, no one will trust you. If you talk about your friends behind their back no one will want to be your friend. If you steal, you will be caught and go to gaol. In all these cases there is a direct causal relationship between the act and the consequences. Doing this made this other thing happen.
But under the new covenant you can’t catch COVID because you slept in on Sunday morning and you aren’t suffering from chronic pain because you don’t have enough faith. You can’t have a car accident because of that mean thing you said to your friend. There’s no causal relationship between the two events. That’s old covenant thinking. In fact, it’s almost paganism, the belief that misfortunes happen because we have offended the gods. Karma teaches that you will always get what you deserve. But the Scriptures teach us that God’s mercy and grace mean that you will be spared the evil you do deserve and enjoy the blessings that you don’t.
Jesus drove the message home.
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.
The fact remains that Joseph Stalin loved his mother and Adolf Hitler was loyal to his friends. If we love those who love us we are no better than anyone else. Instead, we show our holiness by being like our holy Father in heaven. He even blesses those who hate him. They enjoy sunshine and rain and food and shelter. And if they suffer any trials or dangers or misfortunes they are no different from ours.
God can bless those who hate him. We can too.
Indeed we must. This is what it means to be the children of God. Through his cross Jesus sets us free from the curse of the law, which is death. But it is this freedom which makes us able to keep the spirit of the law, which is love. Or which the apostle Paul calls in Galatians chapter 6, “the law of Christ”. For God promised his people that he would send them a prophet like Moses and he has kept his promise by sending us Jesus. As the Christmas song says,
Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace.
It’s a message Jesus didn’t just teach, but he lived it as well.
If this is the prophet that God has sent as he promised then let us listen to him and live by his word.