For most of my life I’ve dabbled on and off in painting landscapes and seascapes. My mother thought I was really gifted and, as only mothers do, displayed a number of my creations on the walls of her house. I now cringe when I think of them.
But there was one – a painting of a rocky coastline – that, at the time, made me think she was correct in recognizing my talent. So, being a bit short of cash, I took it to a shop that sold the work of local artists. When I arrived there the first thing I saw was an impressive display of paintings adorning the walls, and suddenly realised that I wasn’t a genius after all. In comparison, my work of art was quite pathetic.
It was one of those salutary moments, which we’ve all had, when, seeing something that really is good, we realise that the standard by which we judge ourselves is totally inadequate. And that’s what our reading from the Sermon on the Mount was to those who heard it Because Jesus, referring to the great moral laws enshrined in the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness etc – says that even if you never commit these offences, the fact that you entertain thoughts of it makes you just the same.
Over the centuries, many well-meaning people have tried to live this ideal by removing themselves from all sources of temptation. The monastic movement is the classic example. It began in the 4th century with the hermits who went off into the Egyptian desert to live alone, away from the corruption of the world, thinking only of God.
The most famous of them was St Anthony, who, for 35 years fasted, prayed and tortured his body so as to keep it from temptation. And for 35 years his life was a war with the Devil because one of the facts of life is that the more you try to hide yourself from temptation the more that temptation will present itself to you in your thoughts.
So, on the surface, what we are left with here is an impossible ideal that condemns us all because none of us can possibly achieve it. So why did Jesus say this? Well, he was teaching us not to fool ourselves into thinking that our standard of righteousness equates with God’s. The law of the land only requires that we don’t physically harm people or engage in illicit sex; but the great moral law of God requires that we don’t even fantasize about doing such things
That’s why one of the great themes running through the Bible is that none of us can claim to be righteous. ‘All of our righteousness is as filthy rags’ says Isaiah; ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,’ and ‘There is none righteous, no not one’ says Romans.
So, where does this impossible ideal leave us? It leaves us realising we are all fallen human beings who need the forgiveness of God and the power of God to become new people. And the great message that Jesus brought to this world is that it doesn't matter how much of a mess we may have made of life, if we have the sense to realise it and turn back to God, then Jesus will pick us up and empower us to start all over again: The Apostle John, in his 1st epistle wrote: ‘If we claim to be without sin, ‘we deceive ourselves…If we confess our sins, He is faithful… and will forgive us and purify us from all unrighteousness.’
Anyone who reads the stories of Jesus soon learns that he never looked down on people whose lives were in a mess. The only people he seemed to really have problems with were those who were so full of their own perceived righteousness, that they couldn't see how far from God they really were. That's why so many of the stories of Jesus are about him forgiving and restoring people whom the self-righteous looked down upon, and at the same time telling those self-righteous characters that it was they who were farthest from God.
Of all the stories about Jesus, none speaks of this more powerfully than the one where a bunch of religious leaders brought an immoral woman to him and reminded him that the Scriptures said she should be stoned to death. His response was not to deny that that’s what the law of Moses said. He just said in effect: ‘OK, whichever one of you has never thought about having sex with someone like her can throw the first stone.’ And that really demolished them.
This story tells us that the only people who have the right to express judgment on the sins of others are those who are themselves without fault – and, as we have seen, none of us qualifies for that. Jesus said that people who try to judge others are like a man with a plank in his own eye trying to take a speck of dust out of someone else's eye. Only God has the right to judge, because none of us is fit to do it.
Secondly, we see in Jesus that our first emotion towards anyone whose life is in a mess should be mercy, and we should treat them with the same understanding and compassion that we would want to be given to us if we were to fall in some way that brings reproach.
But it’s also important not to assume that Jesus forgave lightly, as if the sin didn’t matter. His final word to that woman was: ‘Neither do I condemn you, now go and leave your life of sin.’In effect he was saying: ‘I know you have made a mess of things; but I am giving you another chance to be the person God created you to be.’
So, on the surface, the words we read this morning could well leave us in despair. They present an impossible ideal. But, in the context of Jesus’ wider teaching, they actually confront us with the truth that none of us – no matter how upright and respectable – can claim to be without sin. We all need forgiveness. We all need a power greater than ourselves in order to live righteous lives. We all need a saviour - and Jesus is that saviour.
Consequently, rather than wallowing in guilt, Christians should be people who feel a glorious sense of release. No matter how great our failures have been, through Jesus’ death for us, and through his risen life within us, we are forgiven, set free and empowered to start afresh.
However, experience tells us that some of us find it difficult to accept this. We know in our heads that God forgives sin, but we don’t feel it in our hearts. Why is this? I believe there are two common causes. The first is that some churches, in their zeal to emphasise the sinfulness of sin, have misrepresented the Gospel, and have presented it as a legalistic, joyless approach to life with the emphasis on how bad we are.
The second is that many of us, often because of the environment we grew up in as children, suffer from low self-esteem, and have internalised the message that was constantly thrown at us, that we are no good and never will be. It’s not easy to overcome this. Good counselling can help but faith is our greatest resource. The sort of faith that enables us to step back from ourselves and affirm that we are forgiven, renewed and the apple of God’s eye. The sort of faith that lets us to see ourselves as God sees us - His beloved children in whom His Spirit lives.
So, in conclusion, what do we say to these words that confront us with an impossible ideal? Well, there’s another theme that runs throughout the Bible and provides probably the best analogy of all to what forgiveness and renewed righteousness means. It’s the analogy of having our soiled garments replaced by one that is pristine and new.
Isaiah says: ‘I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, … For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness.’ It’s a theme picked up in many of our great hymns that speak of us now being clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
To illustrate it. Let me tell you about an experience I once had in a waiting room outside a hospital’s isolation ward. Because of the fear of spreading infection everyone who entered that ward had to be covered from head to foot in a specially sanitised garment.
As I sat there, I watched two visitors arrive. One was a woman beautifully dressed in an elegant ensemble with matching jewellery. It looked like she was on her way to some formal gathering. The other was a young man with several days’ stubble on his chin, wearing torn jeans and a scruffy tee shirt. It looked like he’d come from a pub. Then a nurse gave both of them a set of the same sanitised outfits to wear over their street clothes, and then let them inside the ward.
The young man’s outfit would never have allowed him into the function that the elegantly dressed woman was going to; but neither would hers allow her into the sanitised environment of that ward. At that point both of them essentially were the same – contaminated and unable to enter unless clothed in garments the hospital provided.
In the same way ‘all our righteousness,’ as Isaiah said, ‘is as filthy rags’ compared to the perfect holiness of God, who sees not only our deeds but also our desires and the imagining of our minds.
But through faith in Jesus, we are now, as it were, re-clothed in his righteousness – forgiven, cleansed and empowered to live a new life.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment.Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, 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. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, 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.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[f] 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.[g]