Reading Matthew 5. 21-37
Preacher Ruth Martin
Let your yes be yes and your No be No
This week two prominent and ageing former celebrities were acquitted of sexually related crimes in two separate cases going back some 40 years. Issues of truth, honesty, what is and is not the law, what is and is not culturally acceptable in its time have all been the subject of many column inches in the press.
Our New testament reading is straightforward ethical teaching to the crowds who needed to know how to behave in certain situations in their times; issues of truth, honesty, righteousness, what is culturally acceptable, what might be legal but not acceptable to God. The challenges of interpreting God’s laws as cultures evolve to what it means to be a human being in the two thousand years after Jesus dominate many of our own conversations.
The Sermon on the Mount is famous for the beatitudes, the blessings which God bestows, mainly on those who are poor, without power, without means, and often totally dependent on God. Yet it is after those beatitudes that Jesus then goes on to explain how people should conduct themselves to a new level of righteousness.
The passages we hear seek today are aimed at equipping Jesus followers to express a merciful, loving, reconciling will of God that lies at the centre of God’s law.
They discuss problems that we still have to deal with today because they relate to the reality of what it is to be human; anger that can destroy people, literally poisoning them in their well being; jealousy, and strife particularly in relationships , such as in marriage or when relationships break down, divorce.
Then there is the keeping of oaths or promises; in a society where negotiation about possessions was often around bartering in the absence of the written documents which form contracts today , the promise was in effect the contract.
The aim of all of these examples, this straightforward teaching is a focus on what basic ethical conduct was appropriate to makes human beings flourish, their well being, peace and fulfilment. These commonplace ethical issues still resound for us.
Taking anger, this week new details emerged which cast the politician at the centre of Plebgate, Patrick Mitchell, in a less than flattering light. It emerged that the night before the Plebgate incident the police officers in Downing Street had sought formal advice from their senior officers because Mr Mitchell’s statement had made clear his determination to go through the main gates on his bike irrespective of the rules. The following night the police tried to enforce the instructions they had from their senior officers, and we had Plebgate.
Taking anger and jealousy, did we not all shrink with distaste at the story of the couple convicted of trying to have their neighbour formally sectioned in a mental institution because they were so angry when she sought to exercise her right of way round the back of their property, as she had for twenty years, around the back of a property which this couple had only very recently inherited when a relative went into residential care, and a path only 12 inches wide. This is so similar is it not to the teaching of Jesus about how we should be treating our neighbours in our New Testament reading?
Then there are the fundamentals of life and death. This week the country of Belgium decided that euthanasia should be extended to young children. Children, terminally ill, may be able to elect to die – and their parents will of course be consulted. Should children be able to choose to end their life? What is God’s will do we feel in this?
This week also the Lambert Report, a consultation paper setting out some ideas about how to raise the professional standards of bankers, was published, paid for by a core group of six banks. How can standards be raised in banking, so that people are not mis-sold insurance for loans, and is there a risk that because such an initiative is paid for by the banks, that the standards themselves will be subject to inappropriate influence.
The ethics of this might be structurally and logistically complex and challenging at one level but simple at another; if we take the perspective of human flourishing and well being, then honesty, transparency, openness and fairness must be the standards around how changes in banking are actually made and seen by the public. This is what Jesus was teaching in his own times when he referred to the importance of keeping promises.
The ethical considerations of our age rage around us as they did two thousand years ago.
Jesus teaching is surely unequivocal; the followers of Jesus are called to live out their lives with compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. We are called to a higher level of righteousness. The examples in the Sermon on the Mount almost certainly addressed common place problems in the church of Matthews day, problems that caused concern and needed to be debated: marriage, divorce, dealing with neighbours.
Ours today are no less challenging. As children of the kingdom of heaven we have to walk out of our front doors each day into a world where our yes means yes and our no means no. We do this because we know that the whole world belongs to God and we are committed to walking our own paths as close as we can to the pattern of living which honours God.