Message: A Sermon of Offense

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 16, 2014

Matthew 5:17-20 The Jesus Profile: Message: A Sermon of Offense

No Fun Without Thinking it is Sin
In the book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey shares portions of an article written by a friend of his, the writer Virginia Stem Owens. While teaching a composition class at Texas A&M in the ‘90s, she decided to have her class read “The Sermon on the Mount” and write a short essay in response to it.

The Sermon on the Mount is an extended section of teaching by Jesus found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. If your Bible is one that puts the words of Jesus in red, then the Sermon on the Mount can be found in a section that pretty much bleeds crimson. A little over 3 straight pages of Jesus talking, in my Bible.

We call it the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew introduces it by telling us that Jesus went up on a mountainside and His disciples came to Him and He started talking. 3 straight chapters of talking.

And the Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most beloved and quoted sayings of Jesus. It’s in the Sermon on the Mount that you’ll find Jesus saying “blessed are the poor in spirit (5:3);” “You are the light of the world (5:14)”; “Our Father who art in heaven” (6:9); “consider the lilies of the field” (6:28); and “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find” (7:7). It’s quotable stuff. Good stuff.

So when Virginia Stem Owens assigned the essay, she expected her students to have at least a basic respect for the text. Texas A&M, after all, is right in the heart of the Bible Belt. But as the essays started coming in, she soon realized how wrong she was. Her students reacted to Jesus’ words with anger and disgust: “In my opinion religion is one big hoax,” wrote one. “There is an old saying that ‘you shouldn’t believe everything you read’ and it applies in this case,” wrote another.

What was it that had them so upset? They couldn’t believe how strict Jesus’ teaching was:

The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.

I did not like the essay “The Sermon on the Mount.” It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.

The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard.

“At this point,” Ms. Owens wrote, “I began to be encouraged. There is something exquisitely innocent about not realizing you shouldn’t call Jesus stupid…. This was the real thing, a pristine response to the gospel, unfiltered through a two-millennia cultural haze…I find it strangely heartening that the Bible remains offensive to honest, ignorant ears, just as it was in the first century. For me, that somehow validates its significance. Whereas the scriptures almost lost their characteristically astringent flavor during the past century, the current widespread biblical illiteracy should catapult us into a situation more nearly approximating that of their original, first-century audience.” (Yancey, p. 130)

The truth is, the Sermon on the Mount is offensive. In it, Jesus says some truly hard things. Not only does He say that looking at a woman lustfully is equivalent to committing adultery; He also says that if you do it you ought to gouge out your eye (Matt. 5:29). He tells a Jewish audience that if their enemy—that is, a Roman soldier, a member of an invading force that is occupying their country—if an enemy asked for the shirt off their back, they ought to give the fellow their coat as well (Matt. 5:40). Jesus says that if you want to be “righteous” then you ought to “be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)

It really does sound “preachy,” in the worst sense of the word. It sets a standard that is impossible to live up to. What’s going on?

People of the Law
We’re in a series in which we are trying to develop a profile of Jesus. Who is this man? What is He like? And why does He have so much influence on our world? And today I want us to consider His message. What did Jesus teach?

And to understand Jesus’ message, you need to understand a little bit about the audience He was speaking to. Jesus taught a Jewish audience. And the thing the Jews were known for—the thing that set them apart as a people—was the law. Greeks had philosophy. Rome had armies. Egypt had wealth. Phoenicia had ships. Israel had the law.

They had the books of Moses. And they studied the law, and memorized the law, and built upon the law. They debated the law and examined the law and sought to live their lives according to the law. The Jews were people of the law.

And you may know that one of the great conflicts throughout Jesus’ ministry was with the people called the “teachers of the law.” Jesus hated what we call today “legalism.” He hated blind obedience to rules, outward behavior that didn’t reflect an inward change of heart. He said about the teachers of the law, in Matthew 23:4, that:

4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Jesus hated that kind of stuff. He hated the way the rules became more important than people. He hated how people were always measuring themselves according their ability to pull off certain ways of behaving without having any love for each other. He hated how people would use the law as a way to beat down others.

So what does Jesus do about it? Does He denounce the law and declare that it is dead? Does He tear up the books of Moses and tell people to move on? No. Jesus fights legalism not by lessening our burdens, but by adding to them.

Matthew 5:17-20 might be called the thesis statement of the Sermon on the Mount. It comes near the beginning of this long discourse, and I think it is the key to understanding what Jesus is saying. Matthew 5:17-20:

17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I 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. 19Anyone 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. 20For 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.

Jesus has a problem with legalism. But He fights legalism not by lessening the people’s burdens, but by adding to them. What’s going on? I think there are three things we need to learn about Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount.

It All Points to Him
First, Jesus fulfills the law. Jesus isn’t about tearing down the law. Instead, He claims that the law is all about Him. Verse 17 again:

17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Jesus says that He “completes” the law. That the law finds its meaning and purpose in Him. This is a radical statement.

You have to understand that the whole goal of a student of the law in that culture was to offer no personal opinions. They wanted to base all of their statements on the Scriptures and various approved commentaries. When they taught, they would cite the great rabbis for correct interpretations. They’d say things like: “Rabbi Shammai says… but Rabbi Hillel says…” That wasn’t a sign of bad teaching or unoriginal thought. Instead it was a commitment to the law. The law was their authority, and they didn’t want to go beyond it.

In fact, it’s not much different than what I strive to do. When I speak on Sunday mornings, I don’t really want to offer original ideas or my own personal opinions. I want to show you that what I’m saying comes from the Bible. It’s really the only reason I think you have to listen to me.

But Jesus was different. Radically different. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount He says things like:

21You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder”… 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.

Again and again He says it: “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” (v. 27, 31, 38, 43). He doesn’t offer any footnotes. He doesn’t quote other teachers. He speaks for Himself.

And the people notice. At the end of the sermon, the last two verses of Matthew 7:

28When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Jesus was different. He didn’t come to break the law. He didn’t come to abolish it. But He came to fulfill the law. His relationship with the law was different than anyone else who ever lived.

In fact, elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus makes it clear that the whole point of the Old Testament scriptures has been to prepare the way for Him. For instance, in John 5:39 He says:

39You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.

And later, after His resurrection, as He walks with two disciples who fail to recognize Him (because, after all, they saw Him die, and no matter how much somebody looks like your dead friend, you really don’t expect to be walking down the road with him 3 days after his funeral) Jesus takes them on a Bible study to show how it is all about Him. Luke 24:27:

27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

You really can’t understand the Sermon on the Mount—you really can’t understand the Bible—without understanding this: It’s all about Jesus.

So when Jesus says that He didn’t come to abolish the law but fulfill it, what He’s saying is that we better pay attention to Him. He’s saying that we need to “Listen up!” because what He is saying comes at us in a way different than anything we’ve ever heard.

A couple of months ago, when we had our church staff Christmas party, we played a game called “Reverse Charades.” I know some of you have encountered this game, it’s the newest rage in party games. It’s just like charades, except that instead of having one person act out a word while the rest of the team guesses, in this case you have one person guess while the rest of the team is acting out the word. So it’s really funny as you have three or four people each trying to act out a word in their own way, while one person has to make sense of it all. And sometimes, while we were playing, my teammates would act out a word wrong, and I knew how to do it right. But the frustrating thing would be that the person guessing would be looking at them, and not at me. So then I’d cheat, and I’d say “Pay Attention to ME!”

And that’s what Jesus is doing here. Only He’s way less needy. He’s saying that we need to pay attention to Him. That He has authority.

So you see, in the rest of this Sermon, Jesus is going to start getting personal. That’s what bothered those college students. He’s going to start talking about lust and forgiveness and money and that sort of thing—areas where we don’t necessarily want a lot of advice. Where we might be tempted to say: “I don’t want to hear that…Who does this guy think He is?”

Well, this is who He thinks He is: He’s the one the law is all about. He’s the one who makes the law. We’d do well to pay attention to Him.

Jump Higher
So, second, we need to see that Jesus raises the bar. Jesus does not make the law easier to keep, He makes it harder. Look at verse 20:

20For 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.

To a culture of law-keepers, people who were striving to make themselves acceptable to God, Jesus says that if you want to earn your way into heaven then you’re going to have to do better even then the superstars of law-keeping.

Because that’s who the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were. They were superstars. As I heard Josh Harris say, they were the “navy seals of law keeping.” These were people who competed with one another to see who could be most strict. They’d broken the law of the Old Testament down into 613 distinct rules. But then, to make sure they didn’t break any of those rules, they added another 1,521 rules. It was like they had rules to keep them from getting even close to the rules and then they added a third layer of rules just to be sure.

So these were guys who would tithe out of their herb garden. It wasn’t enough to just give 10 percent of their income, they had to give 10 percent of everything. So when the basil came in, they’d be counting out every tenth leaf. These were guys who, to make sure they didn’t use the name of the Lord in vain, refused to say the name of God at all. These were guys who, in order not to give in to sexual temptation, would lower their eyes and refuse to look whenever they were in the presence of a female (they were known as “bleeding Pharisees” because they were so often smacking their heads into walls.)

And now Jesus says that your righteousness needs to exceed their righteousness? How is that even possible?

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount details what He means. So Matthew 5:21:

21You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’

Most of us can take a deep breath on that one. Raise your hand if you’ve never committed a murder… I’m pretty sure we’re all good here (I’m going to keep my eye on those of you who didn’t raise your hand.) But Jesus isn’t done talking, verse 22:

22But tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.

Whoa! Wait a minute! I’ve got an older brother, and sometimes he was mean to me! I’m sure he would tell you that I could be really annoying (he probably still feels that way). Sometimes we really went at it. What to you mean I’m subject to judgment? Just for getting mad at my jerk of a brother?

Or, again, Jesus says:

27You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.”

Not going to ask for a show of hands on this one, but I’m guessing most of us are good on this one. I’ve been faithful to Beth for 20 years and counting. But Jesus keeps going:

28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Wow. Jesus obviously hasn’t driven down an American freeway with all the billboards. He hasn’t watched a beer commercial or seen a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. How are we supposed to live up to this?

Jesus touches on divorce, on revenge, on enemies. He gets to money and tells us that we can’t love it (Matthew 6:24). He talks about judging others and tells us to get the log out of our own eyes before we worry about the splinter in someone else’s. In other words, stop being so critical all the time. Doesn’t Jesus know that the world of Facebook, Twitter, and reality television is all about passing judgment on other people? If we can’t do that, what will talk about?

Jesus sums it all up like this, in Matthew 5:48:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

How can that be? How can anybody do that? If the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law isn’t enough, then what chance do any of us have? Philip Yancey writes: “Jesus made the law impossible for anyone to keep and then charged us to keep it.” (p. 132) It’s impossible.

I heard somebody talking about Scientology the other day. You know: that religion that makes Tom Cruise seem so weird. It’s pretty trendy in Hollywood right now. And one of the core beliefs in Scientology goes like this: “We believe that every person is basically good and can serve as his or her own savior.” It’s pretty much the spirit of the age.

But to that notion, Jesus says: “If you want to be your own savior, then here’s what you’re going to have to do: you’re going to have to outdo the law-keeping of the Navy seals of law-keeping. You might be able to learn to march in step and keep up certain outward behaviors, but what about what’s inside? In your heart? You’ve got to keep that right too. If you want to jump your way into heaven, then here’s how high you’re going to have to jump—Empire State Building high.”

This is the bad news of the gospel, and it’s really bad. None of us is good enough for God. None of us can be good enough for God. Not on our own. Not in our own strength. “Be perfect…as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” You can’t do it. It’s impossible.

The only thing any of us can do when we read the Sermon on the Mount, if we’re being honest, is say: “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That, it seems to me, is the point. Jesus had such a problem with legalism because He knew it didn’t work. It’s a treadmill none of us can stay on. And so, my third point is this: Jesus offers grace. Jesus doesn’t lighten the burden of the law, but He offers to carry it for us.

This isn’t specifically spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is hinted at. The first lines of the Sermon, after all, are this:

3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What is that, after all, if not a promise of grace for those who recognize they need it?

The Sermon also contains the Lord’s prayer, which contains lines like this:

11Give us this day our daily bread. 12Forgive us our debts…13deliver us from the evil one.

Grace is available. For the hungry, for the sinful, for the tempted. It’s available for the needy, the broken, the desperate. Grace is for those who cannot make it on their own. Grace is for us all.

Philip Yancey points out that the character of God suffuses the entire Sermon. At the same time that Jesus raises the standard on our behavior, He’s helping us see what God is like. So:

Why should we love our enemies? Because our clement Father causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good. Why be perfect? Because God is perfect. Why store up treasures in heaven? Because the Father lives there and will lavishly reward us. Why live without fear and worry? Because the same God who clothes the lilies and the grass of the field has promised to take care of us. Why pray? If an earthly father gives his son bread or fish, how much more will the Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him. (143-144)

There is grace. And it’s found in Jesus.

Remember, He’s the point of the law. He’s the fulfillment of the law. And so the same one who says “you can’t meet the standard” is the one who comes to meet the standard for us.

If you keep reading in the book of Matthew, to Matthew 11, you’ll find Jesus’ point. He’s not going to lighten the load of the law, if anything He’s going to make it heavier, but He’s willing to carry the burden for us. Matthew 11:28-30:

28"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in
heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

We need a better righteousness than we can achieve on our own. Jesus offers to come and be our righteousness for us.

The Sermon on the Mount, then, is a wonderful announcement of the gospel. Gospel means good news. The good news of Jesus.

But there is no good news without bad news. The bad news is that we don’t measure up. Our religious rule keeping can never accomplish the righteousness of heart which God requires. We fall short. Our best efforts are not enough. The bar is too high.

But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has come to fulfill all the promises of God to rescue, redeem and transform us. Jesus has come to carry the burden we couldn’t carry on our own.

So we should never stop striving to live up to what Jesus says. Remember, He means it when He says lust is a sin. But we also need to remember that our striving should point us to our need for Jesus.

Yancey finishes his chapter on the Sermon on the Mount like this:

The worst tragedy would be to turn the Sermon on the Mount into another form of legalism; it should rather put an end to all legalism. Legalism like the Pharisees’ will always fail, not because it is too strict but because it is not strict enough. Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace. (144)