There are times, I confess, when I look at the Lectionary and cry out aloud...What on earth are the Lectionary-compilers doing putting this reading in?! I confess to having had that reaction when I first saw today’s Gospel reading. Adultery?! They want me to preach about adultery….two days before Valentine’s Day?!
But that’s the thing about reading the Bible isn’t it? If we only read the bits we like or the bits we agree with easily, how are we ever going to be challenged and changed?
And the other thing to remember about reading the bible is, as I’ve said before, that we must always remember the three ‘c’s. What are they? Context, context context!
So what’s the context of this reading? Well, it is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has started his sermon with promises of God’s favour on the poor, the meek, the pure in heart and the peacemakers. He has called them (as we heard last week) to be lights to the world, and salt. And then, as you may recall, he said that he had come to fulfil the law. “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass away” he said, “until all the law is accomplished”. (Or as the King James version had it, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled!”).
Then, as I hope you remember, he went on, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.
That would have been deeply shocking to the crowd who were listening to Jesus, that day. The Pharisees were viewed by many as ‘holier than thou’-merchants, who created all sorts of laws and practices which they insisted the faithful must follow in order to be saved. They were a right pain, actually. And here’s Jesus saying that his own followers must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes! Whatever could he mean?
That’s the background – the context to today’s reading. Then Jesus goes on – with a whole list of the ways in which his followers would be even more righteous than the Pharisees. Murder was wrong, of course…but Jesus says that if his followers are even angry with a brother or sister, they will be liable to judgement. If his followers should insult each other, or call them names, they will be liable to judgement. And if a follower knows that someone else has something against him, he should take the initiative to go and sort the problem out.
And then comes the adultery warning…brace yourself…Jesus says “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already commited adultery in his heart.” It would be better to pluck out your eye and throw it away!
And that’s not all…Jesus goes on and on and on in a similar vein, through the rest of today’s reading and onwards still. Turn the other cheek. God the extra mile. Give to everyone who begs. Love your enemies, pray in secret not on street corners, forgive others their sins, fast with a smile on your face, don’t store up wealth for yourself, stop worrying about what you will wear, don’t judge others, and so on, and so on.
It’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it? Surely, none of us is capable of living up to these standards!
Now of course, I have never looked at another woman with lust in my heart…honestly, Clare! But could I honestly say that I have lived up to all these many calls to righteousness? Have I ever been angry with a brother or sister of the faith? Have I always gone the extra mile, or turned the other cheek? Have I given to everyone who begs of me?
No, of course not. I can’t do it. I’m just not that righteous. And that’s where the grace and mercy of God come in.
Do you remember what the difference between grace and mercy are?
Grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve.
Mercy is when God holds back the punishment that we do deserve.
If it was entirely up to us to be righteous enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, I suspect that none of us will ever get there. I mean…you’re all wonderful people. But is any of us that righteous? I doubt it. Perhaps I’m judging you by my own standards – and in judging you, I’m already breaking a commandment of Jesus. But I know how hard I find it to be truly righteous…so I’m guessing you do to.
But let’s remember the words we sang in our first hymn of this morning:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgement given.
In these words, directly based on the wisdom of Scripture, we can find hope. We can have reasonable and assured hope that our Father in heaven looks down on his failing and weak children with nothing but love and compassion, mercy and grace. However many times we let him down, however many times we fail to live the righteous lives to which he calls us, ‘there is wideness in God’s mercy’.
And how shall we respond to this news. Shall we, as St Paul once suggested ironically, keep on sinning and sinning, so that God’s grace may be greater and greater? No, of course not. The response to love, is more love. Valentine’s Day teaches us that, if nothing else. The response to love, is more love. As God loves us, we love God more and more. Each day, aware of our failings, we are also aware of God’s love towards us. However many times we let God down, he keeps on showering us with blessings – life, health, food and shelter, purpose and direction for our lives.
Lent is nearly upon us – and during Lent we will have extra opportunities to weigh up the sum of our lives, to make amends, and commit ourselves to do better, to live better, to live more righteously. But at the end of Lent comes the great feast of Easter, with the death and resurrection of Jesus once more laid before us. In that great story, we will see again the grace and mercy of God – writ large on the Cosmic stage. We will be reminded that however often we fail, however often we fail to obey his commandments, or confuse Apollos with Paul, or behave according to human inclinations…’there is wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.’