Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Moses with the Ten Commandments, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 10, 2023]. Original source:

RCL Year A, Epiphany 6
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Saint Matthew 5:21-37

Today is our third Sunday examining Jesus’ principal teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. The first Sunday was the Beatitudes, “blessed are” the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners and the persecuted. Last Sunday was “let your light so shine before others” that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

Today’s Gospel is more complicated than the two previous Sundays. Please bear with me. Here is the bird’s-eye view. Jesus brings up four topics and describes how the Mosaic law treats each of the four. For two of the four, Jesus accepts the Mosaic law but extends or strengthens the law’s requirements. Those two are murder and adultery.

Jesus declares that the anger lying behind murder and the lust lying behind adultery are tantamount to the sin itself.

The other two topics of the four are divorce and swearing, as in taking oaths. Regarding these topics, Jesus declares that the Mosaic permission of them is not a standard for his disciples. He teaches that is wrong to permit divorce, for divorce leads to adultery. The taking of oaths is wrong, because it establishes degrees of truth: the thing said with an oath is truer that the thing said without an oath.

What are we to make of these teachings? How do we understand them? And how are we to appropriate them in a land with a more permissive and tolerant law than the Mosaic law? Anything like a full answer to these questions far exceeds my powers.

But I can share with you what I think Jesus teaches and the general direction of his teaching. Regarding all four topics, Jesus sets a higher standard than the Mosaic law. He places a great emphasis on personal responsibility. He expects people to develop the habit of virtue. Virtuous people do not start out that way. They start out as children who see themselves as the center of their world. They have to learn to develop virtue. Virtue is developed by developing the habit of doing the right thing. Jesus asks of his disciples a moral standard that sets a higher bar than the law. In the matters of murder and adultery, the preceding states of mind, the underlying emotions, are as bad as what follows. In the matters of divorce and swearing, they are simply removed from the options he expects his followers to choose from.

In no case, in no encounter, of which I am aware in the Gospels does Jesus give someone a free pass. He never says, “That’s all right. The best you can do will be fine.” He never says this. His approach is stern and would be merciless, but for one thing. He has mercy: he forgives whenever he is asked to forgive. He never relaxes the standard he sets, but he invariably forgives when the standard is not met.

The classic case of all this is in John, in the episode known as The Woman Caught in Adultery. There he does two things. He turns the punishment prescribed by the Mosaic law upon those who take the law unto themselves to enforce it. He tells them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”[1] That stops that. Secondly he tells her, after she agrees that no one has condemned her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”[2]

I see the matter of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel today this way. If we can measure up to the higher standard, well and good. When we cannot do that, we have a Savior whose forgiveness is plenteous. And I think the Savior will know if we should try to lean on his plenteous forgiveness more than we truly deserve. The Lord is merciful, but he is also just: his mercy is his justice, and his justice is his mercy.

[1] Saint John 8:7.

[2] Saint John 8:11.