That's Crazy Talk! Back to all sermons

Date: October 25, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Book of Matthew

Category: Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 5:21–5:30

Synopsis: Have you ever read some of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount and been tempted to say to yourself, “That’s Crazy Talk!” That is the title for this sermon, taken from Matthew 5:21-30. Find out why, and also see how Jesus takes us beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law, and in the process brings us once again face to face with our spiritual bankruptcy and our need for God’s mercy.

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There was a situation comedy that played on American TV in the 70’s and 80’s (and I know I am dating myself when I say that!) called Different Strokes. In the series, two African American boys from the city were being raised by a rich, white foster father. Much of the humor in the show grew out of the different cultural backgrounds, expectations and values of the two very different worlds they came from. The younger of the two boys was played by an actor named Gary Coleman. He had one signature line that he would come out with when he became particularly exasperated or baffled by something the father character would say to him. There would be this long, puzzled pause and then he would burst out: “That’s crazy talk, Mr. D.!”

I don’t know about you, but as I read the Sermon on the Mount and some of the things that Jesus said and taught that day on the mountain, I have a confession to make to you. There is a part of me that wants to burst out and say along with Gary: “That’s crazy talk, Jesus!”

Maybe that sounds sacrilegious, especially coming from a preacher. But be honest with me. Haven’t you sometimes thought the same thing, even if you’ve never said it? Plucking out eyes, cutting off hands, turning the other cheek, going an extra mile, loving our enemies. By the standards of the world in which we live, this is truly crazy talk! It makes no sense!

Welcome to the upside down world of the Kingdom of Heaven where the weak are strong and the foolish are wise and the last shall be first.

In terms of the structure of the sermon, Jesus is doing two things. In the opening section of the sermon, Jesus gave eight statements, called beatitudes, in which he laid out the value system and character qualities that would form the bedrock of his kingdom and identify the members of his kingdom. (By the way, how are you doing on memorizing those?) In the examples and illustrations that Jesus introduces in the rest of chapter 5, Jesus is giving us examples of what it means to be meek, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, and to be a peacemaker.

The second thing Jesus is doing goes back to last week’s passage and the statement that Jesus made that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In these examples, Jesus is describing that greater righteousness. It is a righteousness that goes beyond external observance to probe the realities of the human heart. He does so with six statements, and each starts the same way: “You have heard…but I say to you…” In each case he is contrasting the Pharisees and their teaching with his own interpretation and application of the law of God and the greater righteousness that God requires.

What Jesus does here is go beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. But it is precisely at this point that I would point out a great irony. There is a great difference between what we usually mean when we speak of the spirit of the law and what Jesus does in these examples. Usually, when people claim to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, they almost inevitably meant that they are NOT following the letter of the law. In other words, the spirit of the law becomes a loophole or excuse for not obeying the letter of the law. But in Jesus’ teaching, we will quickly see that the spirit of the law goes beyond the letter of the law. The letter of the law says: Do not murder. The spirit of the law says: Do not be angry. The letter of the law says: Do not commit adultery. The spirit of the law says: Do not lust. We speak of the spirit of the law in contrast to the letter of the law in an effort to lower the standard. What Jesus taught was a higher standard. It is a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. They were experts on the letter of the law. Jesus wants to take us to the spirit of the law and true righteousness of the heart.

This section of Jesus’ teaching is so packed that we are going to take three weeks to work our way through it. Today, we are going to take a look at his first two examples, found in verses 21-30.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’

What is wrong with this statement? Nothing. This is an accurate translation of the sixth commandment. While the second part (“whoever murders will be liable to judgment”) is not a quote of any specific text of Scripture, it summarizes the Old Testament teaching. So what is the problem? The problem is the assumption that the scribes and the Pharisees made that if they stopped short of actually taking a human life and murdering someone, they were therefore absolved of guilt under the sixth commandment. But is that enough to attain to the greater righteousness of the kingdom of heaven? Listen to Jesus’ words:

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Do you see what I mean about “crazy talk”?

What is Jesus saying to us? First of all, we must consider the form of the word. The verb form of “is angry” is a present participle. In Greek grammar this is used to express an action that is ongoing and continuous. This is the difference between getting angry and staying angry. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul quotes the Old Testament and says: Be angry and yet do not sin. He then follows this with the instruction: Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. In other words, don’t hold onto it. It is the holding on to our anger and remaining in an angry state that puts us at risk of God’s judgment, whether or not that anger ever results in an actual act of murder.

It is not only the holding of our anger, but the inappropriate expression of that anger that will make us liable to God’s judgment. Look at the rest of the verse: whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

I think most of us would agree that it is wrong to hit each other with sticks or clubs or rocks or any other form of weapon. But what about words? What about insults? Do we ever hit each other with words? The exact tone and innuendo of the two words Jesus uses here (Raca! And “You fool!” or “You moron!”) are difficult to define precisely, but it is clear that they are words of abuse; they are insults. They are words spoken in anger with the intent to inflict harm.

There is an old saying I was taught in grade school: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Do you think that’s true? I don’t! Names do hurt. Insults do wound us and wound us deeply. And it is that angry impulse to hurt another person that Jesus is exposing with his teaching.

In sharing the Gospel with people, I have frequently encountered the person who says something like: “I am a basically good person. I have never hurt anybody.” And I am tempted to say: “Really? You’ve never hurt anyone? Even with your words?”

Of course if I do ask them this, they will usually back down. But listen! This is what God requires. This is the greater righteousness he is talking about. This is what meekness and purity of heart look like.

Jesus goes on to add some positive instruction about kingdom values and behavior as applied to personal relationships and the priority of not only avoiding anger but of living at peace with one another.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

I want to make several observations from this teaching. Notice who is in the wrong in the first case. “You remember that your brother has something against you.” What is it? We are not told. Is it deserved or not? We don’t know. Maybe you called him a fool. Maybe you didn’t. But a brother is holding a grudge against you. Go! Take the initiative. Clear up the misunderstanding. If necessary, apologize. Make things right.

The second observation is that Jesus here teaches us that religious observance is not a substitute for personal obedience and living as a peace maker. Giving a gift on the altar is an act of religious observance. But God isn’t interested in the gift until we first obey his commands. One of the tendencies of the Pharisees was to add a long list of religious activities: fasting, praying, offerings and sacrifices. All as a substitute for being merciful and living as a peacemaker and displaying the purity of heart that God desires.

The second example Jesus gives relates, not to an offended brother, but to an adversary in court. Here as well, Jesus instructs us to take the initiative in seeking a settlement and seeking peace. In the sermon a few weeks ago, I drew a distinction between being right and being righteous. This is an example of this principle. Don’t allow your life to become consumed by long legal hassles over who is right. Seek the path of early reconciliation and the path of peace if such a path is available to you.

So, Jesus has taken the letter of the law (Thou shalt not murder!) and he has taken us beyond the letter to the spirit of the law which is to be the spirit of the members of the kingdom of heaven; a spirit of meekness and righteousness and purity of heart; a kingdom of peacemakers who shall be called the sons of God.

Let me ask you: How are you measuring up so far?

Well, we are not finished. Jesus now goes on to consider the seventh commandment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Once again, we are led to ask: what was wrong with the Pharisees’ quotation of the Law? On the surface, nothing. In fact, the Greek text here is letter for letter exactly according to the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was available in Jesus’ day. Once again, the difficulty was that their teachings and interpretation of the Law did not go far enough. The implication of their teaching was that this command applied only to an external act; that adultery was a physical act between a man and a woman who are not married, and that as long as a person stopped short of that physical act, he was innocent of the sin of adultery.

Jesus once again says to us: That’s fine. That is the letter of the law. But what about the spirit of the law? But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The language is very specific and clear. The word for “looking” is not the usual word for seeing. It means to fix one’s eyes intently and with purpose. This is a deliberate act of the eyes which is driven by the desires of the heart. This is not a fleeting surge of libido or sexual desire aroused by something or someone flitting within one’s range of vision. It is the deliberate and intentional feasting of the eyes on a woman for the specific purpose of satisfying that passion visually and in the imagination.

Now, the Pharisees, in their teaching, were saying by implication; there is nothing wrong with that. As long as you don’t actually cross the line and commit the physical act, you have not committed adultery. “Wrong!” says Jesus. “You have already committed adultery with her in your heart.” Notice that Jesus does not say that feeding your lust may lead to an act of adultery. He says that it already is adultery.

Now we need to be clear about the extent of Jesus’ words here. Let us not be guilty of the same kind of legal maneuvering that the Pharisees used. These words are addressed to men, and speak of a man lusting for a woman. Pornography is a huge problem in our world. It is ripping marriages and lives apart. And pornography does seem to have a stronger appeal to men than to women. But I think we make a grave error if we apply Jesus’ words only to pornography and to men. The real issue that Jesus speaks to here is “committing adultery in the heart” or in the imagination. This would apply to a wide range of fantasies and imaginary activities and should search the hearts of men and women alike. Here is a quick standard of assessment: If it would be wrong in the act, it is wrong in the imagination.

I am always amazed at how often God brings just the right example along to include in a sermon. I had already written that particular part of the sermon. Then I opened my e-mail and found a message there from someone who used to be a member here at ECC many years ago. She writes to me occasionally, but I have not heard from her in over a year. She wrote to thank me for the way the teaching she received here at ECC had kept her back from falling into sin. What she wrote gives a clear picture of the kind of “adultery in the heart” that we are talking about. I want to read portions of that e-mail, obviously with any identifying details removed:

“I have been challenged in my walk with God regarding my relationship with (my husband). I found myself attracted to a very intelligent, handsome, extremely kind caring and financially independent man.

We began texting just as friends and the conversations quickly changed. Daily I was being verbally abused by (my husband, belittling me) My friend would write me several times a week to let me know he was wishing me God's blessings. He would say things like" how was your day, just know that I care about you etc........

My friend was very romantic in his speech and would often talk about taking me to Tahiti for my birthday in December.

Thank God he lives in another part of the country. I saw myself slipping fast. I went from thinking it was cute, to needing to hear from him more and more. I knew that getting involved with him was a train wreck waiting to happen, but I knew I was strong and could handle it (Satan twisting my thinking).

I quickly watched my boundaries change. Things I knew were clearly wrong became blurred in my mind while I tried to justified my thinking with the "I deserve to be happy".

I began hearing one of your old sermons begin to play in the back of my mind about the price of sin being far too great to pay. The more I thought of him the louder your sermons rang in my head.”

The story has a happy ending. God’s word, from sermons preached long ago, brought her in prayer to God and he set her free.

This is the greater righteousness that God requires. It is not just a technical, moral correctness of the body, but purity of heart, mind and imagination. True righteousness is internal as well as external. This is the standard by which God will evaluate and judge us. Listen to Paul’s sobering words in Romans 2:16: on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The sins of lust and pornography and imagined liaisons are secret sins. They are sins that we excuse because no one knows about them and “they don’t do any harm.” God knows and God will judge the secrets of men. And this is the standard by which God will judge. This is purity of heart.

Again I will ask the question: how are you doing so far? How are you measuring up?

If we are listening; truly listening and allowing God’s Spirit and his word to do his work in our hearts, we may be wondering what hope there is for anyone. We may be saying with the psalmist of old: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who can stand?” Once again we may be standing with Jesus’ disciples and asking despairingly: “Who then can be saved?” And once again we hear Jesus’ answer: With man it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.

What must we do? We must get down to get in. We must come, poor in spirit and mourning because of the sin in our hearts. We must acknowledge our sin and helplessness to God. And we must ask God for his mercy and for the forgiveness that Jesus died to provide for us. Then and only then can we be saved. Then and only then can we enter the kingdom of heaven. Because then the righteousness of Christ is applied to our account. And clothed with his “greater righteousness” we can stand in the presence of the holy God.

This is the first purpose of God’s Law and of Jesus’ teaching which takes us beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law and exposes the sin in our hearts. It is to bring us in repentance to seek the mercy of God. And if you have never done so, I would urge you to cry out with the tax collector in Jesus’ story: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

But what is the impact of Jesus’ words on those of us who have trusted in Christ as our Savior from sin? What is the impact of this teaching for those of us who have entered the kingdom of heaven by faith and now stand forgiven in the presence of God? We know that our eternal salvation is assured. But how shall we live now? For us, Jesus’ words depict a direction of travel and a goal to pursue – purity of heart, and the satisfying of our hunger and thirst for righteousness. The righteous life that God desires for us. God wants us to be free from the sin of adultery, both internally and externally.

To us, Jesus adds these dramatic words:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

This is when I am tempted to say, “That’s crazy talk!” And in a way it is. Jesus is using strong figures of speech to get our attention. What he is saying, simply, is that there is no sacrifice too great to make in our battle against sin. Whatever it is that causes you to sin, get rid of it. If it is your own right eye, gouge it out and throw it away! Now, I do not believe Jesus meant this literally. After all, sin does not reside in the eye anyway. It lies in the heart. But if sin did lie in the eye and if gouging out your eye and throwing it away would suffice to get rid of sin, then that would not be too great a sacrifice to make. What Jesus is saying is that if dealing with sin requires drastic measures, then take drastic measures.

The writer of Hebrews says it this way: let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, (Hebrews 12:1)

The battle against sin is a fierce one, and no sacrifice is too great. The word Jesus uses in Matthew 5:29-30 that is translated “causes you to sin” is an interesting one. It comes from a root word that was used to describe the trigger stick in a trap. It was the thing that, when jostled or bumped, would cause the trap or snare to spring shut. I think if we are honest, we all know what our “trigger points” are; those circumstances, people, situations or stimulations that cause the net of sin to collapse around us. What Jesus is saying is this: whatever your trigger points are, get rid of them.

Unfortunately, with the dramatic increase in IT technology, such trigger points in this area of lust and moral impurity are ever more present. My staff will tell you that I am a technology dinosaur. I don’t even know enough to warn you about what to stay away from. But you know! If you have to unplug something, or throw something away, or put safeguards on things – do it! If you have to stop meeting certain people and stop going to certain places and stop texting that “special friend”, do it! Whatever trips you up and causes you to sin, get rid of it. Be ruthless in your battle against sin and its trigger points in your life.

Paul’s words in Romans 13:14 are instructive and helpful on this point: But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

The battle against adultery, just like the battle against murder, is an inner battle. It is a battle that is waged in the heart and in the mind as well as in the body. It is the struggle to be pure in heart and thought as well as in action. It is a battle that we will never win in our own strength, but only by reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit of Christ who indwells us.

I would close with this final word of hope and encouragement. In this battle, there will be times when you will stumble and fall. I don’t say this to excuse you nor to discourage you. I say this to give you hope and to give you the courage to get up and try again. 1 John 1:9 tells us what to do when we stumble and fall: if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This promise is not given to give us license to sin. John goes on to write in 1 John 2:1: My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But the promise is given to give us hope and a reason to get up and get back in the battle. As John goes on:

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

This is the mercy of God. This is the righteousness of Christ which has been applied to our account. It is a perfect and complete righteousness to which we can add nothing. And now, to those who have received this righteousness by faith, Jesus extends his hand to us as a merciful high priest, and says to us: “Let me help you. Let me help you, by not only lifting the penalty of sin from your shoulders. Let me help you by unlocking the chains of sin that have been wrapped themselves around you for so long. Let me satisfy your hunger and thirst for righteousness. Let me help you toward the purity of heart that is the mark of my kingdom.”

Discussion Questions

1. Review the 8 beatitudes.

2. Read Matthew 5:21-30: which of the beatitudes does this passage of Scripture illustrate? Explain you answers.

3. Discuss the concept of the “spirit of the law” and the “letter of the law”. How do we commonly use the contrast? How does Jesus application of the spirit of the law differ from ours?

4. Is it sinful to be angry? Why or why not?

5. When does anger become sin?

6. What are your “trigger points” for anger? Is there a relationship in which you are holding on to anger?

7. Is Jesus’ teaching in verses 23-26 “practical” or is it “crazy talk”? Discuss your answers and how to apply this teaching in “real life”.

8. In the battle for purity of heart and mind, when does temptation turn into sin?

9. Discuss common “trigger points” for “adultery in the heart”. How is it different for men and women? (If yours is a mixed group of men and women, you may want to separate to discuss this question.)

10. What do you need to “pluck out and cast away” in your battle against sin?