Matthew is the first of the four Gospels in our Bibles. Have you ever wondered why? Well, one reason is that, back in the Second Century when the books of the New Testament were first being collected together as what the Church calls the Canon of holy scripture, most people thought Matthew’s Gospel had been written first. Modern Bible scholars wouldn’t agree, and today’s it’s generally accepted that Mark is earlier than either Matthew or Luke, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as one of their source documents.
But Matthew’s Gospel is also placed first out of the four because Matthew was thought of as speaking with special authority, especially as regards his great theme of Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus. It’s no surprise then that Matthew’s Gospel should be the first book to follow after the books of the Old Testament. The importance Matthew had in the early Church can be seen in the fact that his Gospel is quoted more than any other New Testament book in the writings of the time.
Matthew sets out his Gospel in an interesting and very organised way. One thing he does is to place the teaching of Jesus mostly together in one place, in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus sits down and begins to teach at the start of chapter 5, beginning with what we call the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” And when Jesus finally comes down from the mountain at the beginning of chapter eight Matthew has given us three chapters full of our Lord’s teaching. He goes on to tell us how the people were amazed at the teaching Jesus gave them, because it was new and fresh, it wasn’t like the teaching they received from the scribes. Unlike them, Jesus taught them with authority.
But some of the things he said were pretty tough, including the verses we’ve heard this morning from chapter five. Anyone who nurses a grievance is as much under the sentence of law as a murderer; any man who looks lustfully at a woman is as guilty as if he had committed adultery. And just before he says these tough things Jesus has told the people that, “To get into heaven you must prove yourselves to be far better than the scribes and the Pharisees.”
On the whole, Jesus had more success with sinners than he had with religious folk. People who knew they were sinful, people condemned by others as sinful, listened to him. The scribes and Pharisees, who devoted themselves very carefully to not being sinful at all, and were widely applauded and looked up to, were appalled by him. These were the great keepers of the law - or so they thought. They had reduced religion to the mere keeping of the Law - the letter of the law. But you can keep the letter of the Law without keeping the spirit of the law. The scribes and Pharisees were anxious to be seen to be getting it right; Jesus, on the other hand, said that to be truly right with God you must be right in the heart.
That’s a constant theme of his preaching, being right in our heart. And the tough teaching in these three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is part of that. Jesus is making clear that if we want like the Pharisees to earn our way into heaven, we have to be perfect; we can’t afford to make a single mistake. The Pharisees were aiming for perfection, so they did their best to keep every last point of the law. But all they were really doing was fooling themselves. They might have looked the part, but what was really going on inside them? It’s what happens inside us that matters, says Jesus, not what we look like on the outside.
One special thing about the Christian faith is that as Christians we discover that in the end being perfect doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because we are saved through the grace of God - through grace and only through grace. We’re not saved because we deserve it, we’re not saved because by trying really really hard to be good we’ve built up lots of merit points; no, we’re saved by grace. And what do we mean by that word grace? We mean that God never ceases to love what he has made. And as we set ourselves - as of course we should - to live faithfully, and to praise joyfully, and to serve lovingly - we do this not to earn ourselves a place in heaven, but as a thank offering. For a place is already prepared for us, and the door already stands open.
So Jesus uses tough words to get a simple but profound message across to those who were listening: be honest about yourself, know you can’t make it on your own, but know also that you are valuable, you are loved, you are treasured, and you are saved. We’re quite good, most of the time, I know: but we need to know that quite good, most of the time, isn’t good enough for heaven. Only Jesus is good enough for heaven, but he opens the way to us: he is the King of love, he is the Shepherd who dies to save his sheep.
And now I want to finish by taking a second point from this morning’s reading. Jesus talks about the practice of swearing an oath to guarantee that the promise you’ve made is going to be kept. And he tells the people they must do that no longer. They should be so clearly honest and straight that their simple yes or no should be enough on its own.
That should be true of course: if we’re serious about being God’s people, other people should be able to rely on us to do what we say we’re going to do, to pay what we say we’re going to pay. We shouldn’t need any oath to guarantee that. We should be the sort of people whose word can be relied on.
But I think Jesus has a deeper point to make here too: something about the way we use religion to serve our own ends. There’s nothing new in the exploitation and misuse of religion, but sadly there does seem to be an awful lot of this around in the world today. It depresses and angers me, and it’s a scandal and offence, when religion is used to twist hearts and minds, to exalt one group above another, to promote hatred and violence, or to grab at personal power and status and wealth. The Dalai Lama has said, “If the faith you hold doesn’t lead you to practise kindness, then the god you serve isn’t real.” Jesus is real: the image he presents is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. To be a disciple of his is to set ourselves to be as like him as we can be. That’s what he means when he says “Follow me.” How sad that some who claim his name and his authority are still ready to preach bigotry and hatred, and to sow seeds of division.
Jesus says, “Do not swear by heaven, for it is God’s throne; do not swear by the earth, for it is his footstool.” And I think that when he says that he is warning us not to make selfish and worldly use of things that are holy. Religion used for worldly ends is religion divorced from God. Everything Jesus says in the teaching we read in Matthew is said to move us away from empty and formulaic religion and into a faith that is about relationship, about love responding to love, and light reflecting light. So that we know our own smallness and insufficiency, our own weakness; but at the same time recognise the holiness of God.
Holiness is about otherness, about a degree of glory, an intensity of light, that is beyond our reaching and imagining, except for this: that God has reached out for us, and that he gives us place and identity and a promised home within his love; and that through the perfect love made incarnate among us in Jesus we who fall so far short of perfection can find life and light and hope.