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“This world has no importance and whoever recognizes that wins his freedom. And that’s just it—I hate you because you are bound. I alone am free. Rejoice, for you finally have an emperor to teach you freedom…” So speaks the Emperor Caligula, in Albert Camus’ play of the same name.
But did Caligula represent true freedom? History records he used his power in self-indulgent extravagance, no matter how cruel or disgusting. He did whatever he pleased.
Many consider freedom is the ability to do whatever you want without external restraints. For the extreme capitalist it means no market controls; for the extreme socialist it means the power of the collective to impose its will on the individual without restraint; for the extreme hedonist it means the license to follow the lusts of the heart.
In his highly respected Sermon on the Mount Jesus lays out the pattern for living that he expects of his people. Significantly, he doesn’t simply set out a list of do’s and don’ts. Rather he opens up the real meaning of love for God in loving our neighbor. Let me touch on themes we read in Matthew chapter 5, verses 21 through 48.
Anger (5:21, 22): “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
‘You shall not murder’ is the 6th Commandment of the Ten. But consider Jesus’s words: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment”. He is saying that our angry and hateful thoughts are just as problematical as the actual action of murder.
“…And,” he continues, “if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Anyone who thinks or says to another, Fool or Idiot, says Jesus, is subject to the fires of God’s judgment – separation from God and from all that is true and good, a separation he likens to the fires of Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem where the city refuse was dumped and burned. The judgement we think is reserved for the literal murderer, also hangs over everyone who is angry, bitter or contemptuous.
“So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23). DA Carson comments, ‘How easy it is to substitute ceremony for integrity, purity and love; but Jesus will have none of it.’ Before going to church, Jesus says, ensure your relationship with others is sorted out.
Lust. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’” Jesus continues (5:27). Society often turns a blind eye towards adultery, undercutting marriage as a lifelong commitment. However, Jesus sharpens the focus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:28). By labeling lust adultery, he reveals a deeper level to the 7th commandment in terms of the 10th which prohibits covetousness.
Jesus is not prohibiting sex: the sexual relationship between a man and woman in marriage is a God-given gift. Nor is he prohibiting the normal attraction that exists between men and women. His issue is with the desires of our hearts controlling our thoughts and behavior.
Oaths. “You have heard that it was said in ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord…’” Jesus says (5:33).
There are Old Testament references permitting oath-taking, even in God’s name. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:20 we read, You shall fear the Lord your God. Him you will serve, to him you will cleave, and you will swear by his name. There are also references in the New Testament: Paul swears on God’s name and calls on God to be his witness – as we read in Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; and 1 Thessalonians 2:5. We also find God swearing oaths – that he will not flood the world again (Genesis 9:9-11); that he will send a Redeemer (Luke 1:68, 73); that he will raise his son from the dead (Acts 2:27-31).
All this swearing points to its real purpose – the importance of telling the truth. As one commentator has noted, swearing an oath makes the truth all the more solemn and sure.
Why then does Jesus speak about swearing falsely? Jewish commentary on the Old Testament law in Jesus’ day set out to define what oaths were binding and what were not. One rabbi taught that if you swore an oath by Jerusalem, you were NOT bound by your oath. If, however, you swore an oath toward Jerusalem, you were bound by your oath.
The swearing of oaths became a game you played. Depending on how you played it, you could get away with lying and deception. It was against this kind of casuistry that Jesus spoke.
By relating every oath to God, because everything is ultimately under God’s direction, he presses the point of truthfulness. Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’. Who hasn’t distorted the truth – for example, to put others down and to push ourselves up? Or who of us has said we will do something and then reneged on the commitment?
Rights. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…’” (5:38) – words of the Mosaic law found in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 24.
The law is both prescriptive and restrictive. If an assailant knocked out another person’s eye, one of the assailant’s eyes is forfeit – but not the second eye. The law provided justice but at the same time it prevented the escalation of feuding and bloodshed.
Into this scene Jesus now introduces a radical response: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person…” Does this mean Jesus’ followers shouldn’t take up arms, enter the police force or become sentencing judges and magistrates?
Commentators agree that Jesus is speaking about personal abuse towards his people. In times where we might suffer because of our faith, we should nevertheless stand up against evil for the sake of our neighbours.
Love. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (5:43).
Behind Jesus’ words lies the deeper truth about God: how good and gracious he is to both the righteous and the unrighteous – he makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. If God is like this, what would our world be like if God’s people prayed for all who oppose God?
Perfection. “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).
People used to say how much better the world would be if everyone got back to the basics of the Ten Commandments. But this isn’t what Jesus is saying. His diagnosis of the human dilemma isn’t a matter of do’s and don’ts. Rather he sees a much deeper problem – the desires of our hearts.
Indeed, under certain conditions the muck at the bottom of our hearts, surfaces. We all need God’s help and, amazingly, this is something God is willing to provide.
We get a glimpse of this where Jesus continues: ‘so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (5:45). God wants to work within us, to pass on his moral genes. He wants us to bear the fruit of the Spirit – fruit that reveals the work of God’s Word and his Spirit in our lives.
Jesus is telling us that our broken relationship with God has consequences: judgement and the fires of Gehenna. But as we read on in Matthew and the rest of the New Testament, we learn that Jesus himself has paid the penalty of our self-absorption. Yes, we all like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid on Jesus the penalty we deserve. He did this because God’s nature is also to have mercy. When Jesus died, he took the penalty for our hatred, our deceit, our lust, our insistence on our rights, our lack of love – indeed for all our imperfections.
Where is our hope for freedom – in a long list of do’s and don’ts? Or is our freedom found in confessing our broken relationship with Christ and in a heartfelt desire to honor him?
Camus’ Caligula seemed free to do anything he wanted. But was he really free? The play concludes with Caligula facing his murderers, saying: “I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing. My freedom isn’t the right one…. Oh, how oppressive is this darkness!”
True freedom is not the licence to do as we like, but the liberty to do what we know is right.
A prayer. Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much our own ways and the desires of our own hearts, and have broken your holy laws. We have left undone the things that we ought to have done, and we have done what we ought not to have done. Yet, good Lord, have mercy upon us; restore all those who are truly penitent, according to your promises declared to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. And grant merciful Father, for his sake, that we may live a godly and obedient life, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.