Last week I went to have lunch with some friends of ours. They have a little boy called Samuel who is just being weaned. His mum, Jordan, had made up a bit of baby rice and mixed in some squished up carrot or something like that, had put him in a highchair and was feeding him this goo. It was going in OK, but Jordan needed to help get the rest of the food ready for our lunch so I was volunteered for baby feeding duties. Oh, how I’ve missed trying to get babies to eat. I’d forgotten the way in which you get a spoonful of this runny gunk and put it in their mouths, and you think it’s going down, but then it starts dribbling down the chin and you have to quickly scrape it back into the baby’s mouth with the spoon. It’s amazing how skills come back to you, isn’t it. Over the next few months Jordan and Ben will introduce different bits of food into Samuel’s diet, different tastes and textures. They’ll give him things he can chew and bite as more of his teeth come through. He would probably survive if they only ever fed him on baby rice and mashed carrot, but he’d miss out on the experience of so many different foods and the enjoyment of sinking his teeth into things, chewing them over and getting out all the flavours.
It seems to me that these are some the ideas that Paul probably had going round in his head when he wrote to the Christians who lived in Corinth. The church there is going through a difficult time. There are all kinds of issues bubbling up, but the main reason that the people there are failing to deal with them is that they lack maturity. Paul wants to give them the solid food that they need to build up the strength to sort out these problems, but they are not ready for it. They still need spoon feeding and have not put in the effort that is needed to chew over and digest things that aren’t easy straight away.
I have to say that sometimes I fall into this temptation. If something seems to be too difficult, or if I think that I’m not going to succeed, rather than persisting and giving it a good go, I’ll give up. I remember as a boy going to visit a friend, and my friend had devised a coded message for me. I don’t believe that it was a particularly complicated code, but I couldn’t break it straight away. Rather than apply myself to working it out, I just nagged and nagged and nagged to be told the solution. In the end my friend told me what the message said, but I’d missed the point. I’d robbed myself of the benefit of working it out, of chewing it over.
This morning we have heard some of Jesus’ teaching that seems to me to challenge us and that challenge means that we have a choice to make. On the one hand we can hear it, and decide that it’s too difficult for us, much too chewy, and decide not to engage with it. The trouble is that doing that will stop us from growing as we are meant to. We will miss out on the nutrition, on the flavour, on the exercise. We will not mature as God intends us to.
On the other hand we can choose to really get stuck into it. It might make us choke a bit. (I seem to remember coughing fits from my two when they tried to swallow down something they hadn’t really chewed properly.) A bit might stick in our teeth and we’ll spend the next few hours trying to work it out with our tongues. But, most importantly we will be growing in our understanding of God, and of the life we are being called to lead. We will be growing as followers of Jesus.
In the reading that we heard Jesus talks about several different issues. I don’t have time this morning to go into them all in detail. This is a good thing, because the whole point is that if I were to stand here for a few hours telling you what they mean, then I would be doing all the work. It would be like me putting it all in a blender, mushing it up, and offering it round on a spoon. What I hope to do this morning is give out some tools and some pointers for thinking about what Jesus is saying, why he’s saying it, and what difference that should make to our lives. We will then need to take responsibility for working it out, chewing it over. We might do that on your own, or by talking it over with other people.
So , to begin with, let’s think about what Jesus is saying.
The first thing to notice is that this reading breaks down into four sections. Each section has a part where Jesus talks about some teaching or a proverb that the people have heard somewhere else. “you have heard it said .....” then Jesus goes on to give his ideas and teaching, introduced by the phrase, “but I tell you....” Once you see this pattern, then other things might start to emerge. When you read the four, “you have it heard it said...” parts, what do they have in common? It seems to me that one thing they have in common is that they all focus on things you do on the outside. Don’t murder; don’t have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse; if you divorce, make sure the paperwork is in order; if you make a vow make sure you’re seen to keep it.
When you read the four “but I tell you....” parts, what do they have in common? It seems to me in all these cases Jesus extends the teaching from the outward behaviour to the inward heart. He attacks the destructive and sinful behaviour at its roots before it has time to grow. Don’t harbour hatred but be a peacemaker. Don’t dwell on lust but be innocent. Be a person of simple integrity who keeps promises without having to make a big show of it.
So we’ve thought a little bit about what Jesus was teaching, but why was he teaching this? To get a handle on this, I think that it helps to understand something of the background of this teaching. It is comes pretty early on in Matthew’s book. So far he has told us a load about Jesus’ birth and childhood, about John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism and temptation, and about the call of the first few disciples. This is Jesus’ first big speech in Matthew. It sets out the program, the manifesto of what he’s all about. It kicks off with the big ideas, the values that drive what Jesus is going to do, and why he’s going to do it. You can read those at the beginning of Matthew chapter five.
Having described the big picture, Jesus is now getting to the nuts and bolts of how those values will work out in real life. Jesus took part in our creation and has known humanity for as long as there have been people. He knows what we are like. He knows that we have a great talent for putting on show of keeping the rules whilst on the inside we’re frantically trying to work out how to bend them, or finding reasons for why they don’t apply to us.
Based on this and on what we’ve discovered about what Jesus said, moving the focus from the outward behaviour to the inner heart, it seems to me that one of the reasons why Jesus said these things was to encourage his followers to learn to exercise self control over their thoughts and feelings as well as over their actions.
So we’ve looked at what and why Jesus taught. But what are we actually meant to do about it? Some of the practical things that Jesus says seem reasonable if challenging, like actually talking to people we’ve upset about the way that we upset them and making up with them before we come to worship. Some of the practical things seem to be completely nuts. I have to say that if I’d taken the part about chopping of the bits that cause me to sin literally I’d be speaking to you in a much higher voice. The first type might be difficult, but it doesn’t seem to me that we can duck them – we have to rise to the challenge. The second type is fairly obviously exaggeration for effect. We don’t need to be chopping bits of our body off but we do need to cut out of our lives the things that tempt us to sin. That might be a friendship with someone of the opposite sex that has the potential to fall into unfaithfulness. It might be books, magazines or TV programmes that leave unhealthy thoughts or images in our minds.
For me the most challenging one is where it isn’t easy to see whether the practical application is to be taken literally or metaphorically, where there are harsh words about marriage after divorce. This is made more difficult because it has been understood in different ways in Christian history.
The things that we have been thinking about this morning are not easy. They are not meant to be. If everything about life was easy then it would be like eating baby rice for every meal. Jesus told us that following him wouldn’t be easy. He wants us to grow and to mature, and that means learning to eat things that need chewing over. Having said that, there’s no point giving ourselves indigestion by taking on too much at one sitting. So, I’m going to stop now and we’re going to have a few minutes quiet. During those few minutes I’d like us to look back over the gospel reading, and ask the Holy Spirit to bring to the front of our minds the one thing that God wants us to chew over this week.