“Abandon Hope?” (Matthew 5:21-37)
One of the themes of the Sundays after Epiphany is how Jesus shows his divine authority through his teaching. The crowds were often amazed at his teaching. In fact, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount – from which today’s Gospel reading is taken – St. Matthew writes, “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29).
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes … the “Blessed ares.” There, the blessed life of a disciple of Christ is described. Contrary to the powerful and mighty of the world, Christ’s disciples are poor in spirit, meek, and lowly. They will be persecuted. Nevertheless, united to Christ’s life and love, they are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. God’s Word and Spirit rules and reigns within them. As a baptized, believing child of God, this describes you.
Our Lord goes on and describes his Church as “salt” and “light.” He calls you to be a seasoning and preservative influence in the world. Shining your light – which is the light of Christ in you – you do good works in his name. People will give glory to your Heavenly Father when they see your good works.
Jesus then explains that he came to fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures. He fulfills the entire Law of God. At the same time, there is no relaxing of God’s commandments. His Law remains righteous and holy. And, as Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The scribes and Pharisees were incredibly diligent in keeping the letter of the Law. The trouble is, they were self-righteous and lacked true repentant faith and trust in Christ.
If being a part of God’s kingdom were all about keeping the Law, every one of us would be in trouble. We might as well put a sign up outside the church which reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” That’s actually a line from the Inferno, a poem from the 14th century by the Italian poet Dante. It’s the inscription on the gates of Hell.
There’s nothing funny about hell, of course. But I did get a kick out of something I saw in Philadelphia. This was on one of our Higher Things trips. Philadephia has a museum dedicated to the works of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Outside the museum is a beautiful pillared gateway and garden that is a popular location for weddings. However, our guide on the tour bus pointed out that at the same time the lovestruck couple is saying their vows, right on the other side of the garden is Rodin’s sculpture “The Gates of Hell” with those infamous words “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Not exactly what you want to have associated with your nuptial festivities.
Dante’s fanciful poem describes nine circles of torment in hell. Three of those circles correspond to three of the issues in our text today. Dante names the three circles under consideration “Anger,” “Lust,” and “Fraud” and describes the particular punishments that the eternally condemned face there for their sins.
Anger corresponds to our Lord’s words about hateful, spiteful words spoken towards your brother in Christ. What are you really saying when you call your brother – or anyone else, for that matter – a “fool”? What did the psalmist say? “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). When you call someone a “fool” you’re essentially wishing they would go to hell. Maybe you’ve gone so far as to say that to their face. This is murder. In fact, it’s worse than murder. Do you really wish this upon someone for whom Christ gave his life?
Lust corresponds to our Lord’s words about forbidden desires. This is the rationale we often use: “It doesn’t hurt to look.” But it does. This is adultery. You have adulterated the good gift that God guards in the Sixth Commandment. You have mixed in impure desires. You have a desire in your heart for something that only belongs within the bonds of marriage. “And you want me to do what, Jesus? Poke out my eye and cut off my hand? I might as well abandon all hope right now.”
Lust leads to brokenness in marriage, too, and results in divorce. Divorce was very easy for a man in those days. A woman had little recourse. A man could dismiss his wife simply because she left his dinner in the oven too long. This easy, no-fault divorce system created many adulterous marriages. This is exactly what Jesus is criticizing. Truth be told, this is not unlike our own day and age. This is not to deny that divorce can be painful, nor that there can be innocent parties. Maybe some of you who have been through ugly divorces can relate to that sign in the popular wedding venue at the Philadelphia Rodin museum. You tried and tried to work things out, but it just seemed so hopeless.
Fraud corresponds to our Lord’s words about oaths. Instead of swearing an oath to God about one matter or another, people would substitute something connected to God, such as heaven, earth, or Jerusalem, or even their own head. That way, if you didn’t keep your oath, you had an easy way out. “Well, I really didn’t swear to God, so it’s okay.” Taking an oath is not absolutely forbidden. You do it in a marriage ceremony or in a court of law. But here Jesus is criticizing oaths that people take without the intention to ever truly keep them. Jesus means for us to be people of our word. To be honest. To keep our promises. Not to feel the need to swear an oath in trivial matters. Let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.” Sadly, promises are constantly being broken among us … in our marriages, in our business dealings, among friends and family and other relationships.
So what do we do? Abandon hope?
No. We repent. Return to the Lord in faith and trust. Receive the forgiveness that Jesus won for you.
Jesus received angry, hateful words from the mob while suffering and dying for you. He suffered the pains of hell while bleeding and dying in agony for your sins. He paid the price for your sins, down to the last penny, every single debt that you owe. Now you are reconciled to your Father in heaven.
Jesus is the faithful groom of his Bride, the Church. He calls you his beloved. You are united to him in Holy Baptism and by faith. You are a member of his Body. He will never cut you off from him and his love.
And God always keeps his promises to you. He made a solemn oath to David that he would establish one of his descendants as King forever (Ps. 89:3-4; 132:11). He swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that all nations would be blessed through them. And all this was fulfilled in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Here’s how the prophet Micah put it: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Micah 7:18-20).
Forgiveness, life, salvation, eternal life all belong to you now in Christ Jesus. St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1 that “For all the promises of God find their yes in him. That is why it is through him we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:20-22). A guarantee of what? Of the promise of the Second Advent of Jesus and the promised new heaven and new earth. But don’t be impatient. Listen to St. Peter: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). All is fulfilled in Christ Jesus. Our Lord’s delay in returning is for more people to hear the Good News of Jesus, repent, and receive the promise of eternal life even now (John 3:16; 1 John 2:25).
Abandon hope? Not a bit! Remember, it’s not about how well you keep the Law of God. Jesus has kept it for you. Persevere in hope! Rejoice that you have a faithful Savior! Forgiven, fed with his Body and Blood, go forth from this altar today with his gifts given to you to reconcile with one another, to live a chaste and decent life, and to keep the promises you make in all the relationships in which God has placed you.