“Nice people don’t do things like that”. I wonder how many of us were brought up to avoid the bad manners of childhood with such words – and grew to apply them to adult crimes. Murder, adultery, lying for advantage are often spoken against. Most religions forbid such things in one way or another, and the ten commandments of the Old Testament are no exception. (See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21)
In today’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus seems to want more. He is not content that we should avoid the action, but reaches further for the underlying motive. Anger, lust, and self-centredness are the problem, whether or not the opportunity for action is present. The idea that these (and other) attitudes might be replaced by the love, justice and mercy of God is wonderful, and very demanding.
In other places, Jesus will speak words of hope that murder, adultery, fraud and bitterness (as well as their underlying attitudes) are forgivable. But he will not suggest that the sins can be combined with the holiness of character which is important to God, and to the life of God’s people. The disciples he gathers will not all be exemplary characters, but cannot be content with their failures. We find hope in the fact that they continue to need grace and forgiveness, if the patience needed by the community is more difficult.
So how do we hear Jesus words? We need to deal with our anger and disrespect of other people. It doesn’t only become offensive if we are able to hurt them physically – the attitude is already a falling short of God’s standard – a sin. Similarly with dishonorable relationships, whether unfaithful, or simply manipulative; and words which do not tell the truth in love (as in Ephesians 4:14-16). This is something we shall fail constantly. Yet this standard helps us remember the difference for those of different family background and life experience. Christians are not called to be “nice”, but to become like God in our attitudes to all sorts of people and situations.