The whole story

Matthew 5-7

To read if you have time to take it all in.

The key episode

Matthew 5:38-42

To read if you only have time for the main narrative.

The tale in a nutshell

Matthew 5:38-39

“You have heard that it was said… but I tell you…”

When drawing maps, medieval cartographers marked on roads, castles and other recognisable buildings for the land they knew and understood. None of it was particularly to scale but it was detailed enough to give you the idea. The places they hadn’t explored were marked with pictures of strange creatures and the bold words: “Here be dragons!”

These are the kind of words that give you sleepless nights and induce considerable fear. The kind of fear that comes from ‘not knowing’ is what we can experience when we are confronted with things we have not yet seen or understood. Such fear always produces two responses: fight or flight. We fight like crazy to defend our corner or we flee for cover, retreating to those who think the same as us.


There are things I believe now that I didn’t used to believe. Shocking isn’t it? I used to have a bunch of beliefs that resembled a set of answers to exam questions about God, the Universe and everything. Getting these answers correct and providing a Bible verse to support them can seem very important. And, for a while, these neat answers serve a purpose. However, in the end, real life happens and the slick, well-rehearsed exam responses stop working. We can continue to try to make them fit, we can keep trying to squeeze everything we don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t understand into our ‘truth’. But, in the end, this stops working too and we are left with unanswered questions and crisis-inducing conundrums.

People you are told are bad turn out to be good and the ones who are meant to be good turn out to be rotten. People don’t do what we hope or expect. Cancer kills, even though we prayed it wouldn’t. People come out as gay and we discover that these so called ‘abominations’ are wonderful divine image bearers and not the enemy we had been taught about and, added to that, they are our friends. People get divorced and thrive even though we’ve read those bits in the Bible that suggest they shouldn’t.

I think all of us have to go through this phase of being centred around a series of comprehensive, neat answers. But I don’t believe that any of us need to stay in that phase. In fact, I think it is important that we have enough courage and a willingness to lean into what doesn’t add up and ride out the cold sweats that we surely will need to, in order to move on and go further, reaching beyond what is comfortable and familiar to us. We need to dare to go to where it feels strange and uncomfortable - the places we think the dragons are.

Our responsibility, as those who lead others, is to lean in to what which we find uncomfortable

This isn’t crazy liberal thinking. It is the eternal process and pattern of growth and development, of learning and enlightenment. What matters is that we commit to the journey of learning and none of us know where that may or may not take us. But sadly, sometimes we struggle to embrace different or new thinking, behaving as if we know everything there is to know. Not only is this ridiculous, it is also dangerous. When we close our minds, we assign ourselves to stagnation - never learning, growing or changing.


There is something in the way that Jesus taught that can help us consider how we handle difficult questions and conundrums. Rabbis use a teaching method known as ‘stringing pearls’; they take a familiar piece of text from the Torah and add something to it to bring a change or development in meaning and thinking.

In Matthew 5:38-39 we read the following words from Jesus’s sermon on the mount: “You have heard that it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” With the phrase: “You have heard it said…” Jesus is stringing pearls, drawing people in with the stuff they thought they knew and what they believed to be true. However, with the phrase: “But I say to you….” their comfort was challenged and replaced with discomfort. The truth was being shifted.

For the people listening, this was revolution. What Jesus was saying was so different to what they had been taught and what they believed. Jesus was inviting them to go way beyond what was comfortable and known, and to believe something new - about themselves, about others and about who God is. This must have been very unsettling. It must have really bothered the religious leaders. They had a hold on the way things were because they had a vested interest in things staying the same. The status quo suited them just fine.

Jesus was asking people to open their minds to the possibility of a different way of thinking, and as a result a different way of believing and behaving. He was inviting them to adopt a different mindset. He was inviting them to go where they thought the dragons were.


When I was about 14, a visiting vicar, who knew that my mum was recently divorced, said that: “Her type was not welcome in our church”. It is hard to believe anyone ever said these words, let alone a vicar. But back then, that is what people thought about divorcees and they believed they were being ‘biblical’.

Historically, people have said all sorts of things in the name of being ‘biblical’ such as upholding Apartheid and justifying slavery. Indeed, a large part of the Church celebrated every time Wilberforce failed to pass the anti-slavery laws in parliament. It’s hard to believe that people ever managed to equate Jesus with these great injustices, but they did. With time and a greater understanding of who God is and what God is about, people have changed their thinking and, as a result, their behaviour. Perhaps future generations might look at the beliefs about certain issues that the Church has now and have a similar reaction.

We might think people who believe differently to us are ‘backsliding’ or losing the truth. We might react when people read the Bible differently to us and when we hear what these people are doing and believing, it can feel like a threat. Everything within us may want to rise up and shout: “No! You cannot go there.” But, what if ‘going there’ is part of the process of growth and the way we are able to learn the next thing we need to about who we are and who God is?

When we close our minds, we assign ourselves to stagnation - never learning, growing or changing

Throughout the Church’s history, many of those who were first to join a new way of thinking, daring to go where others hadn’t yet, were named heretics. And yet it is these people who have significantly shifted the mainstream Church and followers of Jesus onwards to greater things; to be more inclusive and more generous.

Imagine drawing a circle around you. That circle represents everything you know. You are proud of this and glad. But what about all the things you don’t know yet? What about all the things that are outside your circle? It’s hard to imagine anyone really thinking that the most important thing is to simply defend the small amount they already know.

“You have heard it said….but I say to you,” is an invitation to step outside our circle, to open ourselves up to the possibility of learning more about who we are, who God is, and what our role is in the transformation of the world. Our responsibility, as those who lead others, is to lean in to what we are uncomfortable with, to feel the fear as we face the complexity of life and all its questions. Perhaps there aren’t dragons out there in those unknown places after all, just space to grow deeper and go further.


  • What are the disruptions I need to lean into so that I can grow in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus?
  • How can I make this a part of the way I help and lead others?
  • What are the things I need to let go of?


God, I’ve got to be honest and say that I don’t know what I think about some stuff and I am confused. But I think that is OK with you. It seems that what matters most is that we focus on loving you and loving others as we love ourselves. God, I commit myself to the sweat, joy, frustration, laughter and pain that is all part of learning to live your way. Give me the courage I need to think hard and bravely. Give me the persistence I need to go through the cold sweats. Help me play my part in helping us as Church be committed to being honest about life, death, sexuality, gender, doubt and faith - and everything else that makes up this one wild and precious life. Amen.