Matthew 5:21-37 (NRSV)
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Jesus, speaking as the new Moses, told his congregation gathered on the mountaintop: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew5:20). Although we tend to have a negative attitude toward these two groups of religious leaders, they were considered to be models of righteousness. But Jesus pushes the envelope beyond the letter to the underlying motivations. He speaks of the heart and not just the action. As you listen to Jesus offer these statements, you might begin to wonder – who then is without sin? Maybe we should just stop at external actions and forgo trying to reach the heights that Jesus lays out. In these statements, Jesus doesn’t discard the Torah, he simply intensifies it. He has a reason -- he speaks to those he is calling to be salt and light (Matthew5:13-16). To be salt and light, Jesus’ followers must understand that their relationship with God is predicated on their relationship with their neighbors.
So, as the new Moses, Jesus offers his inspired interpretation of the Torah. There are six antitheses in all, four of which appear in this lectionary reading: Anger, adultery, divorce, and taking of oaths. Each antithesis is introduced with something like: “You have heard that it was said .....” Followed by “But I say ....” In each case he moves from the external to the internal motivation.
The statements begin with the prohibition of murder. Few of us would disagree that murder is wrong. Where we disagree perhaps has to do with the motivation of a killing. In his expansion, Jesus gets to the heart of things. Yes, murder is wrong, but so is being filled with anger at one’s brothers and sisters. To call one a fool – to insult another – also deserves the same judgment as one who commits murder. We who haven’t taken a life, now find the finger of judgment pressing closer to home. Anger is a primal emotion. We all experience it, but what do we do with this emotion? Where does it lead? Does it destroy, even if not taking an actual life? While insulting a person or calling them names might not seem as violent as actual murder, it can destroy a person. Jesus understands that murder is simply the final expression of something horrific churning deep within one’s heart. Consider recent stories of people killing a person texting in a theater or turning up the music too loud at a gas station. Surely something is wrong in the heart.
As he presses his case, Jesus tells the congregation: before you come to the altar with your offering, take care of your relationship with your neighbor. As Lisa Davison puts it:
Jesus in line with many of Israel’s prophets (Amos, Micah, etc.) is acknowledging that it is impossible to worship God with integrity if we are not in right relationship with our neighbors. (Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary
This might not be an easy task. There are probably people with whom we are at odds, and it will be difficult if not impossible to be reconciled to them before we come to the Table. This is a difficult word – especially for those of us tasked with leading worship.
We move from murder to adultery. Jesus again takes us beyond the surface. It’s not enough to refrain from extra-marital affairs. If you have looked at a woman (could this not apply in the reverse as well?) with lust, with a desire to possess and be with that person, then you have committed adultery. It is helpful to remember that in context, women were considered property of their husbands, and thus lust is equivalent to coveting. The penalty for such an act seems barbaric – if your eye offends, then cut it out. If you can’t see, you can’t covet, and therefore will not be liable for judgment. As for the right hand – I’m going to leave that to the imagination, but Jesus says if it offends, then cut it off.
From adultery and lust we move on to divorce. Adultery and lust are related here. Jesus goes beyond Moses. The Law provides an out clause, which enabled a man to leave his wife if he found something “objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Lust will do that. The grass is always greener, right? Jesus, on the other hand, tightens things up. Although Matthew does provide an out clause, it’s much narrower in focus. The wife must be unfaithful. Otherwise one is liable for judgment, especially if one remarries. In many ways this is a call for justice. If a woman was discarded by her husband she was cast adrift. Jesus, on the other hand focuses on making relationships whole. In an age when divorce is increasingly commonplace in Christian circles, we need to ask what this means for our day. Barbara Blaisdell writes helpfully:
Many good people who join God in hating divorce find themselves nevertheless deciding to divorce – not as a good thing, but perhaps as the least bad of the alternatives available. Given this honesty, we would do well to remember that we have been saved by grace, because none of us has managed to live up to the unconditional love of God and neighbor. [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, 1:100]
We stand, thankfully, in grace, and yet Jesus’ word here is important. Too often divorce becomes an easy out. Indeed, it is often part of the planning for marriage. We’ll stay together as long as it’s fun or easy, and when things begin to drag we’ll make a nice exit. Of course, it’s never that easy. Often there is collateral damage left in the wake of a divorce. Jesus calls on us to not take a cavalier attitude to this sacred relationship, but at the same time we must allow grace to heal the wounds that can emerge, for none of us is without sin.
The fourth of six antitheses concerns oaths. Jesus notes the Law stipulating that one should not bear false witness. Don’t lie, don’t spread rumors. If politicians and political groups were to follow this prohibition the airwaves would be rather silent near election time. In our age of instant messaging, just following the letter might be enough. But, Jesus isn’t ready to settle for the surface. He pushes deeper. He bans the swearing of oaths in general. Let your word be sufficient. Don’t call on the Temple or heaven or your own head as a promissory note for your truthfulness. A yes means yes and a no means no. As I ponder this word from Jesus, I’m mindful that our own nation uses the Bible as a talisman to guarantee that one will tell the truth or honorably carry out an office. Somehow we expect that putting a hand on a Bible will keep one from corruption, but by now that illusion should have been shattered. Swearing on the Bible or your mother’s grave will guarantee that you will be true to your word. So, avoid the oaths and let the truth stand on its own.
What then does it mean to let one’s righteousness surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees? How can we be salt and light? In an age when in the eyes of the public clergy are no longer admired for their integrity and churches are disparaged for their hypocrisy, what word do we hear in this passage? Do we ignore these words as being unrealistic? Do we shrug our shoulders and make excuses? Or do we receive God’s grace and pursue the righteousness of God, empowered by the Spirit who indwells us? I don’t think Jesus would have us give up and make excuses. I believe he would have us grow in grace so that we can be salt and light in this word that God loves.