21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.
31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. 34 But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 35 You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. 36 And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one. (CEB)
You Have Heard It was Said
When I read this text, I can’t help but ask a question. How are Christians to understand and relate to the Jewish law? This is an ancient question that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Matthew 5:21-37 follows on the heels of Jesus stating that he didn’t come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). In this text, Jesus is an interpreter of the law. Rather than saying, I’m going to cast the law aside and give you a completely new law, Jesus is saying, Here is what the law says, and I’m going to get to the heart of that law to show how the children of the kingdom of heaven live out its deepest meaning.
The first thing Jesus tackles here is anger. The law condemns murder, but at the heart of this law is respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God. Jesus says, “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘you fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And when I read this I admit I immediately think of Master Yoda’s quote to Anakin Skywalker when Yoda sensed that he feared losing his mother. Anakin responds to Yoda by saying, “What’s that got to do with anything?” And Yoda replies, “Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
Jesus and Master Yoda are both right on here. While anger is a part of being human, it can consume the one who is angry and consume those toward whom that anger is directed. Similarly, if a person is angry and flings curses at a brother or sister they are saying, at least in that moment of fury, I wish you were dead.
Now, this language is tough, but does it mean that if I lose my temper at a church meeting and unload on some poor soul across the table that I’m going to burn in the everlasting fires of hell? No, I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. Jesus mentions that those who become angry will be liable to the judgment, the council, and the hell of fire. So, it might help if we understand what judgment is in the Biblical sense. We always hear about judgment in the negative but the Biblical reality of judgment is that it is a good thing: it is God’s exercise of good judgment, repairing the brokenness of creation.
Judgment is God’s scalpel carefully removing the malignant tissue that threatens life. Judgment is God’s burning away of all that is cruel and spiritually broken in order that we may breathe the air of compassion. Judgment is good news; it’s God setting things right. And when God sets things right there is no room for murder. In fact, there’s no room for murderous words or vicious deeds. Jesus goes on to say that if we come to worship (literally, offer your gift at the altar) and we remember that someone has something against us, it ought to be a matter of concern. And, we should do everything in our power to heal that breach in the relationship.
Then, Jesus talks about lust. If raw anger toward another moves toward saying, I wish you were dead, then lust toward another person’s spouse or someone who’s unmarried moves toward saying, I wish you were mine. Marriages in the Christian community should strive, through the faithfulness between husband and wife, to be expressions of the faithfulness that God demonstrates toward the world. Adultery, obviously, breaks the bond of faithfulness. Lustful desire contemplates—is thinking about—that kind of break and is therefore the first step in that direction.
The law forbids adultery because it invades and destroys the marriage covenant. Jesus goes to the heart of the law by his word against lust. In our erotically charged society, where even car and fast food commercials are filled with provocative innuendos, Jesus reminds us that such playfulness is not always harmless. Jesus speaks to our basic attitudes and choices about what we allow to take root in our imaginations: things that shape our thoughts, govern our actions, and mold our relationships. Lust is covetousness at the heart of a person. Lust considers breaking a marriage covenant with thoughts and imaginings that are just this side of action.
On the matter of divorce, the law specified a divorce procedure: if a man found something objectionable about his wife, he could write her a certificate of divorce and send her out of his house. This law assumes a male-dominated world where men are in charge and make the decisions about whether or not their wives are welcome in the home. The law, as it stands in Deuteronomy put one constraint on divorce. The requirement to write a certificate of divorce gave a small measure of protection to the woman because it certified that she had been divorced by her husband and allowed her to remarry without any suspicion of adultery. So, we have to look at this divorce law in its own social context, which is an ancient patriarchal culture in which a wife was seen as the legal property of the husband.
Jesus assumes that divorce is always initiated by men. His teaching on the matter says there is no divorce procedure a man can follow that will leave him with clean hands. To abandon his wife, with or without a certificate, is to treat her as worthless (which is the effect of the phrase, “causes her to commit adultery”). Jesus clearly speaks to forbid divorce, with the only exception being a Greek word, porneia, the meaning of which is not very clear. It could refer to almost any form of sexual deviation, but in this context it most likely means adultery. The main point is that Jesus allows no room for the practice of divorce in his own culture where divorce was an assault on the value of women, an abuse of power, and a trivializing of faithful commitments.
So how do we receive Jesus’ words today? Hardly any family is untouched by divorce. Is divorce outside the bounds of the Christian faith? Is remarriage forbidden by the Sermon on the Mount?
Even in our divorce saturated culture, in most instances, marriage is taken quite seriously. Divorce is a serious and sometimes tragic matter. Even though about half of all marriages end in divorce, not many of them end easily. Rather, they usually end with great cost, much pain, and deep wounds. Some people, to be sure, leave their marriages casually. But most of the divorced people I know have left their marriages behind because they had to. What do the words of Jesus mean for our divorced family and friends?
Now, before I go any further, there is something that we need to acknowledge. We need to understand that neither the law about divorce nor Jesus’ teaching on it can be imported into our modern culture and applied exactly as it was back then. It simply won’t work. There are too many differences in culture and values. Even the word divorce as used by the law and by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean the same thing that it means today.
In the ancient world, divorce would be similar to what we would call abandonment—where someone simply walked out or, as it would have been done back then, the man threw the woman out and locked the door. In modern nations where the Christian church has been a major factor, divorce laws have been changed to make abandonment illegal. In other words, most contemporary divorce laws have been affected, to some degree, by the Sermon on the Mount. The kind of divorce that Jesus is talking about is not same kind of divorce that happens today, though the result of both is a broken marital covenant. Abandonment is not legal in our country, but that’s exactly what divorce was back then.
One important thing we can do is to discern what lies at the heart of Jesus’ words, just as Jesus discerned what lay at the heart of the law. Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people whose mutual fidelity expresses the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honor for the two people in the marriage covenant and for their children. In Jesus’ day, the customs and practices of divorce were a direct assault on these values. Today, however, it is sometimes an ironic fact that a hopelessly broken marriage can be an assault upon those very values of communion, fidelity, safety, nurture, and honor. A marriage can become distorted. It can betray its intended purposes and become a place where people are in physical, emotional, or mental danger, where they are tragically dishonest and mutually destructive.
I think Jesus’ words on divorce were spoken to preserve the value of the people involved in marriages, especially the more vulnerable women. So, when a marriage becomes the very arena in which people are destroying each other or where one is suffering abuse from the other, it’s appropriate to ask how the safety, well-being, and honor of the marriage partners can best be preserved. This means we should exercise compassion toward people in these situations and not merely defend the institution of marriage as if it is more sacred than the people involved. Marriage was made for humanity, not humanity for marriage. The people in the marriage are what we should value most.
Finally, Jesus discusses oaths. People in the ancient world would invoke the name of God in order to make the vow or promise they were making more solemn. Remnants of this old practice remain today when witnesses in courts of law are pledged to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The Jewish law condemns false oaths, where a person would promise something in the name of God and not do it. Some have argued that what Jesus is against here is swear words. But, while Jesus might not have approved of uncouth language, common profanity is not the main subject here.
The real issue has to do with what it means to utter the name of God. In the ancient world, a person’s name was bound up with their identity, with their essence. To utter a person’s name was to, in some way, call up their identity. For instance, when Moses asked God what God’s name is, he wasn’t asking for information, he was asking for a more intimate relationship. And God responded with a name that is really impossible to capture in translation, something like, “I AM WHO I AM.” There is something about God’s name itself that slips from the grasp of human language. We can use God’s name to call upon God and find ourselves in God’s presence, but even when we name God we name a mystery; we name the One whom we do not and cannot fully know: I AM WHO I AM. God enters into relationship with us, but is always beyond our control.
So, what was happening in Jesus’ day that led Jesus to speak against all swearing of oaths? It’s possible that instead of calling upon God’s name in to experience God’s holy and mysterious presence, people were using the name of God in such a way that they arrogantly assumed that God could be controlled, domesticated, harnessed to pull whatever wagon they wanted to ride. People were invoking God’s name as a way of legitimizing their personal agendas.
I think Jesus is reminding us that we do not control God, so don’t swear at all. Instead, we should simply be a people of truth. When we say “yes” we should mean “yes”; when we say “no” we should mean “no.” “Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” I mean, if we have to swear an oath in order to make ourselves sound more authentic or believable, we’re probably not a very truthful and honest person to begin with.
How are Christians to relate to the law? The teaching of Jesus is not simplistic or easy but, as the Son of God, it is his interpretation of the law that we listen to. Jesus really does dig deep and examine the spirit of the matter. It makes us think. For some of these things there is no easy or cut-and-dry answer, it takes serious study and some real wrestling with the matters at hand. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to teach us about the law’s heart. His teaching shows us how to live and reveals what we should value: things like fidelity, truth and—probably most importantly—each other.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!