Matthew 5:21-37 New Revised Standard Version (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.
This is our final week of examining the famous Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preached. And this week does not disappoint us. Jesus uses the phrase, “But I Say to you…” four times in this passage. This passage forces us to look at how we view one another in accordance with the law of God. It also reminds us how difficult following the law is. And it serves as a mirror in how we reflect God’s hope and promise in the way we treat each other. So, let’s just drive straight in to the water, shall we?
First, we need to recollect the people that are sitting on this hillside listening to Jesus. Sometimes our minds like to think of all the nice dressed people who go to church. You know, they are wearing their “Sunday Best!” ties and jackets for the men and dresses for the ladies. Maybe even some white gloves and stylish hats to complete the ensemble. But that is far from the group of people that followed Jesus. They were Middle Eastern men and women. They are refugees in their own home. They have maybe one or two sets of clothes and that is all. When they are bored and go to the food pantry there is not much there if anything. Bathing was a luxury and many would have had dirty hands and faces.
Speaking of faces the looks on their faces would have represented a tired people. Probably many blank stares with fear in their eyes. Several looking around and over their shoulders to see who was coming to move them along. They might have been on the wrong end of a sword or spear, maybe a whip had been used and there were scars. The children would be trying to find places to play but, the parents kept a close watch over them, lest they be plucked up or discarded.
It was a society in which power was sought after by being able to do for one another. It was a tit for tat world. If you can scratch my back, I will scratch yours. Favors were commodities that were traded in order to get ahead and to stay in good graces with the power structures. Evil was present and there were so many hierarchies that it was difficult to keep track of them all. Death and vengeance hung in the air like a foul smell. Yet, one man has called them, he has done miraculous things in their midst.
Jesus has healed people and driven out a demonic presence prior to this little speech on the hill. The people are intrigued and they want to see where this man is leading them. He has started off and promised them that their station in life by being poor, hungry, thirsty, was not going to keep them from God’s kingdom. He has told them that they needed to be more righteous than even the pharisees and now he is going to explain more about the Torah, or the Law.
Jesus reminds the congregation on that hillside that the Law is about relationships. He sets this section of the sermon up by saying that “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times…” Jesus is honoring the law of Moses. He is reminding the people that he is not going to change the law but that he is going to teach them about the fulfillment of the law, or all that the law encompasses. He starts with murder. Everyone knows that it is wrong to kill someone, and the people see it happening in the streets every day. It is survival of the fittest and the best fighters, or fleetest of foot, or the ones who can keep their heads down are the ones who make it. The enemy is the occupying forces, but Jesus reminds the congregation that even anger amongst themselves can divide them. When brother and sister are fighting among themselves that is not showing God’s love. That is no better than what they see in the streets.
The other interesting thing here is that he tells them when they are at the altar, making their offering to God that if someone has an issue with someone else it is better to leave it there and go to seek reconciliation before making that offering. It is what is in the people’s hearts that God wants to be right. It is again that mirror of looking at ourselves before we try to look good in front of others at the altar.
Adultery is next on the list. Jesus does something very interesting here, he puts the responsibility on the shoulders of men. In a society that has kept women down and treats them like property Jesus reminds the crowd that they are the ones who look with lust in their eyes. And it is not the woman’s place to have to cover up because the men can’t control their wandering eyes. Jesus is trying to elevate women and remind us that adultery is really about coveting and wanting what is not ours to begin with.
Divorce is also on the list. In those days when a man issued a divorce certificate to a woman it was seen as the honorable thing to do. Too many times in a society where more than one wife was accepted and harems were common among the elite monogamy was seen as virtuous. When things didn’t work out or the male got tired of the arrangement’s women were treated poorly and cast out into the world with no hope of making ends meet. A divorce certificate took that away and gave them standing again in the community.
Jesus again turns the world upside down and says that it is the man who takes in this divorce woman is committing adultery not the other way around. Another look in the mirror, what are the men doing to examine their relationships and stop laying the burden at the women’s feet. And then Jesus talks about oath making or swearing as it was called then. Not using other people or deities to make something more than it is. Again, it is what is true and pure in the heart that is essential.
Jesus continues to remind the people that if we try to follow the law, then we will fail. We are dead in our trespasses. The law is nothing but harsh, cold and cruel. There is something that is better and it is the radical love of God. The law is so harsh and we can make more and more laws, but it does nothing for bringing the kingdom nearer. Behavior is not what is important, it is the relationships that are. It is the way we seek to honor one another as human beings, the creation of God.
The faith that we have grows when we stop pointing at others and seeing enemies. When we look at people and judge them based on behaviors we don’t like, we are forcing them to follow the law and still seeking mercy for ourselves. When we see the person with dirty clothes what do we think? The parent who can’t control the child in public? The person begging on the corner? The people on the news from war torn countries? People at our borders? Women wearing hijabs or burkas? People you hear speaking a different language?
We are great at judging one another, but we fall short in the relational part of working with others. We build walls not just at the border but around our hearts. The sermon on the mount was not preached to make us feel guilty and to give us more reasons to throw up our hands and say can’t do it. It was a gift to remind us that we are all vulnerable. That we all fall short of the law, but God’s grace is more than sufficient to take away our shortcomings. If God can do that for us, can we do the same for each other? It’s a work in progress. May we keep looking at the mirror and seeing that what God creates is very, very good. Amen.