Matthew 5:21-37 CEB
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. 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. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 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. 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. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 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. 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.
“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ 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.
“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. But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 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. And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.
How do you stop someone from breaking the law? Now, there’s a question! Take the first law Jesus references in our next bit from the Sermon on the Mount this morning: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13 NRSV). We all agree that murder is bad, so how do you stop people from murdering others? Usually, the first thing we seem to try is to make the punishment terrible enough to deter people from committing the crime. Like Hammurabi’s Code, you lose an eye, take one in return. Jesus seems to do something similar this morning, saying that even being angry with your fellow human being is enough to be equivalent to murder. How about trying to enforce a rule like that? You have been found guilty of anger in the first degree, twenty to life for you! At first, it seems as though Jesus is making the rules harsher, but what if, in fact, Jesus was not making them harder but trying to get us to think deeper about not just the Ten Commandments but the whole of the Torah? After all, why is murder abhorrent to God? What does that tell us about what really matters to God? Jesus wants those of us in the kin-dom of God to understand more than the letter of the law, but rather what lies behind the law and extend that to everything we say and do as kin-dom people.
Jesus delivers what has sometimes been called the Great Antitheses in these passages from Matthew 5, in other words, his take on each of these well-known commandments from the Torah. They have been called the antitheses because it has long been assumed that Jesus was putting his teaching of grace in opposition to the law of the Old Testament. In fact, going as far back as Martin Luther in the 16th century, we as Christians have in turn drawn this “great gulf between law and gospel” seeing a division “between salvation by works and salvation by faith alone.” That is how we see the Old Testament, the former Testamentum or covenant, as something based on law and rules, now replaced with the new covenant based on grace. Thus, the Hebrew and Jewish people are guilty of legalism compared to the higher righteousness of Christ. However, Jesus is not in opposition to Torah in these passages, in fact, he instead responds in a very rabbinical way, by extending Torah.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., we see Jewish Rabbis compiling Mishnah, a work of interpretation and commentary of scripture, and this included a work known as Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of our Fathers,” in which they describe the important practice of extending Torah. The Avot opens with:
“‘Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly. They said three things: Be prudent in judgment. Raise up many disciples. Make a fence for the Torah.’”
It’s that last line, “‘Make a fence for the Torah,’” that relates to what Jesus is doing today, and it all comes from one line from Deuteronomy, a book of the Torah. In Deuteronomy 22:8 it reads, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have bloodguilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it” (NRSV). In other words, if you build a house and there is a roof on that house that people can get to and walk around on, you had better build a fence around its edge. If someone falls off and dies, you will be guilty of murder. For the rabbis, they saw that God cared so much about human life that you could not neglect things that could even accidentally result in someone’s death, for you would be held guilty of murder. To these early rabbis, it was clear, you built a fence around Torah “by creating circumstances that make violation even more difficult.” Jesus does the same in his extension of the Torah in our reading from Matthew.
Look at what he does when he discusses murder. You can see that he goes further beyond anger being equal to murder in verse 22, saying that if you call someone else an idiot, you are “in danger of being condemned,” and if you say someone is a fool, you are “in danger of fiery hell.” If there is a disagreement between you and any person, you should resolve it before you even come into God’s house to worship. Jesus goes so far as to say that anger without cause, insults, and disagreements can make you guilty of the same judgment as murder. At first, it seems like Jesus is making harsher rules, but think about it. How many murders happen because of unaddressed hatred? How many deaths could be avoided if people forgave each other before even one more Sunday rolled away?
Let me put it another way. Have you ever had to child-proof a house? Tell me, did that involve sitting down with a small child, like my two-year-old daughter, and reasonably listing out the dangers of drinking the cleaners under the sink, the negative outcomes of sticking things in outlets, or the sadness you would feel if they broke your favorite piece of pottery? If this small human being who cannot even really speak does violate one of those rules, do you keep making the punishment harsher until they stop? No? What do you do then? For instance, in our house, if you don’t want something broken, you move it out of reach. You lock the cabinets and cover the outlets. As parents and caregivers, we understand that the best way to prevent harm is to prevent a situation from forming where harm could ever even take place. We build fences around vulnerable things so that they cannot come to harm.
Imagine if we did the same for our neighbors in the kin-dom. How would that change things? Torah, behind all its commandments, tells us that human beings are precious to God, but how often do we remember that in our words and actions? It’s common sense that our behavior, our choices, and our attitudes impact the wider community around us, but how often do we act like this is true? Our relationships with other people are precious, other human beings are invaluable. They are no less than another child of God. Let that sink in again today. Every person across the face of this globe is a child of God, made in the image of God. Hurting someone bearing this image is like hurting the one whose image we bear, it is like hurting God. To avoid that, we need what Torah teaches and what Christ extends: living with each other and with our God well.
Turning back to Christ’s words today, you have heard it said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but Jesus says words hurt and maim and kill. Do not speak them casually. In this world, even small words like “fat” and “ugly” were said enough times to make even a ten-year-old girl hang herself. Labels like “abomination” or “God hates you” can be put thick enough on some people that others forget how precious they are, instead choosing to find them and kill them in places like a club in Orlando and another in Colorado Springs. Jesus says that we should do everything to prevent any loss of life from ever even coming close to happening, not by making punishments worse because there is nothing that can equal the loss of a child of God, but rather we should do all in our power as people to prevent the things that cause murder from happening.
Can you imagine what would happen if we lived every moment of our lives considering the impact of what we say and do? If we truly cherished life as much as our God does? Can you imagine if we considered harming someone else as the fence line we should never cross? Instead, we mock people, calling them overly sensitive, snowflakes, and too politically correct. We call others Nazis and mock people for being hicks or hillbillies. Tell me, have we stopped and thought about how that might make the other feel? Is there pain in our neighbor’s heart from our actions and our words? How do we tolerate that pain’s existence as a kin-dom people, as Christians, and as fellow children of God? Christ invites us to be something different, to be a people who know and have God’s heart. To see the love and care there reflected in the ways we love and care for each other in this community of the kin-dom. Am
Pastor Paul Grossman