Last week’s lectionary Gospel ended with a few verses that, in context, are actually an introduction to this week’s reading.
In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus spoke about the law of Moses. He didn’t come to abolish it but rather came to fulfill it – presumably as part of his reconciling work, since we broken sinful people have such a poor track record fulfilling it ourselves.
To our consternation, he said our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and pharisees if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. And we know how seriously, how rigorously, those folks took the law. How is our righteousness supposed to exceed theirs?
Personally I think Jesus might have been thinking along with Paul here: the Law is valid and good, but obeying it is not what leads to righteousness. Rather we need to confess our sin and trust God’s promise of forgiveness. Then we’ll receive the gift of righteousness by grace through faith. And then we’ll be ready to start obeying the law out of gratitude.
So indeed, he said, the law continues to stand. Not a jot or a tittle will pass away from it. Jesus expressed the kind of whole-hearted affirmation of the Law one finds in the Old Testament. For one powerful instance, see Psalm 119, which for 176 verses sings the praises of the Law.
We Protestants tend to gloss over this in our selective reading of Paul on the topic. John Calvin knew better. He taught that the most important use of the Law is to guide the lives of those who, justified by grace, have come to love God and want to live lives that please him. How can you know God’s will? Start by taking a good hard look at the Law, since that was what God said life in the covenant would look like.
The key bit was at the end:
- Referring to “these commandments” he praises those who keep them and teach them, while criticizing anyone who breaks them or teaches others to break them.
- Which are “these commandments”? None were mentioned in the preceding passage. However, in what follows we find extensive discussion of several particular commands.
And that leads us to today’s text. (And if you are looking for my children’s sermon on this challenging text, it’s through this link.)
In this passage Jesus gives his insights into four of God’s laws: not to kill, not to commit adultery, the provision for divorce, and vows.
(He discussed two more in the rest of the chapter. That would have been the lectionary Gospel next week if Lent weren’t coming so early this year.)
Rather than taking any or all of Jesus’ reinterpretation of these commands in depth, let me make a few observations on what I find to be the most interesting features of his words.
The Inward Move
Back in the Beatitudes, Jesus said that the “pure in heart” were blessed. Here, in his discussion of the law, we find out what he really meant. The transformation Christ intends for us is to be inner as well as outer.
In his discussion of both murder and adultery this is the linchpin: mere outward obedience may be a good start, but it is not the full meaning of the command.
Of course we mustn’t actually kill anyone. But we must also know that the inward thoughts that blossom into obsessive feelings, and bear their horrible fruit in violent action are really the problem. He names a few: anger, insult, and name-calling. These are on the same plane as simple straightforward killing.
Holding on to these inward states or engaging in these common low-level actions is destructive to relationships and persons – and puts us willingly on a path that can lead to murder.
Likewise giving one’s thoughts to lust easily blossoms into a leering look, and that is too few steps away from making a pass at someone.
Historically, we in the west have been prone to naming and labeling particular things as sins. In this we inevitably look to the outward action.
In the East, it is worth noting, there is a great and influential example of sticking to Jesus’ emphasis on the inner issues: Evagrius of Pontus, the scholar among the Desert Fathers. He’s the one behind our tradition of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” but in fact he always focused on seven or eight “thoughts.” I really think he was on the money.
In Jesus’ discussion of anger-as-murder he takes a surprising turn. He says,
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,…” (Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV)
He’s talking about anger, but..
- He doesn’t say “If you are angry.”
- He says “If someone else is angry at you.”
I think it is lovely, and challenging, to take the command so seriously that we are to take action and seek reconciliation to stop someone else from committing inward murder.
Maybe that’s just what happens when we take breach of relationship as seriously as Jesus does.
There is also a subtle twist in his discussion of lust-as-adultery. He makes the very famous and deeply troubling leap:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…” (Matthew 5:29-30 NRSV)
That has led some seriously fragile and mentally ill people to take some seriously damaging actions over the years.
But the whole issue lies in the first word: “IF.”
Think about lust. Your eye doesn’t actually cause you to lust, or even to look. Nobody should be maiming their bodies to stop sin.
No: We should smile, and ask ourselves what in us really causes us to do these things?
What causes us to sin? It is our misshapen hearts and our mismanaged wills. And behind them you’ll find our misdirected minds.
Paul had a therapeutic suggestion for this:
whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 NRSV)
You can’t actually think about two things at once, so intentionally put your mind on the good, the true, and the beautiful. The right kinds of feelings and actions will follow.
(That’s the Bible’s very early version of Cognitive Therapy.)
Of course the dicey one in the list is divorce. It is hard because in our culture divorce has become so common, and in so many marriages it comes to seem so obviously necessary.
Unlike elsewhere in the Gospels, here Jesus brings the topic up. He says “It was also said,” and indeed the law has allowed divorce. He’s not directly quoting the OT here, but seems to have Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in mind.
That means, we assume, that God has given divorce the old okay. Didn’t Jesus say a few verses before that the Law is not to be abolished?
When Christians look at this passage we tend to treat Jesus as a lawgiver. That is, we tend to use this passage, where Jesus connects divorce with fostering adultery, and say “…and adultery is wrong, so Jesus is condemning divorce, and we should condemn it too.” We’ve made some mighty harsh rules about it over the centuries.
I suspect this is most likely a mistake.
When the law allows something because of our brokenness, that doesn’t mean the thing allowed is God’s ideal. The classic example is slavery. It is referenced, and even regulated, in both testaments — but that doesn’t mean it was ever God’s good plan. (Sadly, in the era of the Civil War, you’ll find preachers saying that this regulation really does reveal it as God’s plan. It is pretty awful stuff.)
But divorce? Even in the case law of Deuteronomy it seems clear that divorce is regulated but deeply regrettable. Divorce happens because something has (or so many things have) gone wrong in what was supposed to be a lasting relationship of loving partnership.
Jesus is pointing out that there are deeper issues at stake in this tragic thing that is allowed. Marriage, even when it needs to end, has created deep ties. There are the children, in many cases, but even if there are no kids, look at how many divorced people continue to live in ways that show they are bitterly entwined with the memory of their former spouses.
Getting divorced is easier than, shall we say, getting “unmarried.”
How about this as a way to imagine ourselves through this difficult passage:
Adultery is, in its elemental form, having a relationship with someone not your spouse which is only appropriate with your spouse.
The ties of marital commitment last beyond the existence of the marriage, and they are expressed in the brokenness that goes deep as the bone.
Jesus argues that both the ending of marriage and forging of a new marriage afterward bring a complex web of relations — the former spouse is still there somehow. And Jesus has the audacity to name these severed and overlapping relations as a form of adultery.
- Divorce is allowed in God’s law, and is necessary in human society.
- Also, divorce comes from brokenness and will lead to further brokenness.
And I wonder if he is also telling us that veering from God’s ideal is more about brokenness than it is about guilt.
Anyway, there is no way I can resolve it to the satisfaction of a culture where divorce is, as in biblical times, allowed and necessary, but probably much more common.
And last but not least, the prohibition of vows. Not by heaven, not by earth, not by Jerusalem, not by your head. No swearing of vows, said Jesus.
Not in a box, not with a fox; not in a house, not with a mouse.
Just live with simple integrity: When you say “yes,” then stick to it. When you say “no,” that’s enough.
Back in the 16th century, the Anabaptists thought we should take Jesus at his word on this and not take any vows. They wanted to live with simple integrity — to their own word and in obedience to the Word of God.
This got them into a world of trouble in an ostensibly Christian society that required vows of its citizens in various contexts. It made them outsiders, who either implicitly or explicitly were telling the larger culture it wasn’t really Christian, and they weren’t going to play along with its non-Christian ways.
They suffered for their desire to simply live as Jesus said to live — avoiding government service because it would require vows, and avoiding military service because it would require that plus, quite likely, killing.
The ostensibly Christian society cast them out, and sometimes killed them for this.
I’d say we could do with a lot more of this simple integrity today. I’m not saying non-Christians should have to live by Christian standards. But it would be great if Christians did.
I often fear these days that it is the very Christians who claim that this ought to be a Christian society who are not wanting to pay attention to these passages where Jesus says what should typify Christian living.
I would have us all take a good hard look at what Calvin said about the law. He had a rich and wise way of seeing both what was forbidden or required explicitly and what was forbidden or required implicitly. And in every command that seemed to forbid something, he showed that it also required something.
O Christian, hear your Lord in Matthew 5:21-37. He tells us the law still matters. We must start with righteousness by faith, and then take God’s instructions and their deepest intentions very, very seriously.