SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – TO FOLLOW MORE THAN TO LEAD Matthew 5:21-37
“(Ah little recks the laborer, / How near his work is holding him to God, / The loving Laborer through space and time.) / After all not to create only, or found only, / But to bring perhaps from afar what is already founded, / To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free, / To fill the gross the torpid bulk with vital religious fire, / Not to repel or destroy so much as accept,, fuse, rehabilitate, / To obey as well as command, to follow more than to lead, / These also are the lessons of our New World, / While how little New after all, how much the Old, Old World!” Walt Whitman: Song of the Exposition
Jesus said, “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 said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” (Exodus 20:13; Deut. 5:17;) 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.” This verse is unique to Matthew. Matthew gives an insight into his understanding of the law here. There are different levels of penalties to be paid for offenses against the law. And there are different agencies responsible for imposing penalties. For murder, there is judgment, apparently from the highest level. Anger also is penalized from the highest level. One kind of insult sends the offender to the the Sanhedrin; another kind of insult sends the offender to “the hell of fire.” Just as all the Beatitudes were gathered into the first one before being separated out one by one, so also here, all the antithetical ideas that follow are taken up into “You shall not murder.” One by one they will be separated out by Matthew, but their meanings will always be related to the commandment not to kill. When the divine is betrayed, something dies within the betrayer. But all of this needs further examination to uncover hidden meanings in the text. In the Gospel of Matthew, nothing is ever just what it seems.
To commit murder is to bring death upon someone and hence to deprive someone of life. The earth releases the voice of Abel’s blood to cry out and accuse his brother. Gen. 4:10. Murder is a counter-divine disruption within the human family. It fragments what the Lord has made whole. It denies existence to the other. It brings about an end to life that is not sanctioned by the divine. It consigns to the earth what the divine has raised from the earth. The murderer ultimately seizes or usurps divine power, for only the divine determines life and death. Job 1:21 states, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” To bring death upon someone is to remove someone from the presence of the divine, and in doing so to deprive the divine itself of its power to make alive. The murderer is justly deserving of the most serious punishment. The judgment mentioned here is divine judgment; the word also refers to the eschatological judgment that pertains to God alone.
With his “But I say to you” Jesus offers three antithetical views to this commandment. (vs.22) First, anyone who is angry with a brother or sister is also liable to divine judgment. There is no distinction here; the same word for judgment is used. Anger, divine wrath is rightly wielded exclusively by the divine. One who usurps this wrath deprives the divine of what rightly belongs to it and consequently this places one under divine judgment. The human aspect of anger must be allowed into the discussion. Anger is not an affect like all other affects; anger is a division of the human spirit, whereby it is no longer anchored; anger is a temporal seizure of the soul that deprives the human being of its inner harmony and tranquility without which it no longer knows itself. It abandons itself and displaces itself from its inner world, becoming essentially a homeless spirit. From this inner displacement, anger manifests in its outer world by desiring the destruction of the other. That is why anger is like unto murder. It seeks to deny the other its own existence. That is why it receives a harsh word from Jesus.
Jesus states a second antithetical idea, that insulting (raka) a brother or sister brings one before the Sanhedrin. The word “raka” is found only here in the New Testament. It must have been selected with purpose. The insult is derogatory; it means that someone is “empty-headed” in the sense of foolish and without understanding. The insult intends to exclude one from participation in the community. At the same time, it implies that the insulter is better, and more deserving. (Reminds me of the person who takes the highest seat!) The insult introduces into the community a comparison between members. Comparison by its very nature divides. This suggests that such a person is totally undeserving of the divine. The insult deprives one of the love of neighbor which is commanded in the law, and for this reason the one who utters this insult is brought before the Sanhedrin. It is not known what penalty or punishment is given.
Jesus issues a third antithetical idea, that one who says to another “you fool” is deserving of the fire of hell. The word for fool is “moros” and has many implications. Its casual meaning is foolish or stupid. However, in this context it is difficult to give an assessment of its inner meaning. The translation “you fool” originates in a Syrian context and is the accepted version. Its meaning is closely related to that of “raka.” The pronouncement is much more serious than a derogatory comment. It implies exclusion. It declares that someone does not belong among the wise and discerning. It heaps dishonor upon that person, and in doing so heaps dishonor upon the Christian community. Was the situation in Matthew’s community so dire that he had to borrow foreign words, “raka” and “moros” to speak to them? Whether these words were addressed to specific persons who knew their deeper meanings is not known. The word “fool” is used elsewhere, in a different sense, such as the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-14, and the parable of the two builders in 7:24-27. Both these parables refer to eschatological judgment. The person who calls another “you fool” and deserves the fire of hell is also related to eschatological judgment.
These are three serious pronouncements of Jesus. I assume that they have a particular context out of which they arose, and that context has to be the early Christian church. I have pointed out in other recent postings that there were many conflicts within the emerging church. Certainly, there were people who were extremely angry when their beliefs were not honored. I interpret the “brother or sister” of verse 22 as members of the Christian community. The disputes must have been very heated at times, and name-calling and condemnation became issues that had to be addressed. My view has been that the Sermon on the Mount is the proclamation of Jesus of the salvation that has arrived in his person, and it is from this perspective that I have interpreted it. When Jesus says, “But I say to you,” he is offering something new. He himself is the new commandment for the new aeon. He is the commandment of love, not of law. He is the commandment of grace, not of judgment. Yet here he warns of divine judgment that awaits those who bring it upon themselves. I take the word “say” to mean that the word of Jesus transcends the law and all that has gone before. There is no difference between who Jesus is and what Jesus says. There is no division in Jesus. The word of Jesus, the word which is Jesus himself, is now the word that determines the nature of the church. It is his word that forms the foundation to which the church is called and upon which the church always stands. Jesus in these verses is pronouncing judgment upon those who are causing division with the Christian community. To divide the body of Jesus is nothing short of murder and is deserving of the divine judgment that awaits those who do so at the end of the ages. To divide the divine is to bring about a rupture of the whole, to deprive it of its own existence, of its right to exist. It is to disrupt creation itself and initiate the apocalyptic woes that were predicted, up to and including the fire of hell. To divide the Christian community is nothing short of dividing the divine who is the content and foundation of its faith and existence.
Jesus counteracts this with his proclamation. His “but I say to you” is a call to unity; to see in Jesus himself the point of unity for the church. Jesus is calling people to faith in himself, to enter into relationship with him and in this way bring unity to the church. Outside of Jesus, the wrath of God prevails as divine judgment. “But I say to you” is another way of saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is an eschatological summons to a life of grace. Jesus is speaking of the arrival of the new aeon within himself. He, himself, is the new age, and his “but I say to you” is his call to the church to see in him the redemption that has arrived. “But I say to you” is another way of saying, “follow me.” It acknowledges that what is new has arrived and true discipleship, true faith in Jesus is the only true response. “But I say to you” is another way of saying “blessed are you,” for only Jesus can utter these words, and the only response is to claim the blessing. Who is the “I” who says, “but I say unto you?” This I is none other than the divine who uttered the Commandments of the law “to those of ancient times.” This I is the one who teaches with authority. This is Jesus himself.
“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.” These two verses are unique to Matthew in this form. (Mark 11:25 – “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your father in heaven may also forgive your trespass.”) The “brother or sister” who “has something against you” is not summoned to reconciliation. The aggrieved one is called on to forgive them. To offer a gift at the altar is an act of reconciliation with the divine. This offering is not accepted if it is not preceded reconciliation within the community of faith. The Lord’s Prayer attests to this. I believe that verses 23-24 describe a worship context. Members of the congregation are admonished to be reconciled one with another before offering gifts at the altar. Matthew is trying to overcome the conflicts and at the same time to bring about reconciliation in the congregation. Once again, the call for reconciliation does indicate that there were divisions among the members of the congregation. The following verse also indicates the same, but it takes the conflict to a different level, and outside the congregation, which is something that Matthew wanted to avoid.
“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.” This verse is an illustration of how the problems in verse 22 are dealt with legally. Matthew’s version is different from Q and Luke. (Luke 12:57-59 and Q – “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”) Matthew found this material in earlier sources and included it in the Sermon on the Mount, and in 18:23-35. He must have done this for a particular reason. I am suggesting that he found this material useful in addressing the internal problems of the congregation. He is doing his best to keep the problems of the church within the church, rather than turn to secular authorities for solutions. He advocates personal solutions, forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than legal solutions. The congregation as the called and gathered community of faith must demonstrate its fundamental unity in its actions.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (Exodus 20:14; Deut. 5:18) 28. Jesus offers another antithetical statement. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is unique to Matthew. The issue of divorce and adultery is also addressed in 19:1-9. Adultery was prevalent in the society within which the early church emerged. Those who became a part of the Christian community were expected to conform to a new and different way of relating to one another. Jesus holds the commandment not to commit adultery with utmost seriousness, as the discussion in 19:1-9 discloses. Adultery is not only a physical act. It is a betrayal that results in the innocent being spiritually and emotionally wounded. It undermines faith in the other; it dislodges trust from the foundation of marriage; it defiles the purity of love and turns joy into sadness; it robs the future of hope. It is an emotional reaching beyond oneself desiring another for one’s personal lust. In New Testament anthropology, “kardia,” heart, describes the whole person. Lust in the heart discloses adultery as tearing apart the whole person and by doing this, adultery essentially is also the rupture of the marriage union, the breaking apart of the whole. The adulterer defies the divine command which has as its ultimate purpose the unity of husband and wife as the foundation of family. Matthew has already made unity within the congregation a theme of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus sees marital fidelity as absolute, binding equally on husband and wife. Of interest here is that Jesus does not suggest a punishment as in the three antitheses discussed above. However, verses 29-30 point in the direction of serious consequences. The eye with which one looks upon a woman with lust is the eye that causes one to sin. 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.” Matthew’s version is shorter than Mark’s. (Mark 9:43-48 – “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; for it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”) Matthew is suggesting that the adulterer is deserving of the fire of hell. By applying this penalty from another context in the earliest Christian church, Matthew is showing just how seriously he treats adultery.
In the following verse, Matthew again takes up the discussion of divorce and adultery. 31. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” (Deut. 24:1-4). This is peculiar to Matthew. 32. Jesus offers this antithetical statement. “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.” (Luke 16:18 and Q – “And anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from a woman commits adultery.”) Matthew’s version is different from Q and Luke. Matthew adds, “except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” He admits that there is a legitimate ground for divorce. Apart from this, the woman is caused to commit adultery. He says nothing of the man who divorces her. It seems that the sin is that he causes her to commit adultery, but he, himself, has not sinned. On the other hand, a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery, but nothing is said of the woman in this marriage. Matthew found this verse in Q and develops it in light of his own understanding of the law.
“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.’(Lev.19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deut. 23:21). 34. Jesus offers this antithetical statement. “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.” Verses 33-37are peculiar to Matthew and have no parallel anywhere. Swearing an oath was a normal part of daily life in the time of Jesus. In these verses, Jesus makes it clear that he completely rejects all swearing. Swearing by anything is the same as swearing by the Lord, for everything belongs to the Lord. In his day, using the name of the Lord in an oath indicated that someone would keep the oath faithfully. Jesus says even that is no longer permitted. The kingdom of heaven has come near, therefore a different attitude must prevail. Life in the kingdom of heaven must be radically truthful. Consequently, there was no longer any need for oaths. One is to approach an agreement either to accept it, “yes,” or to reject it, “no.” There were no other alternatives.
The kingdom of heaven is a radical rejection of the past. Those who have accepted the call to discipleship in the Christian community believe that the hope they had carried in their hearts are now fulfilled. This is the faith that sustains Matthew’s community