Matthew 5:21-37 New International Version (NIV)
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not 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 tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
I thought it would be fun today to start with a reading from Matthew 23, verses 3b-4: “But do not do what [the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law] do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Jesus was awfully critical of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law for adding to the Scriptures. Indeed, this was something that was commanded against in Deuteronomy 4:2, where God says, “Do not add to what I command you.” It can’t get much clearer than that, now can it? But yet these leaders often seem to be taking a good law, or a good commandment and saying, “If it is good to do this or not do that, let’s go one more step just to be safe.”
I think that is a practice we can all choose for ourselves, but should never force others to adhere to. For instance, when I am driving at night, I sometimes choose to drive slightly below the speed limit. If the limit is 65, I may choose to go 60. It is dark and I’m a little sleepy, so my reaction time may not be as quick as it could be during the daylight hours. I can suggest that others slow down after dusk, but can I make someone else drive slower than what the law requires? No, of course not. They might not have the same problems that I do and may even drive better when the sun goes down. Perhaps they are a night person with a sensitivity to bright sunlight and can therefore drive better at night.
I actually respect the Pharisees for putting forth a good effort to live as best as they can, but what Jesus is critiquing here is that they are adding to the Law and making it unbearable for others. For instance, the Law teaches that a person is to rest on the Sabbath, and along comes someone that places a limit on things like how far a person can travel on the Sabbath, a Sabbath Day’s Journey, it is called in Acts 1:12. This was about ½ mile. If you were to walk more than ½ mile, you were breaking the Sabbath. But then someone else came along and made the decision that if food was left at about the ½ mile mark that a person traveling on the Sabbath could walk the Sabbath Day’s Journey, stop for a meal, and then travel another ½ mile and it was actually two different trips and therefore okay.
Again, I don’t find fault in the Pharisees deciding for themselves how far is appropriate to walk on a Sabbath, and I doubt Jesus would have taken issue with this, either. The issue is that they were in positions of power and were dictating that others must also adhere to this ramped-up version of the Law. They were adding to what God had commanded, and that’s a no-no.
So…why does Jesus do it?
It seems like our scripture for today, the first four of the six antitheses, is Jesus adding to the Law. It sounds like Jesus is doing the very thing that he critiqued the Pharisees for doing a few chapters later in the book of Matthew.
The easy answer is to simply say, “Well, Jesus is God, so Jesus is allowed to add to the Law.” That answer is probably sufficient for many of us. But I think that if we just accept Jesus adding to the Law and reject the Pharisees adding to the Law based on Jesus’ divinity, we will miss the point of today’s passage.
You see, the difference between what Jesus did and what the Pharisees were doing comes down to intention. The Pharisees were attempting to enforce their particular interpretation of the Law. Jesus was getting to the root, the intention of the Law. The Pharisees were saying, “Just make sure that it doesn’t go any further than this.” Jesus was saying, “Let’s just snuff it out before it has a chance to become a problem.”
Imagine a weed in your flower bed. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were saying that the weed is a problem. But the Pharisees simply want to trim the branches of the weeds so it doesn’t get out of control. Jesus wants to pull the weed up from the roots.
Jesus is critiquing the ways that Scripture has been used and abused while getting to the root, the purpose, the intention of the Law.
There are a few things that I think are important when reading these statements from Jesus. And they really don’t have to do with the actual teachings of Jesus themselves, because this is about as straight-forward as you are going to find Jesus anywhere in the New Testament. He isn’t beating around the bush here, answering with stories and examples. He lays it out there. I want us to remember two questions as we look at these teachings from Jesus: 1. Why are ethics important, and 2. What is God’s goal.
Ethics is a system of moral principles. It is how a people group believes they “should” or “ought” to live. Every people group has a system of ethics and not all groups agree with what is and what is not ethical. Here in the church we are particularly interested in Christian ethics, that is, how we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, over the last century or so many Christians have rejected what we are calling Christian ethics, some for good reasons, others because of bad theology. When I say “bad theology,” I mean that at some point over the years someone decided that they were going to introduce a false dichotomy in Christianity and they split grace and ethics into two different categories. Jesus became all about grace and therefore how we lived did not matter. And if anyone suggested otherwise they would be accused of “works righteousness.”
Others went to opposite end of the spectrum and decided that Christianity is all about ethics and that if someone went to a movie or smoked a cigarette that they would spend eternity in hell.
As you may have guessed, I reject this dichotomy and find myself somewhere in the middle. I am a strong believer that God’s forgiveness is not contingent upon what we do but it is a gift that we call grace. But yet I believe we are called to live a particular way as disciples of Christ. So when Jesus gives these difficult teachings, we are not to hear him saying that if we don’t do things in a particular way that this gift of grace will be taken back. Especially when we look at the first antithesis! If eternal conscious punishment is the result of anger, then I’m in trouble! And I’ll explain verse 22 here in just a few minutes. But first, I want to address why we study ethics and seek to follow Jesus’ teachings if our eternal security isn’t at stake.
We are ethical because it brings God glory when his followers live a certain way. But it is even bigger than that. We are also practice Christian ethics because it is the best for others and ourselves. When Jesus was asked what the most important Law was, he boiled the Torah down to two teachings: love God and love others as you love yourself. Christian ethics teach us how to love God, how to love others, and how to love ourselves. And this self-love is not narcissism or self-centeredness. It is about taking care of yourself and honoring the gift of life that God has given to you.
So if we were to look at these teachings of Jesus, it is clear to see that Jesus is trying to make sure we care for ourselves and others. Don’t hurt others, fix relationships, honor your commitments. As Christians we do not want to believe that forgiveness from God depends on our following every jot and tittle of these challenging teachings. That’s salvation by works. But if you want to be a part of the kingdom of God that is present here and now and will extend into eternity, then following Jesus’ teachings on how to love God, others, and self are the key to living the abundant life.
So what do we do with verse 22b, “And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell,” and verse 30, “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
This is where things get a little tricky. When Jesus says “hell” here, I do not think that he is talking about post-mortem punishment, like we will go to hell for all of eternity if we call someone fool or choose not to cut off a limb or an eye if they cause us to stumble.
There are two words in the New Testament that are translated as “hell.” One is Hades, which the word that Jesus uses in Luke 16 in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Jesus tells us that the Rich Man dies and goes to hell, Hades. When Jesus talks about post-mortem punishment, he (often?) uses the word Hades. But in today’s text, he uses the word Gehenna. Gehenna was the name of a valley just south of Jerusalem and it is referenced in the Old Testament as the Valley of Hinnom. Gehenna had the privilege of being the official garbage dump of the Israelites. Trash, rotting food scraps, even dead animals were taken and dropped off in the Gehenna valley. It would likely have been infested like any other garbage dump with rats and other undesirable animals. And it is said that this garbage dump was perpetually on fire. It was a kind of incinerator.
Who among us would want to spend time at the garbage dump with the rats, the parasites, the burning? I wouldn’t. In fact, this would probably be the last place on earth that I would want to spend any amount of time. And that seems to be the point. Gehenna was a hell on earth. The New Testament teaches that there is a hell (Hades) after death, but the New Testament also teaches that there is a hell (Gehenna) before death.
If you and a brother or sister in Christ are fighting and you are calling one another names, spreading rumors, lies, and deceit, you are in danger of Gehenna. If you commit adultery, if you do something to defile your marriage, even if it is something as “innocent” as lusting, you may experience the fires of Gehenna, a literal hell on earth.
I’ve worked in mediation between two people who cannot stand one another and don’t even want to be in the same room together. I’ve worked with couples dealing with lust, not even all-out adultery, and a break in trust. I don’t think that the metaphor of a rat-infested, perpetually burning garbage dump is too far off. Christian ethics teach us how to love God, to love others, and to love ourselves. We do these things not so God will love us or forgive us. We do these things because we know that this is how God intended life to be.
Our second question for consideration is, “What is God’s goal?” The first seven chapters or so of Genesis deal with creation and then the fall of humanity. God made a good world, put good people in the world, and yet the good people chose to do wrong and God’s world then became a little less good. But as we come to the end of chapter 8 we find a change. Chapter 9 begins with a promise and a sign: a rainbow. And it may seem like a bit of an overstatement, and perhaps it is, but I would say that the rest of the Bible, from Genesis chapter 9 to Revelation chapter 22 we find God working to be reconciled to humanity.
I don’t like easy, simple answers, but when someone asks me, “What is the Gospel?” I have a pretty short, concise statement that I feel pretty well captures the Good News. We can be reconciled to God and humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When we read these antitheses through the lens of reconciliation, we can see how Jesus brings reconciliation not only between us and God, but also with other humans. We all know murder is wrong, but anger is an issue as well because it is the opposite of reconciliation. Jesus goes on to specify that being reconciled with a brother or sister, another follower of Jesus, is more important than offering a gift on the altar to God. (Note, this would not have been an offering for forgiveness as only the High Priest could offer this, so Jesus is not saying that reconciliation with others is more important than reconciliation with God. But it may be more important than some other acts of worship.)
Jesus also places a high value on reconciliation outside the church. Verse 25 says: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.” Two Jewish men would not go to a secular court in the Roman Empire to have a dispute settled. The “adversary” here is an outsider, and Jesus wants reconciliation.
Murder, adultery, divorce, and even swearing oaths are not acts of reconciliation. Since God desires reconciliation, these things are outside of God’s will. And we have a name for anything that is outside God’s will. We call it sin.
My friends, ethics matter because Jesus is trying to teach us and show us how to love God, others, and ourselves. Jesus is trying to teach and show us how to live as a part of his kingdom. As we read and study these teaching, let us remember to read them looking for what God is for, not just what God is against. And God is for reconciliation.