Matthew 5: 21-32 Law and Relationships in the Kingdom

James Tissot, Sermon on the Beatitudes (1886-96)

Matthew 5: 21-32

Parallel Mark 9: 43-48; 10: 11-12; Luke 12: 57-59; 16:18

Highlighted words will have comment on translation below

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.

This is the first half on six examples that Jesus provides his new followers of how to interpret scripture, live according to a law that has been fulfilled and points to the type of community the kingdom of heaven embodies. Often these are heard as moralistic, as Jesus intensifying the commandment to the point where no mere mortal could keep it and as an unattainable goal that we are expected to reach to appease God. I do believe there is much to be gained in wrestling honestly with these words and trying to discern how they may indeed be a gift to the community of disciples and how they may point to a life that is worth striving for. These commandments and their interpretation are a gift that point to a type of society embodied in the kingdom of heaven. As mentioned before, I do believe that Jesus is operating out of a hermeneutic of mercy and I do believe that, especially as these words go against the ways often practiced in society and church, that they do point towards a type of community that would be visible in the midst of the world around them because of their actions toward others in the community, those outside the community and even those who would label the members of this community as enemies. It is a community in which anger is overcome, lust does not dominate our relations with one another, language is simple and truthful, retaliation is renounced and even enemies are met with love rather than hatred. (Hays, 1996, p. 321)

Jesus takes up the mantle of Moses both from his position on the mountain and the articulation of the commandments, but he also boldly goes beyond the commandments of Moses by following each commandment with, “But I say to you.” The first command that receives interpretation is the commandment related to murder or killing (Exodus 20: 13, Deuteronomy 5:17) and the additional line about whoever murders shall be liable to judgment probably refers to the expansion on the commandment on murder in Exodus 21: 12-27 and in Exodus and Deuteronomy the commands related to murder are to create a society where my neighbor’s life is more important than any grievance I may have with my neighbor. I don’t think any rational person wants a society where the killing of one’s neighbor is permitted but Jesus points towards a society where not only my neighbor’s life but my neighbor’s reputation and my relationship with my neighbor are to be protected. I was brought up with the proverb that, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,’ and those who have been in any community I’ve served have heard my reshaping of this proverb to, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will send me to therapy.’ Words can indeed wound and can not only damage my neighbor’s standing in the community but also my neighbor’s relationship to me. Matthew wants us to understand the importance of reconciliation in the community and he will also have us hear Jesus teaching on this in Matthew 18.

I have struggled with several of the passages in the Sermon on the Mount because I heard them as articulating a type of moralistic perfection which I have never been able to practice. While I can agree with Proverbs that, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” (Proverbs 14: 29) I’ve come to accept that anger is a necessary and sometimes helpful emotion when it helps us realize when something is unjust or when it helps to signal something that is unhealthy for us. Hearing this interpretation of the commandment through the lens of moralistic perfection my practice was to suppress anger but that is also an extremely unhealthy practice which has consequences for relationships and for physical health. It is possible that Jesus is articulating a commandment which forbids some of our most basic and primal emotions, many have interpreted Jesus this way, but I do think the direction of this command is towards the life of the community.

If I allow myself to remain in a place of anger towards my brother or sister without working toward reconciliation, then I do place myself in a position of being liable to judgment. If my words spoken in anger or judgment towards my neighbor cause loss of status in the society or create emotional wounds that they have to bear I am responsible for attempting to reconcile their position in the society and to attempt to heal the wounds I have caused. With the prophets and the psalms, we hear in Jesus that our life in the world is our preparation to be in place to offer sacrifice. As is Psalm 24,

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24: 3-4)

For Jesus reconciliation with my neighbor whom I have offended or wounded is more important than any act of sacrifice or worship. Relationships are at the center of this kingdom of heaven which has come near in Jesus. This way of life also extends beyond the boundaries of the community toward those who do not practice it. Those who would bring me to court over my actions are practicing the litigious practices of the world in which the disciples will find themselves in, but the disciples are instructed to work towards reconciliation even with those who view litigation as the default method of handling differences.

The commandment on adultery is also expanded in a similar manner to now include looking at a woman with lust in one’s eyes. It is possible that Jesus is declaring that men are not to desire women sexually and there are those who interpreted this commandment in terms of an interim ethic of physical and spiritual celibacy but again this would articulate a type of moralistic perfection that I have never been able to practice. I do believe that we were created for connection and that our sexuality is a part of the gift that God has granted us and yet it is a gift that has an impact on the way we interact in community. Sexuality is a highly charged topic of discussion both within religious communities and throughout society and for many what happens in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom but as uncomfortable as these discussions may be they are necessary to our life of faith.

As a starting point for this discussion of Jesus’ interpretation of the commandment on adultery let’s begin with the dehumanizing experience of sexual harassment. As I mentioned above in the discussion on the commandment to murder, one doesn’t need to physically wound someone to either emotionally wound a person or damage their place within the community. Women (and men although less frequently) may be viewed as sexual objects rather than people worthy of respect and dignity. In the kingdom of heaven men and women are viewed instead as people set apart as treasured possessions, a nation of priests and chosen people. The relationships between women and men are to be different than those embodied in the community around them where women, in particular, may be not be valued as full citizens of the kingdom.

The Sermon on the Mount is about creating a community that embodies the kingdom of heaven, and relationships within that community are essential. Sexuality is a powerful part of the relationship we share with others in the community. While the commandment on adultery is primarily viewed in the Hebrew Scriptures as protecting the male in the relationship, polygamy was practiced and if a woman was not married or promised then there were provisions to bring her into the relationship with the person who had intimate relations with her (desired or undesired, see for example Deuteronomy 22: 15-30) but now the command places the responsibility upon the male not to objectify the woman as an object of desire.

We live in a world where women do have rights and protections that did not exist in the time of Jesus, however wrestling with how we as a community embody this commandment are as important today as they have been at any point in our history. The ‘me too’ movement and the exposure of a number of prominent men (and a few women) who have used their power and authority to sexually harass, abuse and assault employees, co-workers and relations should be a clarion call for we as a community of Christ to talk about what healthy sexuality looks like. In addition, we live in a time where sexuality has become highly commercialized and readily available. One of the risks to relationships in our digital age is the easy availability of sexually explicit imagery on the internet. If men and women are being conditioned to look at other bodies as sexual objects rather than a gift for relationship then we have moved far away from the vision of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. There are powerful forces behind the way sexuality is used and misused in our society. As Stephanie Coontz could state prior to the internet:

 “the consumerist values that had already made sex a marketable commodity” were increasingly applied to female and gay sexuality as well as to traditional gender roles and marriage, for purposes dictated by the multi-billion-dollar sex industry, not for the aims of personal liberation or social transformation. (Coontz, 1992, p. 265)

The kingdom of heaven is about communal liberation and social transformation and it is not for commercial gain. It is about relational reconciliation rather than sexuality exploitation. It is about a community that embodies a different way of modeling the relationships between men and women. Yet, I think it is important to remember that this is about something different than moralistic perfection, in our individualistic world we many ask, “What should I do?” but the kingdom of heaven is about a community where we can ask, “What should we do?” What kind of community could we imagine where we can talk to young men and women, and adults as well, about how we relate to one another sexually while valuing one another’s place within the community. Perhaps the easier road is the one of celibacy which Jesus discusses in Matthew 19: 10-12 but not everyone, myself included, could accept this teaching.

Matthew places between the commandment on adultery and the discussion on divorce the harsh words about removing eyes or hands to demonstrate the serious nature of relationships in the kingdom of heaven. On one hand it is important to state that this is probably not intended to be taken literally in an individualistic manner, but as a community it is important to live in a way that embodies the kingdom of heaven and there may be times where a member of the community is cut off or cast out (see Matthew 18, although the hope is also for reconciliation with the community). This is also the first time in the gospel of Matthew we encounter the concept of Gehenna, translated hell. For most Christians the term hell carries a lot of baggage and there has been a long tradition of imagining hell as a place of torture. Most of the Hebrew Scriptures do not have an equivalent concept of Gehenna or hell, Sheol is a place of the dead but not a place of condemnation. Jesus, especially in Matthew and the synoptic tradition, does include punishment for those who choose the path of the wicked. The gospels use the term Gehenna a term that originates with the valley of Hinnom, which was considered a cursed place and a place where trash from Jerusalem was burned but it also is used as the opposite of the kingdom of heaven. Choose the kingdom of heaven or choose Gehenna, it is a choice between wisdom and foolishness. I think it is difficult to argue that Jesus does not have some conception of a judgment that goes beyond this life that parallels the resurrection that also transcends this life. Yet, this choice, like the choice between wisdom and foolishness, is so that people may choose the way of this visible community that is embodying the way of life articulated in the sermon.

Finally comes the first discussion of divorce in Matthew, also addressed in Matthew 19: 3-12, which indicates this may have been an issue that Matthew’s community needed to hear addressed multiple times. Before I begin this discussion, we all are shaped by our own stories and mine includes divorce and remarriage and I have had to wrestle with this text and others in the New Testament as I attempted to walk through these as faithfully as possible. I’ve shared more on my experience of divorce here. I also serve a community where many in the community have divorce as a part of their story. I once believed that there was always something someone could do to prevent a divorce, but ultimately a modern relationship relies upon both parties investing in the relationship. Jesus lived in a time where marriage was understood differently, marriages for most of history were primarily an economic relationship arranged between families to attempt to ensure a good match for the child and the family’s economic future. Within this economic arrangement a divorce placed the woman in a tenuous situation because she was no longer a favorable match for a second partner and may not be welcomed back into their father’s home. In a world of limited economic opportunities, a woman may be reduced to begging or prostitution.

This passage refers to Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 is the only place in the law where divorce is discussed for the general population of Israel (there are provisions in Leviticus for priests). Now Jesus links this provision with the commandment on adultery. The Greek term porneia which is translated unchastity by the NRSV is open to debate about its exact meaning: illicit sexual relations with a person other than the spouse, premarital unchastity or even (in relation to Leviticus 18) being married too closely in family relations (an incestuous marriage in the eyes of the law). In Greek this term is a general term relating to sexual-misconduct but it is a different term than moicheoo which is translated adultery in this passage. Yet, when compared to its Markan parallel we see that this exception is added in Matthew’s version. As Richard B. Hays can state:

No matter what interpretation is put upon the clause, it is undeniable that we see here a process of adaptation, in which Jesus’ unconditional prohibition of divorce is applied and qualified in the interest of predicatability. Here, as elsewhere, to work out a balance between rigor and mercy, between the demands of discipleship and the realities of the community’s situation. (Hays, 1996, p. 355)

Within the New Testament divorce is addressed in Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians and even within the formation of the New Testament we see the community trying to find the balance between rigor and mercy, between discipleship and the reality of their community situation. Paul, for example, in 1 Corinthians has to deal with the issue of believers who are married to non-believers and whose non-believing spouses may want to terminate the relationship.

The discussions related to divorce in churches, along with other issues of sexuality, can be difficult because the issues impact people at their deepest and most intimate levels of desire for connection. In a time where marriages are based on love and emotion, I do think it is important to acknowledge the danger of this dependence on the immediacy of feeling to maintain a lifetime relationship. As Stephanie Coontz can articulate:

Our dependence on love leads us to demand the constant renewal of romance, gift exchange, and self-revelation. But as soon as we can take someone’s gifts for granted, or their novelty wears off, the love is at risk. Boredom, argues sociologist Richard Sennett, is the logical consequence of relationships constructed according to the cult of private intimacy; infidelity and planned obsolescence are consumer society’s answer to boredom: “When two people are out of revelations…all too often the relationship comes to an end.” (Coontz, 1992)

Jesus’ vision of relationships is very different that the vison of relationships articulated in our individualistic and consumeristic society. I do think Stanley Haerwas’ framing of the question differently is a helpful starting point:

In similar fashion the question is not whether a divorced woman should be allowed to marry, but what kind of community must a church be that does not make it a matter of necessity for such a woman to remarry. If Christians do not have to marry, if women who have been abandoned do not have to remarry, then such a church must be a community of friendship that is an alternative to the loneliness of the world. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 70)

Jesus is articulating a way of being that embodies the kingdom of heaven, where relationships are central, where reconciliation is important and where men and women can dwell together in safety and love. The community of faith has rarely, if ever, fully embodied this vision and we deal with broken relationships, abused trust and hurtful words and actions. Yet, even though the accusation could be justly made that this type of vision is utopian in outlook we are talking about articulating the kingdom of heaven. Israel and now this community of disciples is intended to be an alternative community to the world around it. They are intended to be salt to preserve and light to illuminate and a city on the hill which the nations can stream to. It is a goal towards which the community of the faithful can strive towards but there also needs to be done within a way of reading that is merciful and allows a space for forgiveness.

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3 Responses to Matthew 5: 21-32 Law and Relationships in the Kingdom

  1. Alex says:

    >These commandments and their interpretation are a gift that point to a type of society embodied in the kingdom of heaven.

    Where do you see this? I get more of the impression that the commandments embody the type of society worthy of obtaining the kingdom when it comes.
    I like the point about the sermon being given to a community rather than to individuals. Jesus in the Sermon shows a good deal of concern for how his followers ought to treat their brothers and sisters (Matthew 5:21-24, 7:1-5).

    • Neil says:

      Alex, your comment speaks to one of the struggles of the church of any time, and Israel before the church…I do believe that the commandments in both in the Hebrew Scriptures and here are a gift to the community of the faithful. Yet, my experience of the community of faith has always fallen well short of the type of society the interpretation Jesus offers in the sermon envisions. I suppose for me, even though I occasionally struggle with this, even though the reality of the church that we have may not match this dream of what the kingdom is, for me it does not mean that the dream is not a dream worth having and working towards.
      Your comment reminds me of Richard B. Hays’ criticism of Stanley Hauerwas’ theology because his question to Hauerwas was in effect “where have you ever seen this type of community embodied.” It is the distance between the Acts 2 description of the community and the witness of the letters to the Corinthians, Galatians and most of the New Testament. Forgive a long comment to your response, but it got me thinking

  2. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1-7 | Sign of the Rose

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