Text: Matthew 5:21-37
There are good reasons why so many people have left the church and deemed the Bible irrelevant for our times. We don’t have to look any further than Matthew 5:21-37 to understand why. Upon reading this text, one woman said to me, “it is scripture passages like this that sent me running from the church for 20 years.” I must admit that when I read the gospel lesson for this Sunday, I too, wanted to flee. But I have learned that when I have that feeling—the feeling of wanting to run from something—it is a good indication that I should stick with it and work through it. So this morning, I invite you to “work through” Matthew’s unsettling words with me.
I think we would all agree that sometimes it’s not so much the words of scripture that trip us up as it is the way we have heard these texts preached. Texts like this one in Matthew have been used in many a pulpit to beat us up, or rather beat us down. They have been interpreted in a way that hits us at our most vulnerable places, leaving us feeling bruised and battered and unsure as to whether God’s love and forgiveness are really available to us or, if they can in some way redeem us. If you have ever offended anyone, and who among us hasn’t, this text is not easy to hear. If you are divorced, as many of us are, it can feel shaming. And if you are safe on those two, well, what about that time you swore that you would never…even if only in your heart. You get my point. Not many of us can escape the “sins” Matthew lists in our gospel text. So, what do we do with these words of Jesus?
First of all, it might be helpful to some to acknowledge that there is great debate as to whether these are the actual teachings of Jesus. Many scholars believe that these words are not Jesus’ words but rather Matthew’s way of expounding on Jesus’ teaching that come before and after this particular section of Matthew 5. As you will recall, chapter 5 of Matthew begins with the Beatitudes and ends with Jesus reminding us that we must “go the extra mile” and “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”—passages that are widely affirmed as Jesus’ teachings. But for many who have devoted their time to intense study of Jesus’ life—people like Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan—question the validity of Matthew 5:21-37 as authentic to Jesus. I raise this, not because it gives us the right to dismiss these verses, but rather to put them into context.
Regardless of whether you believe that these are the teachings of Jesus or not, they are part of the biblical text. And unless we simply want to “pick and choose” what of the biblical text we read and don’t read, then we must try and place them into some kind of context for our understanding today. I say this because Christians, or shall I say churches, have become quite adept at “picking and choosing” which scriptures to read and follow. Progressive, liberal churches like ours often chide the more conservative, fundamentalist churches for latching onto some scriptures while ignoring others. Take, for instance, conservative churches who cling to the teachings in Leviticus to make a case against homosexuality, but who choose to ignore other religious codes referenced in Leviticus—like the dietary codes that prohibit eating shell fish. I don’t want us to do the same—to cling to the Beatitudes and preach blessed are the peacemakers and then simply ignore the texts that immediately follow them. There is an alternative to this “picking and choosing” which scripture we read and which we ignore. The alternative, I believe, is one of discernment—the discernment of God’s Word for us today. And sometimes our discernment may lead us to an understanding of the biblical material that is new and non-traditional, but nonetheless truthful and authentic, for how we discern God’s spirit working in our lives and in our world today. With that said, I offer these reflections on Matthew 5:21-37.
Jesus’ teachings in the gospels about matters of the heart set the context for how we are to read these verses in Matthew 5. In the Gospels, such teaching scenes usually occur when the Pharisees are on stage with him, primed for conflict. In response to the lawyer who seeks to test him, he affirms that the heart of Torah is “loving the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul and all our strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” When the disciples express concern that Jesus has offended the Pharisees with his critique of their ritual purity laws in Matthew 15, he asks them, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” In criticizing the quest for material wealth, Jesus says that “where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.” In lambasting the religious elite for their hypocrisy, he demands, “How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” In painting a picture of the life pleasing to God, Jesus offers the beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Jesus in these teachings is standing on the foundation of prior teachings from Hebrew Scriptures about the heart as the inner source of outer actions. In simple language he is asking, “What is in your heart?” He moves the law from being a matter of the letter of the law to being a matter of the heart.
In Jesus’ mind – and in Matthew’s as he wrote his Gospel – must have been the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” The law is only complete when it is written on our hearts. It can only give us life and bring people together when it is carved into the very core of our being.
And so Jesus speaks the radical message of the complete law, calling us not just to ensure that we uphold the letter of the legal code, but that we uphold the dignity and humanity of all people in this world. We cannot just avoid physically killing. We must also avoid destroying the dignity and reputation of another. If we seek life and wholeness, we will refuse to degrade another with our angry words – be they insults, gossip, or manipulative “back-stabbing.” Rather, we will do everything we can to recognize the humanity of the other, and seek to be reconciled if at all possible. We cannot just avoid the betrayal of adultery. We must also avoid the betrayal of another person’s humanity by objectifying them and making them nothing more than an object of our own pleasure and satisfaction. We must also avoid the betrayal of treating another like property to be discarded when we’re finished with them.
Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself [or herself].” Matthew 5:21-37 challenges us to see not only the world but ourselves in a new way. It challenges us to look at how we might need to change ourselves while we are about changing the world. In each of the scenarios, Jesus is calling for us to view our human relationships in an entirely new way. Behind the prohibitions lies the vision of a restored humanity—a vision of reconciliation, a vision of respect, a vision of dignity, a vision of authentic and truthful living. Matthew 5:21-37 takes us to hard places, which involve each of us looking at our relationships with one another not as matters of law or legality, but rather as matters of the heart.
We can continue to fight the injustices of our world on legal grounds (the law)—issues like school resegregation—but until humanity decides to face the injustices in our world as matters of the heart, we will continue to fall short of God’s vision for humanity. When Flannery O’Connor would ask her students a question in class she would always respond to their answers with an affirmation. But once the affirmation was given she would then say, “Now, go deeper.” The Jesus that Matthew wants us to see is the Jesus who is saying, “Now, go deeper.”