A sermon on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:17-37 preached on February 16th, 2014.
17 “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. 18 I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality.”
For the last couple weeks, we have been making our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’ve talked about blessing and discipleship, who is blessed, what it means to be salt and light, and now we get to these very specific instructions.
This part of Jesus’ sermon is about the Law. Jewish Torah law. 613 laws in all, that are told to the Hebrew people through the first 5 books of the bible. No, there are not just 10 commandments. There are 613. Laws about what to do with your day, how to treat family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, about what to eat and what to stay away from eating. What to wear. Laws about hygiene. After looking at pages and pages of ancient Jewish law we could wonder how anyone ever did anything at all. Following the Torah to the letter was difficult if not impossible.
Jesus was a Jew who saw the Law of the Torah to be critical to the living out of a life that is faithful to God. For so many centuries, the Hebrew people have been observing the tenants of the Law, and instead of really understanding the spirit of the Torah, they have uncritically kept to its letter. It’s one thing to blindly adhere to the Law out of duty—never understanding the real point in doing so. It’s another to understand why living out God’s Law helps to improve our lives, our relationships, and our well-beings.
Jesus is the one who comes to fulfill the spirit of the law—to show us what the point of following it really is. Jesus wants to give the law its humanity once again. So, in these words, we have not a set of rules to follow blindly, but an ancient wisdom, that teaches us about living in full relationship with one another. It is when we understand and follow God’s law with its original intention that we will find that it is meant to bring us more life and to teach us to love each other as God has always intended.
On the surface, the lessons that Jesus gives about murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing sting a little bit. And they should. Jesus’ words should confront us and make us uneasy, but if we take these words at face value, they sound harsh and uncaring.
It is easy to see this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as Morality 101, but let’s look into the meaning behind these lessons. There’s a whole lot more going on here than meets the eye, and until we understand this part of the Sermon on the Mount in the way that Jesus’ first hearers understood it, then all we’re doing is misunderstanding it.
So let’s dive into each of these four teachings one by one. Follow along with me on your insert.
Law of murder
21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.
This first lesson is about murder, but it’s more so about life. Real life—life in healed relationship with one another. I wonder how many times I’ve gone to God in prayer while holding a grudge against someone. Odds are that when we pray about a person that we’re in conflict with, we pray more about ourselves than about them. Other times, we may have been so angry that our prayer was not about healing at all but an earnest plea for God to smite the person who made us feel that angry.
How many times do we find ourselves harboring resentment and anger against a family member, friend, neighbor, co-worker, or even stranger, and instead of confronting the real issue with them, we come to God to lay down our sacrifice of prayer—wanting to simply let go of the issue entirely without doing the real work of fixing what’s been broken?
Jesus says that when we harbor anger against anyone else, when we lose our temper and call them names or say hurtful or unmindful things to them, we should seek that person out and do whatever is needed to make that relationship right again.
Jesus is telling us to live out our love for one another by doing the hard work of reconciling our relationships. In this way, anger—a perfectly appropriate human emotion—won’t ever get the best of us and mutate itself into vengeance, name-calling, jealousy, and hatred—all of which are inappropriate and ugly.
Jesus’ advice here—to go to our brother or sister before we go to God—is highly unusual. Scripture usually gives God top priority over anything else, but Jesus calls us to reconcile with neighbor first. It’s as if disharmony with another causes us to be in disharmony with God. We have to fix our human relationships before we can expect to be made right with God. Jesus puts that responsibility on us.
Ok, let’s move on to Jesus’ second teaching.
Law of adultery
27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.
Jesus says that adultery is a whole lot more than just cheating with another person, we can also commit adultery with our eyes. Every woman on this planet knows about this. Men have rubber necks. And men, it looks ugly on us, but we should simply fess up to this.
It was even worse in Jesus’ culture, because women were seen as objects to be possessed—property owned by men, and therefore used to satisfy their own physical desires. Jesus grew up in a very patriarchal culture where men refused to regard women as human beings who deserved to be respected and treated with dignity. Two thousand years later, we still haven’t fixed this.
Jesus is saying that adultery goes well beyond the bedroom, it also includes our intentions, our glances, our thoughts, and our attitudes about women. Jesus speaks truth about how every woman should be regarded as a human being and as not an object to be glared at.
It is when we regard each other as worth our utmost respect and care, when we view each other as whole human beings created by God, honor each other, and see each other’s worth, that we live out God’s intentions.
Jesus’ next teaching is about divorce.
Law of divorce
31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
It’s easy to see judgment in these words, but what Jesus is saying is not meant to convict us. In order to understand why not, we have to understand the complexity of divorce in Jesus’ time.
In Jesus’ day, only a man could divorce a woman. Women were never allowed to divorce their husbands for any reason at all—including adultery. A man could hand his wife divorce papers and send her out of the house without any reason or notice at all. So, many women in Jesus’ day were left completely exposed, vulnerable, and homeless through divorce. The divorce laws, as they stood, did absolutely nothing to protect a woman.
Here Jesus once again is speaking directly to the men in the crowd gathered around him. He tells them that there is no honor in this at all. Jesus says that men are not allowed to simply divorce their wives and send them out of the house just because they can. Jesus adds compassion and care for women by telling men that the only decent grounds for them to divorce their wives is because of her unfaithfulness.
Jesus adds obligation to how a husband treats his wife. According to Jesus, a husband has the duty to treat his wife, not as a possession, but as a person who deserves to be respected in marriage.
Jesus’ words about divorce once again protect women from being treated as objects that are easily used and disposed of by men.
Making solemn pledges
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. 34 But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 35 You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. 36 And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.
The last of the four is really about swearing. When Jesus talks about swearing, he’s not talking about using bad words, he’s talking about our tendency to swear things to God.
We’ve all pledged to others our honesty by saying “I swear to God”. Jesus says that we, first of all, shouldn’t say that, because it makes light of God’s name, and second of all, there’s no need to swear to anything, because if we say we’re going to do something, then that alone should be enough. There’s no reason to complicate our relationships by putting an oath between each other. Simply enough, our Yes should mean Yes and our No should mean No. Jesus is saying that we should be truthful with each other, and that telling the truth should be its own validation.
So what does all of this mean?
It means that God cares deeply about our relationships. It also means that God cares deeply about each and every person we meet, and whenever we treat another person as less than, we’ve failed to see in them what God sees in them.
When we come to another with anything other than the utmost respect, we fall short of living out our lives in the way God has intended for us through the Law.
Rather than a lesson in Morality 101, Jesus says that God’s Law is about how to live out our love for each other.
It’s easy to listen to these words from Jesus and create a to-do list for ourselves. We can misunderstand Jesus and see these teachings as requirements and rules for us to adhere to, or we can take these four teachings and find out what is common in them, not in their letters but their spirit, and then practice that.
Jesus’ four teachings give us an idea of what it means to be a person of integrity and to regard others as we regard ourselves. Let us take up their deeper meaning and understand them as a way to practice renewed, restored, honorable, life-giving, and loving relationship with others.
We are to offer to God the entirety of our lives. To see all of our relationships as holy encounters that mirror our faithfulness to God and bear witness to the love that God has shown to us in the gracious presence and the amazing love of Jesus Christ.
May we pray for the grace to live out love in ways that honor Christ’s great love for us.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.