Epiphany 6 • Matthew 5:21–37 • February 13, 2011
By Wally Becker
This passage is part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7. Although, at first glance, the verses in our text appear to be totally law, they need to be seen in the greater context of the life of a Christian—living in response to the gospel. Jesus is not describing how to attain righteousness or a place in the kingdom, but rather, having been declared righteous through faith in Jesus, having been given a place in the kingdom by the grace of God, Jesus describes how the citizens of his kingdom live.
As Christians, we are salt and light. What does that look like? We are blessed (Mt 5:3-12). What does that mean for how we live in relation to each other?
The verses of our text are part of a larger section that includes verses 21–48. Jesus deals with six commands. Each one begins with, “you have heard that it was said.” Most references are to commands from the law of Moses, but the point of com- parison is to the traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees (first century Judaism) associated with that command and the popular teaching of the day (much like the self-centered, tolerant, permissive mind-set of our own society) often limiting the extent of the command, weakening its impact or importance in one’s life. Jesus, speaking with authority, goes on to say, “But I myself say to you.” Here is what this command has meant all along.
The six areas of instruction are: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, and love. The text deals with the first four. The gospel for Epiphany 7 deals with the last two.
One could develop a whole sermon on each one of these six areas of instruction. But there are some common threads and themes that run through each of these sections that might help to focus our attention and our lives.
It is important to note that Jesus does not give a full exposition of each of these areas of sin, but shares some general truths. Cross-referencing other passages of Scripture that focus on the same sins can be helpful. Also, Jesus uses exaggeration or hyperbole to drive home his point. A literalistic or legalistic interpretation is not helpful to understanding what Jesus is teaching.
Jesus is concerned with our relationships with others. Our relationships with others are not independent of our relationship with him (horizontal and vertical relationships). Our relationship with Jesus must influence our relationships with others. Broken relationships with others will damage our relationship with Jesus.
Murder happens not just when someone takes another’s life. It happens through actions against another and even in words and in the attitudes of the heart. Not all anger and words of insult are murder, but when anger and words are intended to hurt or harm our neighbor and not for the purpose of seeking his good and well-being, these are sin, this is murder. It is especially bad when we treat each other in the church in this way. Do not neglect your relationships with fellow disciples. Those who follow Jesus will repent and turn away from this sin. Those who belong to Jesus will seek reconciliation. Those who refuse to be reconciled no longer belong to Jesus.
God desires there to be sexual purity among his disciples, not just in outward deeds, but in inner thoughts as well. A life of purity begins in the heart and extends out to relationships with others. “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Sin is often activated by the eye. What I choose to look at is important. I can choose to turn away, but to pluck out my eye or cut off my hand? Jesus uses hyperbole to drive home the need for radical action in dealing with impure thoughts. It is actually not the eye or the hand that causes us to sin, but the heart. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Mt 15:19) So tear out the heart and throw it away. What we really need is a new heart, and that is what Jesus gives us, a heart transplant. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51:10).
Divorce, like adultery, is sin. Both violate and destroy marriage, which is not just an invention of society, but a blessing given to us by God even before the fall. See also what Jesus says about divorce in Matthew 19:3–12 and what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. Jesus confronts the notion (very prevalent today) that divorce is no big deal. Divorce is never what God wants or intends for a marriage relationship. Divorce is sin. It shatters a sacred union that God intends to be permanent and that he wants to bless. It shatters and breaks lives. Do not divorce. Instead be faithful to your marriage promises. Love and serve your marriage partner.
Our speech matters. Don’t use words lightly. To make a promise is no small matter. Be careful what you say, and let your word be your bond, your “yes” mean yes, and your “no” mean no. Don’t be deceitful. And don’t have an inflated view of your own importance (swearing by your own head implies that you actually have power to make it happen). Satan, the father of all lies, whose nature is deception, would have us believe his lies and half truths. Rather, let your words speak truth, and remember your humble position before God.
So here is a picture of what salt and light look like, a picture of who we are and how we live with each other. Do we sin and fall short of God’s expectation for his children? Yes, indeed we do. Confronted with our sin and shortcomings, we repent and confess our sins of thought and attitude, word and deed, to God, asking forgiveness for Jesus’s sake and for the strength of God’s Spirit to turn away from these sins and live at peace with one another, loving and serving each other, as Christ Jesus continues to love and forgive us.
My thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs for his insights on this text in his Commentary on Matthew 1:1–11:1, from the Concordia Commentary Series, published by Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2006. A very helpful resource!