21‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement,” 22but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last cent.
27‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery,” 28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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, 30and 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,” 32but 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.
33‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord”, 34but I say to you, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”, 36and do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Most churches, for Epiphany 4, would have had the “Be Attitudes”. Here we have the “Don’t Attitudes”. If we take this part of the Sermon on the Mount too literally we will never be able to get to the Kingdom of Heaven, so I think a little realism is in order.
Since Jesus told us that He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, what can we glean from these “You have heard it said … but I say” statements?
I take the definition of “murder” as the deliberate taking of another human life. In that context the use of capital punishment for crimes allegedly committed, and there are plenty of cases of people being put to death for crimes they haven’t committed, is also murder, and not only is the one who actually takes a person’s life as a death sentence guilty of murder, those who conspire to put the person to death are accessories to such a crime. Many years ago it was suggested to me that sentencing someone to life in prison without chance of parole was virtually taking that person’s life too. The simple message from Christ is to do good for everyone, not to seek to do harm. He summed that up with His second commandment: “love your neighbour as yourself”. We can love the sinner but hate the sin. When Christ said if you call someone “Fool” you will be liable to hell fire, what would He have thought of His cousin John’s comment “You brood of vipers”? A casual “fool” for missing the obvious is nowhere near as bad as calling people “vipers”. To me it’s clear that Christ is not condemning us for making unpleasant comments to others, but for not trying to reconcile our differences, and for not loving our neighbours, whoever they might be. Sometimes it’s not possible to be reconciled, not because of our own lack of attempts, but because the other person doesn’t want reconciliation, and I know that from personal experience, but trying is essential. Love conquers all, and if we love everyone as we love ourselves then love will eventually win.
Is Christ really telling us that we should pluck out an eye or cut off a hand because we have done something wrong? It doesn’t seem to me to be consistent with the loving Christ I know. Wholesale disfigurement of the body which houses us is unlikely to be what He was seeking from those around Him at the time. What I believe is far more likely is that Jesus was telling us to get rid of the cause of our problems. If men show lust for women (or women for men, if we take out the patriarchal language of the time) then we should address the urge to be intimate and seek to respect the other person. Taking that line makes the following verses far more in line with Christ’s own teaching elsewhere, and thus far more tolerable. Again the message is “love your neighbour as yourself”. Separate the sin from the sinner, and love the latter but not the former. In the time that this passage was written the increase in severity of punishments for the various offences would have been seen as an indication of the damage caused not by being angry, but by harbouring that anger and allowing it to fester.
The old traditional vows used at a marriage ceremony in the Anglican Church included the words “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; till death us do part.” It’s not hard to see marriages around us that have lasted only a short time because of a lack of commitment to one or more of those ideals. Is Jesus actually telling us to honour the commitment to a marriage, rather than make it a convenience measure by which we can get other benefits, and then discard the arrangement? By no stretch of the imagination do I want anyone reading this reflection to think I don’t respect those who have been put through a living hell in a marriage which hasn’t worked, or isn’t working. I don’t think Christ would have condemned anyone in that sort of arrangement, but this statement from Jesus is directed at those who were using divorce as a means of avoiding responsibility.
As to the last of the instructions in this portion of Matthew’s gospel, how many of us have sworn an oath, be that of allegiance, or honesty in a court, or anywhere else? Sometimes we are required to swear an oath. Is the instruction based on an overabundance of oaths being sworn unnecessarily? When I think of all the times I’ve heard people swearing oaths – “cross my heart and hope to die” or any one of many others – often with a sense of “I hope my promise isn’t called into action” – I can see what Jesus was attacking. Make your “yes” actually mean “yes” and make your “no” actually mean “no” without resorting to oaths. That doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds. When we can see that we were wrong in the first place it’s far easier to say “sorry” and change our minds if we haven’t declared our position unmovable by using an oath, and actually accepting that we have been wrong can be quite rewarding.