SCRIPTURE: Matthew 5:21-37
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CHAPTERS 5-7: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
Matthew 5-7 is the Sermon on the Mount, the best known collection of Jesus' teachings. Much of this material is also found in the Gospel of Luke, part of it in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49) and the rest of it elsewhere (Luke 11:2-4, 9-13, 34-36; 12:22-34, 57-59; 13:24-27; 14:34-35; 16:18).
Of particular importance to this Gospel lesson are Jesus' remarks that immediately precede it. Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets (v. 17). He also said that we must achieve righteousness exceeding that of scribes and Pharisees to enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 20).
VERSES 21-23: YOU SHALL NOT MURDER
21"You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, 'You shall not murder;' (Greek: phoneuseis –– from phoneuo) and 'Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.' 22But I tell you, that everyone who is angry (Greek: orgizomenos) with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council (Greek: sunedrio –– council or Sanhedrin); and whoever shall say, 'You fool!' (Greek: more –– from moros) shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna."
"You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones" (v. 21a). Six times in this chapter, Jesus uses some variant of this formula (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). In each case, he contrasts what they learned from the Torah ("it was said") with his own teaching ("But I tell you").
"You shall not murder" (v. 21b). This is the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13; Deut. 5:17) –– although there is more than one numbering system for the commandments.
"whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment" (v. 21c). The Torah distinguishes between murder and other forms of bloodshed (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). The penalty for murder is death (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-17).
"But I tell you, that everyone who is angry (orgizomenos) with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council; (sunedrio) and whoever shall say, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna" (v. 22). Jesus extends the reach of the commandment beyond the act of murder to the thoughts, feelings, and actions that cause people to commit murder. He challenges us to deal with the problem of evil while it still resides as evil thoughts or feelings in our hearts. Once our hearts are right, we will no longer be tempted to murder, but will instead be motivated by love, which is our proper response to our neighbor (22:39) and even to our enemy (5:44).
Barclay notes that there were two Greek words for anger: thumos, which is a fiery kind of anger that flames up and then dies –– and orge, which is a smoldering anger, the kind of anger that a person nurtures and keeps alive. It is orge –– the kind of anger that we deliberately harbor in our hearts over long periods of time –– that Jesus condemns here.
Jesus cites three sinful feelings or behaviors: Being angry with a brother or sister, insulting a brother or sister –– and saying, "Raca!" –– which equates to "Fool!" (v. 22).
• The person who is angry is "in danger of the judgment" (v. 22). "In danger of the judgment" is the same penalty associated with murder (v. 21).
• The person who insults brother or sister is "in danger of the council" (sunedrio) (v. 22). "Brother" means "fellow Christian," which indicates a special concern for believers and actions that might harm the church.
Sunedrio can refer to any council, but in the New Testament usually means the Sanhedrin, the highest ruling body for Israel –– chaired by the high priest.
• The person who says, "Raca!" (Greek: more –– from which we get our word "moron") is "in danger of the fire of Gehenna." In another context, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and fools (23:15, 17), lending credence to the idea that it is the unjustified use of such language that is the problem.
VERSES 23-26: FIRST BE RECONCILED
23"If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Agree with (Greek: eunoon) your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way; lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. 26Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny" (Greek: kodranten).
"If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (v. 23-24). In verse 22, Jesus calls us to take the initiative when we are offended (angry). In verses 23-24, he calls us to take the initiative when our brother or sister is offended (has something against us).
"Agree (eunoon) with your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way; lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny" (vv. 25-26). This is another example of what Jesus expects when another person has taken offense at us –– has become our accuser.
"Agree" (eunoon) (v. 25). Eunoon is literally "Be of a good mind" or "Be well-minded."
"in the way" (v. 25) –– while there is yet time –– before the die is cast –– before you are standing before the judge.
"lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison" (v. 25). On one level, a human judge might render an unfavorable verdict, and we will find ourselves in debt, in prison, or both. On another level, the judge and prison are metaphors for God and eternal punishment.
"Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny" (v. 26) –– until the verdict is fully satisfied, which could be a long, long time.
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VERSES 27-28: YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY
27"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery;' (Greek: moicheia) 28but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart."
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'" (v. 27). Jesus moves to the next commandment –– the prohibition against adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). The law prescribes the death penalty for those who are guilty of adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22).
"but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (v. 28). Once again, Jesus expands the commandment to prohibit the causative factor –– in this case the lustful look –– the look that leads to covetousness.
Jesus is not suggesting that everyone who looks at a woman with sexual interest is guilty of adultery. Instead, Jesus calls us not to dwell on the desirability of the neighbor's wife lest our sin of covetousness lead to the physical act of adultery.
VERSES 29-30: IF YOUR RIGHT EYE CAUSES YOU TO SIN
29"If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna. 30If your right hand causes you to stumble (Greek: skandalizei), cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna."
"If your right eye causes you to stumble" (skandalizei –– from skandalon) (v. 29a). The word skandalon is often translated "stumble" (16:13; 18:6, etc.). It can mean the bait in a trap –– or a stumbling stone in a pathway –– or a camouflaged pit into which an unwary person might fall (Barclay). The idea here is that our senses and capabilities, given by God for good, become instruments of evil when misused –– cause us to stumble and fall.
"pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna. If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna" (vv. 29b-30 –– cf. 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48). This is hyperbole (exaggerated language) crafted to make a point. Jesus' point is not that we should pluck out our eye or sever our hand. His point is that sin is so deadly that we need to be deadly serious about eradicating it from our lives.
VERSES 31-32: WHOEVER PUTS AWAY HIS WIFE
31"It was also said, 'Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorce,' 32but I tell you that whoever puts away his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality (Greek: porneias –– sexual immorality), makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery."
"let him give her a writing of divorce" (v. 31). Deuteronomy 24:1 allows a man to divorce his wife if she "becomes displeasing to him."
"But I tell you" (v. 32). Jesus' focus in earlier verses had to do with the condition of the heart that caused sinful behavior. The focus here is on the behavior itself.
"except for the cause of sexual immorality" (porneias) (v. 32). Porneias is sometimes translated "fornication," which involves sex between unmarried people, but it is a broader term that can refer to any sort of sexual immorality. Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 do not include this exception for porneias.
"makes her an adulteress" (v. 32). God's intent for marriage is that a man and woman marry and remain together for life. When a man gives his wife a certificate of divorce, she has little choice but to marry again, if for no other reason than economic survival. The idea behind Jesus' words here is that the man puts the woman in a position where she must live in violation of God's original intent for the marriage. "There is no indication here that a second marriage... is seen as permanently adulterous. Divorced Christians who have remarried should not commit the sin of a second divorce to try to resume relations with a previous spouse (see again Deut 24:1)" (Blomberg, 110)
"and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery" (v. 32b). The man who divorces his wife has also violated God's original intent for marriage.
This is a very difficult passage for us, because divorce has become so common that people think of it as an acceptable option. This presents a difficult dilemma for any pastor who wants at the same time to be faithful to the scriptures and pastoral to his flock. What can we say or do?
• We need to teach that God intends a man and woman to marry and to remain together until death separates them.
• People often divorce because marriage failed to meet their unreasonable expectations. We should seek to disabuse people of the notion that marriage should be some sort of magical carpet ride where glamour and romance reign.
• We should offer couples retreats, parenting classes, marriage counseling, and other programs to help couples strengthen their marriages and cope with problems related to marriage and parenting.
• We need to acknowledge that there are circumstances when a marriage is irretrievably broken.
• When people divorce, whether for good reasons or bad, we need to acknowledge the reality of sin and the hope of grace.
VERSES 33-37: DON'T SWEAR AT ALL
33"Again you have heard that it was said to them of old time, 'You shall not make false vows, but shall perform to the Lord your vows,' 34but I tell you, don't swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; 35nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36Neither shall you swear by your head, for you can't make one hair white or black. 37But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No.' Whatever is more than these is of the evil one."
To understand Jesus' concern here, we need to understand Jewish law regarding oaths and how the observance of that law evolved. There are a number of Old Testament scriptures that apply (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 6:13; 23:21-23).
The ethical standards prescribed by these laws are rooted in the holiness and majesty of Yahweh. The concern is to honor the name of God –– not to profane the name of God by making an oath using God's name and then failing to perform on the oath.
"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No.' Whatever is more than these is of the evil one" (v. 37; cf. James 5:12). In his prohibition against oaths, Jesus introduces his disciples to a new and higher standard. They are to keep their language simple and their actions honest. They are to live in such a way that their lifestyle will make oaths unnecessary.
Jesus "is not forbidding the taking of an oath in a law court of the like. The law said, 'you shall...swear by his name' (Deut. 6:13; 10:20), and Jesus himself responded when the high priest put him on oath (26:63-64). (Jesus) is saying in the strongest terms that those who follow him must speak the truth. They must never take the line that only when an oath is sworn need they be truthful" (Morris, 123-124).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1956)
Blomberg , Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Myers, Allen C., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
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