Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37
In the last few weeks, we’ve read a series of lessons on the dangers of reducing the work of God to ritual formula, or trying to use our communal practices to avoid giving our hearts and lives to God and neighbor.
This week’s lesson from Matthew 5 continues many of these same themes. The season of Ephipany proclaims the good news of God’s presence with us. Our response to that proclamation, our recognition of God’s life and work here and now, is more than going through the motions of church. Jesus calls us to a whole new life in God.
Sermon on the Mount
This week’s reading follows the Beatitudes to form the Sermon on the Mount (5:1 – 7:29). It contains no parables or miracle narratives, only straightforward teaching: do this. We find here, as throughout Matthew, strong ties to the Mosaic law. The opening verses of chapter 5 tell us that Jesus has left the crowds and is teaching his disciples. Jesus is the teacher, bridging familiar lessons from Jewish teachings to his own ministry as he instructs his disciples in the demands of a Jesus-following life.
A Radicalized Ethic
We often read Jesus’ statements in this discourse–“You have heard that it was said…” followed by “But I say to you…” — as contrasting, or even replacing, prior Jewish teachings with his own. We must take care in such contrasts, for Jesus neither erases nor discounts the teachings of the law (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law,” verse 17). He uses the traditional teachings on murder, adultery, and prayer as essential grounds for building his case for righteousness. Using familiar, perhaps even too familiar, teachings, Jesus intensifies and radicalizes them for his listeners, extending these teachings into almost every area of life.
In this way, Jesus does “not abolish but fulfill[s]” the law (verse 17). No longer do the teachings on murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, they become doorways into the examination of many internal dynamics as well as external behaviors of one’s life: anger, derision, slander, false generosity, litigiousness, arrogance, lust, temptation, alienation, divorce, and religious speech.
Perhaps one of the most radical aspects of Jesus’ extension of the law here is his internalization of it, so that not only behaviors, but attitudes and emotions fall within its scope. Of course, this is not new to Jewish thinking. Throughout Hebrew Scriptures, the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed (see previous weeks’ passages: Isaiah 58, Micah 6). Jesus connects the dots for his listeners from outward acts to internal orientation, from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. It is one thing to behave rightly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be oriented toward love. Just as it is easier to make a sacrifice at the temple than it is to do justice (Micah 6), so it is easier to keep the commandment against murder than it is to avoid anger in one’s heart.
Jesus offers a more radical ethic, a reign of God ethic, one already hinted at in the list of beatitudes preceding this discourse. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart–all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart. The righteousness of this newly inaugurated kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor.
Jesus’ reframing of righteousness exposes the easy truces we make. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words–we even call it “stabbing someone in the back.” The notion that we must reconcile with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God, stops us in our tracks. There is no easy, private relationship to God in these words. Resentment, alienation, and estrangement from others, prevent me from even giving my gifts to God.
We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet create primary relationships with work, sports, or even the internet, rather than our spouse. Jesus shifts our attention from particular behaviors we must avoid to particular interior orientations we must cultivate. Kingdom righteousness saturates our whole lives, and promises much more, too. It is the way of blessedness.
God’s inbreaking presence in Jesus Christ re-orders the relationships of this world and re-orients the internal landscapes of our lives. During Epiphany, we claim once again that we have a living God, incarnate among us, not some far-off potentate who must be humored with occasional acts of obeisance. We proclaim that the “Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), the Word embedded in real, everyday life, in outward actions and inward attitudes. We proclaim a God present in the flesh and bone of our lives, not a keeper of check-lists.
This is good news! The God born in a manger enters the messiness of life in all its dimensions, seeking to heal and save. This God offers a life deep and wide, where light shines into every nook and cranny, not a puny, flat life, reduced to avoiding the “big sins.” Jesus gives the disciples a new way of life, not rejecting the tradition, but building upon it. It is a way of life that demands more and promises more. It is life abundant.