Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37
Matthew 5:21-37 opens the section of the Sermon on Mount sometimes called the “Antitheses” (5:21-48). The title “Antitheses,” though, is not well-suited for describing the function of this portion of the text. As the preceding passage (5:17-20) illustrated, Jesus has the highest praise for the Mosaic law. Thus, for whatever else one might say about Matthew 5:21-37, it cannot be claimed that this text demonstrates Jesus’ abolition of the law.
The collection of teachings that spans today’s passage covers several topics: murder and judgment (5:21-26), adultery (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32), and vow-making (5:33-37). This diverse collection of teachings could appear like a mismatched assortment of sayings that otherwise do not clearly seem to cohere. However, each of these individual teachings can be understood under a larger paradigm of upholding trust and compassion within human community.
The passage begins with the most egregious example of severed trust: the ending of another human’s life with murder. By starting with an example at which most members of his audience would not likely take offense, Jesus paves the way for his audience to follow him through a progression of increasingly smaller infractions against others within one’s community. In other words, Jesus’ rhetorical technique here is to create agreement with his audience on the easiest points first before moving to those points where it is less likely that there will be widespread agreement.
In each example that Jesus provides, Jesus notes the minimal requirement of the law before articulating an ethic that exceeds that most basic obligation. In each case, this ethic appears to be informed by the values of trust and compassion within community.
After beginning with murder (5:21-26) and then moving to adultery (5:27-30), Jesus’ introduction of a set of instructions regarding divorce (5:31-32) might seem like a strange move. That is, this could seem like a minor topic that does not deserve attention alongside the previous (and more serious) examples.
However, the topic of divorce was a particularly fraught one in Jesus’ time. Two of the leading teachers of Jesus’ time, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, were famously divided over the issue of divorce. The school of Hillel favored a more permissive approach to divorce that allowed for divorce even in the case that a wife ruins her husband’s meal. The school of Shammai, however, upheld a much stricter view that only permitted divorce in the most extreme cases. In other words, the conflict over this particular issue was especially heated in Jesus’ time. Indeed, the fact that Matthew reports later in his Gospel that some Pharisees actually seek out Jesus’s opinion on the matter of divorce (19:1-12) points to prevalence (and divisiveness!) of the issue for many among Jesus’s earliest audiences.
Although there is no exact parallel in modern religious settings for how the issue of divorce functioned for Jesus and his contemporaries, any number of hot button issues today might compare: abortion access, LGBTQIA+ rights, or the church’s position in relation to political issues. Jesus’ response with the topic of divorce can offer a powerful example for Christian communities today who are navigating the politically and ideologically charged questions of our own day. That is, although Jesus does seem to side more closely with one school of thought over another, he ultimately upholds the values of trust and compassion within human community. In this case, by encouraging the continuity of marriage (except in those cases where trust has already been broken through infidelity), Jesus underscores the need for trust and compassion within human relations.
Jesus’ teachings on divorce provide a helpful foundation for understanding the final instruction in this passage related to making vows. At first, Jesus’ teachings on the proper way to make vows (5:33-37) might seem like an odd candidate for an example of how he is promoting an ethic of trust and compassion within human relationships. However, when set within an ancient context where most dealings occurred orally rather than in writing, one’s word would have carried something like the wait of one’s signature on an affidavit today. That is, just as it seems nearly unimaginable to be able to engage in business today without signature, contracts, and piles of paperwork, so too would have the business practices of Jesus’s day been rendered nearly incomprehensible without the presence of verbal vows. The oral strengthening of these vows by attaching them to something of great importance (for example, by heaven or earth [5:34-35]) might have served a purpose not unlike the verification of a document by a notary today.
Again, though, Jesus is not satisfied to leave the matter at this. Rather, his suggestion to let one’s “yes” be “yes” (5:37) is essentially an encouragement to ensure that one’s spoken word is so authentic and so in line with one’s intentions that it is already above question just on its own, even without an additional strengthener. In other words, then, Jesus is calling for his audience to demonstrate the highest possible level of trustworthiness and integrity, not only in their dealings with other humans, but also in their dealings with God.
The specific examples of murder, divorce, and vow-making that Jesus provides in this passage may not seem like the most pertinent ones for audiences today. That is, in most cases, our congregations are not likely populated by hoards of murderers! However, this passage is nonetheless vital for Christian audiences today insofar as it demonstrates the ways in which Jesus upheld an ethic of trust and compassion that he expected to pervade the community of which he was a part. Regardless of the vast historical and cultural divides that separate us today from Jesus’ world, this ethic is a timeless one that can just as easily be applied in the twenty-first century as in the first. The encouragement to cultivate trust and compassion in community never goes out of style.