Matthew is writing not just an account of Jesus without any concern to the weight of the material he is presenting. As we’ve been working through chapter 5, we’ve been taking special notice of Matthew drawing on the aspects of Jesus’ teaching that help to answer the question: what does it look like when the God of Israel becomes King on earth? To which some follow-up questions get posed: what then does it look like for the citizens of a Kingdom in which the God of Israel becomes King? These questions certainly get answered in various ways in the 4 Gospels, yet, Matthew has been paying particular attention to this question as he works to grab the attention of his Jewish audience. They knew their text. The 2nd Temple Period drove Israel back into the text and when Jesus shows up and says that He is not destroying/abolishing the very text they’ve entrenched themselves in, but is fulfilling it – walking it out as it was always intended – it would give the over analytical Jew (the Pharisee) pause, but the common folk, hope and the example of how being a citizen in His kingdom actually works.
Jesus is going to launch into some aspects of the Law to demonstrate what fulfilling the Law actually is supposed to look like. He wants the hearers to recognize that the words on stone are dead – that the Law was never about creating a checklist of acceptable behavior, ritual or customs to pilot one’s outside, but were themes that should cause each to reflect and dive deep into their hearts. Jesus will show that fulfilling the Law isn’t hanging on to the Letter, but is allowing the Spirit of the Law to transform their insides. We are going to see 6 examples of this as we close out chapter 5: hate/anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation and loving one’s enemies. (This isn’t the point of this post nor did we explore this in Sunday school when going over this material, but I’d encourage you to meditate on the themes Jesus brings up, their order, and what this order’s significance is.)
Matthew 5:21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 5:22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. 5:23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 5:24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. 5:25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. 5:26 Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
One of the things I’ve heard taught when addressing these verses is that Jesus is somehow upping the ante or raising the bar/standard of the Law – that He isn’t destroying the Law, but actually making the Law harder to keep. However, simply reading through these examples should cause one to quickly abandon that idea. What Jesus is doing is not raising the bar, but highlighting where the bar has been all along. (I think this is made most clear in the next set we’ll look at where lust/adultery is concerned). Jesus wants you to realize that “thou shalt not kill” was never simply about you waking up each day and checking a box that you didn’t take another’s life, but that the heart of “thou shalt not kill” runs deeper to the issues of anger and hatred. Folks were concerned about being judged for murder but not concerned in the least about how they treated their brother in their hearts. Jesus says that whosoever is angry with his brother is likewise in danger of the same judgment that judges against murder. And, whosoever says “Raca” to his brother is in danger of the council (the ruling body of Jews, the Sanhedrin). Raca comes from a Hebrew word that means waste or vain. In other words, if you devalue your brother’s existence and claim he is just a ‘waste of flesh’ (as we might say today in English), that’s worthy of being brought before the Sanhedrin. But, if you call your brother a fool, you’ll be in danger of hellfire. The fool has said in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1) and if we hate our brother, if we look at them as a waste and if we simply deny them the dignity of holding God in their hearts, then we are inviting things into our lives – into our hearts – that will torment the child of God. It should be noted at this juncture that up to this point in Matthew, there has been no mention of hell anywhere, not in passing nor in some theological discussion from Christ. His hearers, however, would have known exactly what He was talking about. Is Jesus saying that if you call someone a fool that you are now destined, for all eternity, to live in Dante’s Inferno? Not at all. Remember, Jesus is highlighting what the heart of the Law has always been about. While many are holding their heads in pride that they didn’t physically kill their neighbor, yet, every day, their hearts are festering with hatred and anger towards them. Yet, Jesus says that if that is our heart’s message, we are simply asking for hellfire to reign in our hearts. The Greek word for hellfire is Gehenna, which is a ‘Greek-ified’ version of the Hebrew word, gay hinnom (/guy-hin-nome/), which means, valley of Hinnom. This valley was on the outskirts of Jerusalem and plays an important role in Jeremiah’s prophecy against Judah because of what they were doing in this location. We find this both in Jeremiah 7 and in Jeremiah 19 (verses 5-6) where Jeremiah recalls how the people of Judah made their people to pass through the fire and sacrifice their children to Moloch. Jeremiah declares that this valley will forever be known as the Valley of Slaughter. One might say this valley would be known by the murder that took place there (hence the connection to Matthew 5). In Jesus’ day, Gehenna (Valley of Hinnom) was simply a smoldering slum. The poor of the poor and the dejected of the dejected lived here. It was a trash dump. It was misery – a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It was outside the city; outer darkness. Jesus is saying that if we are denying God to our brothers by declaring them fools out of hatred and anger, then what we are effectively doing is inviting Gehenna, hellfire, into our hearts. That misery–that agony–that darkness. Anger and hatred creates a smoldering trash dump in our lives and it effectively kills/murders our brother in our hearts. We’ve created a valley of slaughter internally and regardless if we haven’t killed them physically, we’ve already unsheathed that dagger in our own hearts towards them. Therefore, Jesus says to attempt reconciliation as quickly as possible. If there is something that is growing hatred and anger in your heart or could lead to that, Jesus says to go to your brother and make it right. In verse 23, we might think of this as, before you come to church, go make it right. In other words, coming to church is secondary to how you are treating people. Doing the work of God is about people. Bringing your gift/offering to God on the alter is meaningless if your heart is harboring hatred for your brother. Likewise, seek reconciliation before things turn into legal matters. Seek reconciliation at all costs because the heart of you and your brother are at stake.
Yes, thou shalt not kill, but what that is really getting at is far deeper than just the physical termination of life, but is about what we are inviting into our hearts and where that invitation will take us.
As we look at the remaining 5 topics in chapter 5, I’m not going to spend as much time on each of them as I did the first one, simply because this post would get rather lengthy, but more importantly, you have the opportunity to stop and mediate on them and go digging in the Old Testament to see the connections Jesus is making.
Matthew 5:27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 5:28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. 5:29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 5:30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
As mentioned above, Jesus is not upping the ante here. Was lust ok before and only adultery was wrong? See the point? Lust is largely generic – it is simply strong desire. There are instances where lust is used in a ‘moral-good’ way (Galatians 5:17), but here, the idea is the strong desire for a woman that is not your wife. We might say, a “strange woman” (this will make sense shortly). Jesus is showing that the heart of adultery is lust. Adultery is the effectual heart-driven abandonment of the spouse, but notice where Jesus is placing the burden–it’s on the men, who it would be whom would look up on a woman. In Proverbs 5, the author has instructions for his son about guarding against becoming infatuated with a strange woman (a harlot) because in the end, it will consume his body (Proverbs 5:1-11). The idea behind a lustful heart is that the they eye and the hand are access points for this lust and as lust is invited into one’s heart, just as inviting a strange woman into one’s life, it will ultimately consume you. Therefore, take great care to guard against it. Jesus is not calling for actual self-mutilation, but describing getting to the source of the matter before it destroys your entire self. Just as with hatred, your body can become a festering, putrid slum (Gehenna/hell) when consumed with lust.
Matthew 5:31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 5:32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
We’ll deal with divorce more when we get to Matthew 19 where Jesus is being confronted by the Pharisees on this issue, however, at this juncture, we can see some interesting perspectives of the Lord as it relates to this topic. Yes, He’s referencing Deuteronomy 24 and but when we get to Matthew 19, we’ll see that Deuteronomy 24 was an allowance, but not the ideal. Nevertheless, if a man finds no value in his wife and simply wants to put her away, THE MAN CAUSES the wife to sin. This is significant – when divorce and adultery is dealt with in the church, it isn’t uncommon for some circles to actually attempt to over-protect the man (especially if that man is seen as an integral leader in their church or in a movement their church is a part of (like the IFB movement)). Yet, the heart of this issue, as Jesus demonstrates, is that a man should not so poorly value his wife that he not only would abandon her as a husband, but likewise plunge her into sin. Jesus’ ideal is a check against the men and a protection for the women. Again, we’ll discuss more about this issue in Matthew 19.
Matthew 5:33 Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: 5:34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: 5:35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. 5:36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. 5:37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
We are still seeing how Jesus wants His disciples to be treating people. It wasn’t uncommon for folks to swear by various things as a way of validating or certifying the truthfulness of their statements. When the President is sworn into the Office in the United States, he/she places his/her hand upon a Bible when reciting the Oath. In court, placing a hand upon a Bible to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God” is very common in our American history. (Not sure if that is still widely practiced today). But, again, the idea is that you are validating something by appealing to something higher than yourself. The book of Hebrews records when God made the covenant with Abraham, God could swear by no greater than himself (Hebrews 6:13 For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, 6:14 Saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee.) In Jesus’ day, folks would swear by the Temple, for example, to certify their word, yet, when they had an opportunity to engage in something else that would cause them to break their world, they might retort, “Well, I didn’t swear by the gold of the Temple” in a way to suggest that there was a higher valued thing to swear by and therefore, had he sworn by the higher valued thing, then the more certain his oath would be; but, since he only swore by the Temple, then there’s a risk his word can be broken. It’s crazy! But, that’s how we treat people. In our culture, the crossing of the fingers is often a way to give an out to any verbal agreement – it is the universal escape clause of any verbal contract. Jesus, however, wants the way we treat people to be straightforward and transparent – let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything that goes beyond simply affirming your word is a breeding ground for evil. Regardless if you stand before the President or before an impoverished person, the value of your word is to stand because your word’s value isn’t based on who is hearing it, but is based on and filtered through Jesus Christ.
Matthew 5:38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 5:39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 5:40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 5:41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 5:42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
It isn’t uncommon to hear teaching on “eye for an eye” as a system of retribution/retaliation, meaning, if someone takes my eye, then I’m justified to take theirs. Perhaps, if someone burns down my house, then I’m justified in burning down theirs. That’s what it says, right? Well, it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus is driving at the heart of the matter in these aspects from the Law. The ‘eye for an eye/tooth for a tooth’ wasn’t established to give the justification for reciprocal retaliation, but was designed to guard against a vengeance cycle from happening. In other words, ‘eye for an eye’ is about ensuring that the retaliation isn’t a means of exacting improper justice upon the perpetrator. In other words, make sure the justice sought fits the infraction. Why? Because it is very easy for “justice” to turn into personal vengeance, which invariably becomes injustice. Jesus says that the part we play in injustice isn’t to be creating it, but to be exposing it. The way we expose it is by turning the other cheek or volunteering beyond what the injustice is asking for.
It is often said that ‘turning the other cheek’ is Jesus’ call for passivity in the Christian’s life, but, this isn’t the context. Jesus is not saying that before, you could take an eye for an eye, but now if you are hit, turn the other check. Note that He says that if you are smitten upon your right cheek, to turn to the other cheek. Why is it important that we know it is the right cheek? In their culture, the right hand was used for pretty much everything in life, where the left hand was reserved for toilet duties. If someone strikes you with their right hand and it is upon your right cheek, then that is a back-hand strike. It isn’t a fist because the angle would be wrong. A back-handed slap is the way a Roman would address a slave. What Jesus is saying is that if someone is treating you like a slave, as if you have no value, turn the other cheek as an invitation to “hit me like a man”/”hit me like an equal”. It exposes the injustice of the aggressor. Likewise, if someone would sue you at law to take away your outer garments, go ahead and give them your undergarments. Stand naked in court to highlight the injustice that is happening. If a Roman soldier demanded that you carry their pack for 1 mile (angaria, under Roman law), show the injustice by offering a second mile. They aren’t allowed to demand of a Roman citizen to go longer than 1 mile, but the disciple of Christ goes out of his way to expose the injustice happening to him. This isn’t a call to cultural activism, note. When a believer is not being treated as an equal, our “fight” is a peaceful exposing of the injustice by offering an expansion upon the request rather than stooping to the level of the purveyor of the injustice.
Matthew 5:43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 5:45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 5:46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 5:47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 5:48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
The theme of loving one’s neighbor but hating one’s enemy isn’t a direct command in the Law (or, anywhere in the Old Testament). The idea of loving one’s neighbor is certainly there (Leviticus 19:18), but outside of attempting to make an argument from David’s Psalms that that is some direct teaching on hating God’s enemies, there is just no outright teaching to hate your enemy. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS, Community Rules), we’ve found literature that bears this teaching. This is literature of the Essenes who were the ‘sons of light’ out in the wilderness and were fanatics. Those who followed the Essenes were to love the sons of light, but to hate the sons of darkness (primarily the Sadducees). This was obviously common place in the 1st Century and Jesus is addressing it. It is easy to hate your enemies, but again, the disciple of His has a heavenly kingdom oriented heart – a heart that in the face of its enemy, it loves them, it blesses them, it does good to them and it prays for them. The heart of the disciple doesn’t respond in kind – it responds through in Christ. By this, we are identified as children of the Father. The Father is equitable to both the evil and good by giving sunshine to both and rain to the just and the unjust. Jesus says there is reward in loving your enemies. The idea of ‘reward’ isn’t a prize for finishing something (as we often think of it), however, this is a labor term – it is the wage or earnings one is due for their work (hence the wording in Romans 4:4-5). In other words, what earnings are there in loving them that love you? There’s no effort there. But loving your enemies commands a salary far greater than one could imagine – not a salary of earthly blessings or material things, but blessings of what it does in your heart, reinforcing how we are to treat people. Otherwise, Jesus says, if we are loving those who love us (only), we are no different than the tax collectors (who were absolutely hated in their culture because they were Jews who sold out to Rome). The choice is ours – if we love our neighbors and hate our enemies, we are no better than the offspring of tax collectors, yet, if we love our neighbors and our enemies, we are children of the Father. It is in this that we find our perfection, or, our holiness. Don’t think of perfection as “flawless” – that’s a jaded meaning of perfection that we adopt from Greek philosophy but also, that idea of perfection isn’t in the context. Jesus is describing what SETS YOU APART as the children of your Father from the children of tax collectors. He is teaching on what makes you HOLY. What distinguishes YOU as a child of the Father is the expression of your heart in loving both your neighbor and your enemy.
As we move into Matthew 6, we are going to understand a bit more about how we treat people but also begin to understand how being prepared and not worrying about immaterial things ultimately impacts our ability to love others. We’ll learn how to give; we’ll learn how to deny self; we’ll learn how to pray; we’ll learn how to seek God’s kingdom first.
Our story continues…