Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 12, 2023
Matthew 5:21-37 Commentary
This is our last week with the Sermon on the Mount, but it is important to remember that context. Jesus started this sermon with blessings for the struggling, encouragement for the blessed, and is describing the high calling of kingdom citizenship. We are still in that spirit.
Living the way that Jesus is describing will be like nothing anyone has ever seen or outlined—even today. As we consider each of the different scenarios and actions addressed, we also need to look ‘beyond’ them to the kind of character they point to.
That’s the whole point of the structure Jesus uses in this section. “You have heard it said… but I say to you” is an antithetical form, contrasting two points. But Jesus isn’t actually saying the opposite of each of these widely-held moral teachings; he is expanding their meaning from the letter of the law to its spirit in order to help us understand the nature of kingdom citizenship. It is less about keeping exact laws and more about living a wholesome righteousness that is rooted within our very transformed souls.
Murder isn’t just a literal exterior act: we can also have a murderous spirit that shows up in our speech, attitude, thoughts about, and treatment of others. Adultery isn’t just something we physically commit: an adulterous disposition leers at others in order to take and selfishly consume without regard. The way Jesus describes divorce implies a problem with the ease in which it can be chosen: what does it say about our willingness to be committed to someone else? A similar meaning is seen in Jesus’s teaching about oath taking: God’s people don’t need to use oaths because they ought to already be committed to telling the truth—the oath is implied every time they open their mouths.
All of these topics are pastorally sensitive. And, making cart blanche statements about what it looks like to live faithfully according to the ethos Jesus is creating for his people runs the risk of becoming its own law that we keep by the letter rather than mining the wisdom of its spirit. The real invitation, of course, is to have the spirit of the law flow freely out of our transformed spirits, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, God-with-us, to understand that we are not solely our choices, but that our choices indicate and help us measure what is ruling our hearts and minds.
The kind of character I see Jesus describing here is the exact character he showed in life and in death. Jesus showed himself to be committed, at the deepest level, to not taking the easy, acceptable ways out, but to live righteousness in every relationship, thought, and action because every relationship, thought, and action flowed from his inmost being which was deeply connected through the Spirit to his Father in heaven.
I say this carefully, particularly not wanting people who are in dangerous marriages to feel as though following the model of Jesus means they must stay. We have to focus on what Jesus wants us to focus upon, which incidentally, is also what we have the ability to control. Rather than focusing on the results or “looking” appropriate (i.e., staying married, showing off a false peace with someone you are in conflict with for the sake of getting the stamp of approval of others, saying what other people want to hear), we are being invited to take stock of our own character and motivation. From our hearts flow our actions. Wholesome motivations and humble disposition can serve as a pretty good safeguard against sin, and they help us take stock of our transforming spirit. How much have we given over of ourselves to the Lordship of Christ?
When we consider all of these rather alarmingly common scenarios that Jesus is putting together here (and which continue for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount), we see a message about our choices: that what consumes us (usually ourselves and our selfishness, our avoidance of difficult situations) is where our allegiances really lie.
Do you notice the way in which these scenarios all have a communal component and impact? Our anger leads to the discipline of the community, reconciliation is prompted by church involvement, and there are real-world consequences for not addressing the wrongs you’ve committed against others.
Adulterous spirits are selfish ones, which, many of us know all too well, significantly impacts our ability to trust and be in relationship with one another. But consider how having to take drastic action to rein in lust can also have an impact on those around you: as you ‘cut off your arm’ or ‘throw out your eye’ in order to stop sinning—say get rid of computers and smart phones, set up accountability meetings, etc.—you are asking and needing other people to make sacrifices on your behalf. Even if they are lovingly willing, it is important to recognize that sacrifice. And, divorce without due necessity and healing that addresses one’s culpability in why it didn’t work out, only leads to issues in one’s next relationships. Finally, the oaths section implies a communal setting—whether religious or political. I suppose it’s true after all, no one is an island…
Jesus uses a participle to describe being angry. As Dale Bruner points out in his commentary, the participle helps us distinguish between feeling angry about something and choosing to harbor anger, “nursing a grudge.” Experiencing anger is not a sin in itself, but choosing to remain angry when working towards forgiveness or reconciliation is possible, that is a sin. In the end, when holding on to anger becomes a habit, like holding onto and acting on lust, we become addicted to it and it consumes us. When what we want to be consumed by is the kindness and mercy of God.
I recently read a magazine article about marriage, divorce, and infidelity post-pandemic. In it a psychologist discussed the rising number of couples who were coming to see her because one (or both) of the spouses cheated on the other. With all of the stresses of covid, instead of turning to each other or trying to understand what was happening within them, most of the couples (and many of us) turned outward in unhealthy ways (something also seen in arenas besides marriage). Dr. Michaela Thomas explained it this way, “People’s nervous systems are completely spent. That’s when emotions like indifference or hopelessness come in, and people try to make themselves feel good with dopamine-inducing, addictive behaviour, including infidelity.” Short-term dopamine hits can easily take the form of keeping the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law means staying in the messiness of life in order to really see what is going on, and following God’s guidance to address what is broken.
What this reminds us is that we need to be committed to growing our self-awareness if we want to be people of character. Self-awareness is a work we do with the Holy Spirit, it is our role in the invitation to God to “search me and know me…” It helps us discern when we are keeping the spirit of the law or just its letter—and why. It is what will allow us to be the altogether different kind of people, ones who live as Christ would live if Jesus were living our lives.
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