Matthew 5:17-20

The Antitheses: Part One

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Our series on The Sermon on the Mount continues this week with a closer look at what we call, The Antitheses.  Each begins, “You have heard it said … but I say to you …”  As Lewie Donalson pointed out in the Heritage Lectures, they’re really not antitheses, as such; that is, Jesus didn’t contradict the Law in his teaching, he added to it.  He extended the Law of Moses beyond its minimal requirements and focused on the spirit of the Law.  In doing so, he made it clear: This is how God would have us live in community with each other.  This is the type of people God created us to be.

Make no mistake about it, God loves us, even when we fall short – which is most of the time – yet, as we strive for the righteousness of God spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount, we experience the fullness of God’s grace and love.

Last week we heard the Beatitudes.  Today we’ll take a closer look at the Antitheses.  There are five of them in all.  We’ll take the first three this morning and pick up on the other two next week.

Something I’d like for you to keep in mind is how personal they are.  Lewie made this clear in his first lecture.  He said the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were not intended as social ethics, but as a model for how we’re to relate to each other, one-on-one.

In his day, Jesus was not concerned to challenge the authority of the Roman government or to reform the practices of pagan cultures.  For example, when asked about matters of church and state, he said,

“Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.”
(Matthew 22:21)

In regard to the Gentiles, he once told a Canaanite woman who begged him to heal her daughter, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)  True, he ended up doing what she asked – he healed her daughter – but his message didn’t change.  He spoke to a distinctively Jewish audience and invited them to live as the people of God they were called to be – to strive for the righteousness of God, which had been so compromised by rabbinic teaching.

This leads us to the Antitheses.  The first is a restatement of the 6th Commandment.

“You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones,
‘You shall not murder;’
and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’
But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause
shall be in danger of the judgment.”
(Matthew 5:21-22)

Jesus didn’t leave any wiggle room.  Not only are you not to kill someone, you’re not even supposed to be angry at them.  Sound impossible?  Paul must have thought so.  He told the Ephesians,

“‘Be angry, and don’t sin.’
Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Ephesians 4:26)

As far as Paul was concerned, it’s all right to be angry; just don’t hurt others in the process – and don’t hold on to your anger and let it fester.  Express your anger in a timely and appropriate way.

Jesus held to an even higher standard: Don’t be angry at all.  How is this possible?  I have an idea. We see it illustrated all the time: An individual makes a comment, say, in a meeting and someone sitting at the table gets bent out of shape.  Say there are ten people on the committee.  One person takes offense and gets angry; the other nine aren’t bothered by the comment, at all.

Now, what does this say about getting angry?  It says that anger is a subjective emotion and that getting angry has more to do with the person whose angry than with the circumstances that set him off.  In his book, Notes to Myself, Hugh Prather writes,

“If something you do rankles me,
I can be sure that your fault is my fault too.”

If this is the case, it puts the ball in our court – we can do something about it.  Instead of fussing and fighting and fuming and letting our anger get the best of us, we can look within and explore those blind spots and hot buttons that are so easily triggered.

I confess I used to get angry at the drop of a hat.  Just about anything would upset me.  I finally came to realize that I was the one who was out of step, not the world around me.  I came to see how overly egotistical and opinionated I was, and that I was carrying around a heavy of load of anger all the time.  All others had to do was pop the cork.

So, I decided to do something about it.  First, I got some help in letting go of my anger.  In the process, I learned how to forgive.  I also decided to quit trying to play God and accept the fact that I’m not in charge of the universe.  It’s not all up to me.  I don’t have to be in control.  I also decided to rely on others to help me and guide me, and that requires the willingness to be vulnerable, which is not a natural instinct, at least not for me.

All this took time, and I’m still working on it, and I’ve still got a long way to go, but, even now, it’s made all the difference in my life: I don’t fight windmills nearly as much as I used to.

Well, that’s my story.  What about you?  Are you letting your anger get the best of you?  When you think about it, most things aren’t worth fighting over.  For example, have you ever gotten into an argument with your husband or wife or best friend or sibling and, a few days later, you couldn’t remember what the argument was about?  And isn’t it true?  We’re most prone to arguing when we’re tired and irritable and don’t feel good about ourselves.

Let’s take Jesus at his word: Don’t be angry.  The next Antithesis reads:

“You have heard that it was said,  ‘You shall not commit adultery;’
but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her
has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
(Matthew 5:27-28)

In a 1976 interview with Playboy Magazine, then President Jimmy Carter was asked if he’d ever committed adultery.  He said, “No,” and then he went on to confess,

“I’m just human and I’m tempted
and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us …
(for example,) that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart
has already committed adultery.
I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust.
I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.
This is something that God recognizes,
that I have done and will do,
and God forgives me for it.”

It’s hardly anything new – men and women find each other physically attractive – God made us that way.  It’s part of a healthy sexuality.  To find a woman beautiful or a man handsome is to pay them a compliment, and to long for a loving relationship with a person you find attractive is, well, what makes the world go around.

But there’s a world of difference between longing and lusting – and, incidentally, President Carter was actually referring to longing, but let’s not belabor the point.  To lust after another person is to debase that person and be willing to use him/her as an object of self-gratification.  It’s to twist and distort the beauty of a loving relationship and turn it into an evil form of power and domination and control.

Over the years, I’ve been asked to serve on the board of directors for various women’s shelters.  That’s given me a close-up look at the reality of domestic violence and made me sensitive to the tell-tale signs of sexual abuse.  When I first came into contact with battered women, I was shocked.  I had to check my naiveté at the door.  I’d never been exposed to this kind of reality before.  In time, I came to realize that all marriages are not what they seem – that lust sometimes disguises itself as love.

On the positive side, I came to appreciate the beauty of a healthy marriage and the mystery of God’s great design in creating us male and female and allowing us to come together as one.  There’s a line in the wedding service I now use that expresses God’s intent beautifully.  It goes,

“God gave us marriage for the full expression of the love between a man and a woman.  In marriage a woman and a man belong to each other, and with affection and tenderness freely give themselves to each other. … In marriage, husband and wife are called to a new way of life, created, ordered and blessed by God.  This new way of life must not be entered into carelessly or from selfish motives, but responsibly and prayerfully.”

It goes for us all.  This new way of life to which we are called, not only as husband and wife, but as brothers and sisters in Christ, is one in which relationships of every kind are seen as gifts of God to be cherished and respected, and not used or abused in any way.

What follows is an extension of the antithesis on adultery.  Jesus went on to say:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever shall put away his wife,
let him give her a writing of divorce,’
but I tell you that whoever puts away his wife,
except for the cause of sexual immorality,
makes her an adulteress;
and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery.”

(Matthew 5:31-32)

The subject of divorce came up at least once in Jesus’ ministry.  According to Mark, a group of Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2)

It was a trap, and Jesus knew it.  They were trying to get him to contradict the Law of Moses.  So, instead of saying yes or no, he asked the Pharisees, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be written, and to divorce her.” This refers to Deuteronomy 24:1, where it says a man could divorce his wife if he found something objectionable about her.  Objectionable?!  That could mean anything from infidelity to a bad hair day!  You can just imagine how men took advantage of this loophole.

Jesus went on to say, “For your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment.” Then he went back to Genesis and said,

“But from the beginning of the creation,
God made them male and female.
For this cause a man will leave his father and mother,
and will join to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,
so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.
What therefore God has joined together,
let no man separate.”
(Mark 10:5-9; see also Genesis 2:24)

Jesus pointed back to God’s original intent, that marriage is a covenant relationship in which a man and woman live out their lives in mutual love and devotion to God and each other. To reduce marriage to a matter of expediency – as the Jews in Jesus’ day were doing – was to distort the whole concept of God’s intent.  And so, it’s out of this context that Jesus said,

“Whoever divorces his wife, and marries another,
commits adultery…”
(Mark 10:11-12)

What does this mean for us today?  That divorce is a sin?  That those who divorce should never remarry?  That to marry a divorced man or woman is to commit adultery?  Not necessarily.  It means we ought to regard the marriage vows as sacred and do everything possible to live by them.  Divorce ought to be the last resort, when all attempts to save the marriage have failed.

Having said that, we have to admit that, sometimes – not always – divorce is the best option for all concerned.  At least it sets the individuals free to learn from their mistakes and live toward the future.  In the meantime, we need to understand that, when divorce occurs, those involved need all the strength and support they can get.  They need to hear a clear message of God’s forgiveness, grace and love.  The last thing they need is to be cut off from their friends and ostracized by the church and community.  We ought never stand in judgment.  The next antithesis reads,

“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,’
but I tell you, don’t swear at all:
neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God;
nor by the earth, for it is the footstool…”
(Matthew 5:33-35)

Understand, Jesus was not talking about cursing.  He was talking about making an oath or promise.  The Torah was clear on this point:

“When a man vows a vow to Yahweh,
or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond,
he shall not break his word;
he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
(Numbers 30:2)

Then, as now, a man’s word was his bond.  So, why would Jesus object to that?  Simple, you never know what the future holds.  When you say things like, “You can count on me,” or, “I’ll take care of it,” or, “I’ll never let you down;” you may have every intention of making good on your promise, but any number of circumstances can prevent you from doing it.  To be blunt, you may not be here tomorrow.  I may not be here either.  We all live one heartbeat away from eternity.

Only God is sovereign.  Only God knows the future.  The best we can do is to offer a provisional promise: “I’ll be there, God willing and the creeks don’t rise.”  “This is the plan, if the way be clear.”  As Jesus said,

“Whatever is more than these
is of the evil one.”
(Matthew 5:37)

Here’s what I hope you’ll take home with you today: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raised the bar to its maximum level.  He calls us to measure up to the very righteousness of God.  Humanly speaking, that’s not possible.  But, with God, all things are possible.  The Good News is, as we surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, God gives us the grace we need to reflect his goodness and love.  Let us pray:

“Lord, lift me up and let me stand
By faith, on Heaven’s table land;
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.