Matthew 5:21-37

Instructions for Daily Living

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel

Leo Tolstoy tells of a man in a boat: The opposite shore has been pointed out to him, he has been given a pair of oars and he is left alone. He rows a short distance and the current deflects him. Other boats are in the same stream. Some are struggling valiantly against the current while others are just drifting along. “Is this the way?” the man asks. “Of course it is! What do you think? There is no other way.” So our rower takes his ease. But suddenly he becomes aware of a menacing sound—the roar of the rapids. He realizes his peril and recalls what he had forgotten—his oars, his appointed course and the opposite shore. With all his might he rows upstream crying with genuine contrition, “What a fool I was to drift!” Tolstoy interprets his parable—the current is the tradition of the world which sweeps away countless multitudes. The oars are the will of the individual and the opposite shore is God. A person can either acquiesce in temptations or take a firm resolve against them.

I was asked recently whether my image of God was a vengeful, angry, wrathful God who sent to the wicked to hellfire or rather a loving, kind, forgiving God. This was an easy question to answer because when I think of God, I think of God’s love for me in saving and forgiving. God in Jesus came into our world to take away our sin by his death on the cross and to proclaim God’s victory over sin, death and the devil that first Easter morning.

But then I went to our text for this Sunday, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The lesson comes from Jesus’ teachings on the commandments and they come with both a promise and a warning. The promise is the Gospel of Jesus. We find forgiveness, healing and salvation in Jesus Christ. As Frederick Dale Bruner has put it, “We must always remember that the text of Jesus’ commands lies within the context of Jesus’ Gospel.” We are saved by grace through faith not through works of the Law. But our passage also deals with what happens after we believe. It focuses on the second table of the Law—not how we are to fear and love God above everything else, keep God’s Name holy, God’s day sanctified—but how we love, serve and obey God in daily life. The question is simply do we go with the flow? Do we hold ourselves to a higher standard or agree that there is nothing so special about Christians except maybe a little hypocrisy and sanctimony? What do we do after we say we believe?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes back to the Ten Commandments and broadens them. In particular, he takes pervading sins—anger, sexual immorality, deceptive speech—and warns us against not taking them seriously. In these commands there is a structure which goes: the old commandment, Jesus’ new commandment and then steps of obedience. Anger first: “You have heard it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder'” (Matthew 5:21 WEB).  The commandment against murder is the most obvious of them all.  Then Jesus says, “But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22 WEB).  Who has not become angry? Who does think another is a fool? What is Jesus doing talking about hell-fire for such simple things?

It is not often that I get to talk about hell in a sermon but I will now, and only because Jesus is clear about this. The references to hell in the Scriptures are not antithetical to the reference to love. It is love that warns of hell. St John Chrysostom wrote, “God hath threatened hell, not in order to cast therein, but that He might persuade us to flee from it.” God does not send us to hell; we go there by our own will and action. God warns of judgment throughout the Bible to deter us from sin. And it is interesting that the primary sin is anger; anger is the sin that condemns us.

I share a textual variant to our passage at our Bible class this week. For a thousand or more years there was a little word “eike” added to the text which means “without a cause.” “Do not be angry without a cause.” Now this has become a footnote because the word for “cause” does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. Kings and princes could always find a cause for war. Who does not have a cause that can be used to justify anger and resentment and allow us to hold a grudge?

No, Jesus says we should not hold on to our anger. There is no cause that justifies it. Sure, as human beings we may get mad—and actually this is the root word in our text, the same word as “orgy.” We can get carried away by the madness of anger. Ephesians tells us, “‘Be angry, and don’t sin.’ Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26 WEB).  Christians do not hold on to their anger. If we get angry we do not try to get even but instead be reconciled with our enemy. Jesus tells us just what to do: leave your gift at the altar and go make up with your brother and sister. Paul in Romans, “If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18 WEB).  We may not be able to change the other person but we can change ourselves. Forgive the trespasses of others so that God forgives you yours.

If uncontrolled anger is the greatest of sins, then sexual immorality follows right after. “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery.” And here Jesus expands the commandment as well. It is not enough to avoid the act of adultery, but lust in the heart also breaks the commandment. The words here do not mean a passing glance that notices beauty and appreciates it, but the leering, ogling, staring that objectifies the other person that is wrong. Unbridled anger destroys communities and relationships; so does uncontrolled lust. Jesus says it is better to tear out your eye, cut off your right hand, than to end up in hell.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce is really part of this same commandment. In Jesus’ time, there were two parties within the Jewish community that took opposite stands on divorce. Rabbi Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24 strictly: “Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a woman but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her so he writes her a certificate of divorce.” To Rabbi Shammai, “something objectionable” means an indecency, the word is “some nakedness.” Rabbi Hillel interpreted the passage very loosely, “something objectionable” could really be whatever the man thought “something” was. Rabbi Akiba interpreted to mean: “if she is no longer beautiful to the man.” Men were divorcing their wives for burning the dinner, for losing their looks; maybe the man had found a younger, prettier woman. Jesus takes Shammai’s strict position and makes it stricter yet.

Among Christians there should be no divorce. Yes, if the woman had committed adultery, then it is permissible to divorce. But Mark and Luke and Paul would not even concede this. Christians do not divorce their wives and do not marry divorced women. By the time of the Reformation, Luther expands the commandment to include men as well—”We are to fear and love God so that in matters of sex our words and conduct are pure and honorable and husband and wife love and respect each other.” The Heidelberg Catechism read, “All unchastity is condemned by God…we should therefore detest it from the heart and live chaste and disciplined lives whether in holy wedlock or in single life.”

We are called to godly living in thought, word and deed. Words too—the next commandment that Jesus expands is the eighth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Jesus counters, “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” (Matthew 5:33-34 WEB).

Have you ever heard someone say, “I swear it is the truth,” or “I swear on a stack of Bibles that it is the truth!” I do not know about you, hearing that always makes me think that everything else that the person says must be a lie. Jesus simply tells us, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one” (Matthew 5:37 WEB). Christians are to be honest people, speaking the truth clearly. We are called to “speak the truth in love.” Paul advises Timothy to be kindly to everyone, patient, correcting with gentleness. Words can hurt. Some words hurt so badly that relationships are destroyed. Jesus is telling us to make sure our words are truthful and loving, building up and not tearing down. Luther got this commandment right when he explains, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander or lie about our neighbor but defend the neighbor, speak well of the neighbor and explain the neighbor’s actions in the kindest way.”

It is important how we live our life as God’s people. We are held to a higher standard just because we know God and love God, because we have had our sins forgiven and been given the Holy Spirit. We are not just drifting along, but called to take up the oars and row our boat to the other shore. We are expected to help one another, forgive one another, respect one another. It is hard work being a Christian, loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and then loving our neighbors as ourselves. But remember this, if God asks you to do something, God will give you the necessary strength to carry out the task. Amen.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2014 James D. Kegel.  Used by permission