21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Translation: You have heard that it was said to the ones living long ago, "You will not murder," and whoever might murder is subject to the judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother (or sister) is subject to the judgment. And whoever might say to his brother (or sister), "you empty-head," is subject to the Sanhedrin, but whoever might say, "you fool," is subject into the hell-fire. If, then, you might offer your gift upon the altar and there might remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, leave there your gift before the altar and go first to be reconciled to your brother (or sister) and then come offer your gift. You agree with your adversary quickly, as long as whoever is with him on the way, lest the adversary deliver you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will surely not go out from there until you might give over the last farthing.
You have heard that it was said, "You will not commit adultery." But I say to you that anyone seeing a woman in order to desire her is now committing adultery in his heart. But if your right eye might cause you to stumble, take it out and throw (it) from you, for it is profitable for you that one of your members might perish and not (that) your whole body might be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw (it) from you, for it is profitable for you that one of your members might perish, and not your whole body be gone into hell. But it has been said, whoever might release his wife, let him give her a divorce. But I say to you that anyone releasing his wife, except of word of illicit sex, does adultery to her, and whoever might marry the one released is being adulterous.
Again, you have heard it was said to the ones living long ago, "Do not swear falsely, but you will give to the Lord your oaths." But I say to you, do not swear at all, not by heaven, for it is a throne of God, nor by the earth, for it is a footstool of his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is a city of the great king, nor might you swear by your head, for you are not able to make one hair white or black. But let your word be "yes, yes, no, no." But whatever is more than these is out of the evil one.
Background and situation: This section (5:21-37) is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. Thus far, Jesus has spoken the prologue, the Beatitudes. He then began his first major speech in Matthew with the proclamation of his listeners as salt and light and proclaimed the fulfillment of prophesy and the law. The law remains in full force "until all has come to be," a reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus which brings the New Creation.
The major source seems to be Q with some Special Matthew worked in, and with a couple of bank shots off Mark. Matthew 5: 25-26 has a parallel in Luke 12: 58 while 28-29 seem to have come out of Mark 9: 43-48. Matthew 5: 27-28 has a connection to Luke 16:18, Mark 10:2-4 and 11-12.
Living in the New Community: Having announced the good news and the kingdom of heaven having broken in (4:23-24), Jesus proclaims the guiding precepts of that kingdom in the Beatitudes (5:1-12), and announces that his followers are to be "salt" and "light" in the world.
Then follow six instances in which Jesus announces new interpretations of the law--indeed, some would say, changes the law. He will teach in regard to anger, sexuality, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and hatred of enemies. Our lection includes the first four of these examples.
In some cases, Jesus will deepen or expand the law. This would be the case when he says "not only this, but more" which he does in regard to anger and adultery. In some cases, Jesus' teaching is more "not this, but that," as in divorce, for example, or in the swearing of oaths.
The first issue is in regard to murder. Jesus underlines the ancient provenance of the law by noting that it had been said tois archaiois--to the ancient ones, the first ones. Every definition of Torah, whether broad or narrow, includes it.
Murder sent a person to judgment. (Now, according to Jesus, even anger does.) Judgment (krisei), however, should not be considered completely negative. Judgment is in the hands of God who delivers a person from the corruption of sin. Judgment is for our benefit. It purges and purifies. Because we are so attached to our sins--indeed, love our sins to the point that they become a part of us--we experience their purging as painful at first, but then liberating.
It seems that as Jesus diminishes the offenses, the penalty goes up. Murder and anger get you judgment, but simply calling someone "raka"--a Hebrew word of contempt--can get you sent to the Sanhedrin. (Given what we will later learn of the Sanhedrin, this cannot be a positive development.) Then, simply calling someone a "fool" (more) will get you burnt up in Gehenna, Jerusalem's garbage dump. Murder someone and you're judged? Call them a fool and you get complete annihilation?
In the new reality announced by Jesus, the old categories are being scrambled. Jesus is saying that life in the kingdom is marked not only by a different way of living, but a different understanding of life entirely.
The New Community is not a "new and improved" old community. Rather, it is a reconciled and beloved community in which all people are treated with dignity, not with contempt ("raka"), and with affirmation, not deprecation ("you fool"). The New Community has better things to do than be occupied with issues of anger--or, as we shall soon see, lust.
The exhortation to be reconciled to your brother or sister before bringing your gifts to the altar is the liturgical rationale for "passing the peace" before the eucharist. The "passing of the peace" reminds us that Jesus' teaching is actually to be done by real people, and, frankly, it is a judgment if it is only done pro forma--that is, going through the motions without really being reconciled.
The insertion of the exhortation to avoid prison if at all possible seems odd and many commentaries skip right over it. "You come to terms quickly with your accuser," says Jesus--the word "accuser" is antidikos, i.e. "anti-justice." The sentence is emphatic--the eimi-verb is in the imperative, and also second person plural, i.e. "you-all."
Not only is this an example of reconciliation in a very practical way, it also sounds like solid instruction to those who are involved in an anti-establishment movement. Spin whatever yarn you need to, but don't wind up in jail because you'll never get out until you give up everything. In fact, if possible, make your deal while someone else is present. You may need a witness. This is good advice for a resistance movement in a nation governed by Imperial Rome.
The second issue Jesus mentions is adultery and lust. This time, Jesus does not, for some reason, say that the prohibition on adultery was said to "the ancient ones" even though it clearly was. As with murder, every interpretation of Torah would include a prohibition against adultery.
"Anyone seeing a woman in order to desire her is now committing adultery in his heart," says Jesus. "Seeing" for the purpose of "desire" is not seeing a woman as a person but as an object. Again, the kingdom of heaven is about the dignity and affirmation of others, not using them for one's own purposes.
The exhortation to pluck out an eye or cut off your hand is hyperbole, of course. Taken literally, nearly all the men would be eye-less, and, if surveys of the prevalence of masturbation are accurate, 90% of men and 70% of women would be hand-less. (Matthew is re-working Mark 9: 43-48 to place it in a sexual context.)
Jesus' teaching about divorce in verse 32 is virtually identical in Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11-12. In Luke and Mark, howwever, there are no exceptions. Matthew allows an exception for porneias. Porneias refers to virtually any act of "illicit sex" and is not identical with adultery. (When Matthew wants to speak of adultery, he uses moicheuo.)
J.P. Meier and Robert Smith make the case that porneias refers to incestuous unions, or marriages within certain degrees of genetic affinity. These were quite common in the ancient world. If it's not really a legal union to begin with, then it's not really a divorce to break it up.
In any case, the New Community is not to be one where women are passed around. The New Community is, again, about dignity and affirmation of others, whether married or single, and it should be safe for both.
Again, "to the ones living long ago," it was said not to swear falsely. The Torah allowed for oaths, even prescribed them in some cases, but Jesus said not to swear "at all." People can get quite inventive with oaths, which is why Jesus goes on at some length condemning them--none by heaven, none by earth, none by Jerusalem, and none even from your own sweet little head. If our thoughts can't change the color of even one of our hairs, what's the point?
Oath-swearing is for people who don't trust each other, as if underlining our cheap words with a patina of piety might make them more believable. Oaths actually serve to underline doubt, not certainty. In the New Community, there is no need for such oaths because reconciled people speak the truth to each other and live in trust with each other.
Image: Sermon on the Mount, John August Swanson