Murder, Adultery & Divorce – SOTM series (5)

To understand the following section of the Sermon On The Mount (SOTM) we must, as usual, look at the section that precedes it. Jesus has just clearly stated that He has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. For Jesus, the law & the prophets are summed up in the Jesus Creed- to love God and love others. His radical grace is never a license to abandon His precepts. We cannot truly follow the law without becoming like Christ and cannot truly become like Christ if we ignore the law. They are critically and indivisibly bound together.

In Matthew 5:21-32, Jesus goes on to look at some of the hardest hitting issues that the law addresses: Murder, Adultery & Divorce. It would not surprise me if these issues were the bigger hitters of Jesus’ day and age. The righteous could stand firm against these issue with moral superiority because, for the most part, few of them ever had to deal with them. I wonder if those who did fail in these areas, like with today’s hot button issues, were a means by which others boosted their moral standing. Jesus, of course, makes no room for this technique:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Jesus reminds us with powerful clarity that the law is not kept through external and explicit obedience to the prescribed behaviors and/or adherence to a set of prohibitions. Rather, we see that the bar has been raised significantly, requiring that not only are we to follow the law, but that the intention behind that law be written upon our hearts. The motives and attitudes that lie hidden in the secret places of our hearts and mind are exposed before God and it is there that the measure of our obedience is laid.

Sin literally means to miss the mark, suggesting that sin is more about what it has missed- what it has failed to be– than just the transgression itself. Murder is wrong because it fails to be loving, peaceful, gracious, etc. That is why, even if we resist the act of sin but fail to embrace the righteous and just higher alternative, we are still guilty of violating God’s law. We are not, ultimately, loving Him or others.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”

In the first section, Jesus demonstrates that the condition of our heart is the measure of our obedience and righteousness. In this section He goes even further, showing us that good works or obedience cannot somehow balance the scale. Given that we share very few of the rituals of first century Judaism, it is important for us to recognize how this applies to our context. Our worship, service, ministry, etc.- all critically important to our walk of faith- are to be put aside until we address the unresolved issues of broken relationship with God and others. This does not devalue those acts of worship, but rather demonstrates that reconciled relationship is the central expression of Christian worship. It is the grace in our brokenness that most glorifies God. As we’ve learned previously in this series, this is also an expression of our public witness to the world.

It is interesting to note that Jesus is not clear whether you or your fellow are at fault in the conflict. Jesus is less concerned with where the blame lies than He is on the state of the relationship. As we pursue true reconciliation, we must be brutally aware of and strongly resist our tendency to look for “percentages of wrong”. We are responsible for our hearts, thus making even the slightest failing our 100% of fault. No matter how much “more” the other person wronged us, this does not mitigate our own fault in the slightest. This might mean that we humble ourselves for a failing while the other makes little or no effort to take responsibility. Humility and repentance are painful and- obviously- humbling. (NOTE: I am not suggesting here that we let people get away with injustice. This is why the community at large must participate in correction.)

Again Jesus makes His summation of the law and prophets abundantly clear: our pursuit of righteousness (i.e. our sacrifice & worship) lack value as long as we ignore or participate in injustice (i.e. broken relationship with others). In other words, we cannot expect to love God while not loving our sister or brother. The barriers of sin between each are invariably the barriers between us and God. The two commands are inseparable. We often like to interpret John 15:13 (“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”) as being about literally dying for others (which is an important meaning). I believe, however, that Jesus is referring to our whole lives, including the simple, but costly sacrifices grace, humility, service and love.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

In perhaps one of the most brutally explicit commands against sin, Jesus’ words here are often read as dramatic overstatement. However, I believe that Jesus is being quite literal here. If any part of your body causes you to sin, then by all means, you should cut it off! Reflecting back on what Jesus has been teach thus far, we can see that He is remind us that sin is born of the heart, not the body. Our hands, eyes, etc. can never cause us to sin. We choose to do so with our will because of the condition of our heart. It is our heart that should be cut out and thrown away (not literal, of course, but referring to our mind, will & emotions). Again, Jesus points towards the Cross.

This is not easy task. Imagine how you feel when a fellow Christian calls you out on your sin. Even when done well, we most often respond with anger, denial and even counter-accusations. How much harder, then, is it for us to address the hidden and secret sins that lie in our hearts? If we are going to embrace these teachings of Jesus, we must be prepared face significant and painful humility and repentance.

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

First, while Jesus is addressing divorce here, it is not the primary focus of His teaching, but rather as an example to further illustrate the broader teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. So while we must pay close attention to these verses in respect to divorce, they cannot be used apart from wider Scriptural references on the topic.

In this section Jesus is addressing another abuse of the law that was all too common in His day (as it is today). The Jews were using the literal letter of the law to get out of certain marriages (often as a means to get into new ones). To use the law to justify selfish and sinful choices is to exploit God for our own ends. The laws about divorce were given to us to protect us and teach us to truly love God and others. For it to be used in such a way is a violation of the spirit of the law and thus the law itself, regardless of the letter of the law. Jesus was primarily addressing the sanctity of covenant, reflected in this example through marriage, but implicitly in respect to God’s covenant to His people. Again, the bar has been raised.

Following Jesus is difficult. While we want forgiveness of sin and the assurance of eternal salvation from judgment, we often fail to recognize that the free gift of Christ is costly. He has made a way for us to be saved, but it is through the suffering and death on the Cross. Further, the new life we find is no longer our own, but rather His. We are reborn into His Body, thus His to command. Adherence to this costly way of life is not an option for the especially righteous, but the standard by which we are all called to live. We can be humbly grateful that He is gracious and forgiving, as we continue to fail to meet this ideal. However, we must never allow His love and grace be a license to waver from this path of devoted submission.

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