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"The Heart of the Matter"

What do teachings about anger, adultery, divorce, and vows have to do with each other? What do they have to do with being salt and light? Has Jesus lost the theme? Is he just rattling on?

By Bear and Birch Designs
“Love and Peace Messages on the John Lennon Wall in Prague.” Photo by Sara Serra.

Matthew 5:21-37

February 12, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright I don’t know whether you listened to the President’s State of the Union message this past week, but like most such speeches, there comes a point where it feels like additional paragraphs are just tacked on with little connection to a unifying theme. You might feel the same bewilderment on hearing today’s portion of Matthew’s recording of the sermon on the mount. What do teachings about anger, adultery, divorce, and vows have to do with each other? What do they have to do with being salt and light? Has Jesus lost the theme? Is he just rattling on?

 

To answer that question, let me put this passage in a larger context: Later in Matthew’s gospel, a Pharisees will ask Jesus which commandment is the greatest. He will reply “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[2] Scholars say this is the key to unlocking this section of Jesus’ sermon to the crowd: “For if ‘all the law and the prophets’ hang on the twofold love of God and neighbor, then we should interpret any particular law as a way of living out that love.”[3] So what would that mean for topics that are drawn straight out of the Ten Commandments? Well, it might help to remember that that list is less about “shall nots” and more about building a community – “a vision of abundant, dignified, fully human life!” Jesus begins with the prohibition against murder. His audience was all too familiar with the topic, just as we are. They had experienced a drunken fight that got out of hand, or a domestic dispute that ended in tragedy, or a Roman soldier who took a life because he had to power to get away with it. Jesus is not breaking new ground to say murder is wrong. But he goes deeper. It is as if he is saying, “When God gave us this commandment, do you think the idea was that we would form a community in which we constantly antagonize each other, hate each other, abuse each other, wound each other — and then, at the very last moment, refrain from murdering each other? Of course not!” The spirit of ‘You shall not murder’ is that your orientation toward your neighbor, both in your outward actions and your inward attitude, should never be violent. “Think of it this way: when you’re angry [and you] you lash out with hateful words, isn’t that, too, in its own way a kind of violence, a lesser form of “murder”? Isn’t that, too, in its own way a violation of the commandment, [destroying] the healthy community the commandment is meant to help us create?” Jesus takes a similar approach to the command against adultery. Most people gathered there had seen the impact – how it broke hearts and broke marriages and broke families. We’ve seen it. It breaks his heart, so it is as if he is saying, “When God gave us this commandment, do you think the idea was that we would form a community in which we constantly leer and lust after each other, objectify and sexually pursue each other — [but it would be ok if we] at the very last moment, refrain from adultery? Of course not!” The spirit of ‘You shall not commit adultery’ is that all people are created in the image of God and worthy of respect and communities are built on respect. Lusting and leering topples the first domino. It leads to dissatisfaction with what you do have and an inappropriate yearning for what you do not. It disrespects boundaries. It disrespects vows taken. It disrespects people. Even if it is only something you think about, isn’t that still a violation of what the commandment is trying to prevent? Isn’t that rotting the community from the inside? Adultery leads Jesus to talk about divorce. Its not addressed in the ten commandments, but the rest of the law is certainly not silent. Even more than today, it meant women and their children were cast out, abandoned, shamed, and left to fend for themselves, often in poverty. It was devastating! Jesus is saying, “This cannot be the kind of community God has in mind.” Do you think God intended that we take our marriage promises so lightly? That we treat the one we once pledged our lives to like trash to be swept out, or a wilted flower to be replaced each Spring? Of course not! Jesus is not denying that sometimes in marriage trust is broken, or abuse committed, or love lost beyond all repair. He is not arguing that people should stay in a marriage no matter what. But he is asking people to consider their decisions in light of how they further the great commandment. Can divorce proceed in a loving way or will it simply be another wound inflicted on the health of the community? Jesus wraps up by talking about vows in general. Before the profusion of written contracts and lawyers on every corner, oral vows were emphasized, sometimes to the point of absurdity! Jesus is encouraging a community where everyone is so trustworthy, that when we say yes or no, no elaborate additions will be necessary.

 

I ran across a poem this week. One line asks, “If we were to string our words on a communal clothesline, would we feel proud as our thoughts flapped in the breeze?”[4] I think Jesus is asking the same question. It is not enough to consider our outward actions. We must put our inner thoughts on trial. Both contribute to the formation of a community; both can show whether we love God and love neighbor. That is the heart of the matter! Amen

[1] “Love and Peace Messages on the John Lennon Wall in Prague.” Photo by Sara Serra. [2] See Matthew 19:1-9 [3] Here and following from https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/2/9/heart-to-heart-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-6 [4] From “clothesline” by Marilyn Maciel
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