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Matthew 5:21-37 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 5-7. THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
Matthew 5-7 is the Sermon on the Mount, the best known collection of Jesus’ teachings. Much of this material is also found in the Gospel of Luke, part of it in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49) and the rest of it elsewhere (Luke 11:2-4, 9-13, 34-36; 12:22-34, 57-59; 13:24-27; 14:34-35; 16:18).
Of particular importance to this Gospel lesson are Jesus’ remarks that immediately precede it. Jesus said:
“Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill. For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished. Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (5:17-20).
As we examine our Gospel lesson, we need to keep these verses in mind so that we will not be tempted to believe that Jesus is discounting the law. He has not come to discount the law or to abolish it, but rather to bring it to fulfillment—to bring out its real meaning (Barclay, 126).
Jesus also said, “Therefore you shall be perfect, (Greek: teleios) just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (5:48). The word teleios means something that is mature or complete—something that has reached its goal or fulfilled its purpose. To understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Therefore you shall be teleios,” we need to remember that God told Israel, “You shall be holy; for I Yahweh your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
To be holy is to be set apart for God’s purposes. The sabbath was holy, because God set it apart as a day of worship and rest. The tabernacle and temple were holy, because they were set apart as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites were holy, because God set them apart for his service. Israel was holy, because God had chosen them to be his people.
Now Jesus calls his disciples to be teleios—mature, complete—people who have fulfilled the purpose for which God has created them. He is calling them (and us) to be holy, set apart for God’s purposes.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus emphasizes that holiness involves, not just avoiding certain acts, such as murder or adultery, but also involves the thoughts and feelings that lie behind those actions. If we will bring our thoughts and feelings under control, we need not worry about murdering someone—or committing adultery.
MATTHEW 5:21-22. YOU SHALL NOT MURDER
21“You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder;’ (Greek: phoneuseis—from phoneuo) and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’ 22But I tell you, that everyone who is angry (Greek: orgizomenos) 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 (Greek: sunedrio—council or Sanhedrin); and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ (Greek: more—from moros) shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.”
“You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones” (v. 21a). This begins a section often called “The Antitheses” that extends through the end of the chapter. That title is derived from Jesus practice in these verses of voicing a thesis or idea (“You have heard that it was said”) and then stating an antithesis—a contrasting idea (“But I tell you”).
However, if these were true antitheses, Jesus would be telling his disciples to do the opposite of the Jewish law—to kill, for instance, or to commit adultery—but that isn’t what Jesus is doing. Instead, he raises the old commandment to a new level, telling his disciples not only to obey the commandment but also to exorcise the feelings and attitudes that might otherwise lead them to violate the commandment.
Six times in this chapter, Jesus uses some variant of this formula (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43)—the first four being in our Gospel lesson. In each case, he contrasts what they learned from the Torah (“it was said”) with his own teaching (“But I tell you”). In doing so, he is assuming a Godly prerogative.
In these antitheses, Jesus is not trying to contradict the Torah laws, but is instead trying to fulfill them—to bring his disciples into compliance, not with the letter of the law, but with the will of God that inspired the law.
As we read through these antitheses, we will become increasingly aware that we have failed miserably to meet Jesus’ standards. He has set the bar impossibly high, so that we must despair of ever reaching it. We could respond in one of two ways. One way would be to lapse into despair—to give up—to say that we can never meet these impossible standards. The other way would be to allow ourselves to fall backwards into Jesus’ arms—to acknowledge our guilt, but also to trust in the work of Jesus and the grace of God to bring us forgiveness and a clean slate. This second way—trusting in God’s grace—is the way of the New Testament, which makes it clear that our only hope is the grace of God.
“You shall not murder” (Greek: phoneuseis—from phoneuo) (v. 21b). The original commandment is found in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews each have their own numbering systems for the Ten Commandments. This is the sixth commandment according to the Protestant and Jewish systems, and the fifth according to the Catholic system.
The original commandments are recorded in Hebrew, and the word used for “kill” or “murder” in Exodus and Deuteronomy is rasah. The Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT) uses the word phoneuo, just Matthew does in this verse. Both rasah and phoneuo indicate the intentional and unlawful taking of human life.
The Torah distinguishes between murder (intentional and unlawful) and other forms of bloodshed, and provides a procedure for determining whether bloodshed constitutes murder (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). It allows capital punishment and prescribes the death penalty for a number of offenses. It allows killing in self-defense and in wars carried out according to God’s will. It differentiates between manslaughter (accidental) and murder (intentional and unauthorized), and treats them differently.
“Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment” (v. 21c). The penalty for murder is death (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-17). “In danger of judgment” could mean liability both to legal action and to eternal judgment.
“But I tell you, that everyone who is angry (orgizomenos) with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (v. 22a). Jesus extends the reach of the commandment beyond the act of murder to the thoughts, feelings, and actions that cause people to commit murder. He challenges us to deal with the problem of evil while it still resides as evil thoughts or feelings in our hearts—before it finds expression in the evil works of our hands or the evil words of our mouths. He calls on us to reconcile with our brother or sister so that good feelings—Godly feelings—will overcome the evil feelings of our hearts. Once our hearts are right, we will no longer be tempted to murder, but will instead be motivated by love, which is our proper response to our neighbor (22:39) and even to our enemy (5:44).
Elsewhere Jesus said, “That which enters into the mouth doesn’t defile the man; but that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11). When his disciples asked for an explanation, he said, “For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). It is this emphasis on that which lies behind the act—the evil that resides in the heart and results in evil deeds—that underlies what Jesus has to say throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus cites three sinful feelings or behaviors: Being angry with a brother—calling a brother “Raca”—and saying, “You fool!” (v. 22).
Barclay notes that there were two Greek words for anger: thumos, which is a fiery kind of anger that flames up and then dies—and orge, which is a smoldering anger, the kind of anger that a person nurtures and keeps alive. It is orge—the kind of anger that we deliberately harbor in our hearts over long periods of time—that Jesus condemns here.
None of these three behaviors (anger, calling a person “Raca”, or calling a person a fool) constitute murder, per se, but they are precursors of murderous behavior—the kinds of things that cause us to spiral out of control and commit murderous deeds. Indeed, public schools have had to crack down on students who insult other students, because that sort of behavior has inspired murderous behavior—mass killings—in school settings.
These three behaviors have a progressive quality. Anger is the first step; calling a person “Raca” is the second; and calling someone a fool is the third. Likewise, the penalties have a progressive quality.
The person who is angry is “in danger of the judgment” (v. 22). Jesus doesn’t say whether this is human judgment, Godly judgment, or both. However, “in danger of the judgment” is the same penalty associated with murder (v. 21), which involves both human and Godly judgment, so it seems likely that the angry person will be subject to both. While we might wonder if humans are qualified to assess the anger of a person’s heart, courts today, recognizing the threat that anger poses to civil order, routinely require people to attend anger management training.
“and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council” (sunedrio) (v. 22b). Raka is an Aramaic expression of reproach that means “empty”—in this case, “You empty-headed man!” or “You stupid man!” or “You fool!”
The person who insults brother or sister is “in danger of the council” (sunedrio—probably the Sanhedrin, the highest governing body of the Jewish people).
“Brother” could refer to a sibling, but in this context also means “fellow Christian.” Jesus has a special concern for his disciples and is laying a foundation of civility intended to prevent strife and divisions within the church.
We shouldn’t interpret this to mean that there are no consequences for being angry with people outside the faith. After all, Jesus calls us to love even our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us “that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven” (5:44-45).
Sunedrio can refer to any council, but in the New Testament usually means the Sanhedrin, the highest ruling body for Israel—chaired by the high priest. To be tried by the Sanhedrin would be far more serious than being tried by a local council or court.
“and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ (More—from moros—from which we get our word “moron”) shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna” (v. 22c). The word Raka (v. 22b) and the word More (v. 22c) are similar in the sense that both are intended to paint someone as empty-headed or foolish. I have been unable to determine whether More is worse than Raka, but it is clear that Jesus is progressing from one level to the next in the three parts of this verse. The punishments (judgment, council, and hell of fire) are certainly progressive.
The person who calls his brother or sister More (moron) shall be “in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” In the Old Testament, Gehenna was the place where the wicked were punished. The name Gehenna comes from the Hebrew, ge Hinnom, which means the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley near Jerusalem where human sacrifice was sometimes practiced (2 Kings 23:10) and where rubbish from Jerusalem was burned in fires that never cooled. This valley, therefore, stands as a metaphor for a place of eternal, fiery damnation.
Jesus’ concern here is the real damage that we can inflict with words. While children say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” that is a lie. Words have the capacity to wound us emotionally and spiritually as surely as a knife has the capacity to wound us physically. Most of us still carry the emotional scars of words that someone said years ago. Thus Jesus’ admonition about words such as Raka or More is intended to prevent inflicting real injury. While we might regard words as insignificant, Jesus is warning us that God regards them as highly significant.
James warns, “See how a small fire can spread to a large forest! And the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of animal, bird, creeping thing, and thing in the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by mankind. But nobody can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the image of God. Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:5b-10).
However, in other contexts, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and fools (23:15, 17), lending credence to the idea that it is the unjustified use of such language that is the problem he is addressing here.
MATTHEW 5:23-26. FIRST BE RECONCILED
23“If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Agree with (Greek: eunoon) your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way; lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. 26Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny” (Greek: kodranten).
“If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (v. 23-24). In verse 22, Jesus calls us to take the initiative when we are offended (“angry”). In verses 23-24, he calls us to take the initiative when our brother or sister is offended (“has anything against you”).
It matters not, then, whether we are right or wrong—the accused or the accuser. In either case, we are to take the initiative. Jesus drops the responsibility squarely in our laps. We are not to blame our brother or sister. We are not to wait for him/her to initiate the reconciliation. We are not to require him/her to apologize. We are to initiate the reconciliation even if we feel that we have been wronged—even if we have other urgent matters to attend to—even if we are standing at God’s altar with a sheep at our side.
Offering gifts at the temple altar is a solemn duty.—but Jesus says that the greater solemn duty is to reconcile with brother or sister (fellow Christian). This is highly unusual, because scripture calls us to give God top priority in nearly every instance. However, in the event of disharmony, Christ calls us to give reconciliation our top priority. It is as if the disharmony stands as a barrier between God and us—as if it somehow blocks the reconciliation with God that the sacrificial system is intended to effect. If we are to achieve harmony with God, therefore, we need first to achieve harmony with our brother/sister—and Jesus makes us responsible for taking the first step to make that happen.
What Jesus requires here would be, in practice, quite difficult. Most sacrifices are live animals. To bring a live animal to the temple altar and then leave it there to take care of other business would be highly irregular. Many of those offering sacrifices would have come from distant towns or countries. It would be quite a burdensome thing for them to leave their sacrifice at the altar, to track down the person who has something against them, to go through a process of reconciliation, and then to return to the Jerusalem temple.
Whether Jesus intends his disciples to follow these instructions literally seems a moot point, because his death and resurrection will soon render sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple unnecessary. Nevertheless, these instructions demonstrate the seriousness with which God views disharmony in our relationships with other people—and, in particular, with fellow Christians.
“Agree (eunoon) with your adversary quickly” (v. 25). This is another example of what Jesus expects when another person has taken offense at us—has become our accuser.
Eunoon is literally “Be of a good mind” or “Be well-minded.” “Come to terms” or “Make friends” or “Be reconciled” or “Agree” each capture something of its meaning. As in the earlier examples, Jesus charges us to take the initiative to reconcile with our accuser—to do what we can to dispel the disharmony.
“while you are with him in the way” (v. 25a)—while there is yet time—before the die is cast—before you are standing before the judge with no further opportunity to negotiate terms.
This is good practical guidance for dealing with people. Do what you can to deal with misunderstandings and to negotiate amicable settlements without going to court. It is also good guidance for Christians who find themselves in conflict with each other. Do what you can to resolve differences before they spin out of control.
“lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison” (v. 25b). This reflects the rough justice of that day. A lender could, indeed, have a debtor thrown into prison for failure to pay just debts.
On one level, this could be a human judge rendering an unfavorable verdict and confining us to prison. On another level, the judge and prison are metaphors for God and eternal punishment.
“Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny” (kodranten) (v. 26)—until the debt is fully satisfied, which could be a long, long time.
A kodranten is a small Roman coin worth 1/64th of a denarius (Blomberg). A denarius is a day’s pay for a common laborer (20:2, 13), so a kodranten would be wages for 1/8th of an hour—the equivalent of a dollar or more today—not the nearly worthless coin that we call a penny today. Jesus isn’t saying that the debtor will be required to repay on one kodranten, but rather that he will not be able to secure his freedom until he has repaid every last kodranten.
We might wonder how an impoverished debtor could, while imprisoned, accumulate the necessary funds to pay the debt. The assumption would be that a kinsperson might come to the debtor’s rescue. If not, the debtor could find himself serving a life sentence.
MATTHEW 5:27-28. YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ (Greek: moicheia) 28but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.“
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery'” (moicheia) (v. 27). Jesus moves to the next commandment—the prohibition against adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). Moicheia (adultery) involves sexual relations between a married man and a married woman other than his wife.
The law prescribes the death penalty for those who are guilty of adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). However, a married man was not considered guilty of adultery as long as he was involved with an unmarried woman.
The kosmos—the world opposed to God—would have us believe that this commandment has been imposed on us by obnoxious people who are opposed to joy. Kosmos people tell us that “You shall not commit adultery” is both regressive and repressive. They tell us, “What your wife (or husband) doesn’t know won’t hurt her (him).” They say, “When you aren’t near the one you love, love the one you’re near.” All the popular media (movies, television, music, magazines, and books) bombard us day in and day out with kosmos propaganda. We are like fish swimming in polluted water. To escape being overwhelmed by our kosmos environment requires vigilance and prayer. In the next verse, Jesus will tell us that it also requires dealing with potential sin at its roots—dealing with the thoughts of our minds and the feelings of our hearts.
“but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (v. 28). Once again, Jesus expands the commandment to prohibit the causative factor—in this case the lustful look—the look that leads to covetousness. Jesus’ words are thus related to the last commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17).
The story of David and Bathsheba vividly illustrates the connection of lust and adultery (2 Samuel 11). David saw Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop, lusted after her, and committed adultery with her. This placed David on the slippery slope that ended with his engineering the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband—and the death of the first baby born to David and Bathsheba—and an indelible stain on David’s reputation.
Jesus is not suggesting that everyone who looks at a woman with sexual interest is guilty of adultery. Under that standard, nearly all men would be guilty. Instead, Jesus calls us not to dwell on the desirability of the neighbor’s wife lest our sin of covetousness lead to the sin of adultery. He notes that the sin is the same whether the person commits the physical act of adultery or simply would do so if the opportunity presented itself. Virginity is no virtue for those whose hearts are impure.
There are those who accuse Jesus of repressing natural desires—of robbing men and women of natural pleasures. However, while sexuality has the potential for creativity and pleasure, it also has the potential for wounding people and destroying relationships. Jesus’ purpose is to safeguard the pleasure by steering people away from the destructive behavior.
MATTHEW 5:29-30. IF YOUR RIGHT EYE CAUSES YOU TO SIN
29“If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna. 30If your right hand causes you to stumble (Greek: skandalizei), cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.”
“If your right eye causes you to stumble” (skandalizei—from skandalon) (v. 29a). The word skandalon can mean the bait in a trap—or a stumbling stone in a pathway—or a camouflaged pit into which an unwary person might fall. The idea here is that our senses and capabilities, given by God for good, become instruments of evil when misused—cause us to stumble and fall. Such an assertion hardly needs proof. We see it every day. Those things that have the potential to do good or to give pleasure—money, sex, a glass of wine—have been the ruin of more people that we can imagine.
“For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna. If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehanna” (vv. 29b-30—cf. 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48). This is hyperbole (exaggerated language) crafted to make a point. Jesus’ point is not that we should pluck out our eye or sever our hand. His point is that sin is so deadly that we need to be deadly serious about eradicating it from our lives. We dare not compromise with evil.
The language in these verses reflects the realities of law in Jesus day. A kind of law known as lex talonis prevailed, allowing an injured party to inflict similar injury in return—”eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21; Matthew 5:38). If Saul accidentally put out Joseph’s eye, Jewish law allowed Joseph to put out Saul’s eye in return. While that might seem barbaric, that provision was intended to limit the injuries that the aggrieved party could inflict on the one who inflicted the original injury. If someone put out your eye, you could put out his eye in return, but were prohibited from putting out both of his eyes or killing him.
An example from modern surgery might serve better to illustrate the principle for people today. I happen to be a stage 3 cancer survivor. To give myself a chance to live, I submitted to surgery, chemo, and radiation. Surprisingly, I didn’t suffer very much from the chemo, but the surgery and radiation did permanent damage that continues to trouble me years later. However, without having the surgeon cut away diseased parts—and the radiologist burn away what remained—I would surely have died many years ago. In other words, the extreme treatments that I received were better than the alternative.
So also, in the spiritual realm, we need to treat the great tempters as life-threatening. Only by doing so will we be inclined to do the things (prayer, spiritual counsel, confession, etc.) that have the potential to save us.
MATTHEW 5:31-32. WHOEVER PUTS AWAY HIS WIFE
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorce,’ 32but I tell you that whoever puts away his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality (Greek: porneias—sexual immorality), makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery.”
“Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorce” (v. 31; see also Matthew 19:3-9). Deuteronomy 24:1-4 allows a husband to divorce his wife if he finds something unseemly (Hebrew: erwah—shameful, disgraceful) about her. It does not give the woman the right to initiate a divorce.
The meaning of “something unseemly” was a matter of debate among rabbis. The school of Shammai interpreted this phrase to mean adultery or some equally grievous behavior. The school of Hillel broadened the meaning to the point that a man could divorce his wife if she were guilty of something as simple as burning his dinner.
Deuteronomy required the husband to give his wife a bill of divorce, freeing her to marry. However, the divorced wife would need to find a husband quickly, because women in that time and place had few ways to make a living—prostitution being one possibility.
While we would see this situation as unfair to the woman, a bill of divorce would afford her more protection than she would enjoy in many cultures at that time.
When questioned about divorce on another occasion, Jesus reaffirmed God’s intent for the permanency of marriage. He noted that in marriage the two become one flesh. He then said, “What… God has joined together, don’t let man tear apart” (Matthew 19:6). When asked why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus said, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been so” (Matthew 19:8).
“But I tell you that whoever puts away his wife” (v. 32). Once again, Jesus expands the law, but this time in a different way. His focus in earlier verses had to do with the condition of the heart that caused sinful behavior. The focus here is on the behavior itself—although we might consider Jesus to have dealt with one of the most serious root causes of divorce in verses 27-30.
“except for the cause of sexual immorality” (porneias) (v. 32). Porneias is a broad term that can refer to any sort of sexual immorality. In the case of a married woman, porneias would likely mean adultery. In earlier times, adultery would have resulted in the execution of the adulterous woman, thus tendering divorce moot. However, by Jesus’ day, attitudes had softened so that adulterers were seldom executed.
The parallel verses in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 are of interest here. Neither includes this exception for porneias. Mark’s version is especially interesting, because he has Jesus saying, “Whoever divorces his wife, and marries another, commits adultery against her. If a woman herself divorces her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). While Jewish women had no right to divorce their husbands, Mark’s version admits to that possibility—perhaps reflecting Roman practice.
Also interesting is the fact that Mark’s version has the husband committing an offense against his wife by divorcing her. In the Jewish culture of that day, wives were considered to be the property of their husbands, so only men could be the victims of adultery. If a man’s wife committed adultery, the husband was considered to be the victim of his wife’s behavior. However, if a man committed adultery, that was considered to be an offense, not against his wife, but against the husband of the woman with whom he committed adultery.
“causes her to commit adultery” (v. 32). God’s intent for marriage is that a man and woman marry and remain together for life. When a man gives his wife a certificate of divorce, she has little choice but to marry again, if for no other reason than economic survival. The idea behind Jesus’ words here is that the man puts the woman in a position where she must live in violation of God’s original intent for the marriage.
“and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery” (v. 32). The man who divorces his wife has also violated God’s original intent for marriage.
This is a very difficult passage for us, because divorce has become so common that people think of it as an acceptable option. When our son was younger, he asked when his mother and I were going to get divorced. His question was not precipitated by conflict in our household or overheard conversations about divorce. It was simply that so many of his friends had parents who were divorced that he could not help but wonder when his parents—his home—his life—would be affected. He was quite relieved when we assured him that we had no intention of getting a divorce.
People planning weddings today often sign prenuptial agreements to make negotiations easier in the event that they decide to divorce. Couples promise to marry “till death us do part,” but secretly (sometimes not secretly) keep divorce as their escape hatch.
This presents a difficult dilemma for any pastor who wants at the same time to be faithful to the scriptures and pastoral to his flock. What can we say or do?
• We need to teach that God intends a man and woman to marry and to remain together until death separates them. We need to hold that up as the goal toward which we should all strive. Given the scope of the divorce problem in our culture, we should address this issue not only in our premarital counseling but also in our preaching and teaching. People should know that divorce is a sin to be avoided, if at all possible.
• People often divorce because marriage failed to meet their unreasonable expectations. We should seek to disabuse people of the notion that marriage should be some sort of magical carpet ride where glamour and romance reign. We should warn them that it is normal to fall in and out of love—and that it takes commitment and spiritual strength to weather difficult times. We should encourage them to build up their spiritual lives during the good times so that they will be prepared to weather the bad times.
• We should provide couples retreats, parenting classes, marriage counseling, and other programs to help couples strengthen their marriages and cope with problems related to marriage and parenting. If we cannot do that personally, we need to advise them where they can find such resources in their community.
• We need to acknowledge that there are circumstances when a marriage is irretrievably broken. While Jesus created an exception for porneias—sexual immorality—he didn’t create an exception for alcoholism, drug addiction, spouse abuse, or child abuse. However, many of us would consider these to be grounds for divorce—at least in some circumstances. Who could blame Dennis Rader’s wife for seeking a divorce after he confessed to being the BTK serial killer?
• When people divorce, whether for good reasons or bad, we need to acknowledge the reality of sin and the hope of grace. There is no reason to demonize divorce as worse than other sins. We are all guilty of sins—lots of them—and our only hope is the grace that Christ makes available. His grace is as available to divorced people as it is to people who are guilty of other sins.
MATTHEW 5:33-37. DON’T SWEAR AT ALL
33“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,’ 34but I tell you, don’t swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; 35nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36Neither shall you swear by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black. 37But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.”
“Again, you have heard that it was said to them of old time…. But I tell you” (vv. 33a. 34a). To understand Jesus’ concern here, we need to understand Jewish law regarding oaths and how the observance of that law evolved. There are a number of Old Testament scriptures that apply:
• “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
• “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and profane the name of your God. I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:12).
• “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).
• “You shall fear Yahweh your God; and you shall serve him, and shall swear by his name” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
• “When you shall vow a vow to Yahweh your God, you shall not be slack to pay it: for Yahweh your God will surely require it of you; and it would be sin in you. But if you shall forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in you. That which is gone out of your lips you shall observe and do; according as you have vowed to Yahweh your God, a freewill offering, which you have promised with your mouth” (Deuteronomy 23:21-23).
We should note the difference between an oath and a vow. Oaths were promises made to another person (which could include God). Vows (with the exception of the Nazarite vow) were promises made to God, contingent on God’s doing what the petitioner has requested. For example, a person in danger of death might pray,”God, if you will save me, I will devote the rest of my life to your service.” Both oaths and vows are binding, but vows are binding only if God does what the petitioner asks.
The ethical standards prescribed by these laws are rooted in the holiness and majesty of Yahweh. The concern is to honor the name of God—not to profane the name of God by making an oath using God’s name and then failing to perform on the oath. In the Jewish culture, the name of the person is more than a label—it is an integral part of the person. That is why, on a number of occasions, God renamed a person to acknowledge a significant transition in that person’s life (Jacob to Isaac—Simon to Peter, etc.). While it is important for a person not to dishonor him/herself by failing to live up to a promise, it is far more important not to bring dishonor to God’s name.
But note the phrase, “But if you shall forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in you” (Deuteronomy 23:22). Rabbis interpret this to mean that anyone taking an oath incurs an absolute obligation to perform that oath, but a person not taking an oath assumes no obligation. As a result, a person taking an oath assumes an absolute obligation to perform the oath, and people can trust promises made under oath. However, the person making a promise without swearing an oath assumes no great obligation, and people cannot trust promises made without benefit of an oath. Therefore people expect anyone making a promise of any importance to swear an oath—and oath taking becomes a casual, even trivial, matter.
“But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one” (v. 37; cf. James 5:12). In his prohibition against oaths, Jesus introduces his disciples to a new and higher standard. They are to keep their language simple and their actions honest. They are to live in such a way that their lifestyle will make oaths unnecessary. They are to live with such integrity that people can trust their simple Yes or No to be a guarantee.
Does this mean that Christians cannot take an oath to tell the truth in a courtroom? Morris says that Jesus’ intent is not to proscribe all oaths, but is rather to insist on honesty whether or not a person is under oath (Morris, 123-124).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, The Daily Bible Study: The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1956)
Blomberg , Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 1, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Dallas: Word, 1987)
Cartledge, T. W., in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), “Vow,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Cousar, Charles B., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
France, R.T., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, Vol. 33a (Dallas: Word, 1993)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Myers, Allen C., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Witherington, Ben, Smyth & Helwys Commentary: Matthew (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2006)
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Copyright 2011, Richard Niell Donovan