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Matthew 5:21-32

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Lesson Focus: Loving God means that we love and seek to be reconciled with our neighbor. Anger, lust, and unfaithfulness, which leads to treating others poorly, prohibits us from loving God and entering a genuine relationship with God.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:

  1. Understand that the interpretation of the law that Jesus gives is about helping us be the salt and light kind of people we already are.

  2. Be encouraged to take proactive steps to deal with anger, lust, and unfaithfulness.

Catching up on the Story: Jesus has begun his public ministry. He has called a few to be his disciples, done some miracles and now he begins to teach. He has reminded the disciples of who they are now that they have been called. They are the kind of people described in the Beatitudes at the beginning of chapter 5. They are also the salt and the light of the world. As disciples, we are called to participate in God’s mission of salvation and redemption in the world by doing and being certain things.

Jesus ended his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount by proclaiming that nothing he says is intended to do away with the law that the Jews have so greatly cherished. Remember, Matthew’s gospel is the most “Jewish” of the gospels. Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community. He holds that Jesus has come to fulfill the Jewish Law, to offer the fullest and most accurate interpretation of the Law of God.

The Jews were quick to speak about adherence to the Law. Some might have heard Jesus as saying, in those first sections of the Sermon, that adherence to the Law was not what was needed. In a way, this is what Jesus is saying, but it is not all of what Jesus is saying. If we pay close attention to what is happening in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life and teaching, we will notice that what Jesus is saying is that adherence to the Law can only come through close communion with Christ. Following the Law apart from Christ is empty and heavy-handed. Following Jesus apart from the Law is not following Jesus. What is needed, rather, is Jesus and the Law. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that “…adherence to the law is something quite different from the following of Christ, and secondly, it means that any adherence to [Jesus] that disregards the law is equally removed from the following of him.” (Bonhoeffer, 121-122) If we throw out the Law while trying to follow Jesus we are not following Jesus. If we seek to be strict adherents to the Law we oftentimes miss following Jesus, too. We need both, Jesus and the Law.

Matthew 5:21-32 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people of old, ‘You shall not kill’; and ‘whoever kills will have to face judgment.’ 22 But I say to you whoever remains angry with a brother or sister, will have to face judgment; and whoever says to a brother or sister, ‘You idiot!’ will have to face the highest court; and whoever says, ‘You jerk! (fool)’ you will have to face the hell of fire.

23 So when you are bringing your gift to the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has anything at all against you, 24 leave your gift right there in front of the altar, go first and get right with your brother or sister, and then come back and offer your gift.

25 Make friends quickly with your opponent while you are still with him or her on the road, least your opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the jailer, and the jailer throw you into the jail. 26Amen, I want to tell you something very important: You will never get out of there until you have paid the last pretty penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who is looking at another person in order to lust after him or her has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away from you; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away from you; 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 should give her a written document of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife for any other reason than sexual infidelity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. *This translation is a mashup of Frederick Dale Bruner’s work and my own.

The Text: Today’s passage begins with the phrase “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…” A few things need to be noticed here. First, the beginning of the phrase is past tense. “You all have heard…” Here Jesus is speaking not just about hearing the Law, but hearing the various interpretations of the Law that have taken place over thousands of years of Jewish life. Again, Jesus is not speaking against the Law; rather he is offering a fuller expression and interpretation of the Law. Second, the “I” that Jesus speaks is emphatic and points to Jesus’ divine nature (Bruner, 208). For the Jews, God was the great “I am.” Jesus, by offering his commands here in this way, with the emphatic “I” is declaring that he alone has the authority to rightly interpret what has been heard before. In a sense, Jesus is saying this: “You have heard this command all your life and you’ve heard interpretations of it as well. But today I am giving you the way to understand this command. I can do this because you see, I am God.”

Frederick Dale Bruner offers a helpful way in which to understand these commands. Each command has three elements. They are as follows: (1) The Old Commandment, (2) Jesus’ New Command, and (3) Little Steps of Obedience (Bruner, 207). We will follow this set up as we discuss this section. We will use this format to examine this week’s text and next week’s.

Concerning Anger: The Old Commandment: You shall not murder. The New Command: Festering anger that causes us to lash out verbally is just as bad as murder. Don’t do it. The Little Step of Obedience: Go and be reconciled quickly with the one who has wronged you. Then, come back and offer worship to God.

Jesus begins his sermon in earnest by reinterpreting the commandment against murder. The Sixth Commandment prohibited the taking of another life. Jesus takes things a step further. Not only is murder wrong, but it also is lashing out in anger against a brother or sister, questioning their mental and intellectual ability. Jesus isn’t condemning all anger, like the sort of anger that flashes up or perhaps anger at the deep injustice of our world. Jesus is condemning the kind of anger that simmers and festers. The Greek word, orgizomenos, is a present-tense participle and can be translated “is being angry,” “is carrying anger” or “is remaining angry.” The anger, of which Jesus speaks, then, is an anger that is intentionally carried around. It is a decision on the part of the individual to continue to carry this anger around (Bruner, 208). More often than not, anger that is carried around will soon lead to action of some kind.

It’s best not to get hung up on the words of insult that Jesus uses as an example. The NRSV translates “raca” as “insult” while the NIV leaves it untranslated. Raca “was used to express vexed disparagement which may be accompanied by displeasure, anger, or contempt, and which is usually addressed to a foolish, thoughtless, or presumptuous person. The insult was regarded as harmless: ‘blockhead,’ ‘donkey.’” (Kittlel, Bromiley, and Friedrich, 974) The “you fool” of the second half of verse 22 has similar meaning if not a little less forceful. The result is that any anger that causes you to verbally lash out at another is cause for judgment.

Jesus then offers a step toward helping us obey this command. Notice that the prescribed step of obedience centers on worship. If we are harboring anger against another we are kept from worshipping rightly. We cannot offer proper praise and worship, not just on Sunday morning but as we go around living our daily lives if we are carrying around anger. So, Jesus bids us go, leaving our offering of worship on the altar so that we might seek out the one with whom we are angry. It is only after we have made peace can we come and worship properly.

Notice how Jesus has prioritized things here. Normally, I think, we would seek to finish offering our worship to God because we owe so much more to God. Jesus turns that notion on its head. He commands that we go and “first be reconciled” (v. 24) and then come back and offer our worship to God. The connection between our relationships with others and our relationship with God cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that God wants us to be in right relationship with those around us just as much as he wants us to be in right relationship with him. We cannot love God without loving our neighbor.

Concerning Lust: The Old Commandment: You shall not commit adultery. The New Command: Don’t look at another person in a way that causes them to be little more than an object in your sight. The Little Step of Obedience: Gouge your eye out! Cut off your hand! Not really, maybe. Do the hard thing, whatever it takes for you to not act in this way.

Jesus moves from anger to lust. In reality, anger and lust are similar in that they are both connected to emotions that are natural and God-given. Anger can be a useful tool, but when it is allowed to fester inside us it destroys us. In the same way, our sexual drives are natural and God-given. They are linked to the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Yet, like anger, when sexual drives are allowed to dominate or not kept within proper bounds, they become instruments of death, not life.

Anger and lust are also similar in that the initial feeling is not what Jesus speaks out against. It would be impossible to never get angry. In the same way, it would be impossible to navigate the places of our lives and not notice the beautiful people that surround us. The beautiful faces and bodies that populate our world are a part of God’s design. It is the lingering that becomes the problem. It is the anger held close to the chest, and the gaze which lingers for far too long a time, that is a problem. In some ways, like anger, lust needs to be nurtured.

At this point, the hammer is often brought down on the men in our midst. Somewhere along the line, we have formed the opinion that lust is a struggle only men have. Perhaps the grammar of our normal translations leads us to this direction. If it once were the case, and I seriously doubt that it was, it is not any longer. The insane availability of all kinds of pornography has ensnared women as well as men. Women now make up a significant portion of those who regularly view pornography. This type of viewing activity shapes how anyone views the other gender. Lust is not the sole property of men.

If we expand the definition of lust to include not just our sexual nature, the problem becomes larger. At its heart, lust is an inordinate desire for what one does not own. Whenever we engage in an activity, be it mental or otherwise, that leads us to crave what does not belong to us, we do serious damage to others because they cease to be beloved children of God in our eyes. Lust strips away from others what is most valuable to them: their status as creatures who are loved by God.

As shocking as Jesus’ new command might be, the little step of obedience is even more jolting. To keep ourselves from lusting we should gouge our eye out or cut off our hand! While we want to take Jesus very seriously here, and perhaps even literally as we study this Sermon, we need to be careful. Perhaps what Jesus is driving at here is that we must do whatever it might take for us to avoid this sin. Whatever the action, it must be clear and decisive and extreme. It will also be painful. Regardless of the price, the reward will be worth it as we move away from judgment.

Concerning Divorce: The Old Commandment: Give her a certificate of divorce. The New Command: Don’t divorce except for unchastity. The Little Step of Obedience: Be faithful!

In Deuteronomy 24 Moses gives the Israelite people permission to divorce their wives if they handed the woman a certificate. Later on in Matthew (19:1-12), Jesus will tell us that Moses granted the people permission to do this because they were “hard-hearted.” The problem was that men were dismissing their wives for any reason, leaving the woman destitute. The certificate at least allowed the woman to remarry (Bruner, 226).

The old commandment was never God’s intention in the first place. This comes across loud and clear if we read Matthew 19 along with these three verses. God’s intention for humanity is that male and female join to become one through their sexual union. It is how we fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply. It is also one way we fulfill our need for deep interpersonal relationships.

What we see with anger, lust, and now divorce, is that God is supremely concerned with how we treat those around us. Anger and lust can cause havoc on any relationship, but infidelity damages and has the potential to destroy our most intimate relationship. Again, we need to open up Jesus’ saying here to women as well as men. While Jesus is speaking to men directly, his words have weight with women as well. It was next to impossible for a woman to seek a divorce. This is not the case anymore.

Verse 32 seems to still be a concession to the hurt and pain that an unfaithful spouse can cause. If we take seriously Jesus’ beatitude that sends blessings on those who are steadfastly loving and faithful, then we understand that divorce is not the desired outcome. With unfaithfulness, the marriage has already been broken. Perhaps the granting of divorce for unfaithfulness just makes the unfortunate reality official. Still, we hear Jesus in the background urging us toward steadfast love and faithfulness that strives toward reconciliation, especially in the light of unfaithfulness. After all, this is how God has consistently dealt with us.

So What? “Anger is always an attack on the brother’s [or sister’s] life, for it refuses to let him live and aims at his destruction.” (Bonhoeffer, 127) I would add to Bonhoeffer’s statement that anger refuses to let us live as God has intended us to live. It steals from us the ability to live as the kind of people described in the Beatitudes. We cannot be poor in spirit, or meek, or hungering or thirsting for righteousness, or merciful or pure in heart if we are angry. And we certainly cannot be peacemakers.

We might add lust, marital unfaithfulness, and divorce to Bonhoeffer’s statement. When we allow any of these things to enter our lives they steal from us the ability to live as salt and light kind of people. We cannot flavor and preserve the world if we are actively engaged in attitudes and behaviors that fail to consider the well-being of others. We cannot bear Christ’s light, exposing God’s love for all to see, if we let destructive tendencies fester inside our chests.

Jesus’ prohibitions against anger and its result (i.e., killing) and lust and its result (i.e., unfaithfulness) and divorce are not mere statements to keep us from exercising our rights or from experiencing pleasure. These prohibitions are always about helping us be a certain kind of people, people characterized by salt and light.

Here’s a list of ways you and your group might respond to anger, lust, and unfaithfulness:

  1. Whenever you begin to be angry with someone pray this prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer does a few things. First, it reminds us that we are not God and therefore have no right to judge. Second, it reminds us that we too are sinners saved by grace and that we are in constant need of mercy. We are not faultless. Third, it refocuses our attention on our relationship with the God who has saved us and now calls us to be peacemakers.

  2. Make a list of people with whom you are angry. Begin to pray for their well-being. Pray that God might bless their life. Release that person into the hands of our loving and just God.

  3. Confess your anger to a trusted friend or to those in your Spiritual Formation Group. Ask them to pray for you and to check in with you soon to see if you have taken steps to be reconciled. Contact one of the persons on your list. Seek to be reconciled with them before the day is through.

  4. Avoid prolonged looks or thoughts about persons of the opposite sex.

  5. Meet with a friend to create a decisive plan to deal with the lust. If pornography is a problem, there are accountability software and web services available such as

Critical Discussion Questions: 1. How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?

  1. God is helping us see how it is that we are to live by giving us a proper interpretation of the law. Jesus can do this because he is God. God is also showing us that there is a deep connection between our relationship with Him and our relationship with others. We cannot offer right and true worship to God while we are harboring anger, lust or unfaithfulness.

2. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?

  1. We cannot claim to be a holiness people if we are angry, filled with lust, or unfaithful in our relationships. Holiness is always relational.

3. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  1. Jesus is calling us to examine how the actions and attitudes we hold affect the lives of others. Jesus’ interpretation of the law is not about keeping us from being an angry, lustful, and unfaithful people; it’s about helping us to live as the flavoring salt and illuminating light of the world that we already are.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why do you think Jesus begins with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…?”

  2. Why does Jesus have the authority to offer a better interpretation of the Law?

  3. How might Jesus’ original hearers have reacted to this teaching?

  4. Jesus is reinterpreting the Law. He offers an old command, a new command and then a step of obedience. Read back over the passage and identify these three things.

  5. How does anger keep us from offering true worship?

  6. When a convicted criminal completes his or her sentence he or she is said to have paid their debt to society for the wrong they have done. Toward the end of the passage, Jesus says that unless we seek peace with our accuser that we will be thrown into prison until we pay the last penny of our debt. What’s the connection between anger and debt?

  7. Give a definition of lust. How is it like anger?

  8. Does Jesus think that we should gouge our eye out or cut off our hand? What is Jesus saying here?

  9. Why does Moses allow divorce in Deuteronomy 24? Check out Matthew 19:1-10. Does it seem like divorce was ever part of God’s plan for creation or for Israel? Why?