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Matthew 5:21-37

First order of business: Continue the reading through verse 48, which is the rest of chapter 5. The reason? It all goes together and the punchline of the whole thing comes toward the end – but in the year 2020, due to the timing of Ash Wednesday, we won’t read Matthew 5:38-48 (that section would normally be read on the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany which we do not have this year). Also note: scripture quotations below are from the Common English Bible (CEB).

Following are a two thoughts about Matthew 5:21-48. First is a story about how this passage caused a change in how we worship at my local church and second are some thoughts about what I think is the most important passage in the entire Bible.

A Change in Worship

Preaching this passage several years ago caused a major change in the way we worship at my church. Here’s what happened:

As I studied this passage, I realized that Jesus repeats a phrase six times: “…it was said… But I say….” This repeated phrase helped me articulate something important about the Bible: the various parts scriptures are not equal. Where did the people “hear it said”? IN THE BIBLE! Jesus is saying “whatever you read in the Bible is not as important as what you hear me saying to you.” The Bible is not even ground – the gospels are the high point. If something in the scriptures conflicts with Jesus, then Jesus wins. “You have heard it said…but I say to you….” Jesus wins.

This was such a profound thought to me that I wanted to “ritualize” it, I wanted to create or use a symbol that would demonstrate, week after week, that Jesus’ words are the high point in scripture – that no matter what else we read, Jesus wins. Ritualizing (or creating a symbol for) something like this is important in my own theological mind because we are formed, in part, by things like ritual and symbol.

We would read all of the various lectionary passages from a lectern, the reader would say “the Word of the Lord,” and the people would respond, “thanks be to God.” I wanted to find a way to show that the Gospel reading – Jesus’ words and deeds – are above, more than, stronger than the rest of scripture. So I took a page from our roots in the Church of England. Here is what we do now:

The OT, NT, and Psalm are read from the lectern and we say “thanks be to God.” But for the reading of the Gospel, we carry the book (we have a large Bible) to the center of the congregation. All the people take a posture of respect (most stand) and face the book and reader. The reading begins with “This is the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew [or whichever Gospel it is]” and all the people say, “Glory to you, Lord Christ.” Then the reading takes place, ending with, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” and all the people say, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” As the book is brought back to the lectern, we all sing an Alleluia chorus.

All of that marks the Gospels as more important than the rest of scripture (and enacts the incarnation – in Christ, God comes among us). The idea of the superiority of Jesus is one of the main points that this passage makes. As Christians, we look first to Jesus, the thing we are most certain about and who most fully reveals God. It is through Christ that we must understand the rest of our holy book.

The Most Important Passage

I assume we might disagree about this, but I think that Matthew 5-7 is the most important passage in the Bible. I’d narrow that down even more and say that Matthew 5:43-48 is the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount.

In this short passage four important things happen: (1) Jesus reinterprets an important love command, (2) Jesus gives a powerful description of God, (3) Jesus describes the defining characteristic of Christ-followers, and (4) Jesus commands us to be like God: perfect, complete, or holy.

First the reinterpretation. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you….” First of all, Leveticus 19:18 does NOT say “hate your enemy.” However, that passage in Leviticus is certainly about loving YOUR PEOPLE (not “others”). To quote, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” The readers of this passage were, apparently, quick to point out the phrase “against any of your people.” The love commanded by God, so it seems, was to love your own – your own tribe, your own country, your own party, whatever. Your own. Which means that we are free to “hate your enemy.”

But Jesus has a corrective statement to us. Jesus is more important than even the Torah. Jesus says that the command to love is a command to love ALL PEOPLE, no strings attached. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.” Jesus wins.

Second, Jesus connects the command to love everyone (even “those people”) to his powerful description of God: God is the one who loves indiscriminately. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.” When we think of God, if this doesn’t come to mind (at least really quickly) then I’m afraid we’ve misunderstood the God Jesus reveals. God loves and seeks to bless EVERYONE – the evil and the good – the righteous and the unrighteous. All of us.

Third, Jesus says that this kind of indiscriminate love is the very characteristic that will distinguish Jesus followers from other people. Don’t simply love people who are easy to love (they love you back or they are your people). Rather, love like God: without boundary. People who don’t love you back. People who aren’t part of your in-group. People you consider evil or unrighteous or enemies. People who do you harm. Love them, then you’ll be acting like children of God.

Finally, this indiscriminate love is what defines perfection or completion. Be like God – be perfect or complete like God – by loving like God. God’s perfection is defined by Jesus as God indiscriminately loving all people. God loves everyone – be like that, says Jesus.

A Final Thought

I heard something on a podcast while preparing this piece that pierced my heart (the quote is below). It made me lament how empty Christianity is when we build walls, put up barriers, and keep people out. When we think we know better than God who is good or evil, righteous or unrighteous, deserving or undeserving. I lamented the church’s proclivity to seek profit, control, and safety. I lamented that the church does not have an imagination for perfection defined as indiscriminate love for all people. I lamented the fact that – having Matthew 5 for so long – we are no better off. O Lord, our God, may we be people who hear these words and put them into practice.

A chief of the Cherokee people known as Drowning Bear (at the time of the Removal in the 1830s) read the book of Matthew. When asked what he thought of it he said, “It’s a wonderful thing…[but] it’s a shame the white man is no better off for having it so long.”[1] [1] John Biewen, interview with Davy Arch, Scene on Radio, “Rich Man’s Revolt,” podcast audio, January 8, 2020, Transcript:, 21.