Looking for Loopholes – Matt 5:21-48

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most familiar passages of the New Testament.  The teachings here (or in the roughly parallel, but not identical, accounts in the other synoptic Gospels) are widely referenced as forming the core of Jesus’ message.  While not always read well, they form the teachings of Jesus that most western Christians, and even many non-Christians, can effectively summarize.  A few posts ago, I gave a few guidelines for reading this ‘sermon’ well.  As with all Scripture, understanding context is imperative to reading well.  Interestingly, all the issues raised in this ‘sermon’ are directly connected to misrepresentations of God and religious life on the part of the scribes and Pharisees.  Whether directly stated or not, Jesus clearly has his sights focused on these groups in every one of the little passages that make up these sections.  To ignore what the scribes and Pharisees were saying about these matters is to miss much of Jesus is getting at.  Most of the issues addressed in the balance of chapter 5 are all representative areas where the Pharisees and scribes consistently looking for loopholes while dealing with the ‘practical realities’ of life.  The loopholes are necessary because, in their mind, no one could live up to the standard, as a result, God would never send Messiah and the New Age would never come (the assumption is that the nation must keep Sabbath perfectly before Messiah could come – this would include adherence to Torah).  As we take a quick look at these issues, keep in mind that Jesus has just announced the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven (the Beatitudes), insisted on the Kingdom’s public proclamation (salt and light) and taken a shot at the scribes and Pharisees by insisting on a level of righteousness that exceeds theirs.

Anger – 5:21-26:  At the risk of looking for loopholes myself… lets look at stylistic concerns.  Is Jesus saying that insulting a brother/sister is the same as killing him/her?  Don’t spiritualize it, take the question at face value.  The murder victim would gladly welcome a public insult in place of his/her present condition.  I’m not trying to rationalize behavior as it is never acceptable to publicly humiliate and dehumanize someone with our words, but they clearly aren’t the same thing.  I’m quite confident that Jesus realizes this, too.  Therefore, I assume that Jesus is using some form of stylized communication in order to make a point.  So, what’s the point?  Well, at one level, left unchecked, anger can fester to the point where we can take that final step, so deal with it at the point of anger.  A helpful and reasonable point for practical application, but is it the main point Jesus is making?  Probably not (though, again, I’m sure He would agree with the application).  I think it is useful to note what Jesus just finished saying in 5:20.  All would agree that murder is wrong.  The Pharisees stop there as there may well be ‘good reason’ to be very angry with one’s brother/sister.  I think Jesus is saying, if the law is the answer, you have to do far more than simply stopping short of murder (not a very high standard) – if the Kingdom is inherited on the basis of law, then the standard of the law has to be much higher.  However, if the purpose, the goal, of the law is something that goes beyond the letter – which the prophets all acknowledge – then maybe something else is in play.  What if the purpose of the law were actually realized?  Then the Kingdom would have begun.  Then the Spirit would have been poured out on the hearts (of both Jew and Gentile – all who are seeking the one true God).  Then we look beyond the ‘letter of the law’ and discover the transformed heart that the law points to.  Now my primary concern is not justifying my anger (so long as it doesn’t result in murder).  Now I’m concerned that my brother/sister (fellow Kingdom citizen) might have ‘a beef’ with me.  As a result, I’ll even stop my intended worship of God in order to try to make things right – and so honor both my brother/sister and my God.  Short of a truly transformed heart and life which insists on doing right by our brother/sister, our expectations all returns to an exacting accounting of rights and wrongs.

Lust – 5:27-30:  let’s try the same exercise with the same disclaimer as above.  Is Jesus drawing an equivalence between having an affair (committing adultery) and looking on someone other than your spouse with the intent of inciting desire (the likely meaning of the term Jesus is using)?  The connection here is pretty close, so lets step back to our common modern use of the word ‘lust.’  Hopefully no one will justify objectifying/dehumanizing other men/women to the point of saying that pornography is okay.  But lets take the question at face value.  No wife wants her husband to have wandering eyes, but the only woman who says that the two are the same is the woman whose husband has never physically broken his vow of faithfulness toward her (though she should demand the higher standard).  Clearly the connection between lust and marital unfaithfulness is much more direct that the connection between anger and murder, but I think that’s part of the point.  Of course we don’t cheat on our spouse (the Pharisees agree), but if the letter of the law is the standard of the Kingdom, then we need to up our game – not even lust!  Wow, talk about camels and needle eyes!  But, if the Kingdom (and Spirit) have arrived …. the issue is not the mere letter, it’s the standard of a transformed heart.  Now even the idea of viewing a brother/sister as the mere object of our personal gratification is unthinkable – the compassion and mercy consistent with a transformed heart won’t permit this kind of thing.  And if we’re unsure that Jesus’ intent here is couched in stylized speech look at the recommendations of verses 29 & 30.  We don’t see many one-eyed, or single-handed Christian men walking around.  Why?  Because we understand Jesus is using a figure of speech to communicate a point about radical standards versus radical transformation (a point made all the more clear in this context as the missing ‘member’ in view here is likely an exclusively male appendage).

Divorce – 5:31-32:  I don’t know many couples who have been together more than 3 years who haven’t at least thought about finding an easy out to their marital vows.  But, much like the comments on anger, Jesus is emphasizing the priority of mercy and compassion over and above the search for technical loopholes.  This reality comes into greater focus when we consider that one of the major Pharisaic schools at the time (Hillel) essentially allowed for a husband to divorce for any reason at all (even a burnt dinner was sufficient).  I’d say the implications of this matter is compelling for us – especially for those of us who live in ‘no fault’ divorce states.  Like we’ve said above, if the ‘letter of the law’ is the standard, then the standard for divorce needs to be exceptionally high – marital unfaithfulness ONLY (well, since the law was representative and not exhaustive, we might get away with saying ‘things that rise to the level of marital unfaithfulness’ – a woman need not endure ongoing physical abuse, for example).  But, I don’t think Jesus is trying to give us reasons to justify divorce (the law does that just fine on its own).  If the Kingdom has come and the Spirit is doing His transforming work – then make every good faith effort to work things out.  If this is truly impossible, then at the very least, the justification should at least rise to the level of marital unfaithfulness (after all, despite making every attempt to reconcile with Israel, Yahweh divorces her for her unrepentant adultery – i.e., idolatry).  A side note, Luke’s record of this teaching highlights some other details.  While very important, they aren’t central to Matthew’s agenda in the way he’s presenting Jesus’ teaching.  Another subject for another day.

Oaths – 5:33-37:  we’ve all done it, made a promise and looked for an out when it didn’t work out as expected.  This came in focus for me in 3rd grade, Friday afternoon, Superbowl X just two days away, Pittsburgh v Dallas.  I knew nothing – never even watched an entire football game in my life.  My friend, seated next to me, was a Cowboys fan and wanted to make a bet on the big game – he took the ‘boys, I got the Steel Curtain.  At stake, dessert at lunch (I brown bagged it, he got the school lunch – the bet clearly favored him).  Come Monday, I was ready to collect on what was likely an underwhelming school lunch dessert only to be told ‘we didn’t shake’ (we had, but I didn’t care enough to argue – I had bragging rights).  But, had ‘Kevin’ been transformed by the Spirit of God I’d have enjoyed some pseudo-raspberry sorbet like thing along with my Twinkie, bologna sandwich, apple and chocolate milk.  Even when inconvenient, make every reasonable effort… ’nuff said.

Retaliation – 5:38-42: when our focus is the letter of the law, our concern is what we’ve earned, what our rights are.  This is not the focus of the priority within the new Kingdom – one marked by the presence of God’s Spirit in the hearts of its citizens – the priority for individuals is that of mercy and compassion (always the goal of the Law, rarely achieved).  This does not mean that the state is not generally justified in rendering judgments – be they compensatory, punitive or even capital (under very strict guidelines, I question most of the guidelines utilized in most of our ‘capital punishment’ states) – there is, in fact, a difference between the sphere of the state versus the sphere of the individual.  The transformed citizen of the Kingdom goes above and beyond, even endures a multitude of sins, on behalf of his brother/sister.  A final note, this is the first ‘command’ that begins to hint at the impact of Spirit transformed living toward those OUTSIDE the Kingdom.  Verse 41 seems to describe a (not unusual) situation where a Roman official (usually military) could compel a local to serve as a guide in the local area.  Cooperation was mandatory, if not begrudging.  How’s that for going above and beyond (in the face of one’s own countrymen).

Enemies – 5:43-48:  not a Biblically prescribed edict, but a conclusion of the scribes due to a narrow understanding of who one’s neighbor is (sound familiar).  This is just another example of the fact that the scope of the Kingdom of Heaven has nothing to do with ethnic Israel – the scope of this Kingdom is the world.  Neighbor is simply your fellow Jew (for the scribe, fellow church member in our view).  Enemy is anyone else (note the comparison to tax collectors – neighbors who now work for the enemy,  and Gentiles – everyone who isn’t ‘us’).

– Pastor Jim Kushner

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