The Telltale Heart: Reflections on Matthew 5:21-37
Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18 prohibit adultery. Adultery begins in the lustful thoughts of the heart that Jesus condemns just as surely as he condemns adultery. The words about eyes and hands are what some scholars have referred to as Jesus' "rhetoric of excess," a hyperbole that emphasizes the radical internalization of the law the he seeks to reestablish in these teachings.
The law of Moses (Dt. 24:1) specifies a divorce process in which a man, if he found something objectionable about his wife, could write a certificate of divorce and send her out of the house. The law privileges the man, but at least protects the woman from a charge of adultery by supplying her with a certificate of divorce so she can be remarried. The powerful husband can dispose of his property, his wife, but at least she has the protection of the certificate. Jesus does not like what is in the heart of this divorce law. He clearly speaks to forbid divorce except on grounds of "unchastity" (Mt. 5:32), a Greek word porneia, which refers to any form of sexual aberration, most likely adultery or incest. "Jesus allows no room for divorce in a culture in which divorce is an assault on the value of persons, an abuse of power, or a trivializing of faithful commitments" (Long, 60).
Knowing how to receive Jesus' words on divorce today is difficult. Thomas Long, in his commentary on Matthew, points out that in the first-century world divorce meant more what we would call "abandonment." Someone simply walked out or threw the woman out. Abandonment has been made illegal in many cultures. This is a positive impact of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount on divorce.
In my pastoral work with people, I have often seen these verses function to make women feel guilty for leaving abusive marriages or for having been left by their husbands. Matthew 5:31-32 is used to infuse them with perpetual guilt over their divorced status and to paralyze them from making new commitments.
Says Long, "The most important need . . . is to discern what lies at the heart of Jesus' words, just as Jesus discerned what lay at the heart of the Mosaic law. Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people that expresses, in their mutual fidelity, the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honor for person. In Jesus' day, the customs and practices of divorce were a direct assault on those values" (60).
Wisdom is needed in applying Jesus' words for today in those instances when exiting an untenable, abusive, loveless relationship is more in keeping with the heart of the law than staying in it.
With regard to swearing and oaths, when we speak from a pure heart, we speak the truth and do not need to swear by anything, since our word can be relied on as it stands (verse 37). The Old Testament law condemned false oaths, promising in the name of God to do something and then not doing it (Lev. 19:12). Jewish tradition was concerned about frivolous oaths. Jesus dismisses oaths of every kind. To utter the name of God was to invoke God's presence. To do so lightly, in trivial everyday matters, was to seek to use God's power rather than put oneself at God's service (Long 61).
Anger and Murder
Murder is prohibited in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17). The Pentateuch states that the one who commits murder will be put to death (Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17). Jesus adds to traditional teaching by saying that those who direct anger toward another and speak insulting words should, or will, suffer punishment. Murder begins as a matter of the heart. The source of murder must be uprooted. Anger must be eradicated. (Allison, 62)
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.