Our topic this week is the sermon on the mount, and our reading is from the gospel of Matthew:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
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“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:21-33)
Our reading this week gives us a window into the life and concerns of the early Jesus community. The fact that Matthew’s author includes these words of instruction in his version of Jesus’ sermon tells us something about the audience this gospel was written for. All of these instructions were written to apply to that community.
A few things are interesting here as we consider this portion of the sermon on the mount. Matthew was written after Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, so Jesus’ instruction about sacrificing in the Temple suggests this was part of an older tradition in the community.
His words about settling out of court also indicate how unreliable court rulings could have been. Courts in that time could be merciless or even corrupt, so getting justice from those courts was not something one could always count on. (Consider the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18.)
This collection of instructions also prohibits lust. This kind of prohibition was common in the Hebrew tradition and so it’s no surprise Jesus drew from his own heritage:
“Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes.” (Proverbs 6:25)
It’s also helpful to read Jesus’ warnings of “Gehenna” through the lens of the Jewish prophetic justice tradition rather than the much later Christian lens of a punitive afterlife in hell. I’ve written at length about this in the appendix of my book Finding Jesus.
We’ll begin unpacking that, along with its possible application to us today, next.
(Read Part 2)