The Telltale Heart: Reflections on Matthew 5:21-37

Alyce McKenzieLectionary Reflections on Matthew 5:21-37
February 13, 2011
Valentine's Day evokes the image of those little candy hearts we used to hand out in elementary school that were supposed to reveal what was in your heart to someone else. They had messages on them, like "Be Mine," "Yours Forever," "True Love," "Hugs and Kisses," "Ever After," "So Fine," and "Hot Stuff." The logos now include "Text Me," "E mail me," and "U R Special." During the past few weeks you can't have gone into any store without seeing hearts, flowers, and chocolates. That may be partly why, when I read this text from Matthew 5:21-37 about anger, adultery, careless severing of marital bonds, and frivolous oaths, I think about hearts.

I think it's deeper than that though. Jesus' teachings in the gospels about matters of the heart (lev in Hebrew, kardia in Greek) form the frame within we are to read these verses.

In the screenplay of the gospels, such teaching scenes usually occur when the Pharisees are on stage with him, primed for conflict. In response to the lawyer who seeks to test him, he affirms that the heart of Torah (a collation of Dt. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18) is loving the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul and all our strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Lk. 10:27).

When the disciples express concern that Jesus has offended the Pharisees with his critique of their ritual purity laws (Mt. 15:12), he asks them, "Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile" (Mt. 15:17-8; Mk. 7:15).

In criticizing the quest for material wealth, Jesus says that "where our treasure is, there will our heart be also" (Mt. 6:21 and Lk. 12:34). In lambasting the religious elite for their hypocrisy, he demands, "How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heartthe mouth speaks" (Mt.12:34-5; Lk. 6:45).

In painting a picture of the life pleasing to God, Jesus offers this beatitude: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt. 5:8).

Jesus in these teachings is standing on the foundation of prior teachings from Hebrew Scriptures about the heart as the inner source of outer actions, subject to the good or evil influence of imagination. He's asking, "What is in your heart?"

When my three siblings and I were growing up, my dad, who was quite the humorist, used to ask us when we were disagreeing with something he had said or asked us to do: "Are you contradicting me?" It took me a while to realize I was being set up. There is no right answer to this question. If you say no, you are contradicting him. If you say yes, you're being insubordinate.

In the six "antitheses" of Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus is saying no and Jesus is saying yes, both at the same time. "No, I'm not contradicting the heart and spirit of Torah." (This is the whole point of 5:17-20. Jesus has come to fulfill, not abolish the law and the prophets.) "Yes, I am challenging interpretations of the law that are not consistent with its heart: whole-hearted love of God and neighbor."

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).

2/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Alyce McKenzie
    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.