Matthew 5:21-37


21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you; you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


This passage badly needs context.  Read alone, you will find a judging God who sets the bar for the good Christian impossibly high and sets the penalty for disobedience so unforgiving and harsh that self-mutilation is the preferable option. Based on this passage, the Inquisition makes sense.  Any earthly pain is better than eternal hell fires. We are so reward and punishment based it is actually quite difficult to suspend our views of justice in order to experience God’s way. I think Jesus is pointing to this difficulty.

This passage is part of the larger ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in which Jesus is introducing a new way of finding God and a new way of serving God. Jesus called us to look for God in unexpected places.  We should not be bound by our familiar definitions of words like poor, mourning or meek. Each offers possibilities outside of human expectations. Up until now Jesus has been pointing us to the positive side of seeking God outside of our expectations. God has been with us; God is with us—Open yourselves. Don’t assume the measure of God’s presence is your well-being.  God is present precisely where we would least expect him—in poor, in the disenfranchised, the stereotyped, the neglected of all of his children. This is the good news. But all too often the good news is hard to hear. 

As I said last week, the process of discernment can never cease.  But there is another consequence of missing God’s word. This is where Jesus goes next in his sermon. Not only do we miss what God seeks for us, our insistence on our own way means we do damage to ourselves and others.  Jesus realized that many of the rules which were meant to guide love had become ways to freeze discernment. Instead of part of the process of discernment, the laws becomes ends unto themselves.  

In the Wednesday morning paper (AJC, https://www.comicskingdom.com/baby-blues)  the comic ‘BABY BLUES’ illustrated this passage better than I ever could.  A little girl, Zoe, is laying on her stomach reading her book. Hammie, her brother walks by, says ‘excuse me’ and steps on her book.  He then says ‘pardon me’ and steps on her back. The little girl cries out to her mother and as his mother enters the room, the boy says “But I used good manners!”.  The mother replies, “Try not using them for evil.” —Anything that can be used, can be misused. The Word of God is no exception. 

Let me unpack this a bit. Jesus calls us to a higher standard than obedience.  When he was asked which of the commandments was most important, Jesus answered: ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”   For Jesus, all of the law is written to support this foundational principle.  In that regard, the law must be absolutely obeyed. But what is being obeyed is not the letter or the law but the spirit—and that is often difficult to discern.  When we confuse obedience with God’s desire for us, our discernment stops. We have a rule. We follow it. We’re done. We righteously claim we are following the commandments, but we fail to honor the very purpose for which they were written.  We gleefully step on our sister’s back as we properly say, ‘Pardon me.’

Whether it’s the coffee we buy, getting a super sale on shoes, a real estate deal or buying an antique at a yard sale for pennies on the dollar, in real life we rarely evaluate the human costs of our gain.  It is fun to get a good deal and intentional mindfulness of others is difficult. In the real world it is naive. But whenever we advance ourselves at the expense of others—and we are all complicit—we violate the spirit of the law.  Whenever we diminish, stereotype or objectify others—even our enemies, we have turned away from God. Jesus calls us into account for our ‘me first’ way of living. Jesus dramatically says we might as well be murderers or adulterers.

This is terrible news. I like to say, ‘It is hard enough being a sinner without being damned for it.’  It is one thing to say we are all sinners, but it is very difficult to be viscerally aware of how often, and the variety of ways, we turn from God.  We not only miss the mark, many times we are headed in the opposite direction. We are so used to the idea that our missteps will lead to our exclusion from the kingdom and/or everlasting punishment, we cannot imagine God’s care.  

So, in real life, the near universal first reaction in real life is defensive.  We seek to justify ourselves by trying to parse the severity of sin. We may not be the most obedient, but we certainly do not want to fit into the worst category.  Let’s be reasonable!  Lust and adultery are different things.  Anger and murder cannot fit into the same category.  Surely someone who controls their anger is a better person than one who goes into a homicidal rage.  But, our ‘lesser’ sins are only lesser in our own eyes—certainly not God’s. They are all ‘missing the mark’ of God’s desire that we aim for loving God and neighbor in all aspects of our lives. 

It is God’s truth that if we live a life devoted to anything other than love of God and love of neighbor we will be building the infamous house built upon the sand.  It will wash away. That erosion is not a punishment. It is the natural consequence of our failing to realize what is foundational. We have no choice about God’s love for us.  Our only choice is, will we enjoy it?

This frame has to be set to understand what Jesus was warning about in this passage.  Jesus knows that we regularly do harm to one another with our gossip, catty comments, and unforgiving words.  We routinely get angry and hurt because we feel injured and betrayed. But those injuries never justify retaliation.  It is not ok to do harm because we’ve been harmed. That is the spirit of the law: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The law is written to help us love one another and claiming that we are any better because we used words instead of physical weapons is a false self-righteousness.  Jesus routinely challenged religious leaders on this point. We cannot claim to be better than or ‘not as bad as’ and claim to understand our true relationship with God. Nor can we ignore the least of these and still claim to love God. The real sin is our failure to acknowledge our true standing before God—not the fact that once again, we have missed the mark.  

In secular judicial systems, wrongdoing is carefully defined, much as Sabbath work was parsed and defined in the rabbinical system.  Jesus’ way is based upon love and reconciliation not punishment. In this passage, Jesus warns that if we insist on doing things our way—going to the court, we are doomed to get what we deserve by the letter of the law.  That is not how God decides and it is not how God loves—” first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.    25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you; you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” If we insist upon holding on to human justice (as opposed to God’s), we are all doomed.  Jesus is warning us, not threatening us.  

As long as the standard is to love God and love our neighbor, we will all fail and any of us who think otherwise are foolish.  You can’t claim respect and fidelity just because you did not sleep with someone. There are hundreds of ways we objectify and diminish people we love. It can be as simple as referring to your spouse as ‘another of my children’ instead of engaging in the underlying disappointment between you.  Or it can be mind consuming lust that allows us to escape real relationships. Whenever we place ourselves above or whenever we are condescending, we are off the mark. We are sinners. Whenever, we want what we want—without regard for the other—we have made our needs more important. We have subjected and diminished the other.  That is way off of God’s mark.   

We need to know these things in order to be in a right relationship with God. We need to stand before God with our yes and with our no—and we need to know God is ever seeking us.  Jesus is entirely aware of our shortcomings and loves us. It is only our self-judgment (which is the dark side of self-righteousness) that keeps us from believing God’s love and justice is not remotely like our own.  Jesus came to save, not condemn. If only we could trust Him. 

May we face who we are in humility and trust.  Let it be so.

Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.