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Murder, Adultery, and Dismemberment—Oh My!

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Matthew 5:21-30

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  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.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  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.  Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  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.  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.”

In seventeen years of ordained ministry, I have preached on this text exactly zero times.  I have managed to avoid it every time it has come up in the lectionary, and frankly, by noon on Friday I was regretting the decision to tackle it now.  Murder, adultery, and dismemberment do not make for a pleasant sermon.  But this scripture is a continuation of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which I preached on last week, so it seemed the thing to do.  Besides, it is pretty relevant today.

These verses are closely connected with the verses in next week’s lectionary, and together are traditionally called the antitheses.  Six times Jesus says “You have heard that it was said…” and goes on to state the teaching from the Bible (or to him, the Torah).  These are the thesis statements, then Jesus offers his own statement in response.  “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.”  His “but I say to you” has often been called the antithesis (anti-thesis statement).

Several scholars point out that Jesus’ statements have major messages for us on the topic of biblical authority.  One wrote, “What I find fascinating is that Matthew, in writing this gospel for his audience, is quite willing to show Jesus taking Scriptures and re-forming them.  In our age, many Christians have been trained to think that ‘biblical authority’ means saying, ‘God said it, I believe it, that settles it’ or ‘where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.’  In this text, Jesus does not share that view of biblical authority.  Jesus’ willingness to state the Scriptures, not as ending points that ‘settle it’ but as beginning points from which to re-form them, lends new meaning to ‘biblical authority.’  It moves the word ‘authority’ away from slavish devotion to the written letter to honoring the authorial power that produces the texts.”[1]  In other words, Jesus is saying, in essence, “God is still speaking.”  The writer continues: “I believe what compels Matthew’s Jesus to take up the scriptural tradition and re-form it is not that he lacks respect for the Scriptures, but that he believes strongly in the real, ongoing presence of the God of the Scriptures. . . . A question that these antitheses raises is ‘What does it mean to be faithful to the Scriptures?’  I suspect Jesus would respond, ‘The point is not to be faithful to the Scriptures, but to be faithful to the living God who continues to be present among us.’”[2]

I like this message, and having been raised under a “God said and I believe it and that settles it” kind of theology, I agree that looking at biblical authority is a crucial task, and Jesus does give us a good example of reinterpretation.  However, I think that crediting Jesus with doing this runs the risk of suggesting he was unique in this, and therefore flattening the diversity of Jewish thought.  It suggests that all Jews were like the New Testament stereotype of the Pharisee—rigid and unbending in their understanding of the religious law.  I’m not an expert, but from what I can tell, Judaism has almost always been a religion that values disagreement and diversity of opinions, as well as reinterpreting the stories in response to changes in their situations.

Some Jewish scholars even say that the term “antitheses” is wrong for this passage.  They say that Jesus is not disagreeing with these statements.  In most cases, Jesus is intensifying them,[3] even radicalizing them.[4]

We start with murder.  “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not murder,’ 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.”  Notice the use of “brother or sister” here.  This is Matthew’s “characteristic way of referring to a fellow member of the Jesus faction (that is, a fellow disciple of Jesus).  Since the word is normally used of family members, Matthew’s use of the term makes clear that he understands the Jesus faction as a surrogate family.”[5]  So it could be argued that these intensifications of the law only apply among other disciples of Jesus, meaning within the church.  Sure, killing anybody is wrong, but here in the church,     you can’t even insult someone without paying a price.  I’m a little leery of this argument, because when that lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus broadened it to mean anyone in need.  So I don’t want to argue that this only applies to us within the church, but I think it’s safe to say it especially applies within the church.  In other words, when we are in community together, we are in relationship with one another.  And relationship demands more than outward obedience to the law.  Relationship demands inward changes as well.  And that includes not calling one another fools, even for our differences in beliefs.

In the church, things should be different than in the world around us.  For example, our democracy is in danger.  Our rule of law is breaking down.  Washington is off the rails.  But we don’t have to be.  Here where we are siblings in a surrogate family, maybe we can get past the partisan talking points and the primary squabbles and actually listen to one another.  Maybe we can go back to the core values we share in common, and say “This is what matters.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  And so this is what informs my vote—not Fox or MSNBC or Tweets or polls.”  Here in the church we treat each other with respect, both externally and internally.  Our faith must be both outward and inward.

And now we move on to adultery! Verse 27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Now, obviously, external acts are more dangerous and more harmful than internal thoughts.  Actually having an affair hurts way more people than thinking about it.  And no rational person would say, “Well if thinking about it is as bad as doing it, I might as well do it!”  The point is to stop looking at other people like objects.  They do not exist for your viewing pleasure or your fantasizing pleasure.  This statement was made specifically to protect women.  “The point is that the Law of God was meant to foster human flourishing at every level, including at the deepest levels of our hearts and minds.  God wants us to respect each other, to love each other, to see God’s own image residing deep within one another.  Human life is not supposed to be some giant game in which you scheme and scam to get ahead for good old #1.  We are not to use people as pawns, as objects of our lust, as receptacles for our scorn, as the targets for our desires to brutalize, manipulate, and then discard.  And it’s not enough that all of this does not show up on the outside of our behavior.”[6]

Now, I wonder what you’re thinking.  You see, I am aware that some of you have had affairs.  Oh, I’m not aware of who!  But statistically speaking, some here have.  I am aware that some of you have found out that a spouse was having an affair.  For both groups, this is an uncomfortable sermon.  I also am aware that some of you are thinking, “I don’t have to worry about this; my lusting days are behind me!”  As for the murder part, I am not aware that any of you have murdered someone.

But all of us have treated other people as objects or as less than human.  If we get frustrated when the cashier at the grocery store takes ten seconds to chat with a coworker, we’re saying that his sole purpose for existing is to move us quickly through the line.  When we tell a woman to smile, we’re saying she has no other purpose for existing but to beautify our environment.  What about the black man walking toward us on the sidewalk after dark?  When we clutch our purse or move away or breathe a sigh of relief when he passes, then we are using him as a repository for our fear.  And then there are the moms on welfare or the drug addicts or the Trumpsters or the Bernie Bros or whoever it is who is the recipient of our disdain.  Jesus is talking to us about the everyday sins of judgment, of defining people’s worth by any measure other than that they are a child of God.

Jesus has a warning to us if we do this. Jesus says “It would be better for you to gouge out your right eye.  It would be better for you to cut off your right hand.”  Jesus’ hyperbole is intended to be so outrageous that it gets our attention.  But in Jesus time, dismemberment, particularly of the right side of the body, was considered a great dishonor.  Jesus is saying that we should “desire justice so much that [we] would rather suffer a wrong than impose one on another.”[7]  So no, we shouldn’t actually gouge out our eyes for looking at someone with lust in our hearts.  Instead let’s open our eyes to see that person as a child of God.  No, we shouldn’t cut off a hand if it does something wrong, because then we can’t lend a hand to others.  And that’s something we do really well.

I’ve never wanted to preach this text about murder and adultery because I don’t want to go all “woe to you sinners” on you.  And most of you haven’t committed adultery or murdered anyone.  But we have seen people as less than fully human and made in God’s image.  Ignoring the scripture won’t change that.  And maybe facing it can.

[1] “The Theology of Scripturing” by D. Mark Davis. https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-scripturing-matthew-521-37-d-mark-davis/

[2] Davis.

[3] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 11.

[4] Hoezee, Scott. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-6a-2/

[5] Malina and Rohrbach, Social Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels, p. 45.

[6] Hoezee

[7] Works, Carla. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

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