“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Last week we noted that Jesus’ statements have a historical context. They aren’t, as some would have us believe, just universal wisdom sayings. No. They’re grounded in the very real world of first-century Israel — a place occupied by Rome. To sharpen that point, before us is Jesus’ own commentary on some of the laws contained in the Mosaic Law.
He starts out with a command about violence, “Don’t commit murder” (the sixth commandment; Exodus 20). Jesus tells his contemporaries that the root of the sixth commandment is not about physical violence. It’s about the hidden realm deep within people — the emotions that people just bury instead of dealing with them in a healthy, life-affirming way. When they continue to get buried deeper and deeper and deeper, one day, they will erupt into a violent reaction.
Imagine this from their standpoint. They are “G_d’s chosen people.” Living in the land that Yahweh gave them. But they’re occupied by pagans. Everywhere they looked, Romans were desecrating their sacred places (the city itself was considered sacred; see Nehemiah 11.1; Isaiah 48.2; cf. Matthew 4.5). It seemed that there was always some new tax for Caesar, collected by their own people no less. They saw how those who sided with Rome were some of the wealthiest people in the city — eating some of the best foods and wearing some of the best fabrics and living in some of the best houses money and power could buy. And all the while, they and their families and friends were looked down upon as being less than...human.
The feelings at first would be small, seemingly insignificant...
Those feelings continue to get buried deep within until they start become something more…
And that’s Jesus point. The people who were to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (see last week’s reflection) were becoming just like everyone else.
Those of his day looked at the letter of the Law — how it was to be understood and followed in a literal way. That’s why there were so many clarifications of the Law — so much more was added to it to try and explain what the Law really meant.
But that was only one part of the Law. The Law was also to make people look deeper than the surface. To see what’s really going on in the human heart. It was there, in those depths, that the true work needed to be done. Jesus is pointing that out in these verses. It’s the heart — the attitudes and intentions and character of a person — that needs to be dealt with.
Like so many of us today, the people of Jesus’ day got so caught up on the letter of the Law that they failed to see that it’s really only a sign pointing to deeper issues. Jesus cut through all of that and points out that the Law’s true purpose was missed entirely.
And to sharpen his point, Jesus uses hyperbole. “It would be better,” he teased, “if you cut of your hand or poked out your eye than to fall into sin.” He’s not really talking about people dismembering themselves. Nor is he talking about a “literal” place called “hell.”
But like the people of his day, we miss the point and start looking at the “letter of the law.” “Jesus said people would be cast into ‘hell’,” we exclaim, “so there’s got to be a literally place called hell.” It’s funny how we pick and choose where things are to be understood literally, especially when the genre itself dictates otherwise. Jesus compared G_d to a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15.8-10), but most people don’t teach that G_d’s a woman. Jesus also claimed to be a door or gate (John 10.9), but we don’t teach that he has a latch and hinges. So it’s astounding to me that, in a place where Jesus is telling people to look deeper than the words on the page, a lot of us only look at the words on the page!
Jesus was making a point — not building a theological case for the supposed reality of “hell.” Again, his point was to show that there’s something deeper that the Law was pointing to. The actions of people reveal a deeper character. Sure, people should be held accountable for their actions, but their actions should also tell us that something else is going on. Something deeper needs to be addressed, as is seen in his last statements. If something more than a simple “Yes” or “No” is needed before people believe us, if we don’t act out like we would prefer because of the consequences outlined in the law, then we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC