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. It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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. 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.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’: anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Can I go to Hell, Jesus? Because you said that whoever is angry at his or her fellow human is liable to hellfire. And when I look around at the corruption, selfishness, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and ignorance that leads to poverty, oppression, marginalization, imprisonment, and genocide, I feel the fire of rage pent up in my bones, and my soul cannot contain it. Can I go to Hell, Jesus? Because this person standing near me on the elevator is just absolutely breathtaking, and I cannot help being transfixed as I feel my pulse begin to quicken, and all the while my partner waits for me back home. And I am not going to gouge out my eyes, because if I cut off a part of my body every time it caused me to sin, there would be nothing left of me. Jesus, can I please go to Hell? Because you said getting divorced is as good as committing adultery and can land a person in Hell, and I am so scared and I have just got to get out! Can I go to Hell, Jesus? Because you said that everything I say should be true, but sometimes I have to lie to protect those I love and care about.
Many of us have felt the echo of similar cries in our hearts when we read passages like these – passages that tell us we are going to Hell, roadside evangelists that tell us we are going to Hell, protestors that tell us we are going to Hell, churches that tell us we are going to Hell, friends and family that tell us we are going to Hell, if we do not comply with their strict standards. And we cry back, How?! How can we possibly live up to these standards, and are we sure that some of them are even worth living up to? Then we turn to other parts of the Gospel and we see that even Jesus gets angry! Even Jesus, in direct violation of what he says in this passage, calls the Pharisees blind fools just a little later on in Matthew. Even Jesus is less than forthcoming about his identity, with his Messianic secret. And, though we get almost zero hints about Jesus’ personal life in the Gospels, I find it hard not to imagine that even Jesus struggled with inappropriate sexual desires. After all, these are all very human things to do, and in our tradition we affirm the full, 100 percent humanity of Jesus, do we not? So if Jesus cannot be held accountable for the things he says in this passage, then perhaps, oh church, he did not intend for us, being also human, to take those things literally. Nevertheless, I am sure he intended for us to take them seriously. But how so?
In order to understand what Jesus wants to say to us here, I think we need to understand what the author of Matthew is doing with this passage. The thing about these verses is that they are part of the Sermon on the Mount, and biblical scholars agree that the Sermon on the Mount is largely a composition of Matthew. While most of what is in the Sermon can be traced back to something Jesus originally said, Matthew has taken these sayings of Jesus and woven them together in such a way as to present Matthew’s own understanding of what Jesus meant when he said them. And since Matthew has a habit of using what Jesus said to explain what Jesus said, we need to look at the passage before verses 21-37 in order to see what it is Matthew is trying to explain. When we look at the verses immediately prior to this passage, we see that Matthew’s Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, or Torah, or even to establish a new Law, but rather to fulfill the Law. The Torah, the Law, is not wrong, it is not outdated, it is not too lax or too strict; it is a covenant in need of fulfillment. What does it mean to fulfill the Law? Of course, this is a phrase that lends itself to many different interpretations; for me, and for this text, it seems to mean that Jesus has come in order that the purpose of the Law may be achieved.
And so when we come to our present pericope, Jesus’ formula, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” is not Jesus’ authority trumping the Torah and giving us new commandments, nor is it necessarily Jesus intensifying the Torah, but rather it is Jesus showing us what the fulfillment of these four particular points of the Torah looks like – showing us not the way things are but the way things are supposed to be. Jesus is saying, “Hey, this is the way things work at the human level; but let me tell you how it works at the divine level, in the Kingdom, or Commonwealth, of Heaven.” Here, we have laws against murder, but in the Commonwealth of Heaven, there is no anger that might lead to murder. Here, we have laws against adultery, but in the Commonwealth of Heaven there is no lust that might lead to adultery. Here, we have laws about when it is okay to get a divorce, but in the Commonwealth of Heaven there are no reasons to get divorced. Here, we have oaths that help others to know when we are telling the truth, but in the Commonwealth of Heaven oaths are superfluous, because everyone is always honest. The laws we have on Earth point to the virtues that are consistently present in the Commonwealth of Heaven.
The thing is, we have to live in both worlds, and Matthew – Matthew recognizes that about his community. He knows that they are human, and cannot hope to meet these divine standards. But he knows that they are also partakers in the divine nature, and so they are able to strive after those standards. So Matthew uses some of Jesus’ other sayings to show his community how to exist as both human and divine. If you are angry with someone, your first priority should be reconciling with that person. If you find yourself in a dispute, resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. If you experience an inappropriate sexual desire for someone other than your partner, do whatever it takes to ensure it doesn’t happen again. And though there are certainly instances where it is necessary to get a divorce (abuse, for example), work through the struggles in your marriage if at all possible. Here Matthew leaves his community on their own to discover how they might strive toward the fulfillment of the rest of the Law. He relates to them that the fulfillment of the Law on oath-taking is complete and total honesty, but they have to discern for themselves that in order to exist both as imperfect humans who lie and as divine partakers who are honest, they need to come clean as quickly as possible when they catch themselves being dishonest.
This, I think, is what Jesus is asking of us in this passage. Jesus hascome to fulfill the Law; we cannot live as though that hasn’t happened. But we also cannot live as though the Law has already been fulfilled. We are, like Matthew’s community, caught between worlds. We are both human and partakers of the divine nature. But while Matthew’s community believed they just had to do their best until Jesus returned, what if we believed that the Commonwealth of Heaven is not something out there in the future, beyond our reach until Jesus returns, but rather something that we co-create with God here on Earth? What if, instead of doing our best and waiting for Jesus to come back and finish fulfilling the Law, we realized that it is Christ’s work within all of us that is continuing to fulfill the Law? And what if our efforts with Jesus to fulfill the Law and our efforts with God to bring about the Commonwealth of Heaven here on Earth are the same?
If that were the case, then I imagine we would get a little glimpse of the Commonwealth every time we followed Jesus’ instructions in this passage. I imagine the lesbian couple whose rights were taken away two years ago glimpsing the Commonwealth of Heaven as they dine and converse with their pro-Amendment One neighbors across the street. I imagine the man bombarded day in and day out by sexualized media glimpsing the Commonwealth of Heaven when he decides to cut out time spent watching television and spend it instead with his wife. I imagine the woman who underwent the pain of divorce glimpsing the Commonwealth of Heaven as she celebrates her 25th wedding anniversary with her second husband. I imagine the young father who has been concealing the fact that he was let go from his job a few months ago glimpsing the Commonwealth of Heaven when he decides to come clean to his family, and to his surprise experiences love and support in place of the expected shame and criticism.
Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, and things are not always so black and white. There is real fear in attempted reconciliation; there is fear in commitment; there is fear in telling the truth. Fear that we might be hurt, or abandoned. But there is also such an opportunity to live into the Commonwealth of Heaven that we would be crazy not to push past that fear and reconcile with one another, commit to one another, and speak the truth in love. And we have such an example of this in Jesus, who, on the night when he was betrayed, trembled with fear as he knelt before Mother God in prayer. There was great cost in the reconciliation he would bring between Creation and Creator. He had gotten to the tough part of his mission, and his commitment was wavering. He might rather have backtracked before the authorities, emphatically asserting that he was merely a man and he would stop causing trouble, thereby sparing him the excruciating crucifixion that awaited him. But instead he chose to speak the truth about who he really was, and in so doing revealed to the rest of humanity the greatest glimpse of the Commonwealth of Heaven we could ever receive: God with us.
So, the next time we read this passage, I hope we can remember how Jesus, being fully human and fully God, experienced his own teaching. I hope we can say, “thank you, Jesus. Thank you for teaching me that it is okay to be angry sometimes, but that I must also continually seek reconciliation. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me that it is okay to experience physical attraction for another human being, but that I must exercise self-control and faithfulness to my partner in mind, body, and spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me that it is both okay and necessary to get a divorce in certain situations, but that otherwise I must strive to keep my commitments even when the going gets tough. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me that it is okay to lie and keep secrets when necessary, but that I must endeavor to be a person of integrity in my dealings with other people. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me that it is okay to be human, but that I am also a partaker of the divine nature. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me that I can enter the Commonwealth of Heaven.” Amen.