There are few passages in the Bible which are more celebrated and less practiced than Matthew 5:21-48. Many modern, evangelical Christian interpreters (along with many others before them) seem to interpret the words of Jesus here with the goal of exempting their audience from obedience. The most common claim made in this attempted exemption is that Jesus here is just trying to show that everyone needs grace. He’s not actually thinking people should do what he (speaking for God) says, but rather, he is showing that it’s actually impossible to do what God wills and so we all just need to ask for forgiveness. This interpretation is ridiculous. Time and time again the words of Jesus here are reinforced by his own behavior, his demands on his disciples, and the call for obedience.
Now, that’s not to say that this passage is to be read literally or legalistically. It is full of hyperbole and is a work of rhetoric. It does need to be interpreted; it is not entirely self-explanatory. So, given that this is a brief blog post and not a book that could explore how to interpret these issues in depth, I want to propose that we read this passage with our eyes on the big patterns and themes. If we can do that, and if we can set aside any worries about “situational ethics” or “could this work?” we might stand a reasonable chance to begin obeying Jesus and not interpreting around him.
21“You heard that it was said to the ancient people, ‘You shall not murder’; and anyone who commits murder shall be liable to judgment. 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; anyone who uses foul and abusive language will be liable to the lawcourt; and anyone who says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna. 23“So, if you are coming to the altar with your gift, and there you remember that your brother has a grievance against you, 24leave your gift right there in front of the altar, and go first and be reconciled to your brother. Then come back and offer your gift. 25Make friends with your opponent quickly, while you are with him in the street, in case your opponent hands you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you find yourself being thrown into jail. 26I’m telling you the truth: you won’t get out until you’ve paid every last copper coin.
27“You heard,” Jesus continued, “that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you: everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye trips you up, tear it out and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. 30And if your right hand trips you up, cut it off and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for your whole body to go into Gehenna. 31“It was also said, ‘If someone divorces his wife, he should give her a legal document to prove it.’ 32But I say to you: everyone who divorces his wife, unless it’s in connection with immorality, makes her commit adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33“Again, you heard that it was said to the people long ago: ‘You shall not swear falsely, but you shall give to the Lord what you promised under oath.’ 34But I say to you: don’t swear at all! Don’t swear by heaven (it’s God’s throne!); 35don’t swear by the earth (it’s God’s footstool!); don’t swear by Jerusalem (it’s the city of the great king!); 36don’t swear by your head (you can’t make one hair of it turn white or black!). 37When you’re talking, say yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no. Anything more than that comes from the evil one.
38“You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil! Instead, when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one toward him. 40When someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your cloak, too. 41And when someone forces you to go one mile, go a second one with him. 42Give to anyone who asks you, and don’t refuse someone who wants to borrow from you. 43“You heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! 45That way, you’ll be children of your father in heaven! After all, he makes his sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust. 46Look at it like this: if you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even tax-collectors do that, don’t they? 47And if you only greet your own family, what’s so special about that? Even Gentiles do that, don’t they? 48Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.
There are no minimum standards.
In order to understand this passage, I like to take Jesus’ sentences that begin “You have heard it said…” and re-frame them with self-justifying words and a defensive tone of voice. For example, let’s take 5:31: “Yeah, okay, I divorced my wife. But at least I gave her a certificate!” Or perhaps 5:21. “Sure, that guy drives me crazy and I called him an idiot in front of the whole office, but it’s not like I punched him in the face or ruined his life.” Try 5:27-28, “I’m not like those guys; I’d never cheat on my wife! But it doesn’t hurt anyone for me to just take a few minutes and watch the college girls doing squats in the gym, if you know what I mean!”
Most of us compare ourselves to other people or to society or to “minimum standards” to make ourselves feel like we’re righteous. As long as our behavior is socially acceptable and stays away from the “really bad stuff” then we think we’re doing okay.
Not so for Jesus. Jesus destroys the idea of minimum standards here. Essentially Jesus is pointing to these laws or traditions and saying that they were never meant to be the goal. They were boundaries created to restrain the evil that was present, but they did not set the benchmark for righteousness.
God is the standard.
The benchmark for righteousness is God, and nothing else. Minimum standards are ultimately useless in Jesus' eyes, because if we are not striving to be like God (as God’s children and people made in His image) then the project is a failure. And of course this is where things get tough, because God is loving and blessing both good people and bad people; God gives his gifts (according to Jesus) indiscriminately to humankind. (Now, this does not eliminate judgment- this passage is full of it- but it places judgment in God’s hands alone and this judgment only comes at the end of all the gift-giving done by God.) So if God is the standard then the behaviors called for by Jesus- gentleness and kindness, reconciliation, purity, commitment, peacemaking, truthfulness, etc.- are simply a matter of course.
Self-denial in all areas of life marks the community of Jesus.
If Jesus’ words here are meant to describe what his community is to be like then perhaps we should say above all that his community is to practice self-denial. Every point in this sermon involves self-denial. We are called to leave behind self-protection, self-vindication, self-fulfillment, self-righteousness, self-dependence and just about every self-word you can come up with. And this self-denial is evident in the way we interact with neighbors, friends, spouses, enemies and even oppressors. Whatever the situation is- and this passage does not seek to outline rules for every situation- we must ask what it means to imitate God (revealed in Jesus) and then set aside our own self-interest and obey.