Matthew 5:20, 27-37

The Text

For I tell you, if your justice [with regard to the Law] does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . You have heard that it was said, “Do not perform adultery,” but I myself tell you all that everyone who is a person who is looking at a woman/wife to desire her already committed adultery in his heart. And if your right eye is causing you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it benefits you that you destroy this one of your parts and not your whole body be thrown into the cursed place of fire. And if your right arm is causing you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you. For it benefits you that you destroy one of your parts and not your whole body go into the cursed place of fire.

And it was said, “Whoever divorces his wife, give her a certificate of divorce.” And I myself tell you that everyone who is a divorcing person—with the exception of doing sexual immorality—commits adultery against her, and whoever marries one who has been deserted, he or she is committed in adultery.

Again, you have heard it was said to those of ancient times, “You will not swear falsely, but you will render what is due by your oath to the Lord. And I myself tell you, “Do not swear at all, neither by Heaven, since it is the throne of God, nor by the Land,* since it is the footstool of His feet, nor toward Jerusalem, since it is a city of the Great King. Neither swear by your own head, since you cannot make one hair white or black. But your word be, “Yes yes,” “No no,” and the excess of these is from the evil one.’

A Reading

Continuing our slow crawl through the so-called Sermon on the Mount, or, the full-scale launch of Jesus’ public campaign, we find Jesus in the middle of illustrating what it looks like to hold the Law of Israel more righteously than even the ultra-rigorous Pharisee Party. Jesus has just made contemptuous treatment a capital offense and the lack of reconciling effort a form of criminal debt dodging. In a word, he has radicalized* the legal principal (murder tears at the fabric of Israelite society) and thus made the principal radical (anything that tears at the fabric of Israelite society is to be considered evil in the same way).

For Jesus’ next trick, he radicalizes the legal prohibition of adultery. Notice my instance on saying legal prohibition and not religious prohibition; I want to belabor the point in these posts of showing the Law of Moses as a constitution (the constitution of Israel), meaning that Jesus audaciously appoints himself a constitutional scholar, expounding upon its true and thus equally authoritative meaning. In the same form as before, Jesus claims that what is at the core of adultery is a particular intent that’s equally as present in a kind of gaze and, for that reason, that the gaze itself commits the offense. And as before, where we might be tempted to think it’s a proportional crime worthy of a proportional punishment (adultery is to death as lusting is to, let’s say, rebuke), Jesus heightens the urgency again: better you dismember yourself than dismember the community! After all, ‘the community’ is implicit here. If the only concern here is private morality and the fate of the individual soul, Jesus at some point has stopped painting the picture of the kingdom he claims is near and has lapsed into moralizing. Yet this is doubtful. Rather, in commenting on the Law, which is meant to hold the community of Israel together so that Israelites can have salvation within it (rather than Israelites be saved by it), the very reason that one would go ‘to the cursed place of fire’ might be because of what adulterousness does—it threatens the vessel of Yhwh’s salvation! The point is too significant to be missed: Jesus declares ill-intended, lingering glances a crime against the kingdom.

(Note: The word can be fairly translated either ‘woman’ or ‘wife.’ So which is it? The context that talks of adultery and the communal impact of breaking up a marriage would lend to a translation of ‘wife’; however, as Jesus is radicalizing the problem of hungry eyes here, should we be quick to limit how wide the problem runs? I can attest from personal experience how habits of ill-intended gazing can be destructive, regardless of whether the gazer or the gazed at ‘object’ is married.)

Jesus makes a nearly seamless transition from adultery to divorce in a ‘while I’m on the subject’ maneuver. A certificate of divorce provided the legal means of separating a marriage covenant so that, on the one hand, marriage was not always in all cases and forever absolute without exception ever (Christians sometimes call this absolutism ‘legalism’) and, on the other, a husband would be discouraged from sending his wife away and demanding her return and sending her away again ad infinitum on a numberless series whims. Certainly divorce is sad, often painful; in the social context here, however, it also leaves the woman extraordinarily vulnerable to poverty, abuse and prostitution. Exactly how serious is divorce, then? Jesus does not equivocate. With the smallest of caveats offered, it’s as serious as adultery; it’s as grave as a capital offense.

That Jesus goes on immediately to talk about oaths cannot be incidental. Divorce is the breaking of an oath par excellence, a failure to let one’s ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ to take seriously one’s commitments without weighting them any lesser or more. (‘Well, I only promised I’d be married her; I didn’t promise I’d never divorce her. After all, divorce exists for a reason, doesn’t it?’). An argument could even be suggested that this teaching on oaths hearkens back to the prohibition of adulterous glances, for whatever commitment that might violate for a married person or a person who should honor the commitments of the other. The point would be that it is not a self-contained, ad hoc miscellaneous teaching against swearing oaths particularly on Jerusalem or even one’s mother’s grave. If Jesus’ interest in expounding upon Israel’s constitution is preserving against threats to the fabric of the community, he has in view even the smallest seeds of adulterous inclinations, the subtle weakening of marital covenants for even ‘good reasons,’ and generally the failure to commit oneself to the basic meaning of one’s words. These remarkably, as much as murder, are issues of national interest in the kingdom he envisions.

Bringing It Home

Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom here can hardly be more practical, can hardly hit us closer to where we live in our everyday lives. Our eyes wander, as do our intentions, led by our less saintly desires. If they are not toward drinking up the other person with our eyes, reducing him or her to an object, planting the seed of adultery that begins with the seed of self-deceit (‘I totally could, but of course I won’t.’), then they may be covetous glances to our neighbor’s car or life. In what ways do we look to another with an intent to what is not loving?

We may not make formal oaths on Heaven or the Land or Jerusalem, but do we equivocate on the weight of our words? We might say, ‘I will,’ but fail to, perhaps for circumstances beyond or control or because it became inconvenient. I might say that I’ll come to an event but realize that evening that I’m tired and don’t have the social energy to give effectively. This might seem absurdly insignificant, but am I bothered, as Jesus is bothered in this text, by what my words come to mean to the one whose invitation I accepted and what they come to mean to me?

These tiny, everyday things that our lives can consist in, which in some cases can amount to broken covenants and broken marriages, are as much of what Jesus’ kingdom is built upon.


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