Matthew 5:21-37; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 “A Matter of Life and Death in the Here and Now [Or This Preacher Tackles Those Adultery and Divorce Verses]”
February 16, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell
Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO
Matthew 5:21-37 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder'; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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.
31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.
33 “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.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Let’s get a few things straight about these verses right from the get-go. If we think this is some kind of Jesus-versus-sinner smack down that includes only some people, let’s think again. It looks to me like the final score would be Jesus: 7 billion; people: 0. Borrowing Paul’s words from the Corinthians reading, there is no milk for children here, it’s all solid food.
Over and over in these verses Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you…”
It isn’t enough not to murder; Jesus orders us to choose our words oh so carefully.
It isn’t enough not to commit adultery; Jesus orders us see other people as people, not objects.
It isn’t enough not to divorce; Jesus orders us not to throw people away on a whim.
It isn’t enough not to lie; Jesus orders us to live so truthfully that we’ve no need to make an oath.
If you spend any time around a Lutheran church, it won’t take too long before someone would say that Jesus is talking about “law” in these verses. To which some of us could nod and agree and move on as if we understood what that means. Hanging around the same Lutheran church you might hear over time that the law “leads to death while the gospel gives life.” Another catchy phrase but I wonder if it has lost some punch over time; wildly misinterpreted to mean the law doesn’t matter so domesticated into spiritual milk, not solid food. Let’s try to stay squarely in the solid food category here this morning shall we?
I’ve been on a tear about these verses this week. They come on the heels of my family attending a funeral for the young adult son of some friends of ours. He took his own life after physically surviving a tour in Afghanistan. Hearing Jesus’ words through Eric’s despair, gives those words urgency. We are a people who are given new life and freedom in Jesus. Out of this new life and freedom we are called to “offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ”. If this is a given, then Jesus’ words are directed to us and into our relationships with other people.
No longer self-centered, we are made Christ centered – made free to look deeply into the cracks and fractures of those relationships for our own culpability. And Jesus gives us four places to start looking: Anger – Adultery – Divorce – Oaths.
None of these places are comfortable and there are easy ways to end up in the proverbial ditch along the way. But I believe that Jesus words have life and death implications for us in the here and now which makes the risk of the ditch worth it. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll try to avoid any ditches and you can tell me me if you think I ended up in one (email@example.com).
Have you ever been angry with someone? That deep, simmering kind of anger that may even have had a righteous origin? But somewhere along the way the righteousness part of the anger was lost and now it hangs around like a bitter, old friend. The anger simmers on a slow, inside burn that keeps us away from the one who made us angry but also cuts us off from everyone else. Making us prisoners of our own anger, our own private hell on earth. Perhaps it is because there is no life in this anger that Jesus is so adamant about reconciliation. Not to be confused with a bland acceptance of the status quo, reconciliation is a commitment to stay in relationship across intellectual disagreement and injured feelings. Because, left unchecked, anger has a way of infecting families, communities, institutions, and countries. Any of this sounding familiar?
In the adultery verses, Jesus focuses on those of us doing the looking. He challenges our treatment of people as objects that exist for our pleasure. What’s the harm, we might ask? Just as anger destroys relationship and creates hell on earth, treating people as objects denies relationship and creates hell on earth. On a smaller scale, once we make an object of someone, someone who exists for our pleasure, then what’s to stop us from hurting them when they make us unhappy? The violence of partner and child abuse has at its roots the objectification of people. So too does the modern day human trafficking and slavery crisis. Jesus’ hyperbole about gouging out our eyes and cutting off our hands if they lead us to make people into objects is attention getting. People are not to be treated as objects and it seems that Jesus is challenging us to consider the ways in which we are doing so and to stop doing it.
A few things need to be said right off the bat about this divorce text. First, Jesus is likely talking here about the practice of divorce that left women and children vulnerable both physically and financially. And second, the church across time and place has done a miserable job on the topic of divorce and has inflicted the pain of isolation on many families already devastated by divorce – in fact the church could stand to do some confession in this regard. Please hear this clearly, there are times when divorce is the least broken choice. If we are all broken people, then any of our decisions are also broken. A few obvious examples are marriages that end due to addictions, mental health issues, and abuse.
All of that being said, what challenge might those of us who are married hear from Jesus’ words? Maybe it helps to hear that courage is possible, remembering that we are made free by Jesus to look deeply into the cracks and fractures of our marriages for our own culpability. Some of us may need to confess our part in the mess. Some of us might need a coach or counselor to help us engage with indifference or mediate the anger. For some of us, our marriages still may not make it but reconciliation around certain issues may give co-parenting or healing after divorce some traction.
At first glance, the fourth challenge laid out by Jesus may seem almost anticlimactic. However, many of us are involved in daily work that puts pressure on us. Our jobs put food on the table and a roof over our heads. Dealing honestly in our work environments can sometimes feel precarious. What Jesus is asking here is often not easy and may be difficult to tease apart during a work day filled with contract negotiations or sales figures. In fact, we could go so far to say that the temptation here may be similar to adultery – that to deal falsely with someone might start with making an object out of them, making them a means to an end.
Jesus is talking life and death issues in this text today; life and death in the here and now for us and for other people. He is laying down the law that brings life through the gospel. May we, who are made free by Christ, be unleashed into the costly discipleship that brings life to each other. Amen.
 One interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 focusing on verse 6.
 Augustana Luther Church mission statement: Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with God. http://augustanadenver.org/pages/aboutus/aboutus.html
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.