We are studying Matthew 5:21-32 for Sunday, July 14 (Bastille Day!!). This is the beginning of the section of the Sermon on the Mount often labeled “the antitheses,” because Jesus is using the rhetoric of contrast between what “has been said” and what he is saying now. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Matthew 5:21-48 immediately follows Jesus’ announcement “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So the way ordinary language works, it presents itself as an explanation of what he means by that.

I think I have always assumed that Jesus was giving a number of examples, like a FAQ, but not giving an exhaustive list of all the ways our righteousness needed to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Today I’m not so sure. There’s a decent case that the antitheses cover all the ethical matters of Exodus 20:13-17/Deuteronomy 5:17-21, and they are capped off with an exhortation to perfect love (and “love is the fulfilling of the law” Rom. 13:10). It may make just as much sense to think of them as comprehensive.

There is, once again, a long tradition of interpretation of the meaning of these statements, how they affect Christians, “what Jesus was really saying,” and so on. That is – we probably know what we have been taught and what we think all this means. So, we’ll have to pay attention to that.

One popular reading is that Jesus here is going out of his way to show that no human being can do what “the law” requires – what he’s outlining here is totally beyond human capabilities. In my opinion, we should take a long, hard look at why that reading would even begin to appeal to us.

[Jesus was “fully human.” There’s an implication in that for us. We ought to take it seriously.]

CLOSER READING: In v21, the word translated “said” has a connotation of formal speech, so it carries a little more weight than conversational speech – more along the lines of “we have a saying.” It does not seem unreasonable to think “those of ancient times,” “the ancients,” are the ones standing at Sinai. The word translated “murder” could also be translated “kill,” but it seems to be usually a human-on-human verb.

Verse 22 is a Greek-to-English nightmare. NRSV solves the problem by translating everything as “you.” It’s a very general, universal statement though: All, or some of us might say “each and every” person, who is getting angry with his brother, and whoever then might use these progressively worse terms of abuse, is at risk with respect to the cosmic justice system.

Maybe, but then again maybe not, there’s a “for cause” loophole in verse 22.

The adjective translated “liable” – which repeats three times here – is a legal term that can mean subject to, deserving, guilty of, can stipulate the crime or the penalty, and can also mean caught in or bound in, which is suggestive. [Many of us would agree that being angry is hellish.]

Could this adjective be pointing to “grounds for legal action against you”? Because Jesus is sketching that scene in the next four verses.

In verse 23, notice that the condition is NOT whether “you” has something against a “brother,” but whether a brother has something against you – some ground for complaint, that will (see v25) make the brother your legal adversary in v25.

This is so urgent that even if you are at the altar with a gift [for God] – you’re in the middle of the worship service, so to speak, the offering plates are being passed – and you realize this, you need to go fix it now. And the fix, translated “come to terms” in NRSV, is literally something like “be goodly-minded” towards your accuser (that is, let’s recall, the person “you” gave cause to sue “you” in this way by being enraged at them and calling them contemptuous names).

The word translated “penny” in v26 was a very small amount of money – the lexicon says worth about ¼ of a cent. [Here’s Wikipedia on that.] In our world, something like the tiny denomination used by gas pumps, maybe.

Verses 27-32 are separated in all the Bibles I know into verses 27-30, “on adultery,” and verses 31-32, “on divorce.” This makes sense, because verse 31 uses the same antithetical pattern that Jesus has set up, so it reads as a fresh antithesis.

But on the other hand … should we perhaps also read Jesus’ comments on chopping up one’s body along with the comments on divorce, i.e., on putting asunder what God has joined into one flesh? (See, for comparison, Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:14-18yes, in THAT chapter, so there’s something to think about!)

There may be something in verses 27-32 that should make us think hard about this: why would it be more unthinkable to gouge out my eye or cut off my hand (my right hand, no less) than it would be to divorce my wife?

Verse 27 begins with adultery and verse 32 ends with adultery; the whole speech is all about adultery, really. [Or perhaps coveting. Or perhaps anger and contempt and abuse.] Plus, the Greek word translated “lose” in verses 29 & 30, literally something like be ruined or be destroyed, sounds a lot like the word translated “divorced”. Enough that it’s surprising to me that people don’t point it out as a play on words.

[And honestly, I continue think that Jesus’ position on divorce is mainly about God’s relationship with Israel. This new observation just reinforces that for me.]

We might also need to notice that “you” in verses 27-32 seems to be an exclusively heterosexual man. I’m not sure what we need to do with that once we notice it.

And then, there’s the reality of our world: that many of us and our neighbors are divorced, and remarried, and in many cases have experienced divorce and remarriage as release from hell and as grace.

Just one more thing to take into account in trying to understand what Jesus is saying here about righteousness and its relationship to loving one another as ourselves.


painting of Jesus teaching a group of people seated on grass