Monday, January 23, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (I), Week 4: On the Mosaic Law - The Treatment of Others (Matt 5:21-6:4)

As we reach this passage of Scripture, we have just heard Jesus introduce His sermon. He began by pronouncing blessings on the crowd (Mt 5:1-12). Then Jesus told the Jews around Him that they had lost their place of influence in the world (Mt 5:13-16), and they were about to find out why: further, He gives them the assurance that what He is about to say is not an overthrowing of the Law but a completion of it (Mt 5:17-19)—and indeed, He says that He is about to raise the bar higher (Mt 5:20).

Jesus then proceeds to teach on the proper application Mosaic Law from verses 5:21 through 7:6. It seems to me that Matthew has clearly organized Jesus’ teachings into two discrete blocks: first, on how to interact with other people (5:21-6:4), and second, on how to interact with God (6:5-7:6).

We cannot overstate the radical nature of what Jesus is about to say here. He is speaking to a group that have known, since they were children, that they have been set apart as special before God—and yet, they have failed to uphold God’s high standards time and time again. Over time this has led them to their current status in the world: a small, unimportant people on the edge of the Empire; poor and uncultured; notable to the Empire in no way except for their strange monotheistic beliefs.

The Law is the one thing the Jews have going for them. It is the thing in which they take the most pride; the security to which they cling the tightest. And Jesus is about to tell them that they have been going about it all wrong, for centuries.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (5:21-26, ESV)

Jesus certainly leads with a ‘bang’, doesn’t He? And here we see a common theme which shall run throughout all His teachings: the Jews have “missed” the spirit of the Law. They read, “You shall not murder” and focus on containing their wrath so that someone is not killed. But, Jesus is saying, they have missed the spirit of the Law—to love and forgive and seek forgiveness, so that murderous anger never develops.

The letter of the Law was, “Do not murder”; the spirit of the Law was, “Do not be angry at others or allow others to remain angry at you.” The anger is the seed which, when harvested, leads to murder. And here Jesus says that you are guilty for planting that seed, regardless of whether it survives to harvest time. So even if you do not end up murdering someone, the fact that you are angry enough with them to do it (if you could have gotten away with it) is the same in God’s eyes.

Obviously, this is a much tougher standard than the Law. It is one thing to control one’s behaviors; to discipline one’s emotions is much, much tougher.

I find it fascinating here that Jesus puts the ownership for the disagreements on both parties. Notice that in verse 22, He says that those who are angry with their brothers are sinning. Then in verses 23-26, He says that those who have caused their brothers to remain angry at them are also sinning. So it seems that the Christ-follower finds himself a sinner on both ends: if I make someone else angry, it is my fault; if someone else makes me angry, it is my fault.

That may not seem quite fair at first, but the beauty and power of this simple passage is profound. My wife and I have seen it in our marriage. We long ago agreed that for every argument, no matter how one-sided, both parties are at fault. When it is over, both of us apologize to the other for something. Either for the action that triggered the argument, or for allowing the action to bother us so much, or for allowing the argument to escalate, or all of the above: both of us were at fault for allowing it to become an argument. It truly does take two to argue.

So think to your work, or your family life, or your church life. If there is someone with whom you are in an argument, what is Jesus commanding here? He is not saying that your hurt it not real. He is saying that you should make things right between each other, and immediately. So urgent is the need, in fact, that God says it is more important than attending worship.

How can that be? I think it is because we too often lose the perspective that Christ had. We are immortals, you and I. Let that sink in. The greatest engineering feats in the world will be dust (indeed, so will the world itself!) before your relationship ends with that person with whom you are angry. What were you two arguing about? Money? Politics? Housework? Grades on a test? Who stole whose parking space? Please. What are these concerns to an immortal? You two will watch from heaven as nations rise and fall, as all our greatest earthly achievements crumble to dust. Is it really important who is at fault for your minor spat?

Keep the perspective. Forgive freely and easily. Resolve within yourself that you will hold no grudges, and give no one the reason to hold a grudge against you.

“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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that of your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (5:27-30, ESV)

This is not a favorite passage among men—and I am no exception. I know men who, every time they see a mildly pretty face, have to make some comment about it when the woman walks away. Thankfully, I (and most Christian men I know) are not quite that lustful. But it would be a lie to say that when I see a particularly striking woman, or a billboard on the side of the road, or a sex scene on a television show, that lustful feelings never enter my mind.

Now many preachers go into a false teaching on this passage, I believe. These preachers (being, not coincidentally, all men) use this passage as an indictment of women. Some use it to argue that women should all dress like the Amish, so as not to inspire lust in men. Others (like Mark Driscoll) have used it to argue that wives should keep themselves looking sexy for their husbands, so that he won’t lust as much. Both of these are, if I may be so bold, profoundly stupid and seem to show a lack of understanding of lust. Has lust gone away in Islam, where women are covered from head to toe? No! Though statistics are hard to come by, it appears as though violent crimes against women occur 20-30 times more frequently in Islamic countries than America (most of which are motivated by sexuality—beatings for being too immodest with their dress, or genital mutilation, or rape, etc.) Indeed, in some countries with decent data, such as Qatar, it appears that one in fifty women have been groped or molested in public marketplaces. So certainly the lust of man cannot be removed simply by women dressing modestly. Clearly, modesty does not remove man’s lustfulness. As for Driscoll’s argument that lust would be removed somewhat if men had hotter wives—this would imply that men with beautiful wives never have affairs. Of course, Tiger Woods is a great example of how untrue that statement is—as are thousands of men every year.

Men are not lustful because women dress slutty. Men are not lustful because they are unsatisfied at home. Men are not lustful because of the pervasive pornography in our country. Men are not lustful because their hormones kick in as teenagers and are often unfulfilled until their twenties or thirties.

Men are lustful because of the Fall. Because God designed us to love beauty and become aroused by our partners and have wonderful sex lives—in fact, “Be fruitful and multiply”, His key commandment after the Fall and the Flood, contains within it the divine requirement to have lots and lots of sex.

But like everything in our fallen nature, it has become corrupted by our distance from God. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are brought into the world in chains. Our willpower to do righteousness is bound by our sinful natures as fallen beings.

That is the root cause of why men are lustful. We are lustful because the desire for sex is good, but is unleashed in unholy ways in our hearts from the Fall. All of those other things—pornography, immodesty, dissatisfaction, hormones and the longer wait for marriage—are contributing factors, sure. They make it worse. Often unmanageable. But the root cause lies with the man’s sinful nature, not with the actions of women, or pornographers, or anyone else.

It is a simple matter of economics, men. If there was no demand in your heart for lust, then how women dressed would not bother you. So please stop blaming bikinis for your lustful ways. Start to take some responsibility for your own actions.

Now, how to take responsibility? Well, Jesus’ prescription is about as radical as one can get! Here He says that if you have a wandering eye, just pluck that sucker out and you won’t have to worry about it any more. Or, if you find yourself masturbating a lot, cut off that hand. (And please, don’t tell me that Jesus isn’t referring to masturbation. He clearly is—He is talking about lust, and ways in which your right hand can cause you to sin in lust. I know we don’t like to think about Jesus teaching on masturbation, but He did. Get over it. It isn’t going away because we are uncomfortable talking about it; we need to address it as Christians, as Jesus did here.)

The key undercurrent here, as with Jesus’ teaching on anger, is the spirit not just the letter of the Law. The problem, Jesus says, is lust—not adultery. Adultery is the harvest of the seed of lust. So we must address the lust itself, in radical ways if necessary.

Jesus says that lusting after someone is the same as committing adultery with them. Imagining sleeping with them is the same as doing so.

Do you see the implicit “out” in this situation?

If you lust about your wife, have you done her any wrong? If you imagine sleeping with your wife, have you done her any wrong? No—because she is yours to sleep with anyway. Her body is yours, and yours is hers. Song of Solomon indeed is graphic in its approval of sexual passion between partners.

So it is that, when I read this passage, I have drawn the following conclusions. Lusting after a woman in all its forms (pornography, masturbation, imagining her during sex with your wife, etc.) is always wrong. It is a major sin—adultery—and should be confessed immediately and addressed urgently. But lusting after your wife—in any of the above forms—commits no wrong whatsoever.

So, I believe, Jesus is not saying here, “Do not be passionate about sex”; He is saying, “Do not be passionate about sex with a woman to whom you are not married.”

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’. But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (5:31-32, ESV)

In our culture of broken homes and marriages, it does not take a Biblical scholar to demonstrate the negative effect all of these divorces have had on the fabric of our society, and upon our children. So I will not take any time speaking to this. Instead, let us focus on the one reason that Jesus allows divorce—sexual immorality. What does He mean here?

One thing can be said with absolute certainty—His definition certainly includes fornication. Speaking to the people He was, Jesus would have had to have been explicit if He was allowing premarital sex. No, it was assumed at the time that a woman was a virgin at the time of marriage, and indeed the proof of such was a big, big deal. On Jewish wedding nights, often some of the guests (such as the fathers of the couple) would be waiting outside their bedroom door as they consummated their marriage. As the virgin bride’s hymen was broken, the blood spilled onto the bedsheets was proof that she had remained virtuous. That bedsheet was seen as physical proof of the righteousness of the marriage. So when a couple consummated their marriage and found that the woman did not bleed, and had not been a virgin—this was grounds for immediate divorce…and banishment from the good graces of the community.

(Does this help explain the extraordinary sacrifice and love that Joseph had for Mary? For he was betrothed but not yet married to her, and was well aware that her pregnancy would be taken to mean that either he had sinned by fornicating with her, or she had sinned by fornicating with another. In either case, great shame would have been heaped on his family. For him to stick with her through it is one of the great testimonies to love that I have read.)

So we can say with certainty that, if you find that your wife has a history of fornication, you have the right to divorce her.

Now, what about if she committed adultery? That is the other potential for a definition for “sexual immorality”. It is important here that you understand a bit of context about the Jewish world at the time Jesus spoke this passage. There were two primary theories going around in Judaism at the time regarding divorce—one led by a rabbi named Hillel, and one by a rabbi named Shammai. Hillel followed the Roman’s view where the husband, being paterfamilias, could issue a divorce for virtually any reason—even a bad meal. Shammai was the more conservative teacher on the topic, holding that a husband could divorce a wife only in the cases of fornication or adultery. Indeed, some among Shammai’s school not only allowed divorce and remarriage in this case, but often required it. Adultery was seen as damaging to the marriage as idolatry is to the relationship with God.

This debate was exceptionally well known and commonly held at the time—it seems impossible that Jesus could not be aware of it, or expect His hearers not to be intimately familiar with it. In His statement, Jesus clearly lays out the two opposing theories and so it seems quite clear that He is siding with Shammai; this clearly implies that adultery, as well as fornication, are valid reasons for divorce in God’s eyes. (Note: For what it’s worth, I do not think “emotional adultery” counts here, but I have no proof for this.)

Further, I think it not a stretch to assume that another other commonly held reason for a valid divorce—accepted by both Shammai and Hillel—applies. It was assumed by all first-century Jews that physical neglect or abuse was a valid cause for divorce. Though Jesus does not explicitly mention it, I think that the wide acceptance at the time would likely have led to His discussing the topic if He disagreed.

Thus I would conclude: it is certainly acceptable for divorce if premarital sex is discovered; it is almost certainly acceptable for divorce if one spouse has committed adultery; it is highly likely that divorce is permissible in the case of abuse. For any other reason—“irreconcilable differences”, “falling out of love”, or whatever—no divorce would be permissible.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (5:33-37, ESV)

Here, Jesus tells them that they should not make oaths. Jesus here makes an interesting point—oaths are meaningless, and have a subtle unrighteousness in them. As He brilliantly points out here, you often have no control over whether the oaths that you make are achievable, so while they may sound important they are not really adding anything to your statement. Saying, “I swear on my mother’s body” doesn’t really add any validity to your statement—for you have nothing whatsoever to do with your mother’s body, whether you say the truth or a lie. Worse, as Jesus points out: if you have to swear an oath for someone to believe you, then does this not imply that you will lie if you do not swear an oath? Consider our legal system—people swear on the Bible because somehow we believe this will transform them from liars to honest.

Again, Jesus sets a higher standard here: do not be honest only in contracts, but in all things. Let your ‘yes’ always mean ‘yes.’

A personal dislike of mine is the prevalence of church covenants today. The only one I have ever signed—and the only type I intend on signing—was one which basically simply said that I believe in the core doctrines of the Church and will try to live by them. Anything more would be, per Jesus above, wrong.

Your covenant with God in the New Birth is the last oath you ever have to make.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other one also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (5:38-42, ESV)

Few passages of Scripture are as powerful, or so succinctly capture what Jesus was all about, than these four verses. Think of the additions to our language alone—phrases like “turn the other cheek”, and “go the extra mile” are simply part of our common tongue now, having been said here thousands of years ago.

Now let us start by saying—eye for an eye was a pretty bold and just law, and it is right for it to be in the Law. It restricts payback for an offense to be proportional to the crime committed. Before this, you could repay crimes however you saw fit; after “eye for an eye”, you could only repay crimes to the limit that you were yourself wronged. So the law is good—indeed, today we have a similar law against “cruel or unusual punishment”, which is addressing the same concern.

Reading in the context of our past verses, you see that Jesus isn’t saying that “eye for an eye” goes away—far from it, He is saying that His followers must be held to a standard above that. Eye for an eye is the letter of the law…turn the other cheek is the spirit of the law.

This has broader implications than just laying down during a fight. What Jesus is really saying here is that when someone wrongs you, do not seek the compensation you are legally owed; instead, serve that person even more.

It is about serving those who wrong you, loving them, forgiving them—rather than “getting yours” back. That is why He includes in the same topic being beaten, sued, kidnapped, and begging from the poor. He is showing that your perspective should not be about “getting what’s rightfully mine”, and instead, “How can I give what is mine to everyone else?” And in particular, Jesus tells you to focus that energy on serving the one who is evil and doing wrong to you.

So to use a modern application: let’s say your neighbor’s teenager is learning to drive and destroys your mailbox. The neighbor offers, rightly to pay for the damage. Jesus would say not only should you refuse, but you should look at how you can help them! Do not seek out repayment for ‘wrongs’ done to you just because they are legally allowed; instead, try to be a servant to all.

What a bold, bold statement. And it’s about to go to a whole other level.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:43-48, ESV)

Let me start at the end—“You must be perfect”. Some, in their attempts to institute a Christian Law and deny grace, take this out of its context and make it about works-based righteousness. Clearly, the context here forbids that. When Jesus is speaking of being perfect here, He is tying it to the fact that God shows love to both the good and the evil. That is the way in which we must seek God’s perfection—in our love and service and forgiveness to all. So please stop saying that Jesus said “be perfect” in terms of righteous behavior; He says you must be “perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” with regard to forgiving your enemies. That is the perfection He extols.

Is Jesus saying that it is wrong to hurt your enemy? No. He did not come to destroy the Law. Instead, He is saying that there is a better spiritual place: to love your enemies, to pray for those who persecute you.

My thoughts cannot help but go back to September 11, 2001. That day was transformative for me, so whenever I think of being persecuted by evil men, I think of the terrorists attacking the Twin Towers. How did I respond? How did others? By and large, the Christian response was not one of love or prayer for the terrorists and their funders. Most of us sought vengeance. Others sought safety—but were okay with silently allowing the vengeance of others. We were wrong. How might things have been different if we as a nation had collectively mourned our losses, improved our security at home, but most importantly routinely prayed for the Muslims who so hated us? Did our actions inspire more hatred or more love? It is certainly something to consider, when we discuss foreign policy. I am not saying that Jesus was a pacifist—but I am saying that not going to war should be the Christian default, and only when the calling is clear can we consider it otherwise.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (6:1-4, ESV)

If you think that Jesus is being symbolic when saying that people sounded trumpets before them, you are wrong. In the ancient world the gap between the rich and poor was so great that free-market economics did not function. There was no way to fund public buildings like gymnasiums, schools, temples, and the like unless a wealthy person paid for them for the community. And such people—patrons—would parade through the streets at grand openings and the like, trumpets blaring, so that the people could give him their reward: their loyalty and public praise as a great man.

Well, Jesus did not like it. Not one bit. This statement may have been as shocking to His first-century listeners as “love your enemy” is to us. That was how client-patronage worked: the patron (who had everything) gave something to the client (who had nothing), so it was only right that the client paid him back by giving him public praise in a parade or when voting or the like. Jesus here is not saying you shouldn’t give them praise—He is not talking to the client who received, but the patron who gave. To the patron, He says: you should give quietly, expecting no praise from man, so that you can receive praise from God.

Why? Because again, the heart is what is important to Jesus, rather than the action. Giving money is all well and good. But why did you give it? To please God, or please men? If it is to please men, then you will tell men about it, and seek their praise rather than God’s. And you will have it, Jesus says—but only it.

What Jesus does not say here is, “Do not give to charity.” In our selfish day—where we in America account for over half of the world’s wealth—Jesus’ assumption here that we will all give generously is by no means a reality. We must all start giving much more sacrificially than we do: and not go around telling people about it in order to get praise.


In this section, Jesus has expounded for His hearers on the Mosaic Law, and set the stage for the introduction of grace to the world. The New Covenant is of course not yet in place, but still Jesus is showing that the spirit of the Law and the way the Jews had tried to follow the letter of the Law do not match.

Recall that during His introduction, Jesus told the audience that the Jewish people had lost their influence in the world, and this section we discussed today is why, according to Him: because they lost the meaning of the Law and tried to only adhere to its letter. They avoided murder when they were supposed to be avoiding anger. They avoided adultery when they were supposed to be avoiding lust. They embraced Roman concepts of easy divorce, when they were supposed to divorce only for the most extreme of circumstances. They agreed to oaths, when they were supposed to always be honest. They sought revenge when they were supposed to be seeking peace. They hated their enemies when they were supposed to be loving them. They gave to charity for the sake of men, when they were supposed to be giving for the sake of God.

That is why they lost their influence, Jesus said: they tried to follow pious rules, but forgot the spiritual grace and mercy and love that undergirded those rules.

I said at the beginning that Jesus was speaking here on the Mosaic Law, and He was. But do you see how applicable His points are to us today? Do we not, having been given grace, fall back into the exact same pattern of trying to follow God’s commandments while giving no thought whatsoever to the spirit of the rules? Have we not embraced legalism in modern Christianity just as much as the Jews embraced it in the Law? And have we not lost that same love for God and man that is supposed to be informing all of our actions?