Presenter: J. Michael Smith, pastor, UMC
- Background to Today’s Text
Jesus is expounding and expanding upon the Ten Commandments in this section of Matthew. Those commandments had been issued by God through Moses about 1200 B.C. The intention was to establish a core ethos for a new culture and kingdom. This would become known as God’s kingdom (or the Kingdom of Heaven) in contrast to the old kingdom of the Pharaoh. Life in Egypt had been based on the debasing of one another. But life under God’s reign would be based on honoring everyone.
Jesus is organizing his followers to resurrect this ancient dream and passion: a new community, under the sole direction of a good God, nurturing abundant life for all. The Sermon on the Mount is the orientation speech for those entering this new world with him. Not only is he pointing out the benefits of this new day (light in darkness, joy, peace, justice) but he is also making his followers aware of what might undo their dreams: It may not be an “outside” enemy that threatens most. The greatest danger might be from within: the breakdown of relationships among his followers.
The most critical numbers of a progressive community are not those found in the thousands or millions. The most critical numbers are “2” and “3.” The cellular structure of every community is made up of one on one relationships…and then the effects that occur in the presence of a third party. It is the nature of what happens when we are in twos and threes that determines the strength of the whole movement. If the “cells” of the body are rotten, the whole body, no matter how large, will collapse. The whole revolution will turn (or not) on what happens when twos and threes get together. The issues that most afflict twos and threes are the simple ones: anger, sex, greed, anxiety, judgment, etc.
So the Sermon on the Mount directly addresses the issues that occur on the small stages of life. Jesus indicates that we must do more than have the appearance of righteousness in our closest and simplest relationships. We must also have an authentic “inner” righteousness, one that integrates what is in the heart, eye, and hand. In the Sermon on the Mount, he will take the Ten Commandments to deeper levels of wisdom.
Fluid Text Matthew 5: 27-32
27 The wisdom of old declared, do not have intercourse with another man’s wife. 28 But I’m going to add this: any man who stares at another man’s wife, perusing her in order to inflame his own sexual passions, has already had intercourse with her “in his heart.”
29 If your peeping and leering eye poses a hazard to your good reputation, pluck it out and toss it away from you. It is to your selfish advantage to lose one of your body parts than risk getting your whole self tossed into the fiery fires of God’s penance. 30 And if your busy hand poses a hazard to your good reputation, chop it off and toss it away from you. It is to your selfish advantage to lose one of your body parts than get your whole self tossed into the fiery fires of God’s penance.
31 Speaking of cutting things off: the wisdom of old declared that you can honorably get rid of your wife by merely penning a deed of divorce. 32 But I’m going to add this: anyone who chucks off his wife, (except for those rare situations where he discovers that she is actually a commercial prostitute) vilifies her. And whoever marries a rejected woman defiles.
The Message Then
What a mess! The Kingdom of God is vulnerable to sex and soap operas! That’s life. But Jesus teaches his followers that we are not helpless in this mess. We have powers, if we will use them: powers over our attitudes, our decisions, and our actions. So Jesus pushes his followers to think, watch, speak, and act in such ways that they bless others rather than add to the jumble. He reveals a holistic understanding of life. Inner thoughts and feelings are connected with outward actions, and vice versa.
Jesus’ listeners would have easily understood that he was not literally recommending amputations or the popping out of eyeballs. They knew he was recommending that they sort through their thoughts and attitudes and dispose of the ones that eventuated in harm to others.
They would have noticed that he had moved “divorce” from the “no big deal” category to “this stuff is harmful” category. He asserted that divorce hurt both the woman who had been cut off and the whole community.
They also heard him elevate the seriousness of how we picture other people in our minds. How we picture people is very relevant to our relationships and to the well-being of the whole community.
History and Culture Notes
We like to label people. In the world of Jesus, such labels included, “Gentile,” “blessed,” “defiled,” “rich,” “divorced,” “Samaritan,” “woman,” “unclean,” “leper,” “sinner,” “defiled,” etc. But labels are misleading. They interfere with needed collaborations: unnecessarily alienating people and dismissing those who have something valuable to contribute to God’s work.
If a place, object, or person is defiled, something has happened to move it from an acceptable category to an unacceptable one. Whatever was labeled “defiled” was considered useless, thought to be a liability, quarantined to be shunned. It all seemed so intuitive.
But both Jesus and the finer traditions of the Old Testament are counter-intuitive when it comes to what is defiled. David, when fleeing King Saul, gathered the most defiled people of the region to form the core of his army. (Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him…I Samuel 22:2) Jesus’ first disciples were people that others considered defiled: fishermen, sinners and tax collectors, lepers, harlots, etc. Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth…I Corinthians 1:26.) Jesus spends time with folks thought to be defiled (Mark 7.) In other words, being defiled is not a deal breaker with Jesus. In his day, women were zealously branded “defiled,” divorce and adultery being two common pretexts for such labeling. But Jesus will not spurn anyone defiled.
Right eye, Right hand
The right side, for most people, is where the dominant activity occurs. If one is only using the right eye (and not the left) it would be to peep through a tiny opening, or be a way to look intensely at an object. It implies “objectifying” someone, reducing them into a mere object for our personal use or pleasure. I’ll let you use your own imagination to decide what a man might be doing with his right hand.
The Poetry of Body Parts
Each body part has a poetic or symbolic meaning. The gut (stomach or liver) is where unsolicited feelings hit us. Compassion and anger can both well up in the gut, uninvited. We cannot keep the gut from having its reactions. But other body parts do symbolize choices we make.
The eye symbolizes the choices we make concerning our attention. Ancients thought the eye was like a headlamp: we can direct the eye toward or away from whatever we want. In other words, we choose what to see, heed, or understand. The “eye” makes those choices. The “eye” decides which issues we will entertain and harbor.
The heart symbolizes the choices we make concerning our attitudes. The heart can submit to goodness or evil. The heart is the center of our intellect, our will, and our judgment. The heart is capable of producing compassion or hostility. It is capable of submitting to God or rebelling. The “heart” chooses all our attitudes. And since we all own a “heart,” we are all capable of changing our attitudes.
The hand and foot symbolize the choices we make concerning our actions. The foot decides where to go. And the hand decides how to treat others. We can have a “helping hand” or a “clenched fist.” Through the hand, we can take legal action against someone or offer a healing touch. Both the hand and foot can trespass. And they can both rescue and restore by their efforts.
The mouth symbolizes the choices we make regarding intentions, judgments, and investments. The words of the mouth become flesh, incarnate, real. With the mouth we can bless or curse. We can articulate an intention which will subsequently consume our endeavors. We can categorize and reward (or dismiss) others. The mouth’s words have consequences.
The Ten Commandments establish a culture of “honor.” The first four commandments all spell out how Israel is to honor God. And the final six explicitly spell out how the people of Israel are to treat one another: with honor. Starting with the honoring of mother and father, there is also to be no stealing, killing, adultery, false witness, or coveting.
Unlike urban cultures, most rural cultures are “honor” based. While urban culture tends to be very individualistic and “feeling” based, rural culture is still dominated by attention to honor and reputation. For example, in an honor based culture, you do not talk back to your parents, even if they are dead wrong. If a boy gets a girl pregnant, he marries her, whether he loves her or not. If an outsider insults your brother, you attack back, even if your brother has been an idiot. You honor boundaries (physical and emotional) between yourself and your neighbors, banishing both curiosity and coveting from your head.
This rural “culture of honor” protects people from the dehumanizing culture of domination and tyranny (found in slave cultures and in totalitarian political systems.) It also can serve as a corrective for our modern culture of voyeurism, individualism, and obscene consumerism.
Even though the Ten Commandments were 1200 years before the time of Jesus, they still shaped his culture. And while that “honor-system” was fraying around the edges, it still influenced how people thought.
But even though an honor-based ethic might effectively counter the evils of individualism or political/social/economic domination, it had its own excesses and immorality. It encouraged self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and legalism. It readily bypassed love, joy, and goodwill. It ignored matters of attitude, secrets of the heart, and God’s purpose for a particular individual. It discouraged both hope and risk-taking faith as too unstable. It trafficked so much in external appearances that it never ventured into the depths of scriptures’ deeper meanings. It was so intent on helping people stay in control of everything that there was no freedom to think, no “Israel,” no wrestling with God anymore (the literal meaning of “Israel,” which is “ones who wrestle with God.”) Furthermore, interpretation of the rules in an honor-based society can become fraught with narrow interpretations and self-serving loopholes, so much so as to render their application ridiculous.
By the time of Jesus, all of the Ten Commandments had become very shallow and heartless. In his Sermon on the Mount, he aims to breathe new fire into them. So he takes on two of them: murder and adultery. Everyone knows that murder destroys: Jesus expands our thinking into additional ways that we can destroy. Everyone knows that marriage and sex are foundational to creating life: except when they become tools of death. Jesus bids us take a second look at the conventional wisdom of an honor-based society.
Marriage, Adultery, and Divorce
Just as the commandment about murder was intended to protect people from one another, so the commandment about adultery was intended to protect men from one another. And the biblical world was a man’s world.
In order to understand Jesus’ teachings on social matters, we want to keep in mind that the phenomena and definitions of marriage, adultery, and divorce vary immensely from culture to culture. When he teaches about these issues to ancient Palestinians, his words usually mean both more and less to us than to them.
Marriages at that time were usually arranged by the families. They were intended to bless the families, not directly the couple–a means to social classification and economic advantage. Husbands had to be urged to “love” their wives (Ephesians 4:25) and wives cajoled to “honor” their husbands. Paul didn’t suppose that a wife, stuck in a subordinate and powerless role, might ever be expected to “love” her husband. “Love” implies some level of freedom, which wives then did not have. Their position was the same as that of a slave or child. Both marriage and divorce were a cruelty to women.
Divorce was a man’s game. If a man was not entirely pleased with his wife, he could send her back, like we might send back a bowl of pasta if it arrives at the table with hair in it. All a man need do is state the reason why. No questions asked: wink, wink. But the game was dangerous. It could launch clans and families into deadly feuds. And it humiliated and destroyed women. In our world, divorce might sometimes be the only path to the abundant life Jesus offers: such as when an abused woman must escape the powers of her husband. But in Jesus’ world, divorce was a man’s game. It never led to abundant life. It only led to devastation. Jesus aimed to put an end to divorce, as he saw it in his culture.
Adultery was also a man’s game—a power game. In New Testament times, adultery was hardly what we know as “illicit affairs.” (This is not to say that Jesus approves of our illicit affairs—not at all. But it is an admonition to respect the meaning of the term “adultery” in its first century Palestinian context.) Adultery was a power move on the part of one male against another. By sexual conquest of another man’s wife (property) a man could prove his superiority. A woman might be “caught” in adultery and punished. But women could not legally “commit” adultery. They supposed that only a man could take another man’s woman!
- The rules
- Old law: don’t commit adultery
- New law: don’t look at women a certain way
- Being Proactive
- If your eye endangers your reputation, pluck it out
- If your hand endangers your reputation, cut if off
- The rules (again)
- Old rule: To get divorced, write out a bill of divorce
- New rule:
- Whoever divorces causes her to commit adultery (with one loophole)
- Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (himself)
Paired, opposite, and recurring words and ideas
- Adultery (4x) to begin and end the section
- “It was said (in the past)” 2x
- “one of your members” 2x
- “right” 2x (once for the eye, once for the hand)
- “toss it away” 2x
- “hell” 2x
- “divorce” 4x
Context is critical for the interpretation of this scripture. The context of Jesus’ comments on divorce, marriage, and adultery is a speech to folks who are about to go out public, as a tight community, in order to change the world. He is not giving his comprehensive thoughts about marriage, divorce, and adultery. He is talking here about how 1st century Palestinian divorce, marriage, and adultery will impact the movement he is starting. He points out ways that these personal choices will distract from the mission and deplete the abilities of his followers.
The context of these sayings suggests that they are not necessarily absolute truths or eternal laws. But no one should overlook the eternal wisdom that is found in them, whispers from God relevant to all cultures and times.
Other Relevant Scriptures
Exodus 20: 14
The commandment on adultery
2 Samuel 11
It might be helpful to read the most famous story about adultery: David and Bathsheba. It provides a helpful backdrop for pondering the issue today.
Sirach 9: 1-9
From the Apocrypha, this short passage gives interesting insight into the ways that a man can be broken by getting involved with women.
Deuteronomy 24: 1-4
The Old Testament law on divorce seems incredibly cavilier and cruel to us.
Fun with Greek
Verse 27: μοιχεύσεις (moixeuseis) is usually translated “adultery.” It can also be translated “faithless” or “defile.” It is frequently used as a metaphor for worshipping idols.
Verse 28: ἐπιθυμῆσαι (epithumaysai) is translated “desire” in the NRSV. This is a compound word, literally meaning, “toward heat.” The full phrase πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι indicates that a man is deliberately trying to see or picture a woman with the intent of becoming “hot.”
Verses 29 and 30: σκανδαλίζει (skandalitzei) from which we get the English word, “scandal.” NRSV translates it as “sin.” It is much richer. It involves the following: stumbling, offending, exciting repugnance, provoking shock in others, failing, causing misery. It involves a person’s reputation and sense of honor. Anything that strips one of honor is “scandalize.”
Verses 20 and 30: σῶμά (soma) is literally the whole self. It is (unfortunately) translated as “body.” But the Greek word means so much more: the whole body, personality, mind, soul, and being.
Verse 31: ἀπολύσῃ (apolusay) has multiple meanings, including, “divorce.” It also means: to put away, to set free, to cut off, to dismiss, to send away, to liberate, to release, or to forgive.
Verse 31: ἀποστάσιον (apostasion) is a written document to repudiate or invalidate a person, relationship, or agreement.
Verse 32: πορνείας (porneias) literally means, “sex for sale.” It was often extended to mean any kind of deviant sexual behavior. The term specifically referred to prostitutes. It generally referred to anyone violating the sexual mores of a given culture.
David Noel Freedman, editor, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible
Barclay Newman and Philip Stine, A Translator’s Handbook on The Gospel of Matthew
- Dialogue Questions
- Do you see the teachings here about divorce to be “absolute” or do you see them as specific to a particular situation? How do you address the good arguments from those who disagree with you?
- Just how do you go about plucking out an eye? (Assuming you are taking this metaphorically. If you take it literally, please do not answer this question.)
- Do you see these teachings being more a corrective to marriage problems, or more as a challenge to the “boys will be boys” mentality? Does your take on this change the interpretation?
- Have you witnessed times when a literal interpretation of this passage has caused harm? When?
- What is your understanding of lust? It is a fairly popular thing in our culture—not at all a problem for most people. What can thoughtful Christians contribute to the dialogue?