13 February 2011

Matthew 5:21-37

"Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (v. 20)


The verses immediately preceding today's extract from the Sermon on the Mount are the key to understanding it, with its repeated contrast between "you have heard that it said" and "but I say". In each case - murder, adultery, divorce, oaths - Jesus contrasts the way Old Testament teaching was traditionally interpreted by the religious leaders of the time, the scribes and Pharisees, with his own more exacting requirement. The overall thrust is to go behind a literal approach, which could easily lead to people finding ways to evade the rule, to the spirit of the rule and the need for a change in our inner attitude.

So in verses 21 to 26 the emphases are on controlling the anger that gives rise to violence and on reconciliation rather than conflict. Verses 23-24 are referring to individual acts of devotion which can be postponed, not to sharing in public worship at fixed times, and verses 25-26 to the settlement of debts.

Clearly verse 28 refers to more than just noticing an attractive woman. And obviously, verses 29-30 are not meant to be taken literally. Jesus has a habit of making striking statements to bring home a point. You may think of other examples.

In verses 31-32 it is important to remember the context of the time, which was very different from Western society today. Then, in Jewish law the wife was the husband's property; only he could initiate a divorce, and according to some interpretations could do so for any reason however trivial. In that context verse 32 insists that unless the marriage bond has already been broken by adultery it remains binding and marriage to a divorced woman constitutes adultery by both parties.

Verses 33-37 expose the fallacy of thinking that one can escape the consequences of a broken oath by substituting something else for God's name. Jesus goes to the heart of it. Let your word itself be your bond.

Note how the authority of Jesus comes out in all these sayings.

To Ponder

To what extent is Jesus' teaching here practicable in today's world?

Does verse 32 state an absolute rule for today? If not, why not?

In what other ways should a Christian's conduct should go beyond conventional standards?

Bible notes author

The Revd Brian Beck

Brian Beck is a Methodist minister, now retired, and a former president and secretary of the Methodist Conference. A large part of his ministry has been spent in theological education, both in Limuru, Kenya, and in Cambridge, England..