16 February 2014

Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you ...” (vv. 21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34)


On Education Sunday, we acknowledge the skill and passion that made Jesus such a good teacher. Matthew's Gospel includes five substantial blocks of teaching, perhaps echoing the five books of the law of Moses. The Sermon on the Mount is the first and most significant of these, drawing together sayings, images and prayers in three connected chapters (chapters 5-7). The presence of some of this material in Luke's Gospel suggests that the early Church remembered much of what Jesus had taught, and recounted his sayings over and over again, until the Gospel writers recorded them for posterity.

The realities of first-century life in a Roman colony give shape to Jesus' teaching. We might think that it would be a good idea to use due legal process to resolve a dispute (verse 25). In Jesus' time, courts were often corrupt, so that the highest bidder came out on top. Many Christians also find the teaching about divorce (verses 31-32) puzzling. In those days, only a man could initiate divorce, and there was a lively discussion among the rabbis about appropriate grounds. Within all this, the rights and needs of the woman were often ignored, even if a formal document of divorce set out the terms. Jesus' reformulation pays more attention to their situation, in a context where women found it very difficult to survive independently.

Like any good teacher, Jesus goes a step beyond his predecessors by developing the foundations which they laid. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, he draws on the Old Testament's ideas about life lived alongside others. Murder, adultery and false witness are all themes of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), but Jesus reinterprets them from a different moral basis, moving from external expression to internal disposition. Murder would not occur without anger (verse 22), adultery would not occur without lust (verse 28), and allowing ourselves to speak hurtfully (verse 22) can give objective reality to our feelings. Jesus tells his hearers to pay attention to their thoughts, feelings and words. Once these are aligned with God's will, right action will follow.

Jesus ends this section of the Sermon on the Mount by saying "therefore you will be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect" (verse 48). The Greek word used here, 'teleios', is linked to the word for 'goal' - you will score the perfect goal'. By itself, this learning objective is overwhelming. The teaching that precedes it offers guidance about how to achieve Jesus' vision for us in various difficult aspects of life - it shows us a confident teacher carefully leading anxious students through challenging material, so that the conclusion suddenly seems more attainable, even for us.

To Ponder

  • Have you ever come across a really good teacher? Were there any similarities between their teaching style and Jesus'? If so, what were they?
  • Schools today often look for ways of expressing rules positively - 'please walk carefully' rather than 'No running'. How might you express Jesus' teaching in positive ways for a community?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.