“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” — Matthew 5:23-4
with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
Then, and Now
What do you do when touchy subjects come up in conversation? Some people speak boldly and don’t seem to care if they cause offense. Others prefer to leave delicate issues alone. While Jesus was known for his compassion and care, Matthew’s gospel suggests that he sometimes took on topics that he knew might cause consternation, but did so in order to speak to the high ideals of the kingdom.
The collection of teachings Matthew has set into Jesus’ famed “Sermon on the Mount” (chs. 5-7) begins with the encouraging “Beatitudes” (5:1-12) before moving to a charge for believers to be salt and light in the world (5:13-16). Jesus then prepared to launch into a series of challenges to current understandings of the law by insisting that his teaching did not violate or abolish the law, but established its true intent (5:17-20).
Jesus addressed several sensitive subjects: anger (5:21-26), lust (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32), oaths (5:33-37), revenge (5:38-42), and love (5:43-48).
Today we consider what Jesus had to say about anger, lust, divorce, and oaths.
Buckle your seatbelts.
Murder and anger(vv. 21-26)
Everyone understood that murder was against the law (v. 21, Exod. 20:3), but Jesus explained that it was not enough to simply refrain from killing fellow believers. Holding on to anger or rage toward others was also sinful, Jesus said. There is a righteous kind of anger that Jesus would endorse, but this kind of interpersonal anger is not it. Bearing grudges against others may not end in murder, but it results in murderous and harmful feelings.
In the ancient world, where names carried great significance, the act of name-calling was a more serious matter than today. There is nothing magic about using the word “fool” that will make one liable to judgment: the Aramaic word raqa’ meant something like “idiot,” in a particularly derogatory sense. Using it was wrong (v. 22).
Note that Jesus is speaking mainly of behavior within the community, toward Christian brothers and sisters. Not being able to see beyond our own anger can escalate into insults and degrading words, and words are weapons. They can kill both reputations and relationships. If believers cannot act with love toward each other, how can they be a witness to the world?
In first century Judaism, character defamation could make one subject to discipline from the local council or even the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Ultimately, Jesus said, hateful attitudes could lead to “the hell of fire.” In this he was using hyperbole as a rhetorical device, not condemning angry people to everlasting torment.
Jesus understood that those who bear hatred or unresolved grievances toward others cannot truly worship God in good conscience. As Jesus would teach in “the Lord’s prayer,” we cannot expect God to forgive us if we do not forgive others.
Coming to church and bringing our tithes is important – but resolving grudges or differences with others is even more important. Note that Jesus extends this responsibility to those who share reciprocal anger or are objects of others’ wrath: we should take the initiative to be reconciled (vv. 23-26).
Adultery and lust(vv. 27-32)
Moving from murder to adultery, Jesus again showed that the core problem is one of the heart and mind, not just of actions. The prohibition of adultery was well known (Exod. 20:4, Deut. 5:17), and it could bring severe penalties for perpetrators, including death. Jesus insisted that believers are accountable for lustful thoughts as well as adulterous behavior (vv. 27-28).
For ancient Hebrews, adultery referred primarily to a man having sex with another man’s wife, rather than being a blanket term for extramarital sex. The sin, in Judaism, was against the husband or father of the woman, as it damaged someone who, though not exactly his property, was under his control and of considerable economic value.
The directives to gouge out one’s right eye or chop off one’s right hand rather than face eternal destruction are intended as hyperbole (vv. 29-30). Though such punishments were known in Jewish law, Jesus knew that lust is conceived in the heart and mind: one-handed or one-eyed people are at no handicap when it comes to lechery. The point is that we should take whatever actions are necessary to get lascivious thoughts under control.
Some consider the saying on divorce in vv. 31-32 as a separate antithesis, while others interpret it as a natural extension of the teaching on adultery (a similar teaching is found in Matt. 19:3-9).
In Jesus’ day, Jewish women could leave their husbands or pressure them for a divorce, but only husbands had the legal standing to authorize a “bill of divorcement.” This is referenced in Deut. 24:1, which allows a husband to divorce his wife if “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.”
The rabbis interpreted this differently: the school of Shammai argued that the only sufficiently objectionable quality was sexual sin on the part of the wife. Hillel and his followers, in contrast, argued that a man could count it as “something objectionable” if his wife burned the dinner or failed to be as attractive as some other woman.
As Matthew relates it, Jesus taught that God intended for marriage to be permanent and that divorce should be allowed only “on the ground of unchastity.” This translates the word porneia, which described a broader field of sexual misbehavior than the typical word for adultery.
From the perspective of Jesus’ teaching, men should not divorce their wives for selfish reasons, violating the law and putting their wives – and any future husbands – in the position of becoming adulterous according to the law.
Again, the problem is in the heart. For either the husband or the wife, thinking so highly of one’s selfish desires that he or she would dismiss the person who should be closest to them is a sinful and harmful act that falls far short of God’s ideal.
Jesus next turned to the subject of oaths and keeping one’s word. There was no Old Testament command that one should make oaths, though they were allowed, and the breaking of oaths was roundly condemned (Exod. 20:7, Lev. 19:12, Zech. 8:17). Unfortunately, many translations and commentaries fail to distinguish between oaths and vows, using the terms interchangeably when they were in fact two different things.
In the Old Testament world, con-tinuing into the first century, vows were conditional promises made directly to God: one would ask God for a particular benison, and promise to give God something in return if the prayer was answered. Hannah, for example, asked God for a son, and promised to return the boy to God if the prayer was granted (1 Samuel 1).
An oath, on the other hand, con-sisted of a promise to do something, accompanied by a self-imprecation that invited God to bring punishment if the person did not fulfill the promise. King Jehoram, for example, pledged to assassinate Elisha, saying “So may God do to me, and more, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat stays on his shoulders today” (2 Kgs 6:31, NRSV). In most cases, the full form was abbreviated, and over time people came to swear, not only by God, but by Jerusalem, by the temple, the gold in the temple, the temple’s altar, or the gift on the altar.
This led to a practice of equivocating, as the rabbis distinguished between which oaths were binding, and which were not. Jesus took such interpretations to task, insisting that believers should not break their oaths, but live up to their word (v. 33).
To those who sought to make impressive but non-binding oaths, Jesus reminded them that anything they swore by – whether the earth, Jerusalem, or even one’s head – belonged to God, and therefore implied that the oath had appealed to God and was therefore binding (vv. 34-36).
It’s better yet, Jesus said, to avoid swearing at all. Believers should live with such integrity that they need no oaths to reinforce the truthfulness of their word or the faithfulness of their promise. “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no,’” Jesus said. This did not suggest a new form of swearing by saying “yes” or “no” twice, but was simply a method of emphasis indicating the sincerity of one’s word.
Feeling the need to swear by our mother’s grave or anything else automatically implies that we are untrustworthy and subject to the temptation to break our promise.
Unlike some religious sects, we should not take this as a programmatic ban on submitting to an oath when testifying in court or being “sworn in” to public office. Jesus’ challenge is that we should be people of our word who have no need to initiate an oath: his concern was not to create a new law prohibiting believers from participating in legal requirements of society.
Whether the subject is spiteful anger, endangering lust, or breaking one’s word, Jesus’ teaching goes beyond the law. The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart – and a willingness to follow the one who rules our heart. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for February 12, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Matthew 5:21-37
There is a lot that goes on in the lives of our students and sometimes their responses to these events aren’t the best. When something has happened, the surface issue usually isn’t the thing that is really bother them. The problem is usually much more deeply rooted than that. So, when you are dealing with the surface issues, be patient and try to discover what is going on deeper than on the surface. This will help explain their actions to you, and also help them to realize the root cause of their feelings as well.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Red’s Anger” from The Angry Birds Movie via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Matthew 5:21-37