‘When you are offering your gift at the altar ... first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.’ The Cross of Nails on the altar in the ruins at Coventry symbolises the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Matthew 5: 21-37: Introduction
The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for next Sunday week, the Third Sunday before Lent [12 February 2017], are: Deuteronomy 30: 15-21 (or Sirach 15: 15-20); Psalm 119: 1-8; I Corinthians 3: 1-9; and Matthew 5: 21-37.
Matthew 5: 21-37:
21 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐ φονεύσεις: ὃς δ’ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει. 22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει: ὃς δ' ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ, Ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ: ὃς δ' ἂν εἴπῃ, Μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός. 23 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, 24 ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου, καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου. 25 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχὺ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετ' αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ, καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ, καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ: 26 ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.
27 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Οὐ μοιχεύσεις. 28 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ. 29 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. 30 καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.
31 Ἐρρέθη δέ, Ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ, δότω αὐτῇ ἀποστάσιον. 32 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ μοιχᾶται.
33 Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως: μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ: 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ: μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως: 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν. 37 ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ: τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.
[Jesus said:] 21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’
33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’
The context and setting:
This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and serves to define the righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees (see verse 20). In verses 21-48, Christ outlines a number of commandments from the Mosaic law that were central to rabbinical teachings at the time, and identifies the impossible ideals that transcend this law – ideals to be performed rightly if someone is to ‘enter the kingdom of heaven’ (verse 20).
In this section (verses 21-37), Christ first examines the sixth commandment, with particular reference to anger, linking inward malevolence to the outward act of murder (verses 21-26). He then examines the seventh commandment, once more linking spiritual disposition with the physical act of adultery (verses 27-30), as well as commenting on the related issue of divorce (verses 31-32). Finally, he examines the third commandment as it relates to truth-telling (verses 33-37).
Murder and anger (verses 21-22)
Ἠκούσατε (ekousate): ‘you have heard’ – in the sense of sense of you understand, you know very well, that it was said long ago that …
Τοῖς ἀρχαίοις (tois archaíois), ‘to those of ancient times,’ to the people long ago, to the old ones, to the ancients.
Οὐ φονεύσεις (ou phoneúseis): ‘you shall not murder’ – the future tense functions as an imperative. The sense is murder, or assassination, rather than killing.
ὃς δ’ ἂν (os d’ an): ‘and whoever’ … forming an indefinite relative clause.
Τῇ κρίσει (ti krísei): ‘[will be subject] to judgment’ – the word used hear is crisis, subject to crisis. Making the point between right and wrong, between good and evil, is a crisis moment that leads to judgment, whether it is the local or district court (see Deuteronomy 16: 18) or divine judgment.
ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν (ego de lego imin): ‘but I say to you.’ The Old Testament prophets would say: ‘Thus says the Lord.’ But Christ says: ‘But I say to you.’
Τῷ συνεδρίῳ (to synedrío): the Sanhedrin was the full council of priests, elders and scribes, with 70 members. Have you noticed the ascending order of courts, from the local court to the Sanhedrin, to the heavenly court? And the descending scale of offences, from anger down to verbal abuse, reinforcing a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees?
πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος (pas o orgizómenos): ‘everyone being angry’ – everyone who is angry, everyone who gives vent to anger.
τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ (to adelpho aftou): ‘with the brother of him’ … not merely his brother in a family sense, but his ‘brother man,’ his ‘fellow human being.’
Ῥακά (Raká): This is an obscure term of abuse that is lost in the translation ‘insult’ but that may mean ‘empty-head’ or ‘brainless idiot.’ How many of us find it difficult to ‘suffer fools gladly’? And how many confuse that with letting those we cannot tolerate know that we consider them fools?
If so, then we are warned against it not once but twice, with the use of the word Μωρέ (Moré), ‘you fool,’ or ‘foolish,’ ‘stupid,’ which is the use of an adjective as a noun.
εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός (eis tin Géennan tou pyros) – ‘into the Gehenna of fire.’ Gehenna, the place of wailing, was the rubbish tip outside of Jerusalem which was constantly burning, smothered with the smoke and the smell from dead corpses, human and animal.
Two mini-parables (verses 23-26):
Saint Matthew now links two illustrations, applications, or short parables, two similes or metaphors, with the earlier saying in verse 20 about the exceeding righteousness expected of the sixth commandment (verses 23-26). They are often read as two short parables about reconciliation, with situations in which reconciliation replaces hatred. They are parables not about my own rancour, but about the rancour I have provoked in others. It is not enough that I should control my own temper; I must not provoke others to anger either.
The first mini-parable (verses 23-24):
The first parable (verses 23-24) encourages me to deal with an offence I have caused to another before approaching God in prayer.
I ought to – I must – sort out the problems I have created with others before coming into the presence of God. The parable reinforces the directive in the previous verses (verses 21-22).
Προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον (prosphéris to dorón sou epi to thoosiasteerion): ‘if you might bring your gift to the altar.’ The ‘you’ here is singular, so this teaching has particular application, and not merely general application.
θυσιαστήριον is the altar for slaying and burning of victims. It refers to the altar of whole burnt offerings that stood in the court of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, to the altar of incense that stood in the sanctuary or the Holy Place, but also any other altar or place of solemn act of sacrifice.
ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ (echei ti kata sou): ‘has something against you.’ This phrase might be compared with Mark 11: 25, but while Mark speaks of a situation where the worshipper has something against another, or a brother, Matthew talks of a brother who has something against the worshipper.
The worshipper has already arrived in the Temple; we might consider this happening when we have already arrived in Church, prepared to be present at or even preside at the Eucharist. The peace in our Eucharistic celebration is not marginal, it is a compelling part, bridging the gap between receiving Christ in the word proclaimed and receiving Christ in the sacrament.
The second mini-parable (verses 25-26):
The second parable (verses 25-26) encourages me to deal with someone who thinks I have offended them before it gets to court, teaches the importance of always being ready and anxious to take the first step towards healing a quarrel with others who are close to me.
ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχὺ (isthi efnoun to antidiko sou tachi): ‘Be well disposed to the opponent of you quickly,’ or ‘come to terms quickly,’ ‘settle matters while there is still time.’ Do it on the road, while you are both on your way, settle before you reach the steps of the courthouse.
ἀμὴν λέγω σοι (Amen légo soi): ‘Amen, I say to you.’ I find the translation ‘Truly I tell you’ lacks the dramatic and dynamic impact of ‘Amen, I say to you.’
τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην (ton eschaton kodrántin): ‘the last penny.’ The King James Version says ‘the last farthing.’ A kodrantes is a small coin worth one half of an Attic chalcus or two lepta. It is worth less than 2% of the day’s wages of an agricultural labourer.
Legality and adultery (verses 27-28):
‘You have heard’ … you know, the law states that you shall not commit adultery. Legally, adultery is sex with another person’s partner, more specifically, with another man’s wife. Under the Mosaic Law, consensual sex between two people who were not married was settled in marriage and so legally it was not adultery. However, adultery carried the death penalty (see Leviticus 20: 10; Deuteronomy 22: 22). But when it comes to God’s perfect law, lust is as good as the deed, thus ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’
‘A woman’ implies specifically a married woman. When a man looks at her lustfully, he already conjures up the thoughts and the images of intercourse with her. But here the construction may also express the result.
Radical surgery? (verses 29-30):
We now move to two parabolic sayings in which Christ speaks of the crucial importance of taking any necessary measures to control any excessive passions that flare out of control (see also Matthew 18: 8-9; cf Mark 9: 43-48). These sayings are more like crisis parables than ethical illustrations.
Of course, Christ is not advocating self-mutilation, nor is he suggesting that this kind of surgery can rid us of sinful desires will be exorcised. Nor is he saying we must blind ourselves to what is wrong, in the sense of closing our eyes to it, like the three monkeys who ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’ But we must deal radically with sin, and the language of hyperbole expresses radical action.
Divorce and adultery (verses 31-32):
Is divorce always against the will of God?
Is the ‘one-flesh relationship’ between a man and a woman to be permanent and for all time?
What does the Apostle Paul have to say?
Where may the law end and grace begin?
Think of the consequences in those days for a woman if her husband divorced her.
And whatever about a man divorcing his wife, what about a woman divorcing her husband?
The Mosaic law, recognising the human condition, regularises marital separation by the requirement of a ‘document of dismissal’ (Deuteronomy 24: 1). By the time of Christ, this had become little more than publicly-sanctioned adultery.
But where the Church has taken the ideal and enshrined it in legalism, have we become more like the Scribes and the Pharisees?
Christ exposes our state of sin, but does he seek to burden us with a weight too hard to bear?
Is this an ideal to strive for or a law to be obeyed?
There is an exception, but Saint Matthew alone notes this, while Saint Mark and Saint Luke give no grounds at all for ending a marriage. Saint Matthew is describing cases where one partner has destroyed marriage through πορνεία (porneía), which can refer to illicit sexual intercourse, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, intercourse with animals, sexual intercourse with close relatives, sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman. It is the word that gives us ‘pornography,’ but it is also used throughout the Bible to talk about the worship of idols and the defilement of idolatry, incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols.
The word was originally used of sex with a prostitute, but took on a wider sense to include all sexual acts outside of marriage. In Deuteronomy 24: 1-4, the ground for a divorce was ‘something indecent,’ but Christ now severely limits the understanding of what constitutes an ‘indecent’ act.
Should a man divorce his wife for other reasons, he is effectively trying to condemn her as an adulteress. In Jewish society it would be extremely difficult for a woman to survive without a husband. A divorced woman would be forced to take another husband and would then be seen as an adulterer. The responsibility for this situation properly rests on the man who divorced her.
The Pauline and Petrine privileges
Saint Paul says:
To the married I give this command — not I but the Lord — that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say — I and not the Lord — that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. (I Corinthians 7: 10-15)
In the Roman Catholic tradition, this is known as the ‘Pauline Privilege,’ and leads to the dissolution of an already valid marriage.
What is known as the ‘Petrine Privilege’ takes its name not from the Epistles of Saint Peter but from the exercise of Papal or ‘Petrine’ privilege or office. It applies to a case where one of the parties was unbaptised at the time of the marriage, they separate without the baptised party being ‘at fault’ (or plan to separate and the unbaptised party refuses Baptism and will not live peaceably with the baptised party), and the baptised party now wants to marry a Roman Catholic. Unlike the Pauline Privilege, which is handled by the local bishop, this sort of case is sent to Rome to be adjudicated by the Pope himself.
The truth and the only the truth (verses 33-37):
Christ supersedes the Old Testament law on giving oaths (see Exodus 20: 7, Leviticus 19: 12, Numbers 30: 2, Deuteronomy 5: 11, 6: 3, 22: 21-33) and calls for total truth-telling – that our yes is yes and our no is no, perfect honesty.
Of course, we can only aim for such honesty. Nevertheless, we must not swear falsely, break an oath, commit perjury, or call on God as our witness when all we want to do is to express an opinion.
The reference to ‘heaven’ – as with ‘earth’ and ‘Jerusalem’ in verse 35, and ‘your head’ in verse 36 – is an example of oath-taking verifications that allowed varying degrees of authenticity. A vow that was supported by the name of God is particularly binding, but as Christ points out, God is associated with all oath verifications.
(Revd Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge of Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group (Limerick and Killaloe) and Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 1 February 2017.