Reading between the lines

Scriptures: Matthew 5:21-37

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Let us pray:

God of all people, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer, Amen.

Matthew has recorded some difficult teachings here, teachings that Jesus wanted to communicate for a reason. The first six verses of our pericope today, 21-26, point to the need to reconcile with one another. There are warnings given that highlight how discord, anger, insults, and name calling lead toward destruction of relationships between people. The bottom line is all of these negatives eat away at the foundation of lives built on love; and if such deterioration continues, it has the potential to eventually destroy love itself. Learning how to reconcile is the antidote.

What kind of love is at stake in these first six verses? Based upon the descriptions, this section points toward brotherly-sisterly love, love between neighbors and friends, coworkers and associates – in short, civilized relationships. Without this kind of love at the heart of relationships, indeed at the heart of community, society begins to devolve into base, brute banality. Now that rings a bell; where have I seen or heard that experienced recently?

The next four verses, 27-30, point to self-control in interpersonally intimate relationships. The emphasis on negative dangers if self-control is lost illumine another kind of broken relationship based in love; this time however, love of the kind reserved for committed intimate relationships. Why? Again, it reflects on community; community being foundational for the core stability of committed intimate relationships taking their rightful place in God’s intention for humankind. If brokenness in this sphere festers, it, too, has deep ramifications for the life of the community as a whole.

The lesson in both paragraphs points to how inter-personal brokenness begets brokenness. The ultimate unhappy trajectory ends up devolving into a morass of selfish pursuits and harmful relationships that ultimately destroy one another, one’s self, and society as a whole. On the other hand, we are given to understand a heavenly antidote is at hand; God’s hesesd, that is, loving-kindness, which is the divine marker illuminating the wholeness in Christ that God desires for every person.

This hesed, based in divine mercy, is what intimate relationships as well as neighborly brotherly sisterly love is supposed to be about and celebrate. The true meaning of the Golden Rule to treat other people the way you want to be treated is found at work here. Based in nothing less than the first Commandment and its corollary found later in Matt. 22:37, [where Jesus] said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The next two verses, 31 and 32, take this to its ultimate social and civil conclusion, and address divorce. Ordinarily, this is to be avoided. Matthew’s recounting of this teaching, however, adds a phrase not found in Mark’s version of Jesus’ sermon. Matthew reads, ““It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But 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. Matthew’s added phrase, “except on the ground of unchastity,” gave me pause to really reflect on that at this juncture in my life.

Dwelling on this phrase is not a happy place, but proves instructive when trying to understand the nature of broken human relationships. It is possible to be in a relationship with someone and pour oneself out. Completely out. Like the Indigo Girls’ song, it may start as a pin-prick to the heart; at first freely pouring out love and devotion. But, unfortunately, occasionally this pouring out is not reciprocated, becoming a continual hemorrhage of love until one is spent and loveless.

Matthew must have known this, maybe even experienced it himself. Perhaps personally, or perhaps symbolically as Judaism spurned those who called themselves “Followers of the Way,” and began actively persecuting those who followed the teachings of the renegade Rabbi Jesus. Either way, when love is poured out and never returned, I would be tempted to call this “unchastity.” Left unchecked, it can slowly destroy a person experiencing such desertification of the heart.

The last five verses, 33-37, lay the groundwork for speaking the truth in love. Using the example of “swearing vows,” the instruction is clear – don’t swear. Let your yes be yes and your no, no. The basic underlying premise is live with integrity in all you say and do, in both public and private spheres of life.[1] Put another way, personal integrity is right love in God and within oneself, allowing right love toward all others, even those who may be markedly different.

Therefore, I pray we may learn to reconcile, loving neighbor as oneself and serving God with all that we are, all that we have, indeed, all that we may become. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Ronald J. Allen, “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 5:21-37” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

For additional rumination, consider comparing with Jill Duffield’s Weekly Lectionary Reflection on this passage, found here:


About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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