I am both awed and horrified by these passages where Jesus expands the reach of well-known laws almost beyond human capabilities.
What awes me? We can easily list basic rules of humanity, and we tend to think that we are covered. We are obviously better than others who break such foundational rules. We don’t murder. We don’t cheat on our partner. We don’t lie—at least not when it really matters. We uphold our vows. And then Jesus comes along and reveals that following laws isn’t a matter of checking off boxes. It’s a matter of the heart, of what lies beneath people’s actions, of their motivations. That is awesome.
What horrifies me? As a Christ follower, I find it relatively easy to obey the obvious, basic rules of humanity. Sometimes I even pride myself on going a bit further than those rules: I don’t just avoid murdering people; I try to smile at them and show them they matter. And then Jesus comes along and expands these rules into realms that I can only see from afar. No anger, even with just cause? No insults when the occasion warrants them? No imagining a date with that hot television star? No remarriage for those who deserve every opportunity to start over? That is horrifying. And impossible.
Amid the awe and horror of Jesus’ teachings, I try to find my place as a struggling, uncertain, frequently lost follower of Christ. It seem to me that Jesus’ main point in all his expansions of the basics, all his reversals of expectations, is that those who choose to follow him should strive to go above and beyond. We should not be satisfied with checking off the boxes beside each basic rule of humanity. If we are, then our motivation is simply to look good enough to the rest of the world.
Instead, our motivation should be to have the mind and attitude of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
Never in his earthly life did Jesus act with the motivation of making himself look good enough to the rest of the world. He always went above and beyond the basic rules of humanity, which often required him to humble himself to depths we can only imagine.
No, I may not be able to withhold all my anger, tame all my insults, or dampen all my lusts. But I can certainly strive, always, to go above and beyond what is expected of basic humanity. For support and encouragement—and forgiveness when I fail—I can look to Christ, my humble yet powerful example.
1. What do you think are the basic rules of humanity that keep the world running? How easy is it for you to follow these rules?
2. How does Jesus go above and beyond these basic rules? How easy is it for you to follow Jesus’ example of going further?
3. What do you think about some of the more troubling verses in today’s passage (for example, Matt 5:22, 28-30, and 32)? In what circumstances do you think it would be difficult to follow Jesus’ exact advice in these verses?
4. How can Christ followers live in light of such troubling verses?
5. What can you do in your daily life to go above and beyond what the world expects of you? How can this help you work toward having the mind of Christ?
Notice first of all that Matthew 5:21-26 deals with the issue of anger. The commandment of Moses prohibiting murder (Exod 20:13) is cited, but only as an opening remark so that Jesus can tell his disciples he is calling them to a much higher standard of righteousness than just avoiding murder. It should be noted that this passage involves an ethic that can be called in house. The term “brother” keeps coming up in this discussion. In other words, Jesus is regulating behavior amongst his disciples. This was never intended as some utopian ethic to be imposed on society in general. A certain escalation can be seen as the anger boils over—first he refers to being angry, then refers to actions involving epithets—‘raka is an Aramaic term of contempt, and “you fool” is even worse. Notice also the escalation in “subject to judgment,” “answerable to the council” (perhaps the Sanhedrin), and “in danger of hell fire.” Some of this should probably be seen as dramatic hyperbole, as is often typical of sapiential language, which relies on metaphor and the dramatic.
But is Jesus really saying don’t be angry ever for any reason? If so he would certainly be offering a different wisdom than Aristotle, who said those who are angry at the right things and with the right people at the right time for the right length of time are to be praised (Eth. nic. 5.4). Notice however the context of Jesus’ words. The sort of anger Jesus is referring to involves fellow believers, and more to the point it involves verbal abuse. He is not talking about righteous anger in regard to a sin or a wrong done; he is talking about sinful anger against another person and its inappropriate expression. This is where it needs to be pointed out that there is probably an echo here of the story of Cain, which refers to anger against a brother and murder and also mentions the offering of a sacrifice (see 5:23-24).
It seems clear, in light of this, that Jesus is referring to some kind of sinful anger; otherwise he would have had to condemn his own behavior (cf. Mark 1:41; 3:5; and of course the action in the temple—see Matt 21:12-17). What Jesus is condemning may be called sinful rage and wrathful actions.
Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 129-130.
Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).
Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.