Deuteronomy 30:15-20 • Psalm 119:1-8 • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 • Matthew 5:21-37
The theme this week is the community of God. Each passage discusses the ideals and vision of what it means to be part of God’s family. Deuteronomy 30:15-20 discusses the giving of the law as the path of true life—truly being the community of God. Psalm 119:1-8 talks about walking in the way of the Lord and the joy of the community that does. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Paul encourages the church community that they are God’s building, God’s field, united by love and kingdom purpose. The sermon this week is on Matthew 5:21-37, in which Jesus lays out the connection between broken relationships with others and a broken relationship with God.
Take a Deep Breath
Matthew 5:21-37 NRSV
Carbon monoxide is often called the silent killer. It’s odorless, invisible and non-irritating to your throat. You don’t even notice it’s there, while it is wreaking havoc inside of you. The symptoms, when they do come, look like other things. You might think you have the flu, or you’re just fatigued. If the levels are high enough, the exposure can be fatal. Carbon monoxide attaches itself to your blood cells and crowds them so that oxygen can’t bond to them and support your organs. In the end, it’s not because there’s bad stuff attacking your body. It’s just that the good stuff—life-giving oxygen—can’t get in.
The symptoms are an outward sign of a deeper poisoning going on inside you. Carbon monoxide poisoning provides a good illustration of what Jesus was presenting in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus is sharing what the kingdom looks like and how people act when God is fully in charge. He talks about not just the symptoms of sin, but the root causes—the deeper work of sin in each of us.
In this passage Jesus points out that the obvious sins—like murder and adultery—are just outward symptoms of a deeper poisoning going on. He tells us the symptoms aren’t what needs to go—the sickness needs to cured.
So let’s look at Jesus’ most famous sermon and see what we can learn about the cure. The carbon monoxide poison of sin—insidious, invisible—can only be cleansed by putting the good stuff in.
Let’s frame the scene here. Jesus speaks to the people on a mountain, which is highly significant for Matthew. In his Gospel, his emphasis is on Jesus as the new Moses. Moses received the ways of God, the Ten Commandments, on a mountain. See the parallel?
There’s a verse just before our passage here that helps us understand details like Matthew’s mountain setting and the way Jesus talks in this passage.
Jesus says in verse 17:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17 NRSV)
Jesus didn’t come to abolish the laws of God, given by Moses and worked out in the Old Testament, but to complete them, to fulfill them, to bring that final dimension to the picture. Jesus never once says to disregard or cast off the law, but that he came to show us what the law was about.
And so Jesus talks here not just about these symptoms that the laws addressed, but about the poisoning below the surface, the infection that’s been there for a long time.
“You have heard it said…but I say to you…”is a formula he uses over and over. Jesus was using a rhetorical practice of the time that would lay out a one-dimensional interpretation of a passage and then follow it with a more substantial reading.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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. (Matthew 5:21-22, NRSV)
Here he addresses murder. All of us might be listening and think, “Ah, wake me up when this part’s over, I’ve never killed anyone!” But Jesus takes us deeper to look at where murder comes from—hate and sin and rage.
We might think: lighten up, Jesus! Everybody’s harbored some resentments here and there. You can’t make it very far through life without being at least tempted to hate someone.
But Jesus is talking about the carbon monoxide here—the stealthy poison of hate and rage that ruins us inside.
Here’s an example: On a summer day a few years ago, Dylan Roof walked into a church during a prayer meeting and killed nine people. The act was brutal, senseless, and took all of a few minutes.
In the investigation that followed, police found pages and pages of racist rhetoric on Dylan’s private websites. They found pictures of him with Nazi flags and racist slogans. Dylan didn’t just decide to kill people one day, it started with hate and rage. The poisoning started in a subtle, insidious way and eventually the oxygen went out of him.
An old bit of wisdom rings true here: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
This is translated directly as “You nothing” or “You empty.” This is thinking we are so wise and so all-seeing that can call someone “nothing.” It is saying that a person, whom God created and dearly loves, amounts to nothing.
Jesus says it’s great that you’ve never murdered anyone, congratulations. However, hating and hurting others leads us to that slow death, the slow and torturous murder of sin. We put ourselves over others and write them off as “nothing,” and that’s where poisoning starts.
At this point, you might think: okay, where’s the good news? And that’s the million-dollar question. Most of us haven’t murdered anyone or committed adultery, but all of us have disliked or insulted someone or had lustful thoughts. If you say you never have, then that’s lying and that’s no good either!
The good news is Jesus. All of us have been trapped in a battle with sin nature and cannot save ourselves. Jesus is reminding us of this, not to discourage us, but to point to himself as the answer.
Jesus’ message over and over is that he is the Savior and that we NEED one. The Law of Moses was a guide and helper, but in the end it showed us in vivid terms how badly we need a Savior. As soon as Moses came down the mountain and presented the commandments to us, we started breaking them.
Now Jesus tells us the heart and mind behind those infractions is where the real problem lies. Who’s safe? Who’s sinless? No one! No one who has lived in history except Jesus has hit the mark. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! We have a Savior!
Like the carbon monoxide that crowds your blood cells and chokes you, the only solution is life-giving oxygen. The only solution is to bring something good in—to breathe in the Spirit of God. We can’t heal ourselves by our own positive thinking or determination, we need something—in this case someone—new to come in.
Let’s look back at our passage. Jesus continues:
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 5:23-24 NRSV)
Jesus takes faith out of the realm of some private thing you do in your spare time. In the surrounding culture in Jesus’ day, religion was a matter of buying off the many gods with gifts and festivals. In the Jewish culture, it could become a private matter of traditions and theologizing. In our day, faith can become our inner prayer life and our therapeutic relationship with God.
And Jesus says, if your faith isn’t reflected in your relationship with others, I’m not interested. If your vertical relationship with God doesn’t shake out in your horizontal relationship with others, neither direction is working.
Leave your gift at the altar. Leave right in the middle of your worship and go and make peace. Jesus is connecting the two realities he said sum up at the law and the prophets: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.
He goes on:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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. 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. (Matthew 5:27-30 NRSV)
Here Jesus is addressing another of the obvious symptom sins—adultery. This is a life-wrecker that’s been around since marriage has been around. So much so that it’s an eye-rolling cliché in the movies.
Again, the temptation here is to pat ourselves on the back and say: “Been faithful for twenty years!” But Jesus goes deeper to show the root cause behind the symptom of adultery—the lustful thoughts of the mind and heart.
Let’s look at the context again. In that society at the time, adultery was only a problem with the husband of the woman involved. A husband could have something on the side with an unmarried woman, but if his paramour was married, the problem he faced was with her husband. Essentially, she was property and the problem was he was using someone else’s property. It was a matter of the offended husband’s honor.
Into this sickened system Jesus speaks a radically feminist idea. Honor doesn’t enter into it. If you lust after a woman, your problem is with God and with her. That was revolutionary for the time.
Jesus essentially says that your honor or anyone else’s honor isn’t the issue here, the issue is your relationship with God and others. When you exploit someone made in God’s image—even mentally—you break those relationships.
Jesus uses hyperbole to say that it would be better to lose your right eye if it gets you into trouble. In that society, it was dishonoring to have lost your right eye. This was used as punishment to dishonor a defeated enemy (see 1 Samuel 11:2). Jesus says that your relationship with God and others matters more than your honor. It’s better for you to be disgraced and embarrassed than to lose that.
Again, Jesus exposes that carbon monoxide. This odorless, colorless poison of sin that gets into our system long before the obvious symptoms appear.
So how do we get the poison out? We bring the good stuff in. Jesus breathes his life into us. He breathes his Spirit into us and continues to do so through the church community, his Word, and serving his kingdom.
Breathe deeply today of God’s grace and love for you. Breathe deeply of the truths of Scripture and the encouragement of your community. The poison of sin is always waiting and can enter and choke us, but the divine resuscitation of God is more powerful than you can ever imagine.
Suggestion: use the song Breathe Deep by the Lost Dogs as a closing meditation https://youtu.be/JSZoDqZ2LEE
Small Group Discussion Questions
From Speaking of Life:
- What is a modern-day version of “I belong to Paul or I belong to Apollos”?
- Share an example of “one-up-man-ship” you were a part of, or victim of.
- Explain what Greg means by “refreshing voices.”
From the Sermon:
Read: Matt. 5:21-37
- Can you imagine what it was like to be at the Sermon on the Mount? Would you be confused? Excited? What do you think the crowd was like?
- The sermon compares the deeper levels of sin, which Jesus addresses in this passage, as carbon monoxide poisoning. Why is it that internal poisoning behind the obvious sin is so hard to detect?
- The sermon talks about how our horizontal relationship with others affects our vertical relationship with God. Has this been your experience? Why and how does one affect the other? (See verses 23-25)
- In vv. 27-30, Jesus makes the radical suggestion that adultery and lust are an offense against a woman and God, not just the offended husband. Jesus stood up for vulnerable people constantly—women, Samaritans, poor people, prostitutes. Why do you think he did? How can we take a stance like this in our day? Who can we stand up for?
- The poison of sin can be driven out only by the Spirit if God, yet we live in a world that believes our own human goodness is enough to get us through. How is the Christian answer different than the world’s answer?
Quote to ponder:
“The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works, but rather who God is.” —Stanley Hauerwas, Christian ethicist and philosopher