In Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus teaching using an antithetical form—that is, positioning words or ideas against each other, for example, light vs. dark, freedom over slavery, right vs. wrong. The antitheses Jesus proposes are around four themes: Murder, adultery, divorce and false accusation (or slander.) The contrast of ideas follows a form in which Jesus arranges his arguments by beginning with the words, “you have heard it said,” which is actually code for “God said,” and then states a commandment, so, “God said, ‘You shall not murder,’” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not swear falsely.” Then this is followed by Jesus’ own “radicalizing” of that commandment by “amping up” the meaning of the Commandment, so to speak. He does this by moving back and away from the act that the commandment condemns, and in essence, says, “Not only shall you do no murder, but you should not even get angry… with brother or sister. Come to think of it, not only should you not become angry with brother or sister, but you should not even insult them. And now moving into a third tier of distance from the act of murder, Jesus states that you should not even say the words, “You fool!” or you will be liable to the fires of hell—the same punishment as if you murdered them. Radical stuff, huh!?!
Next, Jesus teaches about resolving conflict, but does not teach using an illustration where I have something against someone and I should go make amends, but it is a situation in which the other person has something against me that I should go and seek amends. If someone has something against me—or, say, another person has something against you, it is you who should seek a quick resolution for fear of being handed over to a judge who will, as we are told, hand you over to a guard who will imprison you. This puts our common understanding about our responsibility for making amends on its head, doesn’t it? Again, a radical view: I’m not seeking resolution to our conflict because I created it, I’m seeking resolution because you have something against me. I’m seeking resolution to our conflict because there is discord in our relationship.
So, a few things can be said about these antheses, these paired ideas. One thing is that scholars tell us that most likely these are actually the words of Jesus based on research that says that Jesus referenced God in this way. Also, Jesus restates what God tells us, saying, “I say to you.” So, “God says this, and I say to you,” thereby asserting his immediate authority. And lastly, Jesus is using hyperbole, a teaching tool often used by Jesus and teachers of his day. Hyperbole—overstating things for teaching purposes to radicalize the commandments, such as saying, in essence, it’s not enough to do no murder, you should not even get angry with your brother or sister. Now, including “or sister” is also an indication that these are Jesus’ words, since unlike other rabbis of Jesus’ day, Jesus was concerned with recognizing women as persons rather than merely focusing on the males and then treating women as objects of male gratification.
This radicalizing of the commandments is seen in the second anthesis about not committing adultery when Jesus says it’s not enough to not commit adultery, you should not even take a lustful glance at a woman—because (hyperbolically) when you do, you have already committed adultery in your heart. An aside, but relevant to this scripture passage, some of us likely recall when a humble presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted in a November 1976 Playboy article, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” This sinful admission caused quite a stir, and my… how far we’ve come. Again, using hyperbole, Jesus says “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” I have heard it said that if we all took this scripture literally, we’d be a bunch of blind, handless disciples following Jesus into God’s Kingdom. Of course, Jesus loves us and our human frailties, and Jesus is saying that if we know of a weakness—something that gets between me and God—remove that from our lives.
The struggle of hearing Jesus’ words and the discomfort of interpreting them in any way other than literally surfaced in last Wednesday evening’s Lectio Divina group around the issue of the next anthesis, “It was said, “Whoever divorces, let him get a certificate of divorce. 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.” Serious Christians want to do God’s will. We want to obey the Commandments. We want to do Jesus’ bidding, what Jesus directs us to do. Because we take divorce seriously these words stick with us, especially when we are trying to force fit Jesus’ words into a literal interpretation that cannot square with the hurt some of us have experienced in marriage relationships that we deeply wanted to succeed, relationships that we seriously attended to, but relationships that still did not work out. So, up to now in this lesson, Jesus has been teaching using hyperbole. So, why would he suddenly stop? And we ask ourselves, “Jesus wouldn’t mess with us, would he? How can I take Jesus’ words in any way other than literally?” Well, it is true that Jesus (and this Gospel’s writer, St. Matthew) had a basic concern of protecting the institution of marriage. AND, no I don’t think that Jesus would mess with us. But Jesus is a master teacher, and as such, uses the astute techniques of his day—hyperbole, being one.
So, let’s look at that. By using hyperbole, Jesus overstates things from time-to-time to get our attention and make us think. This is not a trick; this does not cheapen his words or make them less credible. Hyperbole works like a speed bump, causing us to slow down and engage with the meaning of these words in our lives. His living word is still doing that—and did that last Wednesday evening, right here at St. Augustine’s! The teaching techniques Jesus uses causes us to slow down, to think deeply about what Jesus is saying; causes us to dig into his words to get their full meaning; causes us to bring that meaning into our lives so that we may live in more Christlike ways. If Jesus made simple bland statements, probably none of us would listen. (Am I alone in here?) Probably none of us would take the time to bring them in, to savor and feast on these words, to digest them, so that we may be fed by them and let their meaning transform us. Jesus’ use of hyperbole in no way diminishes the sin of murder, adultery, slander—or divorce when it is entered into lightly as an easy solution to an irritation.
These radicalized, over-stated versions of the Commandments not only identified the offending outward behavior (such as murder, adultery, or falsely accusing others), but they also named the inner disposition—how we think and feel that leads to our offending response. By combining the outward behavior and the inner disposition, Jesus is telling us something significant. Jesus is telling us that he wants the obedience of the whole person—not just our outward behavior, but he wants to claim the whole person. By doing so, we are not just being law abiding in our behavior, but by claiming the whole person, Jesus is molding us into himself. We are not just acting Christlike—we are becoming as Christ. And my friend, that’s not hyperbole. Through these examples, I believe Jesus is not condemning us for missing the mark but is telling us there is a better life available to us—His life! There is a life in which we are not distanced from one another by anger and insult. This is a life in which we are one with one another, just as the Father and the Son are one. There is a far greater life than merely one in which we betray one another such as happens with adultery—or cut off from one another such as happens in divorce. There is a life available to us in which we honor one another and live in unity. This life calls us to Truth lived in our being which naturally flows from our mouths—let our answer be “yes, yes” or “no, no”, without any falsity of being or action—which is of the evil one. Is the result of this lesson, the result of keeping the Commandments, a hyperbolic euphoria? I don’t think so. I think the result is what God, what Jesus, calls us to, a life of unity with God through Christ.
Easy? No. But then, Jesus’ life was not easy; it was a life of discipline. However, easy was not Jesus’ focus and should not be ours, either. Attainable? Absolutely! …Even in our chaotic culture? Yes—and, maybe in some ways because our culture can drive us to the sanity of a life in Christ.
- Fr. Tony Moon