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Matthew chapter 5, verses 27-30
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body 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 part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus goes on to make similar observations about the Sixth Commandment. The religious teachers of the Jews rightfully condemned the act of adultery, but Jesus pointed out that sexual lust, the desire for sexual involvement with anyone other than one’s wife or husband, is also a violation of this commandment in God’s sight. Someone will surely respond, “That’s only normal and natural. I can’t help it if desires are aroused in my heart at the sight of a person of the opposite sex.” That may be true, but that does not make it right.
Jesus’ comments on this matter are often regarded as figurative language. Does he really mean to say that we should gouge out an eye or chop off a hand? Yes, he means exactly that! If it really is the fault of your eye or your hand that you commit sin that could condemn you to hell, wouldn’t you really want to rid yourself of that offending part of your body rather than having your whole body cast into hell? You would not hesitate to have a cancerous member of your body removed before the cancer destroys your whole body. People do that all the time. So also, removing a treacherous member of your body would be a small enough price to pay to save your soul from the eternal torments of hell. It would be the reasonable thing to do.
The point Jesus wanted to make, however, was that such maiming of one’s body would not be the real solution. If your right eye and hand cause you to sin and you get rid of them, would not the left eye and hand still cause you the same problem? If a person amputated his limbs and gouged out his eyes and stopped up his ears, would he then be able to keep himself pure? Is it not more likely that his heart would then constantly dwell upon acts that had become physically impossible for him?
The solution is the cleansing of the heart. We need to pray without ceasing: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” And anyone who sincerely prays that prayer will use the power that God provides for the cleansing of our sinful hearts, the gospel of Christ in Word and sacrament.
Matthew chapter 5, verses 31 and 32
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
God instituted marriage, and God joins a couple together in marriage. Only God then has the right to end a marriage, and he ends it by ending the earthly life of either the husband or the wife. Divorce is always a sin. Although one or the other may be primarily responsible for the divorce, a certain degree of guilt may also rest upon the one we refer to as “the innocent party.” Often both spouses are guilty of contributing to the disintegration of the marriage.
When a husband or a wife has broken a marriage bond by committing adultery, the “innocent” spouse may have this legally recognized by securing a divorce. That person would also be free to remarry, if he or she so desires and has the opportunity.
The divorce practice among the Jews of Jesus’ day was extremely lax. A man could divorce his wife for almost any reason at all. The certificate of divorce was public and official testimony that the divorce had taken place. This may have made a divorce legal, but it would never make it God-pleasing. The prevailing practices concerning marriage and divorce among the Jews had gone far astray from God’s commandments.
The NIV translation of verse 32 is unfortunate: “causes her to become an adulteress.” It suggests that a woman who has been divorced by her husband is automatically an adulteress, that she is guilty of adultery because of what her husband has done. It also suggests that any man who then marries her is also guilty of adultery.
The passive verb form in the Greek has no real equivalent in English, but a clumsy rendering would go something like this: A man who divorces his wife makes her one who has been “adultered.” She has been victimized by his adultery, although she had no part in it. She is stigmatized as one who may have committed adultery, because some will assume that of her, even if her husband does not charge her with such an offense. And any man who marries her will then also be suspect.
So Jesus is not pronouncing judgment on innocent people here. He is rather reminding us that a divorce is always a serious matter for both husband and wife. Regardless of the degree of responsibility each may bear for the divorce, both are tarnished by it. And one or both may even forfeit their place in the kingdom of God by reason of the divorce.
Marital unfaithfulness destroys the “one flesh” relationship of marriage. The same is true of malicious desertion. To obtain a divorce under such circumstances is simply a matter of legally recognizing what has taken place. A Christian has a right to do that, although even under such circumstances it is proper for an aggrieved Christian to make every effort to salvage his or her marriage.
We also need to be reminded that lax laws and popular immorality do not make divorce and sexual sins permissible for a Christian. The laws of the state may express the will of the people, but as Christians we want to submit to all of God’s commandments. This is a difficult assignment in a corrupt society, but God will help and bless all who sincerely try.
Matthew chapter 5, verses 33-37
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
An oath is a serious matter. A person taking an oath calls upon God as his witness that he is telling the truth or that he will keep his promise. That means he also asks God to punish him if he is not true to his word.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law had devised a system of oaths in which some oaths were considered more binding than others. They imagined that they decreased their responsibility if they did not directly use the Lord’s name in an oath. So they would swear by heaven or by the earth or by Jerusalem or by the temple or even by their own heads. But Jesus pointed out that God is still present as their witness, no matter what formula they might recite. It was nonsense to say, as they did, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath” (chapter 23, verse 16).
Their whole concept of oaths was offensive to God. For them it was a way to avoid telling the whole truth or being bound by their word. It had become the opposite of what a God-pleasing oath was intended to be. So Jesus told them simply to say “Yes” or “No.” Anything beyond that is inspired by the devil himself, who is a liar and the father of lies.
There are times when an oath is appropriate and God-pleasing. Paul called upon God as his witness that he was telling the truth on more than one occasion (for examples see Romans chapter 1, verse 9 and Galatians chapter 1, verse 20). The government has the right to put citizens under oath when they testify in court, when they enter the armed forces, or when they are inducted into public office. Under such circumstances a Christian should not hesitate to take an oath and will surely be bound by it.
But oaths in ordinary conversation are entirely out of place. “By God” or “I swear to God” or similar expressions are offensive to God. Yet even Christians at times become guilty of this kind of language, perhaps without even thinking about what they are saying. As Christians we never want to be guilty of misusing God’s name.
An eye for an eye
Matthew chapter 5, verses 38-42
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Many today regard “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as a description of a legal system that is cruel and unjust. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees and teachers of the law regarded these words as a formula for personal revenge. But both opinions are wrong. In the first place, when Moses said, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus chapter 21, verses 23-25), he was not giving the Israelites a formula for taking personal revenge. The Word of God clearly forbids any form of revenge. “Do not say, ‘I’ll do to him as he has done to me; I’ll pay that man back for what he did’” (Proverbs chapter 24, verse 29). That matter belongs in God’s hands. These were regulations for the courts to use. They were a way of stating that the punishment should always fit the crime and should not be excessive. It is obvious that the Lord never intended them to be applied literally, and there is no evidence that this was ever done.
The best response to an evil person is to accept mistreatment, rather than to retaliate. A slap in the face is an insult, an expression of contempt. The most effective response is simply to endure it. That in itself may put the offender to shame.
Verse 40 speaks of someone who wants to take you to court to get your tunic. Before he gets that far, Jesus says, give him your cloak too. We might say today, If he wants your shirt, give him your coat too. Don’t even contest the matter.
The matter of going the extra mile is a reference, first of all, to the legal right of ancient Persian postal couriers to requisition animals or anything else they might need to reach their destination. The Romans, who had occupied the land of the Jews, gave their soldiers the right to compel any civilian to carry their pack for a mile. When that happens, Jesus said, voluntarily go two miles. We think of Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross.
With these directives Jesus was not giving his disciples a list of legal requirements for them to obey literally and mechanically. That would have been no improvement over the traditions of the Pharisees. He was speaking rather of the attitude Christians should have toward those who wrong them or abuse them. He wants us to find ways of showing love in return for abuse. One way is to accept double abuse or to do double what is demanded. Verse 42 does not tell us to give a double portion of anything someone asks for or wants to borrow, but it does clearly tell us to be ready to help people who are in need without necessarily expecting to receive anything in return.
In regard to all the concrete situations mentioned in these verses, there are other scriptural principles that we should also keep in mind. We are to testify against wickedness even when we permit it to be done to us. Martin Luther commented, “One must strictly distinguish between the hand and the mouth. The mouth must never concede wrong; but the hand must be held quiet and not avenge itself.” Jesus demonstrated this during his trial and crucifixion.
The Bible also clearly states that anyone who is unwilling to work does not deserve to eat. We need not feel guilty about refusing to provide for someone who obviously is able to work and has the opportunity to earn his own living but prefers not to. As a matter of fact, we should feel guilty if we encourage someone to be lazy and idle, a parasite on society, using up resources that ought to provide for those who are truly in need through no fault of their own.
So here, and throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not give us simple answers to be applied mechanically when others abuse us or try to take advantage of us. Before you respond, he is telling us, search your own heart. Look for a way to respond that will show Christian love for others and glorify God. This response will not always be the same in situations that appear to be the same. It is also true that two Christians may conscientiously respond in different ways to the same situation. So we need to examine our own hearts and evaluate our own motives and never presume to judge someone else’s heart.
Love for enemies
Matthew chapter 5, verses 43-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This chapter concludes with more illustrations of how the righteousness of the people in God’s kingdom must and will surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were correct in saying, “Love your neighbor,” but they did not even understand who their neighbors were. They directed their love, such as it was, only toward the people who loved them in return. Their kind of love was completely selfish, but genuine love is totally unselfish.
The Pharisees were wrong in saying, “Hate your enemies.” They should have known that the Old Testament Scriptures contain many exhortations to love one’s enemies. For example: “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him” (Exodus chapter 23, verse 4). And Paul reminds us of God’s words in Proverbs chapter 25, verses 21 and 22: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans chapter 12, verse 20). To heap burning coals on his head means to put him to shame for his bad conduct. The desired result would be that the enemy truly repent of his hostile acts, receive God’s forgiveness, and become one’s friend instead of enemy.
The Greek word Jesus uses here does not mean to love in the sense of liking or being fond of someone. It means to recognize your enemies as they are and to do whatever you can to make them as God wants them to be. It means to be concerned, not about revenge, but about your enemies’ welfare, especially their eternal welfare.
We need to consider how God loved us when we were his enemies and displeased him in everything we did. He was still so concerned about us that he sent his Son into the world to become one of us. God’s Son paid the price for all our sins and earned us the privilege of being received (adopted) as God’s children. Now, as children of God, we observe how God still blesses all people with sunshine and rain and other necessities, and we want to show the same kind of concern for all other people. We want to do that, not for the sake of the good things they might do for us in return, but out of gratitude for all the undeserved blessings we have already received from our heavenly Father.
In verse 48 Jesus summarizes his previous statements by telling us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We know that we cannot attain perfection in this life, but we want to make constant progress toward that ideal. And—wonder of wonders!—while we keep trying and keep falling short, our heavenly Father is pleased with our feeble efforts and pronounces them perfect because Christ’s perfect righteousness is ours through faith!
Giving to the needy
Matthew chapter 6, verses 1-4
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
In chapter 5 Jesus has dealt with certain false teachings and the resulting wrong conduct. In chapter 6 he talks about false piety without relating it to any particular teachings. In chapter 5, verse 16, he urged his disciples to let the light o their good works shine for people to see. In chapter 6, verse 1 he tell them not to do their good works, their “acts of righteousness,” to be seen by others.
Is he contradicting himself? Not at all! First he told his disciples to do good works in order to glorify their heavenly Father. Now he tells them not to do good works in order to glorify themselves. He expresses the positive and the negative side of the matter. The Lutheran commentator F. W. Wenzel provides us with practical guidance when he comments, “We should let our light shine and show our good works when we are tempted to hide them; and we should hide them when we are tempted to show them.”
Those who want to be admired or commended by other people for their demonstrations of piety will receive no reward from the Father. They are concerned about the approval of other people, and that is the only reward they will receive. But God rewards genuine good works, works that are done without seeking any kind of reward.
Works that please God are done out of gratitude for blessings already received, especially the free forgiveness of all sins and the sure hope of eternal salvation for Jesus’ sake. Anything we may then do for God cannot begin to repay him for blessings already received and surely does not earn a reward. If we did everything God tells us to do, we would still have to confess that we are unworthy servants, that we have only done what God has a right to expect of us. So any reward God gives us is an expression of his grace, his undeserved love.
The rewards we receive by the grace of God may be experienced sometime in this life, or we may receive them only in the life to come, in heaven. On the day of judgment our Lord Jesus Christ will recall good works that we have completely forgotten. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?’” (chapter 25, verse 37). If we remember our good deeds, if we keep track of them in an effort to be sure we are appropriately rewarded, God will forget them. He will dismiss them as not being good at all. But if we forget them, God will remember, and he will graciously reward us.
Jesus gives three examples of “acts of righteousness”: alms, prayer, and fasting. In regard to alms, he tells us not to make a big show of our giving to help the needy. Don’t call attention to your gifts. Don’t demand recognition for them. Don’t call the local newspaper to send a photographer to publicize your generosity all over town. Just quietly give to the needy on the basis of your ability and their needs.
If even your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing, you surely are not making a show of your piety. Many an act is neither good nor bad in itself, but the motive behind it makes the difference in God’s sight. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1st Corinthians chapter 13, verse 3).
Matthew chapter 6, verses 5-15
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward
you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
The second “act of righteousness” Jesus speaks about is prayer. He warns his disciples not to make a public show of their praying. Prayers spoken to impress other people with one’s personal piety will not make much of an impression on God. We might say that prayers are heard by those to whom they are really spoken. If we are really speaking to other people when we go through the motions of praying, the only answer or reward we may rightfully expect is their admiration.
The Jews customarily prayed three times each day, at 9 in the morning, 12 noon, and 3 in the afternoon. When the time came, they would pray, no matter where they happened to be. The hypocrites of whom Jesus spoke would see to it that they were on a busy street corner at prayer time whenever possible, so that many people would observe their demonstrations of personal piety.
They did not stop to pray even though many other people were around; they prayed aloud because many people were there to hear them. By way of contrast, we think of Daniel in Babylon. He prayed publicly three times a day, even though people would see him (Daniel chapter 6, verse 10). He did not give up his customary praying even though he knew he was in danger of being thrown to the lions because of it. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day prayed to glorify themselves, while Daniel prayed to glorify God. Their motives made all the difference. God judges our prayers on the same basis.
Jesus told his disciples that, rather than following the example of the Pharisees, they should pray in private, and he assured them that God would hear and answer their prayers. He also warned them to avoid the pagan practice of thoughtlessly repeating prayers over and over. We may think of the day-long prayers of the prophets of Baal (1st Kings chapter 18, verse 26) or of the repetitious prayers prescribed by Roman Catholic rosaries, but we do better to consider our own sometimes thoughtless recitation of memorized prayers. The fault is not with the memorized prayers, which can be very useful and God-pleasing, but with the attitudes and motives of our hearts. We do well to remember also that Jesus, who condemned the repetitious prayers of the Pharisees, commended the persistent requests of a widow (Luke chapter 18, verses 1-8) and pointed to them as a model for us to imitate in our prayers. Jesus tells us to pray in private, but his Word also tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together for worship (Hebrews chapter 10, verse 25).