"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
"Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
- Matthew 5:27-37
We continue with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. For its earlier parts, see The Beatitudes, Salt and Light, Till heaven and earth pass away, and You shall not murder. In yesterday's reading and commentary, Jesus elaborated on the Law against murder, and extrapolated various ways in which murder may be committed in different forms, ways in which we provoke and belittle and kill relationships. His emphasis is on the practice of peace and reconciliation, right-relatedness; and repentance takes the form of healing and repairing what we've done to damage that peace. We remember that Jesus has said, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." In this way, he explained 'righteousness' or 'justice' regarding the Law against murder, and today he continues with the Law against adultery.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." My study bible has a note: "God sees the hidden desires which motivate our actions. The issue here is lust, not simply the God-given mutual attraction of men and women. Sin does not come out of nature, but out of internal self-indulgence. He who feasts on lust within himself brings sin into his heart through his thoughts. (Thoughts which enter the mind involuntarily are temptations, not sins. They become sins only when they are held onto and entertained.)" So, according to the interpretation in my study bible, this is an admonition regarding relationships again - and the deliberate cultivation of something which will harm relationship. We remember that "adultery" is also a figurative term for apostatizing, to abandon faith. I think that in an important sense, we must see it on these terms - that to cultivate an adulterous lust is here a sense in which we abandon a relationship or covenant, to harm or break it. In this way, it is tied to Jesus' discussion of righteousness that he has already embarked upon in the previous discussion of the Law of murder, and its relationship to our mission to be reconcilers, peacemakers, through just behavior.
"If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell." Again, a note reads: "Jesus is speaking in vivid imagery, not literally, using the physical body as an illustration. To remove an eye would be to reproach the Creator (see 18:8,9, Mark 9:43-48)." To my way of thinking, these words are among the most important of Jesus' teachings. This is a lesson about repentance, transformation: in Greek, metanoia - literally, "change of mind." We are not absolute in identity in the sense of being static creatures. In contrast, identity shapes and grows especially within relationship to Creator. We are not stuck with the things we think, the habits we have, the way we do things. Life is dynamic, and so is our sense of who we are. While it may be as psychologically painful as letting go of an arm or leg or eye, we are to give up those things within us that cause us to sin, to harm relationships. We are to seek change and repair and healing in this sense. Jesus' teaching, then, is one of transformation and work, the willingness to give up who we think we are, how we define ourselves, in exchange for what Christ teaches us we can be in relationship to him. We always have help for this, the Spirit which is with us. First, we must be willing to reconsider, to depart from old ways that are harmful.
"Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery." This is a further teaching about relationship. My study bible notes: "In contrast to the easy access to divorce under the Mosaic Law, and because of the misuse of divorce in that day, Christ repeatedly condemns divorce (Matthew 19:8,9; Mark 10:2-9; Luke 16:18) and emphasizes the eternal character of marriage. However, the possibility of divorce on grounds of unchastity, for example, clearly shows that Christ considered that the marriage bond is not absolute: it can be destroyed by sin." It goes on to note that branches of the Church have long permitted divorce "as a corrective measure of compassion when a marriage has unfortunately been broken. Human freedom implies the possibility of sin; sin can separate husband and wife from each other, and ultimately from the body of Christ and from God Himself." It notes, also, that marriage is a divine Sacrament, so breaking this bond must also be considered in this light. Surely, there are many ways that marriage can be sinned against and broken; all kinds of abuse of this relationship are possible in many forms. It's interesting to me that both these verses about divorce and the verses about adultery are directed toward men (as indeed the quotation from Genesis about marriage elsewhere, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"). As in the passage in Mark, Jesus shows sympathy to women in this relationship, at a time when they had very little power within marriage nor within the society. Again this is about relationship, and love and care. He is preaching consistently against hard-heartedness, abandonment, and within the consistent theme of right-relatedness or righteousness -- the importance of relationship and its link to peace and reconciliation, the practice of love. It is in this sense that we must take these words, and in this sense we also seek to heal broken relationships of any kind, but here particularly those of a sacred covenant, if at all possible.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black." Again, I will quote from a note: "Jesus speaks against casual use of God's name and superficial oaths. The words of Jesus have not only a negative meaning, but a positive one also. They not only forbid us to swear, that is, to bind ourselves with an oath; they also command us to speak the truth and to keep our promises." I note myself that we continue in this vein of covenant, loyalty, promise. Marriage is a covenant, a loyalty, a promise. And here, too, Jesus continues with an understanding of how seriously we are to take relationships to God, and to all that is in God's creation (and therefore in relationship with God). None of these things are to be used in "casual" or "superficial" ways, just as it is harmful to relationship to "use" people, as we say in popular language. Relationship is something we take seriously, and that extends to any promise or oath. And here we come also to the central core of what it takes for relationship: truth. To be "pure in heart" (see The Beatitudes) is also to be a truthful person, truthful not merely in what we say or confess but in our character, in our hearts as persons. The importance of the cultivation of this essence of truthfulness, the need for our promises to be worth something, a relationship to rest in trust, is essential to and permeates his teachings in this Sermon and his purposes regarding relationship in every sense.
"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." A note in my study bible says, "This is a well-known saying in the New Testament (James 5:12). Trust is secured not by an oath which exceeds Yes and No, but by inner integrity. Jesus teaches us to live in the simplicity of the present moment." For our honesty and integrity to keep and remain intact, a simple Yes or No (rather than an oath) is the best way to proceed. Our word is something valuable and powerful, and again, has to do with relationship. Keep it simple! It's important also to see how "yes" or "no" keeps things truthful, and clear, and how they are related again to the ways in which we keep our relationships to others. Purity of heart, in this sense, translates into integrity.
So, today's reading really focuses us on relationship, and the care with which we handle our most intimate - and sacred - relationships. We understand the injunction against lust to be one that is a commitment to preserving good relationship within this most basic bond in marriage - a sacramental act. We must see things in this light. And Jesus gives us also his powerful teaching, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell..." in order to teach us about the importance of change in order to preserve good relationships, right-relatedness. We are willing to change, we cast out that which interferes with the healthy maintenance of relationships , that which causes us to harm them (including the relationship with Creator). Jesus' powerful teaching on repentance, then, comes within this framework of the importance of relationship; specifically here, of a good marriage that is healthy and loving and beneficial for both partners. We live in relation to one another. Those who are unmarried - of every age - also understand the importance of relationships that are trustworthy, loving. Jesus speaks today of this central bond of marriage, but also extends his talk to how else we may "bind" ourselves in promise or covenant, to oaths. Our "yes" must be "yes," or "no," "no." We link all of this to The Beatitudes, to the understanding that the cultivation of the virtues of love lead us to be peacemakers and reconcilers - and the central importance to this of trust or trustworthiness ("purity of heart") in all of it. As we go more deeply into Jesus' teachings about what constitutes righteousness, we also uncover more deeply the nature of God, who is love. Relationships are the key focus of what it is to be just, to be "righteous." We are to cast out from ourselves that which harms right-relatedness, we are to keep it simple and straightforward. We are to be willing to change what ails us, and ails our relationships. All of this is in the context of relatedness to God who is love, in whose image we are created. How will you apply these teachings? What does it mean to you to be pure in heart, to be his disciple? To cultivate care of what is dear? And, to grow in relationship to God by casting out that which gets in the way? He's asking us to be that love, actively, and teaching us what it is to be that love - and how to change what is not. He's teaching, also, that we don't stay in bad, destructive, harmful relationships. But we do our best to play our part as his disciples and to do and be what he teaches, and we must seek to change what needs changing within ourselves, whatever that is.