RCL Reflection: Matthew 5:21-37

Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reflection
February 12, 2023

Literary illustration (v. 30): In the novel Mermaid Chair, by Sue Monk Kidd, opens with the narrator, Jessie, getting a very surprising phone call. Her mother, Nell, is in the hospital because she has chopped off her little finger with a meat cleaver. This happened while she was cooking for the monks at the monastery, and there is every indication that she did it on purpose.

A bit after this first incident, Nell cuts off another finger. Distraught, Jesse finds the scripture passage where Jesus suggests chopping off a hand.  Nell is a very pious woman, and Jesse is convinced that her mother is somehow trying to follow this verse. Jesse shares her concerns with a monk who assures her that Jesus’ words here are figurative. And Jesse responds that it doesn’t matter what Jesus meant. He should have known that some people would take what he said literally. Jesse argues that it was simply irresponsible for Jesus to say something like this.

Reflection on Matthew 5:21-37:

There is a lot to dig into in these seventeen verses—and plenty of room to get yourself in trouble talking about the court system, sex, divorce, oaths. Unless your congregation is used to hour-long sermons, you will likely want to choose a specific part of the passage to focus on.

In general, Jesus’ teachings here call people to account for trying to take shortcuts to virtue. The people have replaced faithfulness with rule-following, which is certainly something the church and its people are guilty of today. Jesus’ statements push us beyond the letter of the law into the more difficult and complicated spirit of the law.

As an example, we have this teaching about lust in verses 27-28: “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.”

In the ancient world, the law against adultery was, in essence, a property law. Jesus’ teaching suggests that, from God’s perspective, this law is not about property, but about the quality of our relationships. While attitudes about marriage have changed since the first century, I would argue that the church still tends to view sex in a very legalistic way. Like Jesus’ first listeners, we need to move from following rules about sex and our bodies just because they are rules we are “supposed” to follow to thinking much more deeply about how our sexual attitudes and actions affect the quality of our relationships.

There has been a lot of conversation lately about the damaging effects of the church-promoted “purity culture” many people experienced as teenagers. When we follow the rules just because they are there with no regard for why we are following them and no real concern for how our actions are affecting the quality of our relationships—that’s a shortcut to virtue. That’s replacing faithfulness with rule-following. In many ways, it is easier to follow a black and white rule than it is to truly consider how to faithfully live within our bodies and how to faithfully relate with other people physically.

I love this tweet from Anna Bayla: “My favorite Bible story is when instead of telling women to dress modestly, Jesus tells his dudes to avoid lust by plucking their eyes out.” This is an acknowledgment of the systemic harm caused by lust, and it frames Jesus’ words in a way that helps us understand that we are accountable not just for what we do with our bodies, but also for how we think about other people in their embodied fullness.

The problem with lust is that it objectifies people; it turns beloved creations of God into objects we can use to achieve our own desired ends. In objectifying people, we diminish our own humanity, we damage relationships, and we can more easily engage in abusive behavior and justify violence.

When we lust, we view people as sexual objects, and from there it is not a big leap to view others as political objects, as scapegoats, as a means to make a point or take out frustrations. I do believe lust is a piece of the epidemic of violence in our country right now. The pervasiveness of dehumanizing lust, the frequency with which it is dismissed—or even celebrated—reinforces the idea that some people are not people at all, but merely objects to be used—and discarded.

Jesus calls us to view each other with love and respect rather than lust—to tend to the quality of our relationships on all levels. Honoring God with our bodies is about more than following a simple set of rules. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to mold our minds, our spirits, our hearts, so that we think and act toward others out of the fullness of love.