Legal Aid


The gospel reading on Sunday was Matthew 5:21-37, part of the much beloved Sermon on the Mount.  Only this bit is not so loved.  It is the part where Jesus quotes the Jewish law and then adds “but I say to you.”  What he then goes on to say seems even tougher than the original law!   For those people who want their Jesus to be a lovely, anything goes, throwback to the 1960s hippy era or a modern individualist claiming the right to do anything he wants, this reading can be a bit of a shock.  The instinct is to bypass it.

There is a way of approaching scripture that I have found very helpful.  There are four stages:

You ask, “How did the original audience understand this?”  This is important because the culture in which Jesus lived was hugely different to ours and we need to comprehend when Jesus is speaking to the cultural wrongs of the day (like the treatment of women) and when he is speaking to a spiritual understanding we all share.

Then we ask, “How do we hear this now?”  Again this is very important because otherwise we may go for a fundamentalist reading of scripture.  A good example of this is v.31 when Jesus speaks against divorce.  In Jesus’ time a man could divorce a woman simply by giving her a bill of divorcement.  The woman had no legal rights in law and no property.  Any husband could turn his wife out and she would be destitute.  Jesus, as always, is speaking for justice and mercy for those who were powerless in his society.  I would not read v. 31 as a blanket rule against divorce except for adultery.  In our culture we accept that there are various situations in which it is really damaging for a couple to go on living together.

The third stage of reading is to ask yourself, “Is there any metaphorical reading of this passage?”  Of course, there often is in Jesus’ teaching.  Last week Jesus talked of his followers as being “salt” and “yeast” in the world.  But there may also be other metaphorical readings that are more subtle: for example, St John’s use of “dark” and “light” in his gospel.

The fourth stage is to ask, “What is this passage saying to me today?”  This is very important because scripture is God’s love letter to us.  The word of God speaks to us directly in our daily needs and anxieties, in our longings and desires, in our life-long journey.  This question can lead you directly into prayer.

Matthew 5: 21-37 is a very important passage because it reminds us to look behind the law that God gave to the Jewish people to ask, what was the reason for the law in the first place?  It was that the people be blest in the land that God was giving them (Deut 30:16).  It was to help them live well in community.  Jesus reminds his original audience and us as well that keeping the law of God is not just a tick-box exercise but about really caring for others.  We do this when keeping the law is not just about our actions on the outside but about the purity of our intentions on the inside.  That is why Jesus says we must try not even to be angry with one another or call a person a fool; why we must not have erotic fantasies about another person’s spouse even if we think we have no intention of doing anything about it – it demeans the object of the fantasy, undermines relationships and is potentially dangerous.

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5:6).  Think of what it is to be really hungry and thirsty.  This is what Jesus is calling us to be, people who care that much for others. Of course we fail – we all fail to live up to such high standards – but when we fail we simply pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again!