Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.
Summary of Matthew 5:12-26
Jesus continues teaching his followers about Kingdom life, and his directives seem to get more ludicrously impossible by the minute.
Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 5:12-26
Jesus is continuing on the theme of life in the kingdom of God. In the last section Jesus talked about some specific
attributes of kingdom dwellers.
Kingdom is such a weird word to use today, isn't it? Maybe "country" or "world" is more applicable to today's
language. Kingdom, like so many other words, carries unintended baggage. I will try using the word country in this
post and see how it goes....
Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light to describe the citizens of God's country (Any better? Meh.), and the value they can bring to the rest of the world.
As a young church-goer, this was a familiar passage to me. The more familiar the passage, the easier it is for me to
associate it with something with American conservative evangelicalism. In that culture, being salt and light in the world meant two
things: (1) witnessing (proselytizing) and (2) behavioral holiness. Relationships were only important in that they
provided an "in" to persuading someone to accept Christ as their lord and savior. Holiness was defined by whichever
church, denomination, or authority figure was currently in charge. Both of these activities made it difficult to express
or experience love.
When I see Jesus' words now, I look to the previous verses to understand what salt and light actually
look like. People who practice the beatitudes have more to
offer our broken world than a gospel tract or zealous demonstrations of self-righteous
indignation over "behavioral sin."
In the next section (vs. 17-20) Jesus pivots to something grave and, quite frankly, soul-crushing. He says that unless you
obey every single command in the Law, even the least important ones, better than the Pharisees and Law teachers obey
them, you will never get into the "kingdom of heaven." Excuse my language, but: fuck. I wonder if that's
what his followers were thinking at this point, too?
Part of me wonders if this is just Matthew showing his intended audience that Jesus REALLY respects the Law, therefore
providing yet another piece of evidence that he is the Jewish Messiah. But even if that is the case, it seems these types
of Jesus teachings - the "impossible" commands - are meant to break the spirit. What other response do we
have, but God have mercy? For that matter, what other response can we have to the horror we see in the world
today, but God have mercy? What other response could we have when we realize our own riches compared to those who
are starving, tortured, oppressed, and enslaved, but God have mercy?
Here's where my thoughts are leading: the impossible commands are a poetic symbol of death and resurrection. Jesus
teaches us to obey impossible commands. We cannot fulfill them. We "die." Yet somehow, in that moment of humility, we are
raised up again to try to do the impossible. To try to build God' country. To my Jungian mind, this makes sense.
This provides meaning and purpose to life.
Could it be that the reason the Christian religion has survived (in some form) throughout the years is this example of
brutal poetic beauty? Of these symbols of life and death and meaning?
Back to the text. In the next section (vs. 21-26) Jesus gives us even more impossible commands. In this country of God, which frankly is
looking less and less appealing, you will stand trial if you (a) are angry with someone, (b) call someone a fool, or (c)
call someone worthless. (In the latter case, Jesus actually says "you will be in danger of the fires of hell.") He goes on to say that if someone is angry with you, you should not do anything until you make it right with that person. Furthermore, you'll be dragged to jail if you do not, and "will not
get out until you have paid the last cent you owe."
OMG Jesus! Give me a freaking break! More impossible standards of living in the country of God,
more harsh penalties for not living and breathing perfection. This sounds like an Orwellian nightmare.
So yeah. This is all pretty spirit-crushing stuff. At this point, I'm not going to try to offer any "answers." I already
made the point about "brutal poetic beauty" and while that still applies, it doesn't make reading this stuff and
struggling with it any easier. I think that's the point. The Bible isn't meant to be read passively.
Stay tuned. Lots more to come. Things could get ugly!