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New Signposts: Covenant Integrity

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

by Mike Bowling

Matthew 5:21-48

Mount Brandon (named for 6th century saint, Brenden the Navigator, who reportedly sailed from Ireland to North America) on the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland stands 3100 ft from its near sea level base to its summit. The Pilgrim’s Route, one of two traditional trails to the summit, features 14 stations of the Cross and both numerous and varied signposts which indicate the path. Sometimes the signposts are simple piles of stones, and sometimes they are either posts touched with yellow or a yellow arrow painted on a large boulder. The views ascending the mountain trail can be beautiful, even mesmerizing, but the path itself is challenging and treacherous. The weather conditions can change in minutes, blue sky to dense fog to torrential rain. Lisa and I have walked this trail a couple of times, and I have felt the experience to be paradigmatic of life in general. A way of life can be identified by particular signposts along the way. The way of Jesus has its own distinct signposts; Matthew 5:21-48 begins to identify them.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism, the temptations in the wilderness and Jesus’s first public declaration (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) begin to frame the way of God’s kingdom come on earth, which we call the way of Jesus. Matthew 5:1-20 continues that framing and alerts readers to the first of many and varied signposts along the Jesus way.

For Israel, the signposts of God’s kingdom were the Commandments; but like the signposts on Mount Brandon, they were most often shrouded by varied socio-political circumstances and by conflicting interpretations. However, Jesus uses some of the Commandments and some of the interpretations of them as a contrast establishing new signposts of the kingdom of God.

Katy has started our exploration of these new markers of the Jesus way, writing about Matthew 5:21-26. This post continues that work, reflecting on 5:27-37. The signpost of radical reconciliation (5:21-26) is followed by a teaching on the complicated source of human covenant/personal integrity. Jesus uses one of the most intimate and consequential of all human relationships as a starting place, the social contract (covenant) of marriage. Adultery is the ultimate breach of the marital union; few marriages survive such a breach. Jesus goes deeper than the destructive offense of adultery to identify the more fundamental problem of misshaped or malformed human desires or lusts (see James 1:14-15 for another example of this idea). The example of a man looking at a woman to “possess” her or to “use” her self-indulgently is one of the most destructive impulses in human history. The awful consequences— especially for women, but also for men, families and communities, is well-documented throughout the ages.

My frustration with this part of the text is not with what Jesus says; it is with the many attempts to reduce these verses to a new set of laws. I think Jesus’s primary point is the problem of malformed desires which start a domino effect for relationships, families and communities. These effects can only be repaired through radical forgiveness and the tedious work of reconciliation which must follow. But even when the hard work of reconciliation is accomplished, scars and what today is called trauma, remain. Looking to this text to justify divorce or using it to shame those who have experienced a failed marriage misses Jesus’s point. This becomes clear when we understand Jesus’s hyperbolic advice in 5.29-30. The consequences of misdirected desires should be avoided at all costs. The schooling or the reformation of desires is made possible by God’s spirit and is a personal and a communal work (see often referenced Romans 12:1-2). The extreme act of “plucking out your eye” or “cutting off your hand” illustrates what might be at stake in our personal or communal formation. By the way, I believe Jesus references Hell in this text not to make a theological statement concerning eternal damnation, but uses the image of Hell as a consistent hyperbolic statement about destructive consequences.

Jesus continues to look beyond the surface form of our relationships by taking aim at oaths or vows. Once again, legalists will come out of the woodwork to condemn all oath takers and vow makers, and avoid the heart of Jesus’s instruction. When a person or a community really cares about how their actions affect others, their “yes” or “no” can be trusted as their bond. Oaths and vows serve the purpose of a clear public statement of commitment, but cannot be a substitute for personal or communal trust. This is why lying is so corrosive; it is the relational version of erosion. In 5.33-37, Jesus points out the sage wisdom that trust cannot be fortified with oaths and vows; only trustworthy actions can foster the kind of trust which builds relationships and community. When a declaration or a commitment requires the augmentation of oaths and vows, expect some shading of the truth to be lurking in the shadows.

When our neighbors see our relationships reflecting desires which aspire to the common good, they might begin to imagine a different way of life. When they experience a community who takes their expressed commitments seriously, who take the truth seriously, they might identify the new way of being God is bringing. For these recognitions to happen, they will need discernible signposts; Jesus has provided those signposts; the world awaits the Church to make them an embodied reality.

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