Much like the Gospel readings for the last two weeks, there is a lot packed into this excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It includes His teaching about anger, divorce, lust, and oaths. In doing so, this text continues a recurring theme of the last few appointed Gospel readings. Namely, there is no way to do justice to them in their entirety in a single sermon, which is why I suggest you take one of two approaches to preaching on this text. Either choose one of the four themes mentioned above and limit your sermon to the specific issue or focus on what Jesus’ teaching about these four things have in common (without getting lost in the weeds of any of them).
If you go with the latter, two general ideas present themselves.
The first has to do with Jesus. More specifically, it has to do with His authority. “You have heard it said… but I say to you.” Whether Jesus had in mind what was said in the Old Testament or what the Pharisees and Scribes had been saying, the clear message is Jesus speaks with ultimate and decisive authority. This is a theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel (see 7:29, 8:9, 9:6-8, and 21:23-27). By the time the risen Lord explicitly announces that all authority has been given to Him (28:18), He is simply making explicit what was implicit all along. That is, Jesus is Master and Lord. His reign extends over all things. There are no exceptions.
The second theme in this text is that Jesus cares deeply about how His followers treat one another. He wants His “blessed” ones to live differently in their life together. This is no small thing. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus establishes a whole new standard for what it means to live as one of His people. It is a high standard, too. This is convicting to any honest hearer. But we dare not dismiss the seriousness with which Jesus is saying these things by suggesting the only purpose of the Law is to accuse, or by saying Jesus has only His own obedience in mind. The Law also guides, and Jesus is doing that, too. He challenges their (and our) shallow view of obedience and offers a more foundational conception of the life He has in mind for His people.
Consider, for example, Jesus’ teaching in verses 21-26. Avoiding murder is not nearly enough. Anger and insults are equally unacceptable. They must give way to reconciliation. There is no excuse (for either party) for failing to take the first step. Or take His teaching about adultery in verses 27-30. It is not enough to avoid the physical act of unfaithfulness. Jesus is concerned about the lingering of our eyes and the lusting of our hearts. Marital fidelity, like brotherly love, goes much deeper than surface actions.
As you move from this text to a sermon, you might consider following Jesus’ rhetorical strategy. Scholars suggest the rhetorical center of this part of the Sermon on the Mount is the antitheses. That is, Jesus teaches by speaking directly against what the people of His day were hearing. This required, of course, familiarity with what they were hearing. Do not skip past this too quickly. If you are to follow Jesus’ lead, you will also need to be well-acquainted with what the hearers of your day are hearing. If you are not sure, you might consider asking them.
For example, what have they heard, in our defensive and litigious society, about reconciliation? Perhaps they have heard forgiveness is only for those who come begging for it or self-preservation excludes the vulnerability necessary for confession/absolution. Or take lust and adultery? What are they hearing about what our eyes should see? It is scary even to ask this question in our over-sexed culture (Did you see the halftime show of the Superbowl?).
As you employ versions of your own contemporary antitheses, you might ask your hearers what they have been hearing about Jesus Himself. This could be your angle for proclaiming the promise. Depending on how far your context has drifted from a Christian worldview and how Christ is often imagined among your hearers, you may need to get back to the basics. Put simply, Jesus is Lord. He is Lord and Master over all things—Heaven and Earth, sin and death, all that was and is and is yet to come. Because He is gracious, He exercises His lordship by restoring us to life and by forgiving everything which has gone before. It is by His authority that you speak His promises in the church and it is for the good of His people that you tell them the truth about Him who has authority over all things.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 5:21-37.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 5:21-37.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David P. Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 5:21-37.