So often we’re content to substitute religion for vital fellowship with the Lord. We come to church, put money in the basket, say a prayer, and think, Everything’s okay; I did my religious duty. Jesus said, “No, that’s not how it works.”
Jesus had just explained that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Now He began to expose the wrong interpretation of God’s Word by the rabbis.
Jesus began, “You have heard that it was said … , ‘You shall not murder.’ … But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (5:21–22). People were filled with hatred toward their brother but still going to the temple and offering sacrifices. Jesus went to the heart of that corrupt religious system.
Getting to the Heart
Jesus went on, “You have heard that it was said … ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27–28). Jesus was showing these self-righteous interpreters of the law that they were guilty. The rabbis could pat themselves on the back and say, “I’ve never committed adultery.” But Jesus said that if a man merely looks at a woman in lust, he has sinned.
Jesus dealt with divorce: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery” (5:31–32). In Jesus’ day, men divorced their wives frequently and freely. If a man found an “uncleanness” in his wife, he could give her a certificate of divorce. According to Hillel, the popular rabbi of the day, an uncleanness was virtually anything a man didn’t like about his wife. But Jesus said that this constituted adultery.
Again Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said … ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all” (5:33–34).
God Looks at the Heart
In each one of these things, Jesus’ main point is to show them that God is primarily interested in the heart. God’s concern has always been with the heart. If our hearts are right, our actions will be right; but if our hearts are wrong, even if we’ve got the right action, we sin. God looks at the heart.
Jesus, in order to show the seriousness of these matters of the heart, says: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (5:29). These are serious words—words we would do well to take to heart.
If you’re bound up in some sin, do not pluck out your eye or cut off your hand; Jesus was using hyperbole. What you need is a change of heart. All of us have struggled with lust or bitterness or deceit or hatred, but by the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to overcome these sins. Ask the Lord to help you. Obedience from the heart brings freedom from bondage to sin.