Does Jesus really mean that?

Agnus Day cartoon for Matt 5


Part way through his "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus shifts from pronouncing blessings to speaking words that can make us so uncomfortable that we're tempted to interpret them away. Jesus begins this hard section by declaring that our words spoken in anger against someone are the same as murder. Certainly, this isn't intended to be taken literally. Certainly Jesus is using hyperbole – extreme language used to make a point.

As I think it through, I begin to find this reaction curious for at least two reasons:

First, many of us readily sign on when it’s said that one sin isn't really any worse than another, but when Jesus starts lumping them together, we get nervous. Usually when we make the argument against “degrees of sinning” it’s because we are seeking to take something that is perceived as awful or unforgivable and move it in with a category of failures that carry no such stigma. Jesus is doing just the opposite; grouping our minor infractions in with a major felony. Shouldn’t it work both ways?

Second, we who readily confess Jesus to be the “Word of God by whom all things were made”, seem, in these moments, to be reluctant to acknowledge the possibility that Jesus may have some deep insight into the power of words to have concrete, specific impacts in our world.

This makes me wonder if our reluctance to take Jesus and his words at face value might have more to do with our need to minimize our own failures with one another than our desire to really understand the Bible. I’m always struck by my own impulse to apologize using language like “I’m sorry if I offended you,” which seeks to shift the burden from me to the person raising the objection as though they are responsible for the damage I caused through my words. It’s almost as if an admission of guilt will be my undoing, as though I hadn’t already been restored to life by the saving work of Jesus.

Perhaps, if we could come to terms with the reality that Christ’s sacrifice really covers even our own most egregious sins, we might find the freedom necessary to admit the seriousness of our failings before one another. Perhaps that would lead to improvements in our lives together. Perhaps Jesus is on to something.

Pr. Jim


Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.