“What’s Going On Beneath the Surface?”

Matthew 5:31-37

We are working our way through the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7 of Matthew.  It is the place where Jesus establishes the principles of His ministry and wants to make sure His disciples understand what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows that the people of Israel, who were chosen to be the group of people God decided to use to show His story needed some re-education. Up to this point, the Israelites had been in a covenant relationship with God and had failed that covenant over and over again. This time, God sent His Son, in the flesh, to set the story straight and re-establish a new covenant and a new relationship with all of the nations. It makes sense that Jesus would begin His ministry with some ground rules of the kingdom that had been misunderstood. 

Back in verse 17 of chapter 5, Jesus proclaimed He had not come to abolish the Law, or the Torah, from which they had been using to live out their spiritual lives, but to fulfill them by showing what the law really meant, rather than what men had twisted them into. So far Jesus has talked about matters of one heart. He has dealt with anger and sexual desire. Today we are going to take a quick look at divorce and how Jesus views the way we present ourselves to others. 

Today’s Scripture reading begins with Jesus repeating the phrase, “You’ve heard it said.” This is one of six times He will say this. Remember, Jesus was standing on a mountainside teaching a crowd of mostly Jewish people. They had grown up with the Jewish culture and the practice of their religion consisted of living with and under 613 laws, and trying to keep those laws. So when Jesus said, “You have heard it said,” it was exactly true. Their entire lives had been spent listening to leaders in the synagogue, parents, and grandparents, reminding them of what was written in the Torah. Verses 31 and 32 have to do with laws given about divorce. 

Before I go on I want to make it very clear, I am quite aware that this topic hits home for many people in our congregation. This message is not meant to answer your personal questions or set a new law for divorce for us today. We are reading about a topic that Jesus was addressing that had its own dysfunctions during Jesus’ day and He was taking some time to address them. Also, this will not be the only time this topic comes up in the book of Matthew. Later on in chapter 19, some teachers of the law try to use a question regarding the topic of divorce to trap Jesus. So we will be going into more depth on the subject then. 

For now, Jesus was dealing with how Moses’ permission for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 had been interpreted. Let’s read what Moses wrote,

“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,”

When we get to chapter 19 we will unpack this commandment more thoroughly. But for today’s message, you need to understand that Jesus was responding to how people, specifically rabbis, during His day, were interpreting this law. Some rabbis taught that men had permission to divorce their wives for any reason they deemed “displeasing.” This meant if the husband didn’t like the way his wife cooked the breakfast one morning, if she burnt the toast, he could divorce her. Basically, men were using this law as an instrument of cruelty to women. The mistreatment of any human was a big no-no for Jesus and He wanted to set the record straight. By taking the emphasis off the phrase, “displeasing to him,” and putting focus on the phrase, “something indecent about her,” Jesus makes it clear that in God’s Kingdom, the marriage vows were broken when one of the partners sleeps with another person, other than their covenant partner. Jesus labels that adultery. 

Jesus’ emphasis on the marriage vows and the unjustified use of divorce went against the Jewish thinking of His day and of the thinking in the Gentile cultures around them as well. The Jewish leaders weren’t any different from the other cultures around them. We think we have a problem today, in both the Greek culture and the Roman culture, at the time of Jesus, unfaithfulness was a daily part of the culture and was seen as “natural and normal.” 

Men had twisted God’s laws to suit them and Jesus was untwisting them. He went on to explain another distortion of a daily part of the culture during the time of Jesus, the practice of swearing of oaths. In verses 33-37, Jesus addresses this practice by stating again, here is something you have heard before, 

‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made. 

The act of swearing an oath in Jesus’ day and days of old before Him is not directly correlated with what we call “swearing” today. Oaths were made in order to bring credence or justify your statement. The scribes and Pharisees twisted the act of oath taking by allowing every other name, besides God’s, to be used in a false oath. You didn’t have to say the truth if you could create an oath that would validate your lie and make you look better or more important than you really were. 

Instead, what Jesus said, 

But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all:..”  

Stop bending and distorting reality in order to control how people perceive you. 

All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’;

Jesus was pointing out again, that humans had taken the law and had focused on the surface behavior, rather than dealing with what was really going on inside the person. In order to fulfill the law, Jesus was teaching that it was important to get to the heart of the matter. 

There is a wonderful visual example of what Jesus was saying. It is the concept of an iceberg. I am sure many of you have seen photographs of icebergs. My father passes on his copies of National Geographic and they have had photo shoots of icebergs that are utterly amazing. 

The comparison I want to make is that whatever you can see of an iceberg above water, represents only 10% of the iceberg’s mass. 90% of the iceberg lies underneath. Jesus was addressing a similar ratio. 

Jesus was revealing the iceberg. 

He was addressing the practice that people had learned to distort and bend how we talk about ourselves to other people. In the time Jesus was walking on earth, they used oaths. They would swear that what they were proclaiming was truth based on something else. We have a similar statement when we say, 

“I swear on the Bible, or my mother’s grave, that I am telling the truth.” 

As if the Bible or your mother’s grave give validity and prove you are not a liar. This is a statement that points to the 10% you want people to see. 

What Jesus was getting at is there is 90% of who you really are underneath. Instead of using others to validate who you are, Jesus states that in God’s Kingdom, just be you, be honest. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. 

We try to hide from each other by the way we talk and manage other people’s perception of who we really are. What’s the root issue? I think it’s because we are afraid that if people find out who we really are, they might not like us, or believe us, or whatever fear we have conjured up in order to make sure they don’t see the real “me.” Actually, it is called lying, and we tell our children not to lie and make it a moral issue. But as adults we have created adaptations of lying to keep only the things we want people to see above the surface, when below the surface is a whole lot more of our stuff, we’d rather people didn’t see. 

Jesus wants a truthful, honest presentation of ourselves to other people. Why don’t we do that more often?

Today, more than using oaths, we have created more clever ways to keep people looking at the tip of the iceberg. How many of you have been in a conversation with someone who manages to name drop important people into the conversation. They do this in order to elevate their position by letting you know they have a relationship with this important person, so it makes them look better. Sometimes it is very subtle, but other times it’s obvious. Now what’s happening in this instance? It may be that they are truly honoring the person they have mentioned, but most of the time, they are using that person’s reputation to enhance their own. They are using that person – rather than honoring them as a God image bearing person. 

They are using their accomplishments and borrowing from them to fill in the gaps of what they perceive others may think about them.

This is what Jesus was talking about as He looked out over the crowd of misfits. Those people had been treated by the religious leaders as unacceptable and they had believed the lie the teachers of the Law had given them and had practiced the use of oaths to cover up who they really were. And Jesus was telling them that in God’s Kingdom, they didn’t have to do that anymore. In God’s Kingdom they did not have to fear that someone wouldn’t love them with all their failures and faults. There was no need to find a way to cover them up anymore.  God loved them just the way they were. They didn’t need to create an oath, or drop a name, or connect themselves with anyone else, but Jesus. 

Can you imagine being that Jewish disciple, sitting on the hill, and hearing Jesus saying this? 

Can you imagine sitting in the pew at the Damariscotta Baptist Church and hearing Jesus say this? 

In God’s Kingdom I am loved, just the way I am? 

I don’t need to impress others or hide my faults?

The answer to those questions is, YUP!

And we come together today to observe the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of that truth. Before we take the bread and the cup let me read from 1 John 4, verses 9 & 10, which describes it so beautifully,

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The Lord’s Supper. 





  1. You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely”: The scribes and Pharisees had twisted the law You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain (Exodus 20:7) to permit taking virtually every other name in a false oath.
  2. Do not swear at all: Jesus reminds us that God is part of every oath anyway; if you swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or even your head, you swear by God – and your oath must be honored.
  3. “Again an unqualified statement, to be taken not in the letter as a new law, but in the spirit as inculcating such a love of truth that so far as we are concerned there shall be no need of oaths.” (Bruce)
  4. But let your “Yes” be “Yes”: Having to swear or make oaths betrays the weakness of your word. It demonstrates that there is not enough weight in your own character to confirm your words. How much better it is to let your “Yes” be “Yes” and “No” be “No.
  5. Some have taken this word of Jesus as more than an emphasis on truth-telling and honesty as an absolute prohibition of all oaths. This is misguided, because oaths are permitted under certain circumstances, as long as they are not abused and used as a cover for deception.
  1. “The truly good man will never need to take an oath; the truth of his sayings and the reality of his promises need no such guarantee. But the fact that oaths are still sometimes necessary is the proof that men are not good men and that this is not a good world.” (Barclay)