Perhaps an audience of Jewish listeners would have resonated with Jesus’s statements on murder (5:21-26) and adultery (5:27-30). At least in principle everyone can agree that anger and lust are the internal motivations for the external sins of murder and adultery. Even if one is not a follower of Jesus, controlling anger and lust is a positive and healthy goal. Greek philosophy encouraged people to balance their passions and to be in control of their inner thoughts.

I am offendedBut when Jesus taught on divorce and oath-making, he was challenging accepted practices of the Jewish world of the first century. It is likely few people who heard Jesus teach were adulterers and maybe no one was a murderer. But divorce was a far more common issue and everyone has made a promise or two they regretted and would like to have a legal way out of their oath. For some in the original audience, Jesus has moved from preaching to meddling.

After writing over one hundred pages on Jesus’s view of divorce, John Meier comments his prohibition of divorce would have disturbed his otherwise sympathetic listeners (Marginal Jew, 3:182). The same is true for his prohibition of oath-making in Matthew 5:33-37. As Meier points out, no Jewish teaching in the first century completely prohibited making oaths and vows. Even the closest parallel to Jesus, the Essenes, swore vows to obey the rules of the Community. The Pharisees would have reacted strongly to Jesus’s teaching on both divorce and oath-making (Meier, 3:205). Unfortunately we do not have their side of the argument, nor does Jesus explain his rationale for making these sweeping prohibitions.

It would appear the earliest Christians either did not know Jesus’s prohibition on oaths or they interpreted it differently. Paul made oaths in his letters. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:23, God calls on God as a witness, more or less swearing his claims are true by invoking God! Similarly, in Philippians 1:8 he says “with God as my witness.” The book of Acts appears to describe him taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and later participating in the conclusion of vows (Acts 21:26). The writer of Hebrews refers to swearing an oath by something greater (6:16). Although the command against oath making was taken literally in the early days of the church, by the Middle Ages “the entire tradition of the major churches has almost uniformly disregarded Matt 5:33-37 and accepted oaths, even if it often did so with a bad conscience” (Matthew 1-7, 267–268).

So Jesus says “do not swear an oath at all” and the rest of church history figures out ways around the command. In his recent commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Jonathan Pennington says “Jesus is not overturning or abolishing the original commandment. He is not opposed to oath or vow making” (293). Charles Quarles argues Jesus prohibited “misleading oaths” intended to allow a person to break their promise if it was to their advantage (Sermon, 144). For Pennington, oaths and vows can be made only if the disciple of Jesus intends to fulfill them.


These interpretations allow Christians to serve in the military (which demands oaths) or give testimony in court, or even have a mortgage, which is more or less an oath to pay back a loan. Modern society demands oath-making, so we have to find some way to deal with Jesus’s actual words. Modern society demands the possibility of divorce, so we need to find a way around Jesus’s actual words.

But did Jesus intend for his disciples to find ways around his words when modern culture finds them too inconvenient? I would suggest the ideal disciples of Jesus honor marriage in such a way that divorce is not an issue; the idea disciple honors truth to the point there is no need for making an oath. For the ideal disciple of Jesus, all their words are “with God as my witness.”

As demonstrated above, there was a great deal of discussion within Second Temple Judaism on the issue of making oaths and vows. Rather than define what sorts of circumstances would allow for an oath or vow could be set aside, Jesus tells his disciples to no swear oaths of any kind. Craig Keener summarizes Jesus’s teaching here as “oaths are a poor substitute for integrity” (Matthew, 192).

Truth MemeSince the Law is clear God’s name cannot be used to guarantee an oath, the Jewish people would swear by other things, with varying degrees of surety. A Greek might swear by any number of gods. In the treaty of Corinth. For example, “I swear by Zeus, Gaia, Helios, Poseidon, Athena, and Ares, by all gods and goddesses, that I will maintain peace and will not break the treaties concluded with Philip of Macedon.” The Hippocratic Oath began with the words “I swear by Apollo the physician, Aesculapius, and Health, and All-heal, and all the gods and goddesses…” By invoking the name of a god the person making the oath is calling on the god to judge them if they break their word.

Jesus forbids swearing by heaven, earth or Jerusalem as well as searing by “your head.” In Matthew 23:16-22 Jesus implies the Pharisees also swore by the temple, the altar. In each case someone is substituting something for swearing by the name of God. For Jesus, any substitute for God in an oath is just as binding as swearing by God’s name.

Swearing by one’s head may refer to one’s own life. A similar phrase appears in the Mishnah:

m.San 3:2  [If] he said to him, “If one litigant said to the other, ‘I accept my father as reliable,’ ‘I accept your father as reliable,’ ‘I accept as reliable three herdsmen [to serve as judges],’ “R. Meir says, “He has the power to retract.” And sages say, “He has not got the power to retract.”  [If] one owed an oath to this fellow, and his fellow said, “[Instead of an oath], take a vow to me by the life of your head,” R. Meir says, “He has the power to retract.” And sages say, “He has not got the power to retract.”

The problem with swearing by something is that breaking the vow not only dishonors the vow maker, but also the name (or thing) invoked (France, Matthew, 250). Jesus quoted the first part of Leviticus 19:12, the second have says the one who swears falsely “profanes the name of the Lord.” If one “swears to God” to do something and the oath-maker fails, the God himself is dishonored.

Rather than guaranteeing one’s word by swearing an oath, Jesus demands his disciples be truth-speaking people. The true disciple of Jesus speaks the truth and keeps their word when they give it. If someone is committed to the truth then their word will be respected and there is no need for an oath.

How can the disciple of Jesus live out this ideal of speaking the truth? Ulrich Luz points out “Once again the history of the text’s interpretation is characterized by attempting to remove the text’s sting and to soften it or to evade its demand” (Luz, Matthew 1–7, 266). The problem of “never swear an oath” is that virtually every society requires some sort of oath-making. This may be legal or economic. For example, if one gives testimony in a court case one must swear they are telling the truth. Any business relationship requiring payments is more or less an oath to pay off a debt by a certain time. Could a society function without legally binding contracts?

Most interpreters therefore argue Jesus is forbidding the sorts of frivolous oaths permitted by the traditions of the Pharisees. Pastors might extend this to flippant use of God’s name (“I swear to God…”)

It is also possible Jesus has in mind the used of God’s name in magical incantations. It was common in ancient cultures to use a god’s name in magical curses or blessings. Later magical papyri use Yahweh, Jesus, and other Christian “power words,” in modern swearing the speaker is using God’s name to invoke a curse on another: “God damn it” is calling on God to curse someone.

These are certainly appropriate applications of the respect for the name of God based on the commands of the Torah. But is this what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:33-37? He is demanding his disciples be known as people of integrity, people who can be trusted to keep their words so that their “yes” is just as certain as someone who has sworn an oath by the gold of the Temple.

Unfortunately, Christians do not live up to this level of integrity. Many are willing to ignore the truth if it furthers a political agenda, many are willing to state outright lies in order to score points in a public debate. Although philosophers might have debated the nature of truth for a long time, recently the American public has endured alternative facts, different interpretations of events, and errors or obvious falsifications presented as truth. Five minutes on Facebook will show that both sides of the political landscape are comfortable telling lies if it makes the other side look worse.

As Christians, we are to be people of integrity, people worthy of trust, but some of the worst lies I have read come from people who claim to follow Jesus. But it is not just politics (or what passes for political dialog today), Christians lack integrity in other areas as well. How do Christians fail to be people of integrity? Can someone regain a reputation for integrity?

The Law permitted swearing oaths. In Matthew 5:33, Jesus quotes the first part of Leviticus 19:12 along with Numbers 30:2 and (possibly) Deuteronomy 23:21. Oaths were used in both legal and religious contexts. A promise between two people might include oaths. One vivid example is David swearing an oath to Bathsheba that her son would be the next king (1 Kings 1:29-30).

Witness swearing on the bible telling the truth in the court room

A vow often follows the form of “if, then.” A person might make a vow to God asking him for something. If God acts, the worshiper would then fulfill their vow. In 1 Samuel 1:1-11 Hannah makes a vow to God: If God gives her a child, she will dedicate that child to the Lord as a Nazarite.

The Law recognized the possibility of a rash vow. In Leviticus 5:4-6 the one who has made a rash vow can confess their sin and makes an appropriate sacrifice. The judge Jephthah is well-known for making a rash vow (Judg 11:30-31).

In the Mishnah, there is an entire section on vows, Nedarim. (The Hebrew word נֶדֶר, neder means “vow.”)

Nedarim 3:1 “Four [types of] vows did sages declare not binding: (1) Vows of incitement, (2) vows of exaggeration, (3) vows made in error, and (4) vows [broken] under constraint.”

This section of the Mishnah includes a series clarifications on how vows are interpreted, such as “He who vows not to drink wine is permitted to eat a cooked dish which has the taste of wine” (6:7) and “He who takes a vow not to have wine is permitted to have apple wine” (6:9). There is a discussion of loosing a vow in particular circumstances, such as “They unloose [vows] by reference to festival days and Sabbaths. At first they said, “On those particular days [the vows] are not binding, but for all other days they are binding” (9:6). A father may loose the vow of his betrothed daughter (10:1, the rest of the section discusses how that passed to various people if the father dies, lest the poor girl keep her own vows!)

There is a remarkable parallel in 2 Enoch 49:1-3. The writer of this paragraph emphasizes speaking the truth as opposed to swearing an oath. A potential problem with 2 Enoch is the possibility the text has been influence by the words of Jesus in the transmission process.

2 Enoch 49:1-2“For I am swearing to you, my children—But look! I am not swearing by any oath at all, neither by heaven nor by earth nor by any other creature which the Lord created. For ‹|the Lord|› said, ‘There is no oath in me, nor any unrighteousness, but only truth.’ So, if there is no truth in human beings, then let them make an oath by means of the words ‘Yes, Yes!’ or, if it should be the other way around, ‘No, No!’

The wisdom literature has much to say about keeping one’s word. For example, Ecclesiastes 5:8, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools.” Sirach 41:19 considers breaking an oath as shameful as bad manners: “Be ashamed of breaking an oath or agreement, and of leaning on your elbow at meals” (NRSV). Likewise, Sirach 18:22-23 says:

Sirach 18:22–23 (NRSV) Let nothing hinder you from paying a vow promptly, and do not wait until death to be released from it. Before making a vow, prepare yourself; do not be like one who puts the Lord to the test.

The Qumran Community reach a similar conclusion to Jesus. Lacy K. Crocker, points out “The Temple Scroll, however, based on an interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:21–23, emphasizes that it is better to abstain from making a vowing in order to avoid committing a transgression by failing to fulfill one’s vow” (see Josephus, JW 2.135 for the rejection of oaths by the Essenes.)

The point here is that there was an ongoing discussion at the time of Jesus over what constituted a binding oath and how one might get out of a vow if necessary. Some writers thought an oath could be made in such a way as to allow for a way out. Others warn against this sort of maneuvering as coming too close to breaking an oath to risk the wrath of God. Better to avoid making oaths at all.

But at the core of keeping one’s oaths is simple honesty. If someone does not keep their promises, they are dishonest. That Jesus would demand his disciples speak the truth is no surprise, he is standing on the Hebrew Bible. In Zechariah 8:17, the Lord himself declares “love no false oath, for all these things I hate.”

Before looking at the details of Jesus’s words on oaths, it is worth pausing and asking what it means to me “people of the truth.” Is telling the truth something which is non-negotiable for the disciple of Jesus? What about a foolish oath? Or a promise made without all of the information? What about saying something to win an argument which is not entirely true (but not totally false either). Can the true disciple of Jesus tolerate deception even if the results are positive? Think about the average Facebook post in these politically troubled times. Can the disciple of Jesus really resort to “alternative facts”?

I was poking around on Amazon looking for something else, and noticed several excellent Kindle deals on a few older Eerdmans publications. I have all these books in my “real book” library and can state with confidence these are all worth owning and reading. I prefer physical books, but for a only two or three dollars, it might be worth your time to read these using your Kindle device or Kindle app on your iPad (or other tablet).

Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, QumranThere are two from Gabriele Boccaccini: Beyond the Essene Hypothesis: The Parting of the Ways between Qumran and Enochic Judaism (Eerdmans 1998), $1.99 and Roots of Rabbinic Judaism (Eerdmans, 2001), $1.99. John J. Collins said “Gabriele Boccaccini’s earlier book, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, has been hailed as one of the most original and provocative works on Second Temple Judaism in recent years. He has now written a wide-ranging and ambitious typology of Jewish intellectual history in this period. He brings a fresh and original perspective to the material, and his bold reconstruction is sure to be controversial.”

Speaking of John Collins, his Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora (Eerdmans, 1983) is $2.99. This is the companion to The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Eerdmans, 2010) and covers the non-apocalyptic intertestamental literature. These two books are excellent introductions to the literature of the Second Temple Period. I used both books frequently in the Second Temple Period Literature series over the past few summers.

There are also two by Bruce Winter. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Eerdmans, 2001) is $2.99. This is one of my favorite books ever, essential reading for understanding the situation behind the Corinthian letters. I read this soon after it was originally published, my copy is extremely marked up and my notes on 1 Corinthians are deeply indebted to Winter’s book.

Winter’s Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Eerdmans, 2003) is only $1.99. “In ancient Roman law ‘you were what you wore.’ This legal principle became highly significant because, beginning in the first century A.D., a new kind of woman emerged across the Roman Empire — a woman whose provocative dress and sometimes promiscuous lifestyle contrasted starkly with the decorum of the traditional married woman. What a woman chose to wear came to identify her as either new or modest. Augustus legislated against the new woman. Philosophical schools encouraged their followers to avoid embracing her way of life. And, as this fascinating book demonstrates for the first time, the presence of the new woman was also felt in the early church, where Paul exhorted Christian wives and widows to emulate neither her dress code nor her conduct.”

I have no idea how long these deals will be available, so grab the Kindle version of these excellent resources before they are gone. I am not affiliated with either Eerdmans or Amazon, but I do like passing on good book deals when I see them.

Jim West DripI had a particularly busy Monday, and now it is a busy Tuesday before I get to the monthly Biblical Studies Carnival.

Jim West posted Biblical Studies Carnival 151 for September 2018 at Zwinglius Redivivus.  As always, Jim draws together a wide range of blogs and topics, he has a good eye for historical theology. He begins my drawing attention to Dan Wallace’s post on the importance of the biblical languages in theological education. I am aware of a graduate program (PhD classes in fact) which does not teach the languages, but how to use Bible Software. This is dangerous, like putting guns in the hands of people who do not know how to use them.

Next month Jacob Prahlow (@prahlowjacob) hosts the October Carnival (Due November 1) and in November 2018 (Due December 1) Bob MacDonald (@drmacdonald) will take a short break from his detailed analysis of every chapter of the Hebrew Bible to host the November 2018 (Due December 1). As of today, I do not have a volunteer for the December 2018 carnival (Due January 1), or any carnivals for 2019. I have had fewer volunteers over the last few months, so this is your chance to step up and host a carnival. This is true for veteran bloggers as well as newer academic blogs. Hosting the carnival is a great way to draw attention to your work, so consider hosting in the near future. Seriously….PLEASE email me  (plong42 at or direct message on Twitter (@plong42) to volunteer. You can also leave a comment here with your contact info and I will get back to you.

You can also review older carnivals by browsing this tag. Follow me on twitter (@plong42) if you are into that sort of thing. I have a Biblical Studies magazine on Flipboard, an essential app for your iOS device. I use it on my iPad for news and other special interests (including biblioblogs).

Divorce was not commonplace in Israel and there are no examples of divorce in the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible. A husband might divorce his wife for any reason, but in practice childlessness and adultery are the two chief causes of divorce. In most cases childlessness is dealt with through a second wife or a concubine rather than divorce. For example, Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16), Jacob and Bilah (Gen 30:1-8), Elkanah and Penniah (1 Sam 1).

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the only divorce text in the Law, but there was considerable diversity of opinion on how to interpret the “shameful thing” Deuteronomy 24. The problem in Deuteronomy 24 is the definition of “indecency” (ESV). This was the subject of sometimes fierce debate among teachers of the Law within the Pharisaical tradition. The Hebrew word (עֶרְוָה) refers to something shameful (such as nakedness), but it is used often for sexual sin (Lev 18:6-19 uses this word 24 times for sexual sins, “to uncover the nakedness”).

By the first century, there were two views on the meaning of the “shameful thing.” One view followed the great rabbi Shammai and understood this to refer to a women was caught in adultery or found not to be a virgin at marriage. Only in this case was a man permitted to divorce his wife. This is the situation Joseph was in when he discovered his betrothed wife Mary was already pregnant. He wanted to “divorce her quietly” not only because he was a righteous man, but also because the situation would have been cultural shameful to him.

The other view followed the rabbi Hillel and taught that man could divorce his wife for any reason. The phrase “indecent” was interpreted as “find favor,” thus if the wife no longer finds favor in the husband’s eye she could be divorced. Hillel said if a wife ruined dinner, a man could write a certificate of divorce.  There is not much evidence this ever happened, but the point is Hillel permitted divorce for reasons other than adultery.

M.Git 9:10 And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish, “since it is said, ‘because he has found in her indecency in anything.’” R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘and it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes.’” The Mishnah goes further, allowing for divorce if the wife becomes deaf (m.Yebam 14:1), if she develops epilepsy, tetanus, warts, or leprosy, or failed in her duties about the home. In addition, a man can divorce his wife if she has a physical deformity, including a wedge shaped head, a turnip shaped head, or even if she has poor posture and thinning hair! As one might expect, the woman does not have the same right to divorce her balding, warty husband.

One potential check on divorce was that most marriages were arranged by the parents and wedding contracts protected the wife from an easy divorce (return of dowry, a penalty if adultery was not a factor). If a man made a frivolous charge against his wife in order to divorce her, he was liable to be sued and lose reputation and honor, as well as paying penalty to support his ex-wife. Until the first century A.D., even Roman women rarely were able to divorce their husbands.

Divorce was discouraged in the wisdom tradition. Proverbs 5:15-20 and Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 develop this creation mandate to encourage the person of wisdom to enjoy their spouse exclusively. In addition, the Song of Solomon 8:6-7 praises exclusive love within a marriage. The Second Temple period wisdom literature was more direct. Written about 200 B. C., Sirach 7:19 and 7:26 is a warning against a hasty divorce, yet 25:25-26 permits a man to divorce an “evil wife.” These sayings are directed at the husband, it is almost certain Sirach would not have expected a woman to divorce her husband.

Sirach 7:19 (NRSV) Do not dismiss a wise and good wife, for her charm is worth more than gold.

Sirach 7:26 (NRSV) Do you have a wife who pleases you? Do not divorce her; but do not trust yourself to one whom you detest.

Sirach 25:25–26 (NRSV) Allow no outlet to water, and no boldness of speech to an evil wife. 26 If she does not go as you direct, separate her from yourself.

Jesus does not follow the trajectory which resulted in the any-reason divorce. Rather he seems to focus on the positive view of marriage in which partners are devoted to one another for life. How does this background help understand Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32?

Summer Carnival

Celebrate the end of long hot summer with the September 2018 Biblical Studies Carnival hosted by Jim West, the Grand Poobah of Biblio-blogging. Jim has hosted many carnivals and often has focused on some particular issue or theme. Not sure what he has planned for this carnival, but he is asking for readers to send him nominations for the best and brightest blog posts on biblical or theological topics, biblical languages, Church history, archaeology, or anything else you think worthy of inclusion in this Month’s carnival. Contact him on Zwinglius Redivivus  or direct message him on Twitter @drjewest, or you can try his FaceBook group, Biblical Studies Discussion List. He may have Pinterest and Etsy account as well.

Looking ahead to the last few months of the year, Jacob Prahlow @prahlowjacob hosts in October 2018 (Due November 1) at Pursuing Veritas. Bob MacDonald @drmacdonald will host in November 2018 (Due December 1) at Dust. I am sure they would appreciate some help as their carnival time draws close.

At this point I have no one for December 2018 (Due January 1) and the 2019 carnival schedule completely open. I would like to have a volunteer for December and start filling in the 2019 schedule. If you are a new blogger, hosting a carnival is a great way to get some exposure. I would also like to see some veterans host again. Contact me via email, or DM on Twitter @plong42 or leave a comment here and I can contact you.

This is the third of Jesus’s six comments on legal matters. The first two (murder and adultery) took a command from the Decalogue and extended it to the thoughts and motivations which lay behind the particular sinful act. So, “do not murder” becomes “control your angry thoughts” and “do not commit adultery” becomes “control you lustful thoughts.” With his comments on divorce, Jesus enters into a rabbinic discussion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the meaning of the “indecent thing” in 24:1. He will then deal with making (and breaking) oaths (5:33-37).

As Scot McKnight points out, the reason for Jesus’s “utter horror” about divorce is his understanding of love and marriage based on the Hebrew Bible (Sermon, 95). Marriage is grounded in the creation of man and woman. Humans were designed by God marry and create families. There are examples of men and women enjoying live and marriage in the wisdom literature. In Ecclesiastes 9:9 the writer tells his readers to “enjoy life with your wife whim you love.” The Song of Solomon celebrates the joy of marriage in a way that makes some readers blush.

Jesus deals with divorce by grounding the idea of marriage in the creation. Humans were designed to enter into lifelong relationships, spiritual unions which create families and foster a community where children are raised. He alludes to the creation of humans as male and female (Gen 1:27) and quotes Genesis 2:24 as support for marriage.  In the context of Genesis humans were designed to work and they were designed to build communities around the ideal family. This is the way things work best, although in the present world they are corrupted by sin.

Since marriage is embedded in creation itself, it is foolish to try to live in another way. (A related question is the issue of a person choosing not to marry at all. It is not my point here to say the only way someone can be happy and wise is to marry, see below o  Matthew 19). People often choose to do the less-than-ideal thing and often indulge in foolishness with wild abandon!

With respect to the application of this teaching, the ideal for humans is a life-long marriage, but sin corrupts everything and sometimes things happen which prevent us from reaching that ideal.

Jesus intended divorce to be a rarity, but the fact he teaches on the issue indicates he knew it would happen. Like the wisdom tradition, he recognizes that God has designed humans to have marriage relationships, but he also recognizes human frailty (hard-heartedness) results in a breakdown of what God has intended.  No one goes into a marriage expecting it to fail, but sometimes it does.  A person experiencing marriage problems ought to be treated with grace and acceptance, in the same way we might accept a person who is an alcoholic as we help them to deal with their problem.

In a contemporary context, there are far more things breaking down marriages than adultery. If there is any abuse of either the wife or the children, the wife should separate for the safety of herself and children. Divorce and remarriage is one of those things which is “not the way God created us to be” and our sinful world makes it very difficult to live our lives fully to the ideal to which we have been create.

Jesus gives a similar teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12. In response to a question from a group of Pharisees Jesus draws attention to the creation story and the original intention of marriage. If God’s intention was for a marriage to continue “until death do us part,” then the Pharisees ask why Moses permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus repeats what he said in the Sermon on the Mount but adds the observation Moses added the possibility of divorce because the human heart is hard (19:8).

This might have surprised the disciples, who wonder if it is better not to marry (v. 10). Jesus responds to this with one of the more enigmatic sayings in Matthew” there are some people who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (v. 11-12). Not all can accept this voluntary celibacy, but those who can, Jesus says, should accept it.

With respect to modern application, this verse has been used far beyond Jesus’s original intent to defend traditional marriage or to prevent a woman from leaving an abusive marriage. In order to understand Jesus, we need to learn something about the state of marriage and divorce in Second Temple Judaism, read his brief comments in that context before drawing reasonable application to contemporary practice.

Historically, has the church missed the point on marriage and divorce?  How can contemporary Christianity help develop a biblical view of marriage and reach out to people who have experienced the pain of divorce?

Similar to murder, Jesus addresses not just the sin of adultery but also the internal process behind the act of adultery. It is unlikely many people in his original audience were serial adulterers and no one would have considered adultery to a positive influence on society.

Adultery does not happen by accident. There is a period of temptation that occurs before the actual action itself. But where does that process start? I would suggest one’s view of marriage and relationships between the sexes are shaped from a very young age. If a young man is taught adultery is acceptable in some situations or he observes sexual harassment and mistreatment of women regularly, then it is likely those behaviors will be normative for him.

The source of the problem of adultery seems to be “looking where one ought not look,” a point made in the Second Temple wisdom book Sirach. Sirach is instructing young men and he is certainly not politically correct from a modern perspective. (If his words offend, try switching the pronouns, instead of “Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman” change it to “Turn away your eyes from a shapely man.” It works either way.)

Sirach 9:1–9 (NRSV)  Do not be jealous of the wife of your bosom, or you will teach her an evil lesson to your own hurt. 2 Do not give yourself to a woman and let her trample down your strength. 3 Do not go near a loose woman, or you will fall into her snares. 4 Do not dally with a singing girl, or you will be caught by her tricks. 5 Do not look intently at a virgin, or you may stumble and incur penalties for her. 6 Do not give yourself to prostitutes, or you may lose your inheritance. 7 Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. 8 Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire. 9 Never dine with another man’s wife, or revel with her at wine; or your heart may turn aside to her, and in blood you may be plunged into destruction.

Just like the previous expansion of “do not murder” to include the mental processes behind murder, Jesus points to the internal thoughts and attitudes which lead to adultery. Rather than “looking where one ought not,” perhaps it should be “thinking what one ought not.” I had a friend in high school who was told by his parents it was okay to look, but not touch. This led to a series of seriously bad choices for him over the years. Jesus is clear: it is impossible to separate thoughts from actions. Internal anger will come out as rage and destructive words. Lust will develop into some external behavior.

For most younger people in the west, sexual attitudes are formed online where pornography is easily discovered. The worldview of pornography is damaging to both men and women and skews a biblical view of sexual relationships and marriage. The Bible celebrates sexual relationships (although that does seem to be the case for some Christian teaching).

What goes on inside someone’s head is impossible to see, we tend to think that no one knows or cares that we have thought impure thoughts. Jesus explodes this by comparing those private thoughts to the act of adultery itself. As with Jesus’s teaching on anger, it is important to at least observe he is teaching all his disciples to control their internal lust, both men and women. Although men are usually the problem, female disciples of Jesus are called to the same high standards as the men.

Jesus uses some very strong language to describe how we are to handle this problem. If this is taken literally all men would have been blinded in junior high school. This verse does not teach self-mutilation as a cure for sin.

Jesus is saying, in effect, “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Don’t put yourself in a position to look lustfully. Jesus often uses hyperbole to shock his audience, to pluck out an eye is an exaggeration since a blind man can still lust. The prime example of this is David, who saw Bathsheba and then committed adultery.  Should he have “plucked” his eye out?  No, but he should have had the sense not to be in that position to see Bathsheba in the first place.

The problem for the modern reader is how to draw implications of Jesus’s teaching to new situations. As I write this, the #MeToo movement is still developing and the alleged immoral behavior of a Supreme Court candidate is in the headlines.

Is it narrow-minded to apply Jesus’s words to the epidemic of sexual harassment women have faced for generations? A commitment to marital fidelity often results in people calling you a prude, a Puritan, etc. But if Jesus was correct about internal anger, is he also correct about the dangerous effects of internal lustful thoughts?

Rather than continue in a state of anger, Jesus tells his disciples to reconcile with their fellow disciple before going to worship (5: 23-24). “Brother” ought to be understood as referring to all disciples, certainly women are included in the command to reconcile. But did Jesus intend for reconciliation to be restricted to only fellow disciples? Likely not, but if there is some offense between followers of Jesus reconciliation ought to be the highest priority.

That Jesus uses familial language should not be a surprise since he conceived of his followers as a family unit. For example, he considered those who do the will of the Father to be his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:46-50). Peter says the twelve have left everything to follow Jesus, including “brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands” (Matthew 19:27-30). Jesus’s disciples are a new family so though ought to deal with disruptions as a good family does, by seeking reconciliation.

Jesus says a fellow disciple “has something against you,” implying the disciple has indeed wronged a fellow disciple. Since the one who has done the wrong needs to reach out and begin the process of reconciliation, the person knows they are in the wrong and are causing a disruption within the family.

Reconciliation is to create a sense of harmony between two parties, to “restore normal relations” (BDAG). Matthew uses διαλλάσσομαι, only used here in the New Testament, but the word is related to καταλλάσσω a few more times. The word group is sometimes used in a political context where two parties have become estranged and need a third party to act as a go between and restore the relationship.

Jesus offers a simple process for seeking reconciliation between disciples.

First, reconciliation requires recognition of an offense. In verse 23 the worshiper remembers they have offended or hurt someone. The main reason people do not seek reconciliation is they think they were in the right and they are waiting for the other person to come to them and apologize!

Second, reconciliation should be the first priority. The worshiper sets aside their sacrifice and seeks reconciliation. McKnight points out the need for reconciliation between Jesus’s disciples trumps even offering a sacrifice at the Temple! (Sermon 79). It would be easy to put off an admission of guilt with a hundred “good excuses,” but Jesus says to set everything aside and seek reconciliation.

Third, reconciliation can happen when the offender reaches out to the one offend, “go to the person.” It seems obvious, but someone might admit guilt in their heart and pray for the other person and think they are now reconciled. Jesus says to go the person, face them and admit you are wrong. This is extremely humbling and difficult and it is important this happens face-to-face.

Fourth, reconciliation must come quickly (v. 25). The longer one waits to seek out the person they wronged, the more difficult reconciliation becomes. This is partially because both sides become entrenched in their belief they are in the right!

In Matthew 5:23-26 Jesus is describing personal reconciliation between disciples. If the disciple of Jesus is really dealing with anger in their heart, then they will deal with any anger they have toward another member of Jesus’s family or the anger they are causing among the disciples of Jesus.

Should we draw the implication that larger groups need to find some sort of reconciliation? I can easily think of examples of splits within a church which are in desperate need of reconciliation, often after many years of anger and resentment. This could be applied to denominational splits and the possibility of reconciliation between people of similar faiths.

Going even further, reconciliation may be needed between people who have been the victim of sexual harassment or racial prejudice. How can Jesus’s process for reconciliation be applied to these larger, systemic issues?

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Christian Theology

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