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In the next section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses the practice of righteousness. He told his disciples their righteousness must exceed the Pharisees (5:20) and they must be perfect like their father in heaven is perfect. He has given six examples of how the Law ought to be extended to thoughts, attitudes, and motivations. One cannot ‘be righteous” by not murdering, for example, one must control their internal anger.

Starting in Matthew 6, Jesus will begin to teaching on “doing righteousness.” In this section he will deal with three practices (almsgiving, prayer and fasting). Each of these are common practices in Second Temple Judaism and Jesus assumes his disciples are already doing these things. The Second Temple Jewish novel Tobit includes these three disciplines, “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness” (Tobit 12:8). Although a later Christian work, Testament of Jacob specifically mentions these three acts of righteousness: “Much prayer and fasting are necessary, likewise alms freely given out of mercy and compassion.” Jesus draws a contrast between his disciples and the “hypocrites” by instructing his followers to examine their motivations.

“Doing Righteousness” is a major distinction between (later, Pauline) Christianity and Second Temple Judaism. Christianity focused on what a person is in Christ, their status before God. For Paul, the one who is in Christ has been declared righteous by faith (Romans 3:21-26, for example) and the in Christ person is adopted into God’s family (Gal 3:23-29). Since we are children of God, Paul would say, we ought to behave in a way which honors our Father in Heaven. Righteousness is a (legal) status we have before God.

In Second Temple Judaism, righteousness is something one does. E. P. Sanders described Judaism is a religion of “things done” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 213). It was not simply a case of going up to the Temple and performing some religious act of piety like a ritual washing or sacrifice. The shema demanded love of God and love for one’s neighbor. Love for one’s neighbor or love for a stranger is not a nebulous feeling of goodwill, it is to be expressed in concrete and definable actions. Do not slander others; do not oppress immigrants; do not rob (Sanders 23). If one’s heart is right before God then it is natural to care for the poor. Alternatively, if one is not taking care of the poor, then it is obvious to all a person is unrighteous.

Jesus says there is danger in doing deeds of righteousness. The ESV’s “beware” and the NIV “be careful” attempt to catch the meaning of προσέχω (prosechō). The verb has the sense of being alert to something, or to “be concerned about.” In the LXX the verb is sometimes used to warn Israel to “take care” to keep the statutes of the Law (Deuteronomy 4:9) or saying close attention to a teacher’s words (Sirach 16:24). Perhaps something like, “this is very important to pay close attention to it).

What the disciple is to pay close attention to is how they “do righteousness.” In the context of the next 18 verses Jesus has in mind three spiritual disciplines, almsgiving, prayer and fasting, but his teaching here can be expanded to any spiritual discipline. Like his teaching on keeping the Law (5:21-48), Jesus’s concern is on the internal motivation for going good, spiritual things.

It seems obvious a person can do a public act of religious devotion out of selfish motives. A politician who prays in public in order to impress his Christian constituency or a business person who gives generously to charity to avoid paying taxes or to receive good publicity immediately come to mind. Before looking at the issue of almsgiving in detail, I want to focus on this idea of motivation for doing good religious practices. Why to people make public announcements of their good deeds? What are they hoping to accomplish?

The final line of this chapter may serve as a summary of the six expansions of Old Testament Law. Pennington argues this is the summary of all of Matthew 5 as well as a segue to the next set of teachings on practice (Sermon, 203). Matthew 5:20 introduced the Jesus’s teaching on keeping the Law by saying “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In 5:48 he goes even further, the true disciple of Jesus mush be perfect.

What does it mean to be perfect? The noun τέλειος (teleios) refers to being complete, mature, or whole. The point is not that the true disciple of Jesus score a perfect 100% on the holiness scale, but rather they become mature in their faith and practice so that the do consider their thoughts as more important than their actions, that they do in fact love their enemies as well as their neighbors.

Pennington devotes a chapter to the meaning of “perfect” in his book on the Sermon on the Mount. There is a serious problem translating τέλειος (teleios) with the modern English word “perfect” since the connotation of the English word has the sense of absolute moral perfection, sinless, or purity. But as Pennington rightly points out, the word teleiosis better translated “whole, complete” or even “virtuous” (Sermon, 70). When the disciple of Jesus tries to be perfect in the sense of completely sinless, they will fail since no one can be actually sinless. By connecting teleios with the concept of shalom in the Old Testament, Pennington argues the true disciples of Jesus will be whole, complete, and mature. In fact, Pennington says the idea of teleios is central to everything Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

For a Jewish person, keeping the Law perfectly was the goal, but no one was capable of fully keeping the Law (especially since “being holy” was far more than a moral state in the Law). The sacrifices covered lapses in holiness, but even with a sacrifice what really mattered was the state one one’s heart. Consider Psalm 51:10. When caught in a heinous sin, David begs the Lord to “create in me a clean heart” and in 51:16-17 he acknowledges God is not pleased with sacrifices, but with a “broken and contrite heart.”

In his six examples drawn from the Law, Jesus said one’s thoughts are as important as one’s actions. Internal anger is more damaging than murder. Internal lust is more damaging than adultery. Who could be considered perfect if our thoughts were exposed for all to see?

For this reason, McKnight argues perfection is not “the rigor of sinlessness” but rather the “rigor of utter devotion” (McKnight, Sermon, 146). The true disciple of Jesus is utterly devoted to God, pursuing righteousness in every way possible.

This is not the way most people think of perfection. A recent episode of the Simpsons the evangelical Christian Ned Flanders was teaching a Sunday School lesson on “how to get to heaven.” Several times he said something like “the only way to heaven is to be righteous.” That is not the case at all! The only way to get to heaven is to be forgiven. This is not a license to sin (Romans 6:1-4), but rather the freedom to grow in maturity, the freedom to embrace our wholeness in Christ.

How does this view of perfection as wholeness or maturity change the way the follower of Jesus lives out their life? It ought to relieve the disciple of Jesus from the guilt associated with failure to live up to perfection, but are there some other positive contributions to living out one’s faith?

The Law touches on every area of life. There are civic rules as well as commands governing worship and sacrifice, The Law included moral and ethical commands to guide the people as with economics, immigration, social and personal relationships.

By the time of Jesus, the Law had been interpreted and re-applied to new situations. The Law commanded the Jewish people to keep the Sabbath by not working on the seventh day of the week. But what did the Law mean by work? If one cannot light a lamp on the Sabbath, what happens if you accidentally snuff your lamp in the evening of the Sabbath?  Many of these definitions of “work” intended to clarify what as permitted (and what was not) on the Sabbath so that the people could keep the Sabbath properly. There was a good intention behind the rules, to honor God and keep his commandments.

When Jesus is asked about the “greatest commandment” in Matthew 22:34-40 he replied “love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” For Jesus, the whole of the Law and Prophets hung on these two commandments. Certainly he did not encourage Sabbath-breaking, but if a person was unloving to their neighbor while trying to honor God, then they have broken one of the foundational commandments. Likewise, if someone acting in an offensive way toward God while being loving toward their neighbor, they have broken the greatest of the commandments. Even so, it may be a shock to his disciples to hear, “love your enemies.”

The command to love one’s neighbor is one of the two “greatest commandments.” Along with the Shema, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 as the key text in the Torah commanding love of one’s neighbors. Jesus does not reverse the command, but deepens it to define neighbor to include even one’s enemies.

Defining who is a neighbor (and who was not) was a common discussion in Second Temple Judaism. A person might love their neighbor, but is a Roman soldier was not a “neighbor” then it was possible to hate them. Certainly a Roman oppressor like Pilate could be the subject of hatred? Defining boundaries and deciding “who is in, who is out” was just as popular in Jesus’s days as it is today.

This is the point of the Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus agrees with many Jewish teachers of the time by saying “love your neighbor” is one of the two great commandments, but someone asks him to clarify who counts as a neighbor. By using a Samaritan as the example of someone who was a “good neighbor” Jesus intentionally shocks his audience.

This love of one’s enemy extends even to the Gentiles. For Second Temple period the ultimate ‘enemy” was a Roman. For Jesus to tell a crowd of Galileans to love even a Roman gentile would have been a shocking reversal of cultural expectations. Imagine the most right-wing radical southern Christian showing kindness and love toward Bill and Hillary Clinton? Imagine the most left-wing liberal New York Democrat showing love and compassion toward Donald Trump? (Yes, I am embracing the stereotype to make a point!)

Jesus implies “hate your enemy” is a corollary to “love your neighbor.” But where is the command to “hate your enemy” found? There is little evidence any Jewish writer or teacher actually expressed the idea “hate your enemies” at the time of Jesus and hatred of an enemy is not typical of Judaism either in the first century or today.

Scot McKnight cites 1QS 1:9-11 as evidence the Qumran community expressed hatred toward the Romans. This text commands love for the Children of Light and hatred for the Children of Darkness (McKnight, Sermon, 142) It may not be necessary to find a text which states “hate your enemies” since hatred for people one does not like is common in every culture, especially the world of the first century. It is easy to find expressions of hatred in ancient literature, whether that is a Roman hating a Jew, or a Jew hating a Roman.

It is possible this “hatred of an enemy” is drawn from Psalm 139:21-22. The Psalmist expresses hatred for those who hate the Lord: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Psalm 140:10 prays a curse on an enemy: “Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise!” The Psalmist would not consider himself in breach of the command to love one’s neighbor, but he does pray for the enemy to suffering greatly. Who are these enemies? The Babylonians? The Persians?  The Greeks?  The Romans? The Democrats? The Republicans?

Do contemporary Christians draw similar boundaries? I see a great deal of hatred expressed by Christians on social media, especially towards public personalities. That might be an American free speech right, but Jesus is calling his disciples to set those rights aside and love even your enemy! We can be proud about “loving our neighbors” by donating money to ministries that feed the poor “over there” while doing nothing for the poor in our own community. We think we are loving our neighbor by praying for nebulous, unnamed needy people yet poor hatred on them when the show up on our borders in desperate need.

Jesus gives four examples of how his principle of non-retaliation may be applied.

If anyone slaps your face. This is likely a backhanded slap and would have been considered an insult to one’s honor. According to the Mishnah, the penalty for slapping someone with the open hand was 200 zuz, if it was a backhanded slap, the penalty was 400 zuz (b.Kam 8:6, cited by Quarles, Sermon, 149. A zuz refers to “non-Jewish small silver coinage” according to David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, 201). A dinar and a zuz are used interchangeably in the Talmud. The Luke parallel uses a more violent verb (τύπτω) which can have the sense of an assault (Luke 6:29).

Turn the Other CheekJesus commands his disciples to “turn the other cheek,” meaning let them hit you again! For example, Jesus is repeatedly slapped and struck, be he did not retaliate (John 18:22-23) but he also escaped violence on a number of occasions (Mark 9:30-31, for example). This prohibition of retaliation is directed at an angry and violent response to attacks and does not imply the Christ-follower cannot defend themselves.

If anyone sues you and takes your tunic. Both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world were plagued with frivolous lawsuits. Jewish practice allowed someone to take a person’s chiton (χιτών), “a garment worn next to the skin” (BDAG) and were valuable enough to be used for bartering or making payments. The tunic (ἱμάτιον) was refers to one’s outer apparel. If the person was poor, this cloak served as a blanket. The Torah specifically forbids taking a person’s cloak as a security (Exod 22:26-27; Deut 24:12-13).

If this were to be followed literally, then the disciples would leave the courtroom naked! Keener says this is a “shockingly graphic, almost humorous, illustration” (Keener, Matthew, 198). But Quarles does not think this is hyperbole, pointing out it is unlikely a person only has one set of clothes (Quarles, Sermon, 153). He argues this saying urges the disciples are to pay what is fair and offer more in compensation when they are sued.

If anyone asks you to go a mile. The idea of going the “extra mile” is often applied to doing more than is required. In the context of the first century, Roman soldiers had the right to force people to do menial tasks, Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross of Jesus, for example. There is sufficient evidence to show that Roman soldiers sometimes forced Jewish people to carry burdens normally carried by pack animals, and sometimes this happened on the Sabbath (NewDocs 7, 85-87).

This kind of de-humanizing oppression is in the background of the Jewish rebellion only 30-35 years after Jesus was crucified. Jesus is reversing the typical response to an oppressive authority, do more than is required!

If anyone asks you for something.  Leviticus 25:35-38 requires people to take care of a person who is in desperate need and there are many texts in the Hebrew Bible and the literature of the Second Temple Period to show that alms giving was a standard practice of a righteous person. This goes beyond alms since a person may ask for a loan. To turn away from someone (ἀποστρέφω).

It is possible Jesus refers to giving of gifts to the extreme poor and loaning without the expectation of returns as counter to the practice of giving gifts in order to gain favor with wealthy and elite people. Quarles suggests this as a way to connect the example to the principle of non-retaliation (Sermon, 157). If someone elite person is oppressing a disciple, perhaps a gift would change their attitude.

In Sirach, gifts and loans are to be given only to people who deserve them, and not to the “sinner.” Although this text does not define the sinner, Jesus’s practice of eating with “sinners” shows his ministry targeted those people Sirach would not have given any gift or loan.

Sirach 12:1–7 (NRSV) If you do good, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds. 2 Do good to the devout, and you will be repaid— if not by them, certainly by the Most High. 3 No good comes to one who persists in evil or to one who does not give alms. 4 Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. 5 Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. 6 For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. 7 Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner.

Is Jesus saying his followers ought to give away all their possessions to the poor and live a life of voluntary poverty? This is exactly what they did in Acts 24:32-35 (and illustrated in Acts 4:36-37, Barnabas sells property to give to the disciples; Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira; Acts 11:27-30, the gift from Antioch to Jerusalem, and the Pauline Collection contributed to these Christ followers, Gal 2:10).

As he did with murder and adultery, Jesus sharpens the Mosaic Law by saying that the follower of Jesus ought practice meekness and not always demand his legal rights. Under the “eye for an eye” principle, if someone slapped you, you were legally able to slap them back, and under Roman law you were required to carry the pack for a mile, no more.

Jesus says: “do not retaliate.” Let them hit your other cheek as well, and do not stop at one mile, go two miles. This has caused problems for centuries because people want to equate this to a literal command, Jesus is employing a metaphor here as he has in the earlier sections. The essence of the teaching is do not retaliate or harbor a grudge. If someone harms you, do not harm them. Jesus has already said “blessed are the peace-makers.” It is impossible for a peacemaker to seek revenge.

Jesus is not making a new legal ruling or re-interpreting the old legal principle in a new and radical way. He is contrasting the legal principle with an ethical principle. He wants his followers to be different from the world. The true disciple is to be light in the darkness, they are to be the peacemakers, the righteousness seekers.

The fact that the courts are to defend the rights of widows and orphans indicates not everyone ought to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus is not saying, “Sorry old widow lady, people have oppressed you, but you are supposed to turn the other cheek.” No one would recommend an abused child “turn the other cheek,” the abuser ought to be held accountable for their crimes. Nor would anyone think every Christian ought to sell all their property to give to the poor so that we like naked under a bridge.

If we read this principle in the context of Jesus’s followers, they have been told they will be persecuted on account of their association with Jesus. They will be slapped and have their property confiscated because they stand with Jesus. They are not to retaliate against this persecution.

By way of contemporary application, how does the individual Christian set aside a “right of retaliation” in contemporary western culture?

Instead of “eye for and eye” as a legal principle, Jesus commands his disciples to “Do not resist the one who is evil.” Jesus does not abandon the reason for the original law (do not seek revenge), but he deepens it by showing that revenge is not a right. There is significant debate in the commentaries on whether Jesus abolished the lex talonis principle from the Law. That he did, see Betz and McKnight; that he does not abolish the principle see Pennington and Quarles.

To follow Jesus one must set aside the right of compensation. The “eye for an eye” principle is a way to seek justice, but Jesus’s followers are not to be “vengeful, vigilante, self-distributor of justice” (Pennington, Sermon, 196).

The verb “resist” (ἀνθίστημι) can have the connotation of physical, violent opposition. For example, in LXX Deuteronomy 7:24, no one will be able to stand against Israel when they take the Land of Canaan (cf. Deut 9:2; 11:25). In Ephesians 6:13 Paul encourages his readers to take up the whole armor of God in order to “stand their ground.”  For Guelich, this refers to being taken to court, based on the context of Deuteronomy 19:19-20, but Quarles argues the legal meaning of resist is rare, only eight of eighty-five examples of the use of this word (Quarles, Sermon, 147; cf., Guelich, Sermon. 220).

Read in the context of Jesus’s ministry and the gospel of Matthew, Jesus may be telling his disciples to violently resist others when they are harassed for their witness to Jesus. In Matthew 10:16-23 Jesus warns his disciples he is sending them out like “sheep among wolves.” They will be arrested, flogged in the synagogues, and handed over to Gentile authorities. When this happens, the disciples might have the right to go to the courts and have their case heard by a judge.

In a Greco-Roman context, the law allowed for lawsuits to be brought to the courts for any number of reasons, including personal insults. These aggravating lawsuits were a problem in Roman society. Dio Chrysostom reports the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments” (cited by Winter, When Paul Left Corinth, 62).  These lawsuits were often politically motivated attacks and opportunities for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens. Any cause might be sufficient to bring a lawsuit before the courts.  Winter cites Epicharmus, “But after the drinking comes mockery, after mockery filthy insults, after insult a lawsuit, and the lawsuit a verdict, after the verdict shackles, the stocks, and a fine” (Winter, 62).  The result of such a lawsuit was personal enmity between the loser toward the winner, and even between the loser and the jury that found him liable and the judge that presided over the lawsuit. This enmity and “loss of face” in the community was the real danger, although there was also the threat of a fine from the judge.

Jesus commands the true disciple to set their legal rights aside and suffer harassment, persecution, arrest, flogging and even death for the sake of the Gospel. It the Hebrew Bible God will avenge the one who is oppressed. For example, in Jeremiah 23:2 the people of Israel are like sheep scattered by bad shepherds. The Lord promises he will “attend to them” (ESV, ἐκδικέω), the verb has the sense of punishment or vengeance, “to inflict appropriate penalty for wrong done” (BDAG).

Starbucks Red Cup Devil

This is Fake

Setting aside one’s rights is the definition of humility, as illustrated by Jesus himself. He is God, yet he did not insist on his rights as God; he humbled himself in order to serve (Mark 10:45, John 13, Phil 2:5-11). In 1 Corinthians 6:7 Paul has to shame the church because they are settling disputes among brothers in Christ by bringing lawsuits to the public courts. Rather than bring shame upon the family of God, Paul says “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”

Jesus’s command to set aside the legal right of retaliation is difficult to consistently apply in a modern, western context because (like ancient Rome) people assume they have a right to compensation when they have been wringed. If my coffee order isn’t made right, I complain and they might give it to me for free. If a business practice causes harm to people, the ones harmed have a legal right to sue for compensation. But is this what Jesus is talking about? The one who suffers for Jesus’s sake ought to set aside their legal right to compensation and suffering willingly and humbly.

Perhaps the real problem is few people in the west actually suffer for the sake of the Gospel. When the American suspects an attack on their faith, they freak out and organize boycotts and social media campaigns. For example, the now annual “Starbucks red cup controversy” is an attack on Christmas and Christians, so boycott Starbucks! No one notices the Christian protests are great advertising for the coffee chain. By retaliating against a perceived threat, Christians look thin-skinned and paranoid, overly suspicious and judgmental. None of this furthers the cause of the Gospel

What are some ways a western American Christians have aside their right to retaliate for the sake of the Gospel? Are there examples from the majority world where the Gospel has been served by Christians not retaliating when attacked?

The tradition of the Mosaic Law was a “one for one” retribution. In legal terms, this is known as lex talonis (law according to kind). A similar principle appears in the Code of Hammurabi, although Quarles points out lex talonis only applied to persons of the same social standing. Quarles, Sermon, 145. The Torah ideally applied to all people regardless of social standing, but it seems obvious from the prophetic books the poor did not receive the same justice as the wealthy.

Between the fall and the flood, there was no law and people sought justice through unparalleled blood vengeance. For example, Genesis4:23-24 implies vengeance could be ten-fold. After the flood God instituted human government to control anarchy and capital punishment for murder.

The Mosaic Law used the principle of compensation for a loss, using the phrase “eye for an eye” (Exod 21:23-24; Lev 24:19-20; Deut 19:21). Although it sounds harsh, the goal of this legal principle was to prevent excessive penalties and uncontrolled vengeance (Pennington, Sermon, 197) but also excessive leniency for the wealthy or powerful (“you must not show pity”) (Quarles, Sermon, 145). It was possible for a wealthy, elite person to demand a harsh penalty against a poor person, or for a wealthy person to avoid a harsh penalty because of their status in the society. “Eye for an eye” insures all people are treated fairly in the legal system.

By the time of Jesus, the “eye for an eye” principle was expanded to include monetary compensation for loses (Josephus, Ant. 4.8.35, §280). If someone was injured they had a legal right to monetary compensation from the one who injured them. This is probably the most basic sense of morality humans share. If someone harms you, you have a right to get “pay back.” Nobody teaches children to behave this way, yet when children argue they follow this principle. If someone does it to me, it is therefore right for me to do it back to them.

Even though “eye for an eye” was a legal principle, total retaliation was not common in Second Temple Judaism. In fact, there are many examples of Second Temple texts which recommend forgiveness and living in harmony with outsiders. Consider Sirach 28:1-8, for example. God is the one who keeps accounts of wrongs, therefore the wise person forgives their neighbor and does not harbor anger toward someone who does them wrong.

Sirach 28:1–8 (NRSV) The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. 2 Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. 3 Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? 4 If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? 5 If a mere mortal harbors wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins? 6 Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside; remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. 7 Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults. 8 Refrain from strife, and your sins will be fewer; for the hot-tempered kindle strife.

Although the date of 2 Enoch is uncertain, the writer of the book expresses a similar view. Since God will provide justice on the Day of Judgment, the wise person ought to live in “peace and harmony.”

2 Enoch 50:2-6 Now therefore, my children, live in patience and meekness for the number of your days, so that you may inherit the endless age that is coming. 3 ‹And› every assault and every wound and burn and every evil word, 4if they happen to you on account of the Lord, endure them; and, being able to pay them back, do not repay them to ‹your› neighbor, because it is the Lord who repays, and he will be the avenger for you on the day of the great judgment. 5 Lose gold and silver for your brother, so that you may receive a treasure (not) according to flesh on the day of judgment. 6‹And› stretch out your hands to the orphan and to the windows, and according to (your) strength help the wretched, and they will be like a shelter at the time of the test.

This principle of non-retaliation was part of the oath made by the Qumran community. Once again, the wise person does not cling “sustain anger” with unjust people, but they await God to judge them on the “day of vengeance.”

1QS 10.19-21 I {shall not sustain angry resentment for those who convert} /shall not be involved/ in any dispute with the men of the pit /until the day/ of vengeance. However, my anger I shall not remove from unjust men, nor shall I be appeased, until he carries out his judgment. I shall not sustain angry resentment for those who convert from iniquity, but I shall have no mercy or all those who deviate from the path. I shall not comfort the oppressed until their path is perfect. I shall not retain Belial within my heart.

This is also Paul’s view in Romans 12. In verse 16 he tells his readers to live in harmony with one another and in verse 19 he says “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

As with the other examples from the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants his disciples to reflect the heart of God revealed in the Law. Rather than seek revenge for perceived damages, Jesus’s people ought to set aside their rights in order to serve one another in humility. Jesus himself is the best example of setting aside rights to serve. In John13 he humbly serves his disciples by washing their feet in order to demonstrate how they ought to serve one another. In Mark 10:45 Jesus says he did not come to be served, but to serve others by giving his life as a ransom for many.

How should we push “setting aside one’s rights”? Can a Christian live out this principle as they play sports? Does this apply to Christians bringing lawsuits against one another? Against no-Christians? Does this apply only to interpersonal relationships, or does it extend to business ethics? How does one “do business” and live out the ideal of non-retaliation?

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.

Perhaps.

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”?

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?

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Christian Theology

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