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Jesus tells his followers to do their spiritual disciples in private. He assumes they will give to the poor, pray and fast, but he does not want them to draw attention to themselves in these spiritual disciplines. Instead, Jesus says, when you pray, go into your closet, when you fast, do not tell anyone, and when you give, “do not even let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.”

The reason for this is that the hypocrite calls attention to themselves when they give. Jesus tells his followers to “sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets” Did anyone actually make a public announcement by blowing a shofar when they gave?

Contrary to popular teaching, there is no evidence anyone in the Second Temple Period announced their giving with trumpets. Imagine someone in the Temple blowing on a shofar to get everyone’s attention and loudly announcing they were about to give their offering to the Lord, maybe even announcing how much they are giving and what percentage of their income it represents.

The image Jesus creates here is intentionally ridiculous, it is a parody of how people draw attention to their wealth and generosity. John Nolland calls it “grotesque exaggeration” (Matthew, 274). Before objecting that Jesus would not exaggerate, a bit later in the Sermon he will say some people complain about a speck in someone’s eye even though they have a log in their own eye. This is a clear exaggeration! In Matthew 5:30 Jesus said “if your right hand offends you, cut it off,” a clear example of exaggeration.

Although Jesus intentionally exaggerates the activity of the hypocrites, people did in fact boast about their giving in the ancient world. There are examples of ancient synagogues with the names of the donors engraved on the walls. Ever Greek and Roman city had dozens of statues donated by some wealthy patron in order to demonstrate their benevolence and draw attention to their name in order to increase their honor and status in the city. Even ““do not even let the left hand know what the right hand is doing” is hyperbole, since it is physically impossible for a hand to know anything. Jesus’s point is simply “keep your almsgiving private.”

If someone does boast about what they give, what are they actually boasting about? Potentially it is their piety, the depth of their commitment to God, or how spiritual they are. But it is also likely someone who boasts in their giving is boasting about how wealthy they really are. If someone boasts about a large gift, they are really saying, “Look how wealthy I am, I can afford to give this huge gift!”

Who are these hypocrites? Based on parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 23, most agree Jesus has the Pharisees in mind when he describes the activity of the hypocrites in Matthew 6.

As with other elements of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus focuses on the attitude behind the action. If someone gives in order to be recognized as a generous person, or to appear to be spiritual, or to be thanked publically for their gift, then they have “received their reward.”

This desire for recognition is certainly common in contemporary culture. A huge mega-corporation may fund some public philanthropic program, but it is not a completely an act of kindness since the company name is prominently displayed. Perhaps a company gives to deflect criticism, like an oil companies running TV ads about how much they care about the environment and how they make the world better for harp seals and snow crabs (without mentioning the thousands of tons of oil spilled into the environment every year). They are trying to build goodwill with people and show that they are a good a gracious company.

How does the follower of Jesus live out this teaching of Jesus? Christians are certainly going to support charities that help the poor, but how can that be done “in private”? If your name appears on a list of donors, are you violating Jesus’s ideal in Matthew 6:2-4? What if you take a tax credit for charitable giving? Jesus is focused on the internal motivations for giving: how should the Christian evaluate their motive for giving?

Pirqe Abot 5:10 E “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours”—this is a truly pious man.

Pirqe Abot 5:13 A–E There are four traits among people who give charity: (1) he who wants to give but does not want others to give—he begrudges what belongs to others; (2) he wants others to give, but he does not want to give—he begrudges what belongs to himself; (3) he will give and he wants others to give—he is truly pious;  (4) he will not give and does not want others to give—he is truly wicked.

Care for the poor was considered virtuous in Second Temple period Judaism.The Law had provision for the poor in Israel. For example, Leviticus 19:9-10 commanded farmers to leave food behind for the poor (the gleaning law, recall the story of Ruth in Boaz’s field). The prophets regularly condemn both Israel and Judah for failing to care for the poor. In fact, the prophets often condemn Israel for preying on the poor. Micah 3:1-3 vividly describes the leaders of Israel and Judah as chopping of the people like meat for the pot! Amos 8:4-6 describes merchants as “buying the poor with silver, the needy for a pair of sandals.” After the return from exile, Nehemiah must address care for the poor (Nehemiah 5:1-13).

The wisdom literature considered care of the poor as a responsibility of the wise person. Proverbs 3:27 (ESV) “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” Proverbs does occasionally link poverty with foolishness. The Second Temple wisdom text Sirach says “almsgiving atones for sin” (Sirach 3:30) and he describes almsgiving as storing treasure in order to escape affliction (Sirach 29:12) and almsgiving like a thank offering (Sirach 35:2).

Sirach 4:3–6 (NRSV) Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. 4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. 5 Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you; 6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer.

A Jewish wisdom text known as Pseudo-Phocylides, written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 describes the wise person as ready to give to the poor:

Ps-Phoc 1.22–26 Give to the poor man at once, and do not tell him to come tomorrow. You must fill your hand. Give alms to the needy. Receive the homeless in (your) house, and lead the blind man. Pity the shipwrecked, for navigation is unsure. Extend your hand to him who falls, and save the helpless one.

In the Sibylline Oracles, the writer praises the Jewish people saying “they care for righteousness and virtue and not love of money, which begets innumerable evils for mortal men, war, and limitless famine” (3.234-236). In the Testament of Job, “When any stranger approached to ask alms, he was required to be fed at my table before he would receive his need” (10.4), and he goes on to boast he had “fifty bakeries from which I arranged for the ministry of the table for the poor” (10.7).

There is nothing in the Law, prophets or wisdom literature which implies care for the poor was to be practiced publicly. If you passed by a beggar on the way to the Temple, it was your duty to share something to that beggar.

It was simply assumed a Jewish person would give to the needy. This is why Jesus says “when you give…” He isn’t commanding his listeners to give, he knows that they will. It is the attitude behind the giving that is the issue.


Bibliography: Lee, Kyong-Jin. “Almsgiving” pages 324-325 in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.

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).

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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.


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?

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