painting of figures seated on the ground

Study Notes – Matthew 5 38-48

We are studying Matthew 5:38-48 for Sunday, July 21. This is Jesus’ summation of “the antitheses,” that concludes with what may be Jesus’ most difficult command: being perfect, by loving our enemies. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are still working our way through The Sermon on the Mount.

The text today follows Jesus’ introductory remarks about true blessedness, the role of Jesus’ community in the world and their relationship to God’s law, and the “antitheses” – standards of righteous behavior the audience has heard, compared to Jesus’ radical approach to those standards. [I say “radical” in the sense of “getting to the root of the problem.” I read Jesus as saying “root out the cause of the behavioral symptom of murder;” “eliminate the root cause of the behavioral symptom of violating the covenant of marriage, whether your own or someone else’s;” and so on and so forth. Don’t just control your addiction; actually get clean.]

We skipped over verses 33-37, on swearing oaths (and why we would be swearing oaths in the first place – because our plain speech isn’t sufficiently trustworthy – and why we shouldn’t – because it ought to be, and because we don’t have that kind of power and certainty, anyhow).

Immediately after this primer on righteousness, Jesus will launch into some instruction on the appearance of righteousness (most of chapter 6), and on the discernment of the kingdom of the heavens.

There are three places in the Torah where the “eye for an eye” standard is invoked. The contexts differ, but all involve a need to assess a proportionate and in some sense equitable penalty. Exodus 21:12-27 prescribes a set of penalties for various personal injuries; inflicting harm on an unborn child subsequently born injured is penalized according to the “eye for an eye” standard. Leviticus 24:10-23 outlines a set of penalties in the context of a particular blasphemy case; blasphemy merits the death penalty, but mayhem is penalized proportionate to the injury inflicted. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 stipulates penalties for bearing false witness, depending on the harm the false witness sought to bring about, which are then “life for life, eye for eye,” etc.

We seem to need to know something about the wearing apparel of the ancient world to make sense of verse 40. The person suing in court is after a chiton, which would have been a garment worn next to the skin, and something anyone could have; the other garment (translated “cloak” in the NRSV) is a himation, which a person could evidently wear with or without chiton underneath, and which seems likely to have been (a) more visible (since it would have been an “outer garment,” although a chiton could, evidently, be that if you didn’t have a himation), (b) more expensive, (c) the thing that really constitutes a person’s walking out of court having given someone “the shirt off their back.” Maybe you could afford to lose your chiton, and still save face, if you still had your himation. Or maybe you could hope to replace your chiton, with only moderate suffering in the meantime. Lose your himation too, and you’re a naked beggar.

CLOSER READING: In v38, the standard of “an eye for an eye” had a relationship to community standards. The situations used as examples of “evil” – in the sense of “something bad happening to you” – in v39 and following might suggest a different kind of threat to the community. The context of the Torah seems to envision an internal threat, a community member disrupting good relations. The examples in vv39-41 may envision actions taken by people who have some power over “you.” Enough power, at least, to strike you on the right cheek with the back of their hand – which seems to be the implication of Jesus’ statement in v39, to use the legal system against you in v40, and to requisition your labor in v41.

We might need to connect Jesus’ reference to the cloak in v40 to the command in the Torah not to keep a debtor’s garment in pledge, or even take a garment in pledge from a widow in the first place (Deuteronomy 24:12-13; Deuteronomy 24:17). If so, then handing over your himartion would signify not standing on your legitimate rights. [Which would have an echo in 1 Corinthians 6:7-8.]

A slightly different point is that this “evil” that the audience is not to resist is, in light of the examples, not the abstract moral kind of evil, or even the kind of evil that is being heaped on other people, but specifically unpleasantness that is being inflicted upon “you,” I assume unfairly or without warrant.

Don’t even resist the annoyance associated with beggars’ and debtors’ requests for financing (v42). At least a few members of the audience might recall that this is not Proverbial wisdom (Proverbs 22:26-27).

[Some time ago – I thought it was high school, but my daughter thinks it could have been 6th grade – I helped my daughter with some language arts homework that involved her (and so, my) reading a story in which the plot turns on how, according to the child narrator, “an Amish person has to do whatever you ask them to – even if it’s to paint your front porch.” I assumed Matthew 5:41-42 was the underlying rationale for this perceived-as-strange Amish behavior, though the story didn’t say so. Which is to say: it probably shouldn’t just be “Amish people” who would do that kind of thing. It was a good story, though it’s almost cruel to mention it here, since neither my daughter nor I could come up with the title, and Google hasn’t helped. Ideally, someone will stop by who recognizes the literary reference, and will help us out.]

V43 cites a command, “hate your enemy”, that isn’t in the Torah, exactly, although there is a command to “love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18), and that command might be construed in such a way that taking vengeance on or harboring a grudge against someone who wasn’t a neighbor wouldn’t exactly be proscribed. Or maybe v43 is a reference to one of the Qumran scrolls, according to the Study Bible.

It doesn’t matter, in a way, because Jesus says “Love your enemies”. In the NRSV he adds “pray for those who persecute you.” In the King James he raises the bar to include blessing people who curse you, doing good to people who hate you, and praying for people who despitefully use you.

This difficult behavior or attitude or fundamental perception of the enemy is the condition for becoming “children of your Father in heaven” who blesses indiscriminately (v45).

Jesus’ persuasion point for this advice is that you don’t earn anything by loving the people who already love you, and greeting the people you’re already related to. People “you” are probably inclined to use despitefully yourself, like blood-sucking tax collectors and dirty Gentiles, can pull this off. If loving people were Olympic gymnastics, your love routine wouldn’t have a high enough difficulty factor to get you many points. Or perhaps a different way to think about this is the way Jesus presents it in chapter 6: you reap a reward in this social context (“verily, I say to you, they have their reward”), but not in the social context of the kingdom of the heavens. Which is the reward or approval you really [ought to] care about.

And then in v48 Jesus says “be perfect.” Like God. This freaks people out. It probably should, but probably not the way it seems to.

In context, it seems [to me, at least] clearly not suggesting that people trying to do what Jesus said to do should become “perfectionists” in all kinds of ways (and more on that in chapter 6, it seems), or that people need to be “without fault or flaw.” That is one way we think of perfection, but the word translated “perfect” here is more like “completed” or “achieved” – we might even say “evolved.” Or “mature.” And in the context, again, it seems clearly to refer to the specific perfection of what the followers of a different spiritual teacher (the Buddha) would call “indifferent virtue.”

That is: you have a standard for relating to other people, a virtuous one, and you stick to it, regardless of what other people are like.

So … those people who are really, really hard to love? Love them anyway.

That’s the family [of God] resemblance Jesus is talking about.

[For a minute there I thought I was making a little progress on the indifferent virtue front. But a couple of weeks ago one of my family members brought home a puppy, and after one puppy thing and another, by tonight I actually said out loud, and not even softly or anything, “I hate that dog!” Domestic tranquility has been restored, and the puppy is safe, but it turns out that I’m a person who doesn’t even love puppies. That’s a long way from average. Let alone Jesus.]

painting of Jesus teaching a group of people seated on grass

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