Thought for the day
Today’s gospel continues the challenge from last week to go deeper into the heart, the seat of hidden thoughts and desires. The call to conversion is a call to give just as we have received: we are loved and so should love; we are forgiven and so should forgive; we are consoled and so should console and so forth. Why is that? Because the love etc. that we have received becomes truly “me” only when I pass it on. Only then have I experienced the message of the prophet: I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezek 36:26)
O God, open our ears to hear the word of Jesus, your Son. Open our hearts, that we may know true conversion from within. Open our hands that we may give just as we have received.
Matthew 5:38 ‘You have heard that they were told, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But what I tell you is this: Do not resist those who wrong you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and takes your shirt, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone in authority presses you into service for one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to anyone who asks; and do not turn your back on anyone who wants to borrow.
Matthew 5:43 ‘You have heard that they were told, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; 45 only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who causes the sun to rise on good and bad alike, and sends the rain on the innocent and the wicked. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Even the tax-collectors do as much as that. 47 If you greet only your brothers, what is there extraordinary about that? Even the heathen do as much. 48 There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.
In the notes for the previous Sunday, an attempt was made to clarify the setting of the six antitheses in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Today, the lectionary offers the final two. We encounter two of the best known and most difficult teachings of Jesus. The sheer idealism and apparent impracticality make these verses challenging reading for anyone at any time.
Kind of writing
i. The fifth antithesis:
An original rejection of retaliation is illustrated by five examples: bodily harm, a court case, enforced military service, begging and borrowing. The first three seem to be compulsory while the remaining two come across as voluntary. What unites all five is a firm rejection of worldly standards. Again, the first three call on the disciple to break the cycle of violence by living the values of the Kingdom. The last two challenge the disciple to set aside the calculation of personal advantage and to live, in a radical way, Jesus’ message of compassion and love. This antithesis leads naturally to the final, climatic teaching.
ii. The sixth antithesis
This is in the form of a thesis and argument, laid out in the box on the next page. Considered with care, the sequence of argument is penetrating and powerful. Technically, it is a chreia in the form of syllogism, with rhetorical questions to engage the hearers
Old Testament background
i. On the lex talionis (in context, a deterrent to excessive retaliation):
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:23–25) Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. (Leviticus 24:19–20) Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:21)
ii. On loving your enemies:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18) If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21–22; cited ironically by Paul in Rom 12:20!!)
iii. On whole-hearted service of God:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. (Deuteronomy 6:4–6)
iv. On taking the cloak:
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down. (Exodus 22:25–26) If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbour may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 24:12–13)
New Testament foreground
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:39)
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (James 2:8)
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Romans 13:9)
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
Verse 38 The Bible does not command revenge. The lex talionis originally was an attempt to restrict vendettas. See Gen 4:23-24!!
Verse 39 Jesus forbids retaliation of any kind. This needs to be carefully read. The vision of the Kingdom includes a refusal to enter into the cycle of violence, illustrated dramatically by the cases which follow. The first illustration—to turn the other cheek—is a clear invitation to resist the natural reaction of equal retaliation. We should, of course, resist evil but we must not resist evil violently.
Verse 40 Here again, the person involved is being somehow victimised. It may be noted that it was forbidden, in Biblical law, to deprive the poor man of his cloak (see Ex 22:25-26 and Dt 12-13). In this case, the victim would be left standing naked. Thus the unjust creditor may in turn by shamed, as the victim takes power to him or herself.
Verse 41 This example is a reminder of the military occupation of the Holy Land by Roman soldiers. Roman soldiers and officials could oblige natives to carry things for them a certain distance. Once more, the victim takes power and destabilises the oppressor (cf. Paul’s surely humorous version: No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Romans 12:20). So far, the antitheses feature an imbalance of power. The next two show the disciple in the role of “giver.”
Verse 42 These almost impossible, impractical illustrations are demanding— demanding because it is the attitude within the giver which is being challenged. Letting the true well-being of others guide us is the mark of the authentic disciple.
Verse 43 This is the climax, the sixth and final antithesis. The only place in the Bible it says “hate your enemy” is actually in this very verse (but see Psalm 139:19-22)! However, it is clear from the Old Testament, that when it is commanded to love your neighbour, this really means your Israelite neighbour, not anyone at all. See Lev 19:18; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14 and James 2:8.
Verse 44 The deepening of the motivation continues radically here: you must love your enemies.
Verse 45 God himself shows no discrimination in giving his gifts: the sun shines and the rain falls on the evil and the good. Cf. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
Verse 46 This is a kind of a fortiori argument: to love those who love you is no particular achievement. Rather, it is natural and spontaneous and costs nothing. Reward is a theme in Matthew: see 5:12, 19 and 6:1-18.
Verse 47 The same instruction in different words.
Verse 48 Again, an impossible requirement but a constant ideal. The high demands of discipleship come from Matthew’s understanding of God’s kindness and also from Matthew’s clear teaching on God’s rewards to all who respond (Matt 5:12, 46; 6:1–2, 5, 16; 10:41–42; 20:8). Perfect is used one other time in this Gospel: Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) The meaning is mature or complete, full-grown or fully developed.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus tells us to act out of love and says that acting out of love is better than acting out of revenge. What does your experience tell you?
2. Perhaps you have at times hit back in revenge when you have been hurt or offended. What effect did this have you, on others, and on your relationship with them? Contrast this with the times when you resisted the urge to retaliate. What effect did this have on you, on others, and on your relationship with them…at the time, and in the long-term?
3. From other passages in the gospels, it is clear that Jesus did not mean that we should ignore injustices and never make a stand against others. What lessons have you learned in life on when and how to make a stand? What wisdom would you share with others from your experience?
Heavenly Father, in Christ Jesus you challenge us to renounce violence and to forsake revenge. Teach us to recognise as your children even our enemies and persecutors and to love them without measure or discrimination. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.