Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

In this passage, Jesus continues to explore the relevance of the Law for his followers and society.

February 20, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

In this passage, Jesus continues to explore the relevance of the Law for his followers and society.

The Law, even God’s Law handed to Moses, must be engaged and re-interpreted in light of contemporary realities.  Such engagement need not lessen the challenge of appropriating ancient biblical texts for modern society.  Jesus’ own teaching is an example of this struggle. 

Matthew 5:38-42
The lex talionis or the law of retaliation is an attempt to enact fair justice among the people of ancient Israel. Wherever harm is committed–whether intentional (cf. Leviticus 24:20) or not (cf. Exodus 21:24)–the judges of ancient Israel were expected to authorize the law of retaliation (i.e., “eye for an eye”).   It is not to be practiced only in cases when an evil person causes injury.  Rather it is a law that expresses a commitment to justice (cf. Deuteronomy 19:21).  And, it ensures that the penalty is not arbitrary, making the punishment more severe than the crime.  But Jesus admonishes followers not to oppose the evil doer violently (antistenai) rather than the NRSV’s “not resist an evildoer.” The NRSV’s translation is odd and implies no opposition to oppose.  Rather, Jesus has an alternative strategy for dealing with evil.  His objective is to overcome evil with good.  His goal was to overcome humiliation by shaming those in power.

Jesus advocates the type of follower who is willing to give even more than asked from those in need: “give to everyone who begs from you” (5:42).  Without specific context, interpreters have taken Jesus’ words in a variety of ways.  Perhaps Jesus had in mind people with enough economic status visible to beggars.  For the poor, the loss of one’s  “cloak” in addition to one’s “coat” (5:40) would have meant a cold night of sleep since the cloak was normally the evening blanket as well.  If he has the poor in mind in a court of law, it may have been an act of shame to hand over one’s cloak and coat as a symbol of one’s debt.  The nakedness of the one in debt may have brought shame on all parties involved in the land-based, debt-ridden system.  

Does Jesus intend his prescriptions even in situations of abuse?  Many interpreters find them illogical because of the absence of any motivation.  But it seems as if 5:48 is motivation enough for Jesus.  The more serious challenge comes from admonitions in which Jesus seems to advocate a commitment to do good despite the evil abuse one receives: “turn the other cheek.” 
By the end of the first century, it was common to repeat Jesus’ teaching. Some Christians classified this difficult teaching as the way to become “perfect” (Didache, chapter 1).  Prior to the rise of Constantine and the implications of his reign on the relationship between Christianity and the Empire, most Christians understood Jesus’ words literally.

The language of lawsuits (“if anyone sues you”) is not common outside of the Sermon of the Mount (cf. 7:1-2), except for when Jesus reminds his disciples of their future role as “judges on the twelve thrones” (19:28).  Jesus’ teaching, in Matthew, is parallel to Paul’s, in his Corinthian correspondence, who also advocates a willingness to suffer, accepting the harm to oneself: “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7).  Though both advocate staying away from lawsuits altogether, the distinction may be in audience.  Paul advises believers not to sue other believers; Jesus is apparently dealing with lawsuits of those who are not believers in the Way.

Another example is the practice of conscription which was common in Greco-Roman society.  The Romans could force any one to assist in an exercise.  It displayed public control over the colonized.  Later in the Gospel narrative, Matthew describes one such example: Simon of Cyrene is forced (aggareuo) to carry the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32).  Jesus’ response epitomizes a response unlike the Zealots: “go also the second mile” (5:41). Do not receive the humiliation intended.

Matthew 5:43-48
“Love your neighbor” (5:43) is central to Jesus’ teaching and he will repeat it on two other occasions in Matthew (19:19; 22:39). In both later instances, the phrase is central to what Jesus thinks about the entire Law of God.  As he says to one inquiring lawyer, “On these two commandments (i.e., love God; love neighbor) hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40).   Here, in chapter 5, Jesus extends this love towards the “enemy.” Of course, people cannot so easily love those who harm and shame them.  This counter-intuitive act requires prayer. So, Jesus advocates praying for enemies (5:44).  Such practice beforehand will benefit a person’s right action in life.  In the “Lord’s Prayer” (6:9-13), this idea is consonant with the theme of forgiveness: forgiving others who have wronged you is crucial to receiving God’s forgiveness as well (6:14-15).

Loving, praying for, and forgiving one’s enemy is an extension of Jesus’ broader teaching about the perfection of God (5:48).  In typical fashion, Jesus provides an intriguing image to capture the meaning of this quality of God, one that God’s followers should emulate.  Later in Matthew’s story, Jesus confronts a rich man, who has faithfully followed the commandments of his religious tradition (cf. 19:16-22).  This man still recognizes that something is missing (19:20).  Jesus’ response is shocking: “sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (19:21).  Like most of us, this man can’t carry out that challenge.  Only in Matthew’s account is such an action classified as what it means to be “perfect” (teleios; 19:21).  This is the type of maturity Jesus desires from his followers.  Jesus’ teaching stems from a theological conviction that since God is perfect, so should the followers of God be.  Just as God provides good things (i.e., “rain”) for the just and the unjust, so must God’s followers treat others (whether “good” or “evil”) with consistent love (5:45).  Care for the other–despite the other’s actions–sums up the language of perfection, maturity, and fulfillment in life.     
Summary for Preaching
It is from Jesus’ words (and his exposure to the practices of Mahatma Gandhi) that Martin Luther King, Jr. developed the practice of non-violence as a means of effective protest.  Just as Jesus reinterpreted the biblical laws for his day, King put into practice their relevance for his own day. For King and others, Jesus’ words were meant to be taken literally.  Though not all Christians have responded in this way, a plan to retaliate evil with love was central to King’s mission.