The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3—7:27)
It is the usual practice of Christians to always read the Bible for moral instruction, as if all we have to do is know what the right thing to do is in order to go do it. Instructions taken out of context sound just like this; they are, after all, given in the form of instructions. However, Christians also ought to know better. We do not finally do what we do not want to do, and if we do, the result is artificial and often unhelpful, sometimes even harmful. What we need is a change of heart. We can change from the outside in by changing our habits or by stepping into a role in which by “pretending” to be a different person than we are we eventually become that person. Either way gradually has the affect of rearranging the structure of our mind and perspective so that increasingly we change on the inside. Change can also come from the inside out. Our spirit awakens and becomes conscious of reality—the reality of our spirited body, of God, of persons, and of the living creation in which God is. This consciousness permeates and transforms our soul, our conscious and subconscious psyche, higher intuition, mind, desires and feelings, and our intentions and will.
What the Sermon on the Mount is about is being in a different “place.” That place is Jesus himself, his own person. We enter that space when we enter into the relationship of disciple to him. It is a personal relationship, a relation of person to person, in which the disciple and Master give themselves to each other, one in one way and the other in another way. The Master initiates the relationship by “calling” us, waking us up to himself and claiming our attention. We give him our existential commitment, our allegiance and loyalty, our faithfulness and fidelity and fealty; and he in turn makes himself responsible for us, to care for us and transform us. This transformation is not arbitrary. We become what he is by entering into that which makes him who and what he is, his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Our relationship to God becomes his relationship to the transcendent Father and immanent Holy Spirit; and the relationship to us of the Father and the Holy Spirit becomes what their relationship to him is. This is what is transformative. He demands obedience from us not merely as an external command but by the claim of his own person on us. Who he is in relation to us is the “command” more than any words he speaks which articulate this relation.
When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount then, we see this in three ways. He calls four fishermen—“Come after me”—who drop what they are doing to become his disciples. It is to them that he addresses the Sermon, as a Master to his disciples (sitting on the ground on a hilltop with his few disciples lounging in a semicircle before him, and the crowds standing around paying attention).
The Messiah, when he comes, will bring Israel into the Promised Land and the nations will come to Zion to worship YHWH. The Promised Land (in its fulfillment) is the place of blessing. Jesus proclaims what the “place” of blessing (blessedness or beatitude) is, and it is a description of himself, the “place” where he is bringing his disciples, and where they already are by virtue of their relationship to him, even if they are not yet like him. This—the Beatitudes—introduces the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount has a chiastic structure, which means that it is arranged in a series of frames (or concentric circles, if you like) that move towards a center. At the center of the Sermon is the Lord’s Prayer. Let me illustrate this like so:
– B 5:3-16
– C 5:17-20
– D 5:21-48
– E 6:1-6
– F 6:7-8
– The Lord’s Prayer G 6:9-13
– F’ 6:14-15
– E’ 6:16-18
– D’ 6:19—7:11
– C’ 7:12
– B’ 7:13-27
This is not just meant to be aesthetically pleasing. It gives us the key to open our understanding of the Sermon. When the disciples says, “Our Father,” the first-person plural is used not only to include their fellow disciples (or humanity or creation) but to include Jesus himself. We are praying to his Father as our Father; when we pray we are sharing his relationship of Son with the Father. “God” has a generic connotation; it is abstract and may even be impersonal. The Father of the Son has an entirely different connotation. Both are equally divine. Each dwells in the other (co-inherence) and each shares every perfection that the other has. They dance in and through each other in a movement of love (the perichoresis). What distinguishes them as Father and Son is their relationship to each other, the way in which they love each other. The Father loves the Son and is the source of all that the Son is. The Son loves the Father and, as begotten, is image and word of all that the Father is. When we are invited to say, “Our Father” with Jesus, we are invited into this dynamic of love in relation to the Father. It takes place in prayer, but also our whole being becomes defined by it. Who the Father becomes in relation to us and who we are and are supposed to be in relation to the Father is the key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount.
When Jesus calls us to “follow him” and become his disciples, when we become “Christians,” this is what it means. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the “name” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) by being placed into Christ: this is what it means. It means we say, “Our Father” with Jesus. Moreover, when we are baptized, we are baptized into his baptism. We become in the world what he was in the world. We become “penitents” as he did, placing ourselves under the judgment of God in solidarity with every other human being, but doing so as daughters and sons of the Father (in the same relation to the Father as the Son).
This takes place by the Holy Spirit, as the Gospel according to John shows, but Matthew probably did not yet see this in such a way that he could articulate it, even if he already knew it intuitively, without the terms. Instead, Matthew understands all this in relation to the coming “kingdom of the heavens.” From the perspective of the Law and the Prophets, all of history is moving towards the coming of the kingdom of the heavens when God rules without resistance, when all rebellion has been overcome, when all darkness and deceit and delusion has been removed by the light of God. Israel sets its hopes on the coming of the Messiah who will cause all Israel to repent and will gather all of Israel from the four corners of the earth to the Promised Land where he will bless them. This is accompanied by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. From the point of view of the early church, Jesus is the coming of the reality of the kingdom of the heavens. God’s rule over him is perfect; with him God finds his delight. He is the Promised Land where the blessing of God rests, and on him the Holy Spirit is poured. When he emerges into the public life of Israel, when he “comes out” (as we say nowadays), he is the kingdom of the heavens drawing near. The kingdom of the heavens is manifested in him, by his words and acts, at least to those to whom it has been granted to see it. But when he comes again in glory, it will be manifested universally. That is, God will rule the creation (heaven and earth) without resistance, all rebellion will have been overcome, and all the darkness of delusion and deceit will be washed away by his light. How will this happen? This event is described to us as “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” In other words, who Jesus is will be universally revealed. This will be his coming. And who is he? Matthew may not yet be able to articulate it except in terms of the Law and the Prophets and the hopes and expectations of Israel, but we have learned to say it this way: he is the hypostatic union of divinity and createdness without confusion or change and without division or separation (the characteristics of each being preserved yet coming together to form one undivided person). In this sense, he became what we are that we might become what he is; God became created that the creature—via personhood—might become divine. The kingdom of the heavens is this becoming. This is the end toward which everything is moving. His first coming reveals the reality of it, and the way of it in the world. His second coming will be the universal revelation and the beginning of the transformation of all things. In between, while the world continues to be what it is, to those whom he has called to himself he has revealed himself and is beginning this work of transformation. We are becoming in the world what he was in the world and while doing so we are anticipating the age to come.
The structure of thought here is a certain narrative based on the Law and the Prophets yet abstracted in the terms of Greek metaphysics, which have been adopted and transformed by their particular application. We might describe the whole thing in terms of astronomical physics or biological evolution (and the “evolution” of the universe or multiverse). They are different languages suited to different needs, but not necessarily in conflict with each other. Human existential meaning requires the language of metaphysics and spirituality and metaphor. Mythological (symbolic) narratives are the language of the soul. So we need to enter into Matthew’s (and Jesus’) story in order to understand it in our own terms. We need to contextualize its parts in its own whole (the whole gospel, within the Christian movement, and the Scriptures of Israel), in order to understand it in our context. By placing ourselves within the story, I think we do this naturally.
The True Halakah (5:17-20)
So after Jesus describes the lay of the land by spelling out the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10), he then puts his disciples, as inhabits of this land, in the context of the world (5:11-16). Then he says that he is going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets by giving the correct understanding of the Halakah, how his disciples are to “walk” in the world. By doing so, they will fulfill the Law and the Prophets. The Jews are to understand the Books of Moses (the Law) in the light of the Prophets. The Early Prophets (the history) are to be interpreted in the light of the Later Prophets (who prophesied in the light of the exiles of the northern and southern kingdoms, which is the consummation of the Early Prophets). Now, the Law and the Prophets are to be interpreted in the light of the coming of the Promised One who is the reality of the fulfillment that Moses and the prophets foretold (even if not yet the universal manifestation). Jesus, as the Coming One, is the authoritative interpreter of all that preceded him. His commandments are thus an interpretation of what they commanded. It would not be correct to say that his commandments replace the former commandments; rather they show what those commandments really mean. The old commandments aim; Jesus reveals the target.
Six Antitheses (5:21-48); the First Four (5:21-37)
He illustrates this with six antitheses: In the light of where you as a disciple now stand in relation to me (Jesus), what does it mean, you shall not murder? What does it mean, you shall not commit adultery? What do the Scriptures mean about divorce? What do the Scriptures mean about fulfilling your oaths? What is our relation to retributive justice? To what extent shall we love others? The first four antitheses follow the order of the Ten Commandments; the fifth reflects our being under God’s judgment; and the sixth is the positive recapitulation.
The commandment prohibiting murder aims at this: you are not even to be angry with another. Jesus is not referring to the feeling of anger but rather to expressing it in such a way that insults, abuses or harms another, or that takes God’s judgment into our own hands. My understanding of this is as follows: We are in the world as penitents: we are under God’s judgment; we cannot act as if we have a right to deliver God’s justice. Instead we are to love others as God loves us.
The commandment prohibiting adultery aims at this: you are forbidden to covet another human being as if she were something you could possess, but you are to honor the relationships of others. Possession is inherently wrong, for nothing in fact belongs to us. To possess or to want to possess a human being is especially wrong. Moreover, when the kingdom of the heavens come, we will all be in the closest relationship to each other. We are to live in the light of that already and see other people’s relationships as—not exclusive but—enduring, and therefore respect those relationships, and respect the boundaries of others.
Moses allowed “divorce” because of the hardness of our hearts. It is better to separate than to be unhappy or to abuse each other. However, in the kingdom of the heavens divorce does not even exist. In God’s eyes—God who is eternal—all those whom we have married in the past we are still married to. By saying we have divorced a spouse or by acknowledging someone else’s divorce we are disrespecting bonds that endure. Let us separate if we must, and it is permissible before God to marry another who is separated (its legality within our societies is another matter); but we must acknowledge the inseverability of past bonds and give them our utmost respect. There is no divorce. For a woman to be “divorced” by her husband puts her in a false position: she is in an adulterous relationship to him (“everyone who divorces his wife makes her an adulteress”), and anyone who marries her is in an adulterous relation to her (“anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”).
Having redefined adultery on the basis of the eschatological reality of marriage in light of the nearness of the kingdom of the heavens and the disciples coming under its government and grace, Jesus annuls divorce on the same grounds. He shines the new insight concerning adultery (verses 27-30) onto the situation with respect to divorce as he now presents it. I admit that my explanation of verse 32 is less than perspicuous (though it avoids the inadequacies of the usual explanations). Another question remains: why does Jesus focus on the divorced wife rather than the husband who divorced her?
What about oaths? Speak the truth; if you insist that something outside of your control guarantees your word, your word has already lost its integrity. God is your witness (always, not only when you make an oath), but God is not the surety of your word; you cannot make God responsible for your word. So say what you mean and leave it at that.
The Fifth Antithesis: What about Retributive Justice? (5:38-42)
“Eye for eye and tooth for tooth”: The purpose of this commandment was not to require an eye for an eye as retribution, but to set a limit to retribution: you can take no more than this. Again, like “divorce,” it was permitted because of the hardness of your heart. But if God allowed “divorce” even though no two people are ever actually divorced (even though they may be better off apart), what is the case when it comes to retribution? What should we take, if our heart were not so hard? If we are in the same position with respect to the Father as Jesus is; and if we are in the same position with respect to the world as Jesus was—what does this mean with respect to our taking retribution?
It means that we are to “offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits [us] on the right cheek, [we are to] offer him the other as well; if someone wishes to go to law with [us] to get [our] tunic, [we are to] let him have [our] cloak as well. And if anyone requires [us] to go one mile, [we are to] go two miles with him. [We are to] give to anyone who asks [us], and if anyone wants to borrow, [we are to] not turn away.”
Both the thesis (“Eye for eye and tooth for tooth”) and Jesus’ antithesis (“Offer no resistance to the wicked”) set the context of the other instructions as one of antagonism. An enemy seeks to humiliate, hurt, or take from us. First of all, we do not do back to them what they have done to us. Nor do we simply allow them to hurt us and leave it at that. We are to even do more than welcome their mistreatment. Whatever they have done to us or taken from us, we are to go even further and invite them to do even more, and give them more of what they have already taken. This seems self-destructive. What is going on here?
It seems that by doing so we are exaggerating the wrong done to us. Perhaps this is for the sake of the other, to awaken their conscience. If they wrongfully take something from us and we turn around and give them even more, hopefully their conscience will be smitten and they will face the fact that they have wronged us. On the other hand, if they do us a wrong and we give them the opportunity to wrong us even more and they seize it, then we are in effect appealing to God’s “conscience.”
If, as a penitent you have submitted to God’s judgment, when you submit to the wrong someone does to you, then you are submitting yourself to God’s judgment. But why exaggerate this wrong? When you exaggerate the wrong, you are subjecting the other person to God’s judgment. If they repent, well and good. If they do not, God will take up your cause against them.
This seems all well and good in theory, but in practice it is a dangerous course. An abusive husband could interpret a wife’s actions to mean that she is acknowledging that he was right. She would be validating his behavior. Nor is this an effective way to deal with any bully. Men who mistreat women, for example, feel that they are entitled to do so, and such behavior might only reinforce their dominance.
So, is this Halakah only to be applied to a particular kind of circumstance? Or have we misunderstood either the rhetorical affect or the meaning of Jesus’ words?
Evil comes to us in the form of coercion, force and even violence. We are not to offer resistance to the wicked. This does not mean that we are not to resist evil itself, but we are not to use coercion, force or violence against persons in return for the evil they have done to us. We resist evil with good, by doing good to our enemy. If our attitude is the right one, by doing good to people when evil has been done to us, we are insisting that, though others may be our enemy, we refuse to be an enemy to them.
Paul says, “Never try to get revenge: leave that, my dear friends, to the Retribution. As scripture says, ‘Vengeance is mine—I will pay them back,’ the Lord promises. And more: ‘If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. By this, you will be heaping red-hot coals on his head.’ Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21). So, do not judge anyone, even the person who has wrong you. Instead, leave all judgment to God. If you are good to your enemy, you will either befriend him or, if he insists on being bad to you, make his judgment all the worse. In any case, we are overcome by evil if an evil act (or acts) provoke us to act in kind. Then we are caught up in the cycle of violence and we are defeated by it: we become like our enemy. We overcome evil by doing good wherever and whenever evil is done to us.
So, if you insult me by backhanding me across my face, I will offer you the other cheek for you to punch. I would be saying in effect, do not just insult me: go through with it! I would be acting as if the insult were justified. If you sue me for my tunic and I give you my cloak, I would be acting as if your suit were not only justified but too lenient. If you require me to go one mile, I would say that you are not asking for enough; I will go two. If I do all this generously, acting as if I want to do these things for your sake, then I am supposedly doing good and thereby overcoming the evil. Is this what Jesus means? How does this overcome evil? I may have neutralized the evil by not giving it a rational to continue, and I may even have caused the evil-doer to recognize his evil; but I may also have simply encouraged evil-doing by making it easy, and apparently giving it my approval.
The backhanded slap was considered one of the most insulting of all physical blows, and was probably given to the disciples by a scribe or synagogue official because they were judged to be heretics (divisive to the community). Jesus mentions not a person who robs you of your tunic but someone who goes to court to seize your tunic for a debt that you owe (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 24:13). If a soldier (the word for mile is Latin) presses you into service it is either to carry mail or military stores. In all three cases the evil is done in an official capacity (an institution is involved); it is not a pedestrian crime of one neighbor against another.
Put this way makes it a matter of the kingdom of the heavens, of God’s rule versus the rule of man. If the disciple lives under the kingship of God, then the disciple is not under the rule of the world. Nevertheless, the disciple still participates in society and is still subject to these institutions. Yet these institutions are all rendered relative and contingent on the kingdom of God. They have no real authority, only a temporary one until the kingdom is manifested. If a person does evil to a disciple within the framework of these institutions, they are acting in rebellion against the immanence of God’s kingdom.
The behavior that Jesus asks of his disciples, then, does have a particular setting. Doing good (the extra that Jesus says should be done) has two affects. On the one hand, by refusing to fight we are refusing to recognize the power of the institution over us: there is only the authority of God and by our act we are bringing it under God’s judgment. On the other hand, we are appealing to the human being in love, bypassing as it were the institution that they are representing.
The verse that follows Romans 12:21, “Do not be mastered by evil [by the authorities], but master evil with good,” is Romans 13:1-2: “Everyone is to be subject [hypo-tassō] to the governing authorities, because there is no authority except from God and so whatever authorities exist have been appointed by God. So anyone who opposes [anti-tasso] an authority is rebelling [anthistēmi] against God’s ordering; and rebels [anthistēmi] must expect to receive the condemnation they deserve.” Karl Barth in his early commentary on Romans equated the evil of 12:21 with the governing authorities of 13:1. In Matthew 5:39 Jesus uses the word [anthistēmi] when he says, “Offer no resistance to the wicked.” It is not clear who the authority is in Romans 13:1. We immediately think of the Roman civil government but some commentators believe that it refers to synagogue authorities (on the likely supposition that the believers in Rome attended the synagogues). The institutions that Jesus alludes to are both religious and civil.
The way to see how this works is to consider Jesus’ own behavior with respect to Roman authority. He completely cooperated with them at the same time recognizing that their authority was completely provisional and in the hands of God, in other words, not recognizing it as authority at all, but simply there in the ordering of God’s judgment and subject to God’s judgment. The world exists but only so long as the delusion is sustained. The powers of the world only have that much power. To submit to them the way Jesus advocates is the only way to treat them as if they do not matter; it is the only way to trivialize them. To rebel against them is to treat them as if they matter a lot. So to do good (the extra amount) to their servants who, in the name of these institutions are doing evil to you, is to give the institutions a nod without recognizing their power over you.
“Give to anyone who asks you, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.” Why does this fit into this context? The three previous examples applied to Jesus’ words, “Offer no resistance to evil,” which was Jesus’ antithesis to “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” This seems not to fit. Even if we translate it as Albright and Mann do in the 1971 Anchor Bible, “Give to him who asks you for a loan, and do not refuse one who is unable to pay interest,” it fits the context no better. A person who asks me for money (whether a loan or not) may be taking something from me but it is not by force or coercion.
We probably have the answer if we keep the setting of Jesus’ command as being the institutions of the world. The institution here is money itself. It is to have no hold on us, and we are to have no attachment to it. We can use it but we are to hold it in the same disbelief that we hold all institutional authorities. How can we not be mastered by the power of money but instead master it? By being generous with it; by not storing it up for ourselves as if our security depended on it (Matthew 6:19-34), by giving it away.
Love Your Enemies (5:43-48)
The Torah says, “You will love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) and people, for convenience sake, add, “and hate your enemy.” No, Jesus says. Not only must we love our neighbor, we must love our enemies. Remember Jesus is speaking to his disciples. To them he says, “and pray for those who persecute you.” Those who persecute you are your enemies, but you must love them and pray for their good. You will have lots of enemies, but you are to be no one’s enemy.
Why is this? So that we can be like Jesus’ Father in the heavens. “For he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike.” “You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here the word perfect refers to loving the bad as well as the good, the wicked just as much as the upright. The Father is perfect in this way. The word perfect (teleios) means to attain one’s purpose or end. The Father is perfect (complete) with respect to love.
The Father loves the creation perfectly. His sun shines on the surface of the earth out of love; and the rain waters the earth out of love. Nor does the Father distinguish, in this sense, between the evil and the good, or the upright and the wicked. They are all the Father’s creation and the object of the Father’s love. God is also our judge. But Jesus forbids this to us. We are not to participate in judgment, neither judging others nor in executing judgment (maybe after our judgment it will be different; until then, here in this life, there is only the cross). We are to leave judgment entirely to God. However, we are to imitate the Father perfectly when it comes to love. When it comes to love, the evil person is as much the object of the Father’s love as the righteous person; and so should they be for us.
When we become fully developed in love, then we will become like the Son of the Father who is the Father’s very image and likeness. When Jesus says do this “so that you may be children of your Father in the heavens,” he does not use the usual word for children. The word he uses is “sons” (huios), as he is the Son of the Father. The word “daughter” (thugatēr) has no resemblance to “son” and a daughter did not have the rights and privileges of a son nor the same relationship to the Father and the Father’s property as a son. To use the word daughter in Greek does not convey the right sense. When your love becomes like mine, you—women and men—shall be to the Father as I am, the Father’s beloved Son. Male privilege existed in ancient and still in modern society. It does not exist in the kingdom of God. A child can simply be any young person. A child can also be a minor son who has not yet entered into sonship. He has certain inheritance rights and entitlements but he cannot enter into the enjoyment of them until he reaches maturity. When the child becomes a man, he is granted the rights and privileges of a son within his Father’s household and estate. When Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” You are still a minor. The reward is sonship: “that you may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens.”
It is noteworthy that Jesus defines his own sonship by the commensurability of his love to the Father’s love. It is also noteworthy that this is the final Halakah that he interprets for his disciples as if this is the height toward which the others were climbing. Love is the fulfillment—the true interpretation—of both the Torah and the Prophets, not only our love for others but the Father’s perfect love.