Matthew 5: 33-47 A Community of Truthful Speech, Non-Violence and Love

Fra Angelico, Fresco in the Cloister of Mark in Florenz (1437-1445)

Matthew 5: 33-47

Parallel Luke 6: 27-36

Highlighted words will have comment on translation below

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the final three of the six examples that Jesus provides his new followers of how to interpret scripture, live according to a law that has been fulfilled, He points to the type of community the kingdom of heaven embodies. Previously unreconciled anger, uncontrolled sexuality and broken relationships were revealed as things that undermined the type of community the Sermon on the Mount evokes, now untrue speech, violence and limited love are also revealed to be contrary to the nature of a community of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus doesn’t quote a specific commandment or verse, but the discussion of vows or oaths occurs several places in the law and the making of vows or swearing of oaths occurs frequently in the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures. The closest linguistic link is to Leviticus 19: 12, “You shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In this passage in Leviticus the breaking of an oath sworn in God’s name is a violation of the commandment making wrongful use (profaning) the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. But throughout the law making oaths, even in the name of the LORD, are assumed and Deuteronomy 23: 21-23  for people in general and Numbers 30: 1-15, referring to which vows made by women are binding, give additional justification within Israel for the practice of making and keeping vows. Yet, Jesus moves away from this tradition of truthful speech as bound by an oath to a society where all speech is to be truthful.

I think many people would long for a world where truthful speech was the norm and one of the struggles of our digitally pluralistic society is that truthful speech may be indistinguishable from partial truths, obfuscations and maliciously told lies. As I think about the issues facing society: immigration, global warming, poverty, discrimination, and many others it is amazing the number of both conspiracy theories and misinformation that are given equal space to information that is well thought out and accepted by those working in the various fields. Perhaps reflecting on the untruth operating on his own society in the mid-1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could comment in Discipleship:

There is no truth towards Jesus without truth toward other people. Lying destroys community. But truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship. There is no following Jesus without living in the truth unveiled before God and other people. (DBWE 4: 131)

Yet, even churches and communities of faith can easily become places that do not value truth, but rather seek either easy accommodation or avoiding controversial topics of conversation. Even organizations that expressly claim to value truth in their mission or value statements may, by their actions demonstrate a preference for a convenient lie.

When we look at why people knowingly do not speak honestly there may be several reasons including fear of consequences and the desire to belong. In the type of community Matthew’s gospel attempts to point to truthful speech would not have consequences within the community and acceptance by the community would be assured. Even within the New Testament we see the early church struggle with conflict, belonging, and consequences both within and outside the community when people attempted to speak truthfully. The current expression of the body of Christ continues to struggle with being a place where truth can be honored and spoken, with or without vows. There has also been a reduction of truth in light of Postmodernity’s critique of Modernity’s search for an overarching truth that was universal for all people. The fracturing of truth to individual experience has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side perspectives that were previously ignored or unvalued are being heard, but the reduction of truth to an individual’s experience of truth has made it easy to disregard other’s experience of truth that do not reinforce one’s own chosen truths. In a society of fractured truths, perhaps a community where truthful speech was welcomed and expected could be a place where the various perspectives, experiences and narratives could be brought together and both the community and their understanding of God, the world and one another could be enriched. Although I am a realist who can acknowledge the brokenness of truth in the church and in society; I am enough of an optimist to dream of a community where truthful speech can be heard and the ones who speak it honored.

The fifth commandment that Jesus references is commonly called the lex talionis (literally law of talons) which people believe mistakenly points to the brutality of the Hebrew Scriptures conception of law. Yet, Exodus 21: 12-27 which expands upon the commandment not to commit murder is about setting a limit to the violence that can answer violence. In contrast to witness of Lamech in Genesis 4: 23-24 where he boasts:

Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

In contrast to this expanding violence modeled by Lamech and by those who believe that revenge excuses the unlimited violence available to the vengeful one, lex talionis limits the violent response to be equivalent to the wound suffered:

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)

But here violence is met with non-violence: cheeks are turned, coats and cloaks are handed over and the response to being forced to carry something one mile is to go the second. Responding to acts of violence non-violently are incredibly challenging to those, like myself, who were raised believing the paradox that violence may be wrong but also redemptive. A community of faith that practiced non-violence would be visible in contrast to the surrounding community that enforced its will through power or domination.

In the temptation narrative, (Matthew 4: 1-11) Jesus is offered domination over all the kingdoms of the world, which he rejects rather than worshipping the devil. Now the kingdom of heaven’s approach to the world is not like the bloody peace that Rome secured for its borders but instead a non-violent, enemy loving peace that is embodied in Christ’s life. During his arrest Jesus tells his disciples to put their swords away and when he is struck he does not respond in kind, the command to give coat and cloak is realized as the soldiers divide Jesus’ clothes among themselves, and in the person of Simon of Cyrene we see one compelled to carry a burden that is not their own by those in power. The cross itself becomes an alternative to the sword, the humiliation by the chief-priests, the scribes, Pilate and the soldiers is accepted rather than summoning twelve legions of angels. The far easier way, the way of the temptation narrative, is for one who is the Son of God to let the angels be commanded concerning his well-being and to bring the kingdoms into domination, but instead the way of Christ leads us to God’s offer of peace at the cross.

A community of peace, who embodies non-violent responses to the violence of the world is something that I both long for and struggle with. Prior to beginning seminary, I was a captain in the U.S. Army and growing up I saw myself as a career officer following in the footsteps of many in my immediate family who made their career in the military. I am aware of the way the stories I read, hear and watch are often stories of good in conflict with evil, but the struggle is done in terms of physical or military might rather than overcoming evil with love. I can admire the theological work of people like Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder who can talk about, and in Wink’s case be engaged in non-violent work. If the kingdom of heaven can reach Centurions in the gospels and warriors of any age, it will need to be a place where the practices of violence can be unlearned. I sometimes worry that people think of non-violence as a way to achieve one’s goals by other means, and while I do believe that there is a creative and disruptive response in each of these practices, which I will address below, I think one needs to acknowledge the risk involved in responding to violence with non-violence. This is a part of bearing one’s cross to follow Jesus.

Turning the other cheek does force the one who responded in violence to move from a slap to a more violent hit with the back of the hand. Giving one’s coat and one’s cloak leaves the person standing naked in the courtroom or public place which brings shame on both the naked one and the one who has sued for the coat. Going the second mile goes beyond what a soldier was supposed to ask a person to do. Non-violence can be effective but using non-violence may be met with increased violence. Practicing non-violence can be done individually but it can only change the world when it is practiced by the community. Jesus may be able to die on the cross and change the world, but we can only be the body of Christ in community. There are also times where political non-violence is advocated by people who interact with people individually in a way that does not value who they are in the community. John Howard Yoder, who book The Politics of Jesus highlighted Jesus’ call for non-violence, was also accused by many women of abuse, harassment and assault.[1] Ultimately non-violence without truthful speech, healthy relationships, restraint of lust and reconciliation of anger doesn’t embody the kingdom of heaven that Jesus calls for.

Paired with these practices of non-violence is a type of giving that conflicts with our own limits and self-preservation. Giving to everyone who begs and not refusing those asking to borrow seems maybe more unbelievable than the practice of non-violence to many Christians. I do think Jesus is pointing to a way of life where one places one’s treasure where one wants their heart to be (Matthew 6:21) and as we have seen earlier in the Sermon on the Mount the focus is on a community where the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek and those hungering and thirsting for righteousness can be truly blessed. I do think trying to live the ideals of the Sermon call for wisdom and patience and an ability to hold in tension the vision of the kingdom and the experience of the church one encounters.

The final reinterpretation which expands the command to love neighbors to include loving enemies expands the boundaries of these practices beyond the community of faith and beyond the network of people in the community or nation. The command to love one’s neighbor is vulnerable to the tribalism of nation, ethnicity, class, religious community and any other boundary that humans naturally establish. In the gospel of Luke the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) is another reexamination of this commandment to love the neighbor in narrative form. Throughout the scriptures the people of God are encountered by enemies and there are times where they are commanded to eliminate them (for example Deuteronomy 7: 1-5) and often the petitioner may ask God to judge or condemn their enemies but here the enemy is to be treated as the neighbor. In a kingdom of reconciliation there is a place for my enemy at the banquet of the Lord. Just as I was to be reconciled with a brother or sister prior to bringing my offering to the altar, so now I am to be reconciled with my enemy and to treat them as my brother and sister. In this community that is to be a light set on a lampstand or a city on the hill the practices are not the same as the practices of the nations. A community that is to be the salt that preserves the world does not only preserve the portions of the world where my neighbor lives, but the entire world. Like their God who provides for the righteous and unrighteous and causes the sun to rise on the good and evil.

The final line of the chapter has encouraged people reading it in English translations to hear the Sermon on the Mount within the parameters of being perfect, however the word translated perfect is better translated whole or complete. I’ve written about perfection and blamelessness in the Bible elsewhere and framing the Sermon on the Mount in terms of moralistic perfection has caused many to view it as an unattainable ethic for either the individual or the community. Telios which is the word behind perfect is a word for a goal (it for example is the prefix in the English telescope). I think it is enlightening that Luke’s parallel of this is “Be merciful, just as your heavenly Father is merciful” which takes the emphasis in a different direction. This final line in Matthew 5 brings together ideas from Leviticus 19:2 and Deuteronomy 18:13:

Speak to the congregation of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God and holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 18:13)[2]

Matthew does imagine a community that reflects the Lord they follow. Like Israel before them, now the community of disciples is to be that which preserves and illuminates the earth. They are to be a community that stands out among the nations like a city on a hill. The vision, apart from the one who calls us into it and the promise of the advent of the kingdom of heaven, may seem foolish when compared with the wisdom the nations practice. A community that attempts to live into this vision may be persecuted for righteousness sake because they will be visible by their practices. For Matthew the law remains a gift for the community of the faithful and the community of disciples will now be expected to practice a mercy and righteousness that exceeds that of the communities of the Pharisees or Sadducees. This type of community may seem like an impossible dream or an unreachable goal, but I do think as a goal to move toward and to orient the community of disciples in the practices and life it can be a gift to the community that listens to it and allows it to reshape them. A community where reconciliation is practiced and anger does not dominate, where women and men and relationships are valued, where words are truthful, where violence does not dominate, physical needs are met, and enemies can become neighbors and even brothers and sisters. May we seek this wholeness that God embodies for us.

[1] In October 2014 the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Board (where Yoder taught) issued the following statement: “As an AMBS Board, we lament the terrible abuse many women suffered from John Howard Yoder. We also lament that there has not been transparency about how the seminary’s leadership responded at that time or any institutional public acknowledgement of regret for what went so horribly wrong. We commit to an ongoing, transparent process of institutional accountability which the president along with the board chair initiated, including work with the historian who will provide a scholarly analysis of what transpired. We will respond more fully once the historical account is published. We also support the planning of an AMBS-based service of lament, acknowledgement and hope in March 2015”

[2] I have highlighted completely loyal because the NRSV here translates the Hebrew tamim (often rendered holy in the NRSV) in a way that blurs the connection between Deuteronomy and Matthew.

 

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