The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 6

In this second part in a series on the Sermon on the Mount we go through Matthew 6. The Sermon on the Mount is especially instructive on “The Way” disciples of Jesus Christ are to follow. In Matthew 6 Jesus taught about charitable deeds and fasting with sincerity rather than hypocrisy, about simple, humble prayer, the kingdom of God, forgiveness of debts, devotion to God rather than to riches, and trust in God’s providence rather than preoccupation with worldly cares.

This is the second part of a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. Last time I went through Matthew chapter 5. This time we’ll get into Matthew chapter 6.

Before getting into the chapter itself I want to review a few framing ideas. One is that I’m looking at this sermon for insight into the nature of “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos), of Christianity. This is how early Christians referred to what we would call the religion they were practicing. They called it “The Way”. And it’s to understand The Way that I come back to the New Testament for grounding, to see how Jesus taught his followers to live and how they lived. And The Way was remarkable in a couple important ways. For one it was very different from the way people lived in the wider Roman and Hellenized world in which they were embedded, different in a way that’s difficult for us to imagine today because we don’t live in that world. We don’t live in a world where people can think of just going to gladiatorial games and seeing people, people thought to be the expendable, being ripped limb from limb in a bloody spectacle for our entertainment. We would find that horrific. And that’s a testament to the way that the world has been radically transformed. But The Way of Jesus’s teachings is also remarkable because it’s still so different from the way the world is today. Even though our norms in the West have been shaped by Jesus’s teachings, whether we’re Christian or not, they still surpass what we consider practical or sensible. And I find that fascinating.

Also important to remember the significant theological insight that Jesus Christ himself is The Way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos) (John 14:6). So this is all an investigation of Christ himself as well as of the way we are to live.

So let’s get into it.

Matthew 6:1-4

“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”

Last time I brought up this passage as a comparison to Jesus’s teaching to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) There seems to be an important difference in motivation: who is meant to be glorified? Are the good works intended to glorify God or self?

I’m reminded of the difference between an icon and an idol. An icon is an important theological concept spoken of favorably in the New Testament. For example, Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, τῆς εἰκόνος τοῦ Υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ (tes eikónos tou Huiou autou) (Romans 8:29). The elect are to be conformed to the image, or εἰκών (eikón), of the Son. We also read in Colossians that Christ is “the image [εἰκὼν (eikón)] of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This concept of the icon, or image, shows up in the Old Testament as well. In Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him”. In Hebrew this “image” is צֶלֶם (tzelem), the image of God, צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim). In the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, this is translated as the εἰκὼν (eikón) of God, εικόνα θεού (eikóna theou). A very important theological concept. So that is a good thing. We should be icons that point toward God. People should see us bearing the image of God, seeing through us, toward God.

An idol is different. An idol is not an image that points toward God but an image that replaces God. And we can be idols in the way we go about doing ostensibly good works. If the motivation is not “Praise God” but instead, “Look at me”, it is the kind of ostentation that Jesus condemns. Jesus says this is the behavior of the ὑποκριταὶ (hupokritai), the hypocrites, play-actors, pretenders, dissemblers. Why do they do their charitable deeds? “That they may have glory from men.” And interestingly enough, Jesus says that that is what they get. “They have their reward”. But the strong implication here is that this is all they get. What they don’t get is the reward of those who do their works out of genuine concern, they don’t get their reward from the Father.

Jesus says to do our charitable deeds “in secret”, which is superior to self-glorifying display. But it’s also useful to remember and compare this to the teaching in chapter 5 that we actually should let our good works be seen by others, so that they glorify God. Something to reflect on.

Matthew 6:5-7

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

What is the purpose of prayer? Prayer can certainly be a public act, though it can also be done privately. Praying in a community can bring a church community, in Greek a συναγωγή (sunagoge) or “synagogue”, closer together and at the same time closer to God. But what’s the wrong way to do it? It’s not right to want to be heard for your πολυλογία (polulogía), your “many words”. And that’s definitely a temptation. As I’m sitting here doing my own podcast and literally listening to my own voice I can appreciate the narcissistic appeal of hearing your own voice and the allure of polulogía. But that’s not what prayer is for. It’s not a time for performance. And so Jesus teaches a remedy: keep it simple. And he gave as a model what became one of the most important passages in all scripture: the Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 6:8-14

“Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Some manuscripts also include at the end of the prayer: “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” 

It’s interesting that Jesus says that the Father already knows what we need before we ask, a fact he seems to mention as refutation of the need for polulogía, many words. So we might ask again, what is the purpose of prayer? Is it to actually inform the Father? Seems not. Is it to influence his will? Maybe, but still seems perhaps not. Is it to bring about some change in us? That seems closer to the mark to me. But that’s just an interpretation, for what it’s worth.

The Lord’s Prayer is very simple. Not ornate. It’s quite short. So it’s interesting what Jesus chooses to include in such a short prayer.

One feature is reverence for God. “Hallowed be Your name.”

A second is an expression of the desire that the Father’s Kingdom come. This is a major theme that we see in Jesus’s ministry in the Gospels. If we could give a one-sentence summary of Jesus’s message I’d go with: “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). His message was all about “the Kingdom of God”, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basileia tou theou). Most of his parables were framed as parables of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew it’s expressed as the “Kingdom of Heaven”, ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (he basileia ton ouranon).

“And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (Matthew 13:10-11) The parables are meant to convey the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” So, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matthew 13:24). “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31). “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44). “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls” (Matthew 13:45). “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind” (Matthew 13:47).

These all start the same way. Jesus tells these parables to tell what the Kingdom God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, is like. And it’s this Kingdom that we will to arrive in the Lord’s Prayer. I think that one line in the Lord’s Prayer here in Matthew 6 is thematically connected to the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. And thinking of both together will enhance an understanding of both sections. What is the nature of this Kingdom that we are willing to come? That’s a challenge, I think an exciting and interesting challenge, to understand. Jesus’s parables are quite conspicuously and intentionally difficult to understand. I know they are for me. So when I pray the Lord’s Prayer I feel like I still have some work to do to understand what I’m praying for. But I think at least I know where to look to find the answers.

“Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven.” That’s an interesting line. Is it that we affirm God’s action to bring about his will, on earth as in heaven? Or are we committing to bring about his will by obedience? Or is it both? I think it’s both. And that it’s not just in heaven, but also on earth is interesting to me. This isn’t a wholly other-worldly Gospel. It’s relevant to the world we live in. This world is supposed to be a certain way. And it’s not just disposable. Explicitly not. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:17) This world is supposed to be saved. God loves the world, so we should love it too and work for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. What would this transformed, saved world look like? I think we know quite well what it should look like. It’s “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos). Everything Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the way the world is supposed to be.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” We are physical beings and we have to eat. Jesus will tell us later in this chapter that we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves about that. God will and does provide for our material needs. But we should recognize that it is God who meets our needs. Without nourishment we will die. It’s God who sustains us and gives us life.

“And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors.” Now there’s a provocative statement! It’s important to note here that, as Jesus said in chapter 5 that he is fulfilling the Law that was given through Moses, forgiveness of debts goes back a long way and was an important part of the Mosaic Law. Forgiving debts brings hope, new life, and freedom to people. For people without wealth, debt is a necessity. To get started in life certainly but sometimes even just to survive. And being able to pay off debts is not guaranteed. Certainly not in a Christian worldview. Recall from the previous chapter Jesus’s teaching against oaths: “ Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.” (Matthew 5:36) Christian humility involves understanding that much of our fate, including our prospects for income and wealth, are outside our control.

The Torah also reminds us of this. “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God… lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them;  and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied… then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’ And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18) We can call this the providence of God, that aspect of things occuring in our lives to our benefit or misfortune, but that lie beyond our control. I think here of the expression, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Perhaps not unrelated to that important fact is the commandment to forgive debts. Also in Deuteronomy: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

Here in the Lord’s Prayer what kinds of things are being forgiven? I think it could be all sorts of things. Certainly literal debts on our part, as we forgive our own debtors. To God our debts would seem to be in the form of sin, not having paid what we owe to him under the Law. And we might also have debtors in those sorts of intangible ways. People who have not given us what they owe to us, maybe in terms of respect and love. Those are also debts that we can forgive. In Deuteronomy it speaks of there being a “release”, a שְׁמִטָּה (shmita) from the verb שָׁמַט (shamat), to let something drop. I think that’s a great way to think of it. At some point we just need to let things drop and stop trying to keep account. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, trying to keep account of offenses by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the world blind and toothless. Reconciliation requires letting things drop. This is the path to reconciliation, both between us and God and between each other.

So how does that actually work? Can you actually forgive debts? Whether they be monetary debts or debts of obligation in conduct like criminal offenses? And this is where we get again into some of the surprisingly radical and seemingly impractical aspects of Jesus’s teachings and the Bible generally. The secular part of me can fully appreciate the dynamic power of finance and investment, of which debt is an essential part. Much of the modern world as we know it today wouldn’t function without loans and credit. Not to mention “usury”, i.e. loaning at interest, which the Torah prohibits. That’s something to think about. How to be a Christian and live in the modern world? And how does that relate to the coming of the Kingdom of God? How are things to change? What is God’s ideal that we will be moving toward? I don’t have conclusive answers. But I’m also reluctant to craft easy answers that compromise Christ’s teachings.

Matthew 6:16-18

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

This is a similar message to the teaching about charitable deeds, that we do them for the glory of God and out of genuine love rather than for drawing attention to ourselves. Another point worth noting in this passage is that we ought not to make religious practice appear severe and miserable. Living the Gospel can be difficult and Jesus often acknowledges this. But we don’t have to make a grand display of that.

The age of social media has transformed the ways in which we can present ourselves to the world. There are extremes of making our lives look better than they actually are or worse than they actually are. Either one is an act. Philosophically I’m inclined to think that some form of presentation is unavoidable. We are always interpreters, even of ourselves. But we can at least try to prevent excesses in our self-presentation. John Piper, in his book Desiring God, has advocated what he has called “Christian hedonism”, the view that Christian faith should bring us joy. And he argues this point from scripture. For example, Psalms 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD.” This doesn’t mean that we need to pretend to be happier than we are. But we should go about our lives normally. Jesus puts this in terms of regular grooming. Do your hair, wash your face, do the things that you normally do, even when observing periods of fasting. It’s not about trying to look miserable.

I think we can also read this teaching on fasting in light of Jesus’s teachings on the internalization of the Law. Recall Jesus moved the locus of sinfulness from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. Fasting also seems not to be about appearance but about internal edification. To the extent that it is for the benefit of others, that we are letting our let so shine, it is for the glory of God. And it’s also about an internal transformation of the heart.

Matthew 6:19-21

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Here is the first of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount regarding riches, or what he likely usually called “mammon” (ממון) in his native Aramaic. Jesus also contrasted treasures on earth with treasures in heaven when he told the rich man to sell what he had and give to the poor: “you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Treasures on earth are seriously downgraded in Jesus’s teachings, even discouraged if not outright condemned. The relationship is still a little complicated, which we’ll get to in a bit, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus sees treasure in heaven as vastly superior, and that’s where the focus of his followers needs to be.

Matthew 6:22-23

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

Because of its placement between the previous passage on heavenly treasures over earthly treasures and the next passage on serving God over mammon, this passage would seem also to pertain to the focus of devotion to God rather than to riches. This is a beautiful and richly figurative saying: Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός (ho luchnos tou somatos estin ho ophthalmos) – “the lamp of the body is the eye”. The source of illumination for our whole being is that part by which we center our focus of attention.

“If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.” That’s NKJV translation. The more traditional King James Version is: “if therefore thine eye be single,” which I think is a decent translation too. The greek there is ἁπλοῦς. It can mean “single”, “simple”, and “honest”. So there’s some rich meaning from the gospel writer there conveying both goodness and focus.

Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

As I mentioned earlier, “mammon” (ממון) is an Aramaic term for wealth. I like these Aramaic quotations in the Greek text because it gives us a little glimpse into Jesus’s own native voice. This is a succinct summation of the former two passages. Basically Jesus says you have to choose. Your master is either God or wealth. Can’t be both.

I said earlier that it’s a little complicated. But not for the reasons we might usually hear in the form of awkward accommodations, excusing our deviation (my own included) from Jesus’s literal teachings. It’s just that Jesus uses money and riches in his parables a lot. This doesn’t mean that he’s speaking favorably of literal riches. Jesus is after all the master of the nonliteral, and adamantly so. But it’s easy to forget that he may often be talking in such cases about treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth.

One classic example is his parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. And let’s recall here that a talent – τάλαντον (tálanton) – is a unit of measure, rather a special skill as we think of it in English. A man gives three servants five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The first two are enterprising and double the principal investment. The third man generates nothing, to his own condemnation. The first two would definitely be better examples to follow in our financial practices. That’s what I try to do in my personal finances. But Jesus’s message would seem to be something other than this literal meaning. He says it’s a parable of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven comes, without warning, as the master in this story. And we will be made to give an account and must be prepared.

Another, stranger example is the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-13.

“He also said to His disciples: ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’”

“Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’”

“So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”

“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?

“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

What a strange passage! I love it. What does it mean? Again it would seem not to be meant literally. The parable concludes with the same teaching we see in Matthew 6: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Yet just a few verses before that it speaks of making “friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon”. It’s certainly strange.

I bring this up because I want to be fully transparent in the way we look at Jesus’s teachings. I think we often proof text to highlight the teachings that conform to our views and conveniently ignore some of the other difficult or strange things Jesus taught when they don’t fit the agenda. The best practice is to actively resist and counter that tendency.

Regarding the parable of the unjust steward, I’ve read a lot of commentaries on these verses and I’m not satisfied that any one of them explains them adequately or at least that any one of them is able to demonstrate any interpretation conclusively. The safest interpretation I’ve seen is that, as the dishonest manager was prudent in using the things of this life to ensure the future, so believers should be prudent in preparing for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a comparison.

Interesting to note here another example in scripture where shrewdness or craftiness is presented more positively than we would expect. I think here also of Jacob in Genesis, in his shrewd plans to get his father’s birthright and blessing from under Esau and to get the better part of his father-in-law Laban’s flock. The shrewdness of the unjust servant is, in greek, φρόνιμος (phronimos). Jesus uses the same word in Matthew 10:16 when counseling his disciples to be as wise (φρόνιμοι, phrónimoi) as serpents but also innocent as doves. The same word is also used in the parable of the five wise virgins. This kind of resourcefulness, prudence, and shrewdness is, intriguingly, encouraged. But the object or aim to which either wisdom or foolishness apply is important. Using another word for wisdom, σοφία (sophia), Paul told the Corinthians that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Symmetrically “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We ought to be prudent, resourceful, and even shrewd for the things of God and of the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”

“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

This brings us back to the doctrine of divine providence, that events in our lives can occur to our benefit or misfortune, that lie beyond our control. Appreciating this is important for our well-being and happiness. But I think it’s also just an important part of understanding the nature of reality. And that makes sense. A proper understanding of reality would be conducive to well-being and happiness, at least in the long-run. What is the illusion that this understanding might dispel? The illusion of reality as something that we can direct and control. It’s not a total illusion. We can direct some things to an extent. But there’s always a limit. And remarkably, also fortunately, much in reality that we rely upon just happens outside of and beyond our control or even awareness.

One of Jesus’s parables is especially illustrative of this point.

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

We know more through modern botany about these processes but there is still a lot we don’t know and, significantly, the more we come to understand about the physiological and biochemical complexity involved in seed germination and plant growth the more astounding it is how all this just happens with minimal input from us. It’s miraculous. And that’s what the whole world is like.

It’s easy to forget this because we are always engaged in activity and it feels like we’re the ones keeping our lives going. And yes, there are things that we have to do. But the vast majority of what sustains us is given to us. Hugh Nibley had this line: “Work we must but the lunch is free”. Playing there off the expression in economics that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – TANSTAAFL. Work may be necessary but we shouldn’t conclude from this that our work is sufficient for all that we have. The greater part of what sustains us and makes our existence possible precedes us and is beyond our control and awareness. I think this realization is one of the first steps toward sincere piety.

Another side to this is that we preoccupy ourselves much more than we really need to. At least for the things that are needful. Jesus said, “One thing is needful”, χρεία (chreia) or necessary (Luke 10:42). But we preoccupy ourselves – μεριμνάω (merimnáo) – unnecessarily. But Jesus commands: “Do not worry” – μὴ μεριμνᾶτε (me merimnáte). And the list of things for which Jesus says not to worry gets down to what we might consider the most basic things.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.” Food, drink, clothing. Those are pretty basic things. Stuff we would say today goes right at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Is it possible to live like that? I honestly don’t know. I guess I’m in the class of people Jesus calls the ὀλιγόπιστοι (oligópistoi) – those of little faith. I’m not ready to take that kind of leap yet. But I think we can say this: if Jesus says we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with even those most basic things it’s reasonable to suppose that we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with the many far less basic things with which we do regularly preoccupy ourselves. Jesus teaches a much simpler way of life than the vast majority of people practice. Even as oligópistoi Christians, if we’re not able to go all the way to the kind of life Jesus teaches us to live we can at least move in that direction and simplify our lives.

The last verse of this chapter is one I’ve found personally meaningful. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” I’ve found it easy to fall into unhealthy imaginative fictions about troubles the future might bring. Getting fixated on and upset about things that aren’t even real. That is not a good way to live. I get a kick out of Jesus’s half-sardonic, half-optimistic saying: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” We’ve got enough to worry about in the present moment. Don’t multiply worries beyond necessity or reality. But it’s not only trouble that we experience in the present. There is grace, free gifts, to be seen all around us right now. We can see this in the birds of the sky, the lilies of the field, and in countless other free bounties given to us by God. We do not need to worry and should not worry because God is mindful of us and watching over us.

The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5

What are the attributes by which people can know followers of Jesus Christ? For this the New Testament is our primary source and grounding for guidance. The Sermon on the Mount especially is a key text that teaches how we are to live in order to be the “light of the world”. Here we look at Matthew 5, the first of the sermon’s 3 chapters, where Jesus teaches the fulfillment of the Law, that we are not to become angry or lustful, that we should not resist evil but rather love our enemies and give to all that ask, turning none away, having good will toward all indiscriminately, as the rain falls on both the just and unjust.

I’d like to make this the first episode in a series on the Sermon on the Mount, this episode focuses on Matthew chapter 5. So it will likely follow with a complete trilogy with Matthew 6 and 7. And maybe that will follow with an extended series on other parts of the New Testament.

I’ve read the Bible quite regularly for a number of years but lately I’ve been focusing especially on the New Testament and the Gospels. I think of the New Testament as a focal point. It’s what I keep coming back to for grounding. It’s the primary source and the standard (canon) by which to measure everything else. Our word “canon” even comes from the Greek κανών for “measuring rod” or “standard”. That’s how I use the New Testament.

I posted this idea on Facebook a while back and a good friend of mine, who always has interesting theological ideas asked if I considered the New Testament divinely revealed and/or inerrant. It’s a good question, and brings up the interesting issue of whether or not you can interpret scripture without philosophy, which I don’t think you can because some kind of analysis beyond the Bible is always needed to think about the Bible. Anyway, I think the New Testament is divine but not inerrant. And that relates to the kind of text that it is. Euclid’s Elements is the kind of text that could be inerrant (it isn’t, but it’s pretty darn close). I think of the New Testament like I do the Torah. The Law is not a reflection of eternal truth, as in geometry or logic for instance, but it establishes a covenant, it brings it into existence. It’s divine because it’s a covenant with God. The New Testament establishes a covenant to live in a certain way, a way that is not mandated by nature or physical law. By the mandates of nature or physical law we don’t have to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We don’t have to love our enemies. We don’t have to impart our substance, etc. Usually we don’t. And there are many ideologies that teach the opposite. But these are the kinds of things we are taught to do in the New Testament. We create that contingent truth by entering into the covenant. And they’re the kinds of things I want to embrace. The historical details of Jesus’s life as narrated in the Gospel’s or the authorship of certain letters don’t have to be a one-to-one correspondence to the events as they occurred in order to establish that it’s the kind of covenant that I want to be a part of.

So I want to talk more about that covenant. What is The Way that we follow as a disciples of Jesus? And of course this being 2020 I can’t mention The Way without a reference The Mandalorian: “This is the way”. But that actually is how early Christians referred to themselves, as “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos). And “The Way” is referred to in a number of places in the book of Acts; Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. What is this Way? I think the Sermon on the Mount is key. And one reason I want to say that the New Testament grounds us, that it’s the primary source is because, in my thinking about my Christian ministry to a secular world I think there’s much associated with Christianity that obscures The Way. And I’m sorry to say that we Christians have to accept most of the responsibility for this. Not that there isn’t mischaracterization from outside the Church. But we also have to do a lot better at focusing on Christ rather than Christendom, the cultural, tribal accretions that creep into our Church. I won’t say any more about that but you can probably imagine what some of those things might be. But I want to stick to the positive proclamation of the true Gospel. And for that let’s turn to the words of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount.

There are lots of things we could point out as we go through these verses but what I want to focus on is The Way that is being shown here. One thing to keep in mind of course is that Jesus himself is the way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos) (John 14:6). As we go through this, what does it mean to follow Christ, to follow The Way?

Matthew 5:1-10

“And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What are the qualities here of the Blessed, the Μακάριοι (Makarioi)? The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Compare these to the martial and heroic virtues of Homeric Greece, Sparta, or even the Roman Empire. As Friedrich Nietzsche would later point out, and not at all favorably, one from these other cultures might look with disdain on these attributes as the attributes of a slave, not attributes to be celebrated and admired but rather seen as pathetic. In a sense Nietzsche wasn’t wrong, except that followers of Jesus see these as attributes of the Makarioi. David Bentley Hart has said of Nietzsche that “he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased”. “The losers” one might say. For Christians, the weak, the outcast, the infirm and the diseased are of central concern. They are the ones who matter most to us.

Everything here is a reversal, as is often the case in Jesus’s teachings. The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit, or as Luke records it, just, to the poor (Luke 6:20). According to legend, when Alexander the Great lay on his deathbed he said his empire should be left “to the strongest”. But Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven will be given to the poor and the Earth to the meek.

Matthew 5:11-16

“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

This is an interesting passage to compare with one in the next chapter, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. (Matthew 6:1) But in Chapter 5 we are encouraged to let ourselves be seen. What’s the difference? Probably it’s a difference of who we are trying to glorify. Are we trying to glorify God or ourselves? Jesus says that we should let our light shine before men so that they may glorify the Father. And that’s important. The Way of the Gospel is not only for personal edification. It is meant to be visible.

An important question to consider: what do people associate with Christ and his Way, on account of knowing you, that you’re a Christian and professed follower of Christ? Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Is that what people see?

This doesn’t mean that everyone will admire loving followers of Christ. Jesus says that we are blessed when people revile and persecute us and say evil things against us falsely for his sake. Even a loving character can be mischaracterized as hateful. So it’s important to think carefully about this. Just because people speak critically of you doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s right. What do fair-minded people think? Or, if fair-minded people aren’t on hand to ask, what would fair-minded people think?

It’s entirely possible for Christians to be judgmental and unloving in pursuit of purportedly Christian motivations. From later in the Sermon on the Mount, “‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’” (Matthew 7:22) Nominal devotion in Christ’s name doesn’t guarantee actual consistency with the Way of his Gospel. It’s necessary to think carefully about these things, since false, even if sincerely intentioned discipleship is not only possible but predicted by Jesus himself.

Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

There are a couple of interesting points here. One, which we’ll see a lot of in the following verses, is that The Way of Christ is hardly a permissive, anything-goes kind of ethic. It’s an intensification and internalization of good conduct that goes beyond what was previously taught. Yet Jesus also says that his burden is ἐλαφρός, (elaphros), “light” (Matthew 11:30) Something to think about.

The other thing that’s kind of interesting here is the role of change and development in God’s dealings with humanity. Jesus didn’t destroy the Law but he didn’t leave it as it was either. He came to “fulfill” the Law, πληρόω (pleroo). I don’t want to distract too much from the scripture with philosophy but, like I said before, sometimes it’s useful. The philosophical process of the dialectic makes use of this notion that in development prior stages can be, not negated but taken up and incorporated into subsequent stages. This is both useful and risky. Immutable principles can be inadequate to a wide range of circumstances or to changing circumstances. But they do have the benefit of being stable. The capacity for change also makes heresy possible. So what do we do? Well, as with seeking to let others see our good works we have to be careful. Latter-day Saint leader Hugh B. Brown said: “One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.” The stories of the New Testament show a lot of changes: changes to dietary laws, changes to the practice of circumcision, etc. And these changes were challenging. Not only because of obstinance but also because it wasn’t obvious to sincere followers of Christ what the right answer was. So they had to get together in council to figure it out prayerfully. There’s an instructive lesson in that.

Matthew 5:21-26

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”

This is an astounding passage. And perfectly indicative of the high standards of The Way of Christ. How is a Christian to comport themself with others? As their light shines for others to see what is it that others see in the follower of Christ. Certainly it’s the complete opposite of violence but also aggression of any kind. Not just physical violence but also verbal violence or an unkind attitude. Needless to say this is extremely difficult. Especially since, as Jesus foretells, a Christian is to be the subject of much abuse. But the Christian is not to respond even with anger. Or to belittle another in any way. “Raca” is an Aramaic expression that also means essentially to call someone a fool.

I never met my maternal grandfather but he was by all accounts a wonderful person. I’ve heard a story where he was asked to think of somebody he didn’t like and had a really hard time thinking of anyone. Eventually he decided that if he had to choose someone he could settle on Fidel Castro. I always get a kick out of that. And I do think it’s closer to the kind of character Christians are to have. James spoke of being βραδὺς εἰς ὀργήν (bradus eis orgen), “slow to anger” (James 1:19). I think of developing a kind of incapacity to anger or to think in disparaging ways of others. The capacity to become angry comes so naturally, unsurprising since it is instrumental to our survival as animals in nature, “red in tooth and claw”.

Matthew 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

This is another example how it’s abundantly clear that Jesus, far from abolishing the Law and the prophets, or loosening its strictness, rather is even more strict. But in a way that, much like the intensification from not murdering to not being angry, follows a similar pattern of internalization. Not only is the act of adultery prohibited, but lust itself. The move is to focus on a deeper transformation of character that is the ultimate root of the actions that eventually follow from it.

If anyone in history is prone to the non-literal it’s Jesus. So it can be a puzzle sometimes to know what to take literally and what not to take literally. Since he so often rebukes his disciples for taking him too literally I figure it’s probably best to assume, when in doubt, that something is not literal. That would seem to be the case with the calls for dismemberment in this passage. Are we really to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands if they are implicated in our lust? (One might also consider other more directly implicating body parts). I think not. But the hyperbole serves its effect to emphasize the severity that Jesus intends. Lust is corrosive and offensive to the soul.

What are we to make of this as modern-day Christians? And I say “modern” because, frankly, cultural norms change. Certainly they do. In theory we live in a more sex-positive world today. And I think a lot of that is good. But is that the Christian part of me or the secular Western part of me talking? Well, I say we’re more sex-positive in theory. But we’re also very anxious. I think in recent years it’s becoming ever more apparent that sexual conduct has deep emotional and existential consequences. The MeToo movement that went viral in 2017 brought special attention to this. A need for structure in our sexual conduct is apparent from experience.

Jesus condemns adultery, not sex itself. And that may go some way in resolving the tension. The question of lust is a little more complicated. Is sexual desire itself bad or only when it’s directed toward someone other than a spouse? Paul gives us some insight into some of the perspectives of early Christians, or at least certain factions of them. He said to the Corinthians that celibacy is good but not for everyone. He also says married folks can take periods of sexual abstinence for periods of time but that they shouldn’t do it for too long. Why? “It is better to marry than to burn [πυρόω, puroó].” (1 Corinthians 7:9) The connotative meaning there being to burn with passion. Lust here, even between spouses, seems to be a not-good thing and sex between spouses is a permissible, if less holy, concession mean to prevent sexual desire between spouses, rather than to fulfill or celebrate it. At least, that’s one interpretation. I think this is one example where rational methods of theology and philosophy are needed to supplement the primary sources of scripture. But it’s important to do that honestly and transparently, without motivated reasoning. If we’re going to temper some of these passages on sexual desire within marriage we need to be careful about doing the same to passages about nonviolence and love of enemies, and be consistent.

Matthew 5:31-32

“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”

This is kind of related to the previous passage on lust and gets into the question of the views of Jesus and other early Christianity on sex, marriage, and procreation. Here Jesus gives a strong condemnation of divorce and by implication a strong endorsement of the sanctity of marriage, once entered into. This goes to show some of the complexity of Jesus’s views. Or at least it looks kind of complex, maybe because it doesn’t quite map onto the way we divide up different positions in our time.

In Matthew 19 we get some expansion on Jesus’s views on divorce.

“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.’” (Matthew 19:3-9)

So this is very consistent with Jesus’s statement in Matthew 5. And Jesus gives a very strong endorsement, or a sort, or marriage: “the two shall become one flesh”. But his disciples have an interesting reaction. They say: “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10) That seems kind of cynical. But surprisingly Jesus gives qualified affirmation of this view.

“But He said to them, ‘All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.’” (Matthew 19:11-12)

Does Jesus mean this literally? As usual, it’s difficult to say. It cohere’s decently with the idea that “it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish”. I’m guessing it’s non-literal. But at the very least there seems to be an endorsement here of celibacy as a path of holiness and devotion.

Jesus also seems to downplay marriage when he is asked which – of the multiple men a woman had been married to and widowed by – this woman would be with in the resurrection. And Jesus says the question is meaningless because “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) Jesus doesn’t explain why this is, but one interpretation is that since in the resurrection people are no longer dying and the earth is not being depopulated there’s also no need to repopulate it. So marriage is unnecessary. If that is the reasoning the ends of marriage would seem to be much more directed at procreation than at romantic love. In our modern conception of marriage as a relationship of romantic love we certainly can imagine a reason, beyond mere procreation, for marriage to persist in the resurrection. We love our spouses and want to continue being married together. But this reason doesn’t seem to be on the radar of the Gospel writers and people described in these accounts.

This is another point on which modern Christians need to apply theological and philosophical reasoning with the primary sources in the scriptures to figure out how to properly understand them, especially where the first-century concerns and questions don’t quite map onto our twenty-first century concerns and questions. If the first-century writers didn’t address the same questions we have, we have to do some additional thinking.

Some food for thought along these lines. In Latter-day Saint belief marriage does persist into the resurrection. This is something of a doctrinal challenge given the teachings of the New Testament. It is interesting though that Joseph Smith, when he taught about the possibilities of carrying our family relationships beyond the grave spoke of the process as one of craftiness.

“If you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be crafty. . . . Go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory . . . use a little Craftiness & seal all you can & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven. I will walk through the gate of heaven and Claim what I seal & those that follow me & my Council.”

Historians have noted how our conception of what marriage is supposed to be has expanded in modern times beyond procreation. We now see it as a partnership of romantic love. That does change the game a little bit. Could it be that Joseph Smith was thinking here to institute, by craftiness, something that was not in God’s plan previously? That in Jesus’s time marriage in the resurrection wouldn’t have made much sense, but to us today it does? Just a thought.

Matthew 5:33-37

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)

There’s probably not much interest these days in making ostentatious oaths anyway, in which we would invoke heaven, earth, or the Holy City. But what insights can we take from this? Once again it’s an intensification of the commandment. Not only should we not swear falsely but we shouldn’t swear at all. Why is that? Jesus seems to be saying here that these oaths imply a good deal of presumption to power that we aren’t entitled to. “You cannot make one hair white or black.” You can’t invoke heaven, earth, or the Holy City because these don’t belong to you and you can’t control them.

The Epistle of James gives further insight:

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

I think here of the theological notions of providence and grace. There are things that happen that we have no knowledge or control over. And it is wisdom to recognize this lack of control. Last night I was sitting around a fire with my family on the front porch and it was really windy. The fire kept on moving from one direction to the next and my daughters were commenting on how it was acting so crazy. I brought up how Jesus taught that the wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but can’t tell where it comes from and where it goes. And how that’s like the Spirit. (John 3:8)

Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”

With this we get into the heart of Jesus’s ethic of nonviolence. This is what I consider a core piece of Christ’s message that defines what it is to be a Christian, but one that has also been repeatedly ignored by the nominal Christianity of Christendom throughout history. And it is here where we must start to do some real introspection and soul-searching.

First a note about the quoted passage, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus is indeed intensifying this commandment. But what is he intensifying? These are sometimes known as talion laws or lex talionis. The basic idea being that the punishment should match the injury perpetrated. And it is indeed strict, but just. I don’t want to downplay that. In Deuteronomy it says “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21)

But it’s worth noting a more progressive side to this that we at least what we might call progressive relative to the surrounding nations. For example, when speaking of this lex talionis in Leviticus it says: “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 24:22). Foreigners are not to be treated more harshly. The standard is strict but it is also consistent.

Christine Hayes said of this in her Open Yale course on the Hebrew Bible:

“This was a radical concept in its day, evidently. The punishment should fit the crime, no more and no less for all free persons — granted slaves are not included — regardless of social class. Equality before the law. And this casts the principle of talion, I hope, in a new light. The law of talion, which is essentially the principle that a person should be punished according to the injury they inflicted, it’s been decried as a primitive, archaic reflex of the vengeance or vendetta principle. The notion of “an eye for an eye” is usually cited or held up as typical of the harsh and cruel standards of the vengeful Old Testament God. But when you look at it in a comparative light in its legal context, we see that it’s a polemic against the class distinctions that were being drawn in antecedent and contemporary legal systems, such as the Code of Hammurabi. According to the Bible, the punishment should always fit the crime regardless of the social status of the perpetrator on the one hand or the victim on the other. All free citizens who injure are treated equally before the law. They’re neither let off lightly nor punished excessively.”

So I just wanted to give the “eye for an eye” principle fair treatment. But, how does Jesus intensify these limitations to punishment? He says “not to resist an evil person”. We are not even to apply the punishments of lex talionis. If someone gouges out your eye you’re not supposed to retaliate and gouge their eye out. If someone knocks out your tooth you’re not supposed to knock out their tooth. In a sense this is quite unjust. But Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about that. What a radical ethic! Does he really mean it? Something millions of Christians have puzzled about for centuries. It seems impossible. He could not possibly have meant it. Hyperbole again?

Let’s keep going. “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” My goodness! Really? And who does that? It’s worth noting here a tradition of interpretation that there is a kind of resistance in this nonresistance, of the sort of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems very likely that turning the other cheek to an oppressor will or should shame them for their oppressive actions. So this gives the victim some degree of power. Or another interpretation that if the first blow was a dismissive one with the back of the hand the second will have to be with an open palm, which is thought to be less dehumanizing. Maybe so. Those seem like decent secondary meanings. And there certainly is a paradoxical power in nonviolent resistance. But the primary meaning is still startling. We might ask, as other disciples asked in the Gospel of John: “Hard (Σκληρός, Skleros) is this saying. Who is able to hear it?” (John 6:60)

Jesus then says to go above and beyond what your oppressors demand. “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” But this generosity is not only for oppressors. “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” That last part may be meant to apply to oppressors but not necessarily. It seems like what’s being taught here is indiscriminate generosity and service. Which we’ll see more of in the next and final passage of this chapter.

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

This passage is all about universalization and indiscriminate benevolence. We are not to evaluate or judge the merits or desert of others to be recipients of our good will. It is to be imparted freely without thought of merit. There are no more labels, at least none of any consequence. If we have enemies they are not to be treated any differently from friends. So in what sense are they even enemies anymore? None on our part, even if they persist to think of themselves as such.

This is again something that I see as a definitive Christian attribute. And it’s much ignored. We can certainly be forgiven for not living up to this standard. But we can’t ignore this standard as Christians. This is central to our discipleship.

One of the things I love about the Gospel is its incongruity with human nature and the total irrelevance of that incongruity. Not retaliating, loving our enemies and praying for them. These things are very contrary to natural human tendencies. And that’s the point! Because we are not supposed to persist in our natural human tendencies. In fact we’re supposed to die to that kind of natural, animal life and crucify it. When Jesus told a rich man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow him, and then said how hard it would be for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, his disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus said, “For mankind it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:21-26) Yes it’s impossible. So a new life is needed. Paul said, “our old self was crucified with him.” (Romans 6:6) And also that for anyone in Christ there is a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation”.

Much has been said in the past few decades about evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and the ways our behaviors are constrained by our physical makeup and its evolutionary background. Now, as a matter of scientific theory I find evolution very convincing. I do think we have shared ancestry with all the other animals and all living things on this planet. I actually think that fits perfectly with the idea of the moral inadequacy of our animal nature. We aren’t naturally inclined to love each other indiscriminately, to be peaceable, to not resist. In evolutionary terms that’s a recipe for extinction. So it makes sense that our animal behavior is very much contrary to that. But Christianity calls us to transcend this genetic and evolutionary heritage, to make a radical break and to enter this καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), this “new creation” in Christ.

I love the image Jesus gives of the indiscriminate nature of this benevolence and good will. God the Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” I think this relates to the notions of providence and grace I mentioned earlier. We are not in control of things in the world. The wind blows where it wants to. It is not for us to portion out good and bad things. As Christians, as followers of Christ, it is for us to put forth all our efforts to fill the world with good, for all people, as much as we can.

Jesus says, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Is this possible? As he says elsewhere, “For mankind it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” But my takeaway with all this is how to be the light of the world that Jesus talks about. How are people to know us as disciples of Jesus Christ? This is the stuff we should be striving for. When people see the way we live and want to understand why, if they turn to the Sermon on the Mount it will all make sense and explain our behavior, and they’ll think, “Ah, I see why they act like that now. This is what they’re trying to do. This is why Christians are so loving toward all people in such surprising ways.”

So that’s Matthew 5. I’ll follow this up later with Matthew chapters 6 and 7.

God’s Dynamic Character

Mike and Todd discuss the work of Jack Miles and the different experiences and perspectives on God found in the Bible. Approached as a biography, the Bible crafts a fascinating and dynamic story of God’s developing character and God’s developing relationship with humanity. God is at times creator, destroyer, liberator, lawgiver, conqueror, executioner, wife, Holy One, recluse, puzzle, and Ancient of Days. And then, for Christians, the development and new birth of God as human being, co-sufferer, and teacher of nonviolence and universal love.

“But Also For the Interests of Others”

In his letter to the Philippians Paul said: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

“I gotta go home. What do I owe ya?”
“The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?”
(The Good Place, Season 2, Episode 12)

What do we owe to each other? This is the question that runs through all of what is now one of my favorite television shows, The Good Place. This question has stuck in my head the last few days. And as a Christian it’s got me thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and live in imitation of Christ.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul said: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) I think there is a radical shift in perspective, call it a new life, being born again, in coming to look out not for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. We could call it maturity, while noting that it’s a kind of maturity that we don’t just reach naturally. It’s not maturation of the old man into a more developed version of the old man. It’s a complete rebirth and transformation into a new creature.

For all of this Christ is the model and the means. Paul continues in his exhortation to the Philippians saying, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8) These are some of the most important verses in the New Testament and have been foundational to the development of the doctrine of Christ’s nature and Godhood. But what I’d like to focus on is the exhortation embedded in it; the ethic.

Jesus’s teachings repeatedly feature a theme of reversal, particularly in the ways that we esteem ourselves and others.

“And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

There is a repeated message of shifting focus away from self and onto others. Paul said to the Philippians that this was exactly Christ did at a level fundamental to the very nature of his mortal existence. He “emptied Himself”; ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν (heauton ekenōsen). That verb, κενόω (kenóō), “to empty out”, is significant in Christian theology for the “kenosis” of Christ, the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will to become entirely receptive to the will of the Father. But this isn’t only teaching about Christ’s nature. Paul is calling for the Church to do this as well, to imitate Christ in his kenosis of self. Rather than being self-centered we are to de-center ourselves from our own circle of concerns, maybe even put ourselves on the outside edge of that circle, looking in, to center the interests of others.

Another thing Jesus said was that, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). This could be understood, perhaps in the first instance, as a warning. If you try to be greater than others you’ll end up being a servant instead. But I think the positive interpretation, that we ought to act as servants to others, that this is true greatness, is also consistent with Jesus’s teachings. And it’s consistent with Paul’s message to the Philippians. Christ took “the form of a bond-servant”, a δοῦλος (doulos). And I think here of the image of Jesus kneeling and washing his own disciples’s feet.

What does it look like to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”? A few years ago in my church’s worldwide general conference one of the church’s leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, quoted Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who said: “It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” I come back to that idea a lot. Was Solzhenitsyn saying that we shouldn’t defend human rights? Certainly not. Having been a victim of the Soviet gulags himself he would be the last person to say that. But I think he was onto something quite astute. Rights don’t carry much force without human obligations. We have to think about others. We have to think about one another.

A community has to have people who look out for the interests of others. This is what Paul wanted to see among the Philippians. He said these things would make his “joy complete” (Philippians 2:2).

The author of comparative religion Karen Armstrong has focused a lot on kenosis in her writing and it is clearly on view in the 2009 Charter for Compassion that she spearheaded. The second sentence in that Charter states that, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”

These are ideas that impact me deeply:

“Regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

“Dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”

“What do we owe to each other?”