“To live the gospel is the most effective way most effective in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. …Not just preach but live the life according to the light.... If, therefore, you go on serving people and ask them also to serve, they would understand. But you quote instead John 3:16 and ask them to believe it and that has no appeal to me, and I am sure people will not understand it...the Gospel will be more powerful when practiced and preached.” - Gandhi
John Pilch divides the sermon on the Mount into three parts: 5:21-48 a warning against the faulty righteousness of the Scribes, 6:1-18 against the faulty righteousness of the Pharisees, and 6:19- 7:27 an exhortation to a new righteousness for his disciples. That might be excessively neat but it is instructive.
Let’s start with this observation: Last weeks pericope was about the disciples being “different” and by their difference their lives were to influence the world around. Therefore they had to beware of the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees and live a different righteousness. This pericope might benefit from remembering 5:21 and even reading it at time of Gospel reading.
This week’s pericope is about a series of “slippery slopes.” We might need to remember that honor was a highly valued commodity in Jesus time and place. Honor was in many ways more important than riches since honor could aways reap more riches, kind of like celebrity today where being famous for being famous reaps endorsement contracts and wealth. If you then call me a fool I have no choice but to repair a dent in my honor. The way I do that is to escalate the argument we are having right then in hope of denting your honor even more. These escalations do not lead anywhere good even today. They sap life, they destroy community, and they lead to generations of feud. The antidote is to live at peace with everyone as a top priority. So high a priority that even making ones sin or thank offering must wait to tend to personal peace.
A similar dynamic is at play in the sayings about adultery. In Jesus’ society the sexes had limited access to one another and if they were afforded access, it was not secret but someone else always knew about it. Honor and shame again play a role. The man, husband or father, who had his house and honor intruded upon by the man in the adulterous relationship had to take action and that action was violent. (Dt 22:22-24) Even with the Law on the husband or father’s side, a blood feud had just been set loose.
In the case of divorcing a lesser but nonetheless serious problem arose. Wives and husbands lived in arranged marriages. As these marriages were arranged their basis were economics not passion, compatibility or love. Since land was an important asset, if not the most important, it was advantageous to marry relatives and cement the ownership of the land of ones ancestors. In the absence of land family closeness was an economic and security asset all by itself. If one then divorced ones wife, one made a fissure in a community and a family that had lasting repercussions.
So how do you know that the things you bargain for when a sale is negotiated are what they are advertised to be? In Jesus time the only guarantee was the word of the seller and any oaths he might make toward the truth of his words. Swearing by “heaven, or earth, or ones own head” was popular since Jesus quotes the habit of doing so. But these were really substitutes. What was being avoided was to swear before God that what was being said was true. Let us leave aside the matter that both lying and swearing falsely by God’s name are prohibited. (Dt 19:11-12) The fact that guaranties are being demanded are a sign that distrust permeates the relationship between buyer and seller.
He had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The Law of God, the Law of Moses and Israel had had a reason to exist. It was given to shape and fashion a people. As with all law, it was open to “interpretation.” That “interpretation” becomes necessary when one wants to be outside it for a moment but not accountable to its repercussions. As Jesus reviews some laws for us here in Matt 5, it becomes obvious that more is behind the letter of the law.
The company of disciples ought to be the safest place on earth. Here one ought to know that one is not in need to defending ones honor because it is not being challenged - it actually does not exist: No one is good except God alone. (Matt 19:17) You cannot injure what is not there. As part of the community, your honor cannot be challenged because only God has honor and you live by God’s honor. (Matt 6:19ff) You therefore can withhold judgement on others because it is not important to you personally. (Matt 7:1ff) Your lack of standing is of not import since God supplies. (Matt 6:25ff)
If you really cannot offend me, why would I be angry? Peace, at least within the community, suddenly becomes a possibility. That peace must be tended. (Matt 18:15ff) It is under assault when questions of rank enter since honor creeps back into the picture. (Matt 18:1ff)
If Jesus’ brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God, then familial relations are a matter of faith and not marriage. It is therefore not wonder that Jesus restates a different case for marriage (Matt 19:3-9) For the disciples, the marriage relationship is to be of the character of Adam and Eve - made for each other not for the husband’s family. In that place, chastity is observed as a matter of habit. How can the church worship as one if it was otherwise? She would have to stand in two different houses - men and women - if she lived in the segregation that mid eastern society demanded.
Finally, the community of Jesus is a place of radical honesty and trust. Here, no one swears by anything. It is assumed that God is listening and hears and sees what is done in secret, even in the dark places of the heart. Here they speak to the other and treat the other as if that on was Jesus himself. (Matt 25) How does one lie to the one who knows exactly what one thinks?
Are we that place?