Two roadblocks to understanding in Matthew chapter 5
by James M. Branum
Today is an important Sunday in the history of our church. After several weeks of discussions, we will be meeting to discuss not only the physical space we will be meeting in during the future but also some related issues that really get at the big questions – who are we as a church? What is our mission? What are we to be about?
I believe that this is a good Sunday to go back to the roots of who we are, the roots of our Anabaptist Mennonite tradition.
Jesus’ sermon on the mount has been described by many Anabaptists as being our “canon within the canon,” in that everything could be arguably seen as commentary on these core teachings. Ideas like the Golden Rule, sincerity in faith practice, non-judgementalism and the upside down Kingdom of God are all discussed in this text.
Yet, the text has a couple of serious issues with have long troubled Christians. Both of these potential issues are found in Matthew chapter 5. I think these issues might be described as being roadblocks to understanding which have long kept Jesus-followers from embracing the radical teachings of Jesus. Today I want to spend some time dealing directly with these two roadblocks.
First though, we need to set up some context.
At this point in Matthew, Jesus’ ministry is in its early days. After having spent time in Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness, he is now back in his home area of Galilee and has begun to preach. His message was simple and revolutionary, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
His methods are similar to other Jewish rabbis or teachers, except that Jesus focuses his time on the sick and the outcasts of his society. He is not mingling with respectable people but rather those on the margins. He also seems to have started to gather a core group of followers who would later become the apostles. More and more it seems that Jesus’ time is split between intensive teaching for the committed core as well as outreach to the crowds.
This takes us to the Sermon on the Mount. Today we are just going to be looking at Matthew chapter 5 but the sermon stretches all the way to the end of chapter 7. We should note we have recorded here is likely just small condensation of this remarks on that day, likely written decades later. In fact Luke (who is the other gospel writer to have recorded this sermon), provides a slightly different version of the same message.
Matthew chapter 5 begins in verses 1-12 with Jesus seeing the crowds and then sitting down to speak to his followers in the manner of other Jewish rabbis. From there he begins his discourse with the now-familiar words of the Beatitudes, which are both comforting but also troubling to those who have power and money. I would love to talk more today about Jesus’ upside down kingdom of God but time will not permit it.
Verses 13-17 discuss the mission that Jesus is giving his disciples. Jesus says this his followers in the present-tense are being the “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” which is powerfully visual way of saying that his disciples are transforming the world. In Greek, Matthew is using the 2nd person plural here, so it might be better translate this as saying “You all are the salt of the earth or y’all are the light of the world”
Thenext portion of the text is where we encounter one of our 2 roadblocks of understanding…
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:17-20 (NRSV)
On the surface of it this sounds simple. “Be perfect.” It certainly was taught this way to me growing up. But it is anything but simple.
Jesus says that his followers were called to never break the law or the prophets (these are 2 of the 3 great divisions of the Jewish scriptures), and to not even break the smallest of the commandments, even a single letter, a single stroke of a letter is important. And then he goes on to say that the law is fully binding and that it will remain so until the end of time or when “all is accomplished.” Finally most who read this text assume that when Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law, and that consequently we are living in the post-law age since Jesus has in fact fulfilled the Messianic scriptures.
There are some major problems with this idea. First, is everything really accomplished yet? Is the Kingdom of God really in place yet? Do we see a world governed by the upside values of the Beatitudes? If not, then is it really accurate to assume that the law of Moses ois completely inconsequential any more for followers of Christ?
Second, the rest of Matthew 5 is dedicated to a set of antitheses (or oppositional contrasting statements), in which Jesus begins by citing from either Jewish scriptures or traditions and then says, “but I say to you…” and then proceeds to either disagree with the older scripture or tradition or to reframe it and give it a completely different meaning.
If Jesus was teaching that absolute perfection (in our modern sense of the word) is essential, then it would seem out of character for him to be playing so loosely with the the teachings of the past.
And also we see from Jesus’ own life that he was willing to buck traditional ideas of what obedience to the law meant when he healed on the sabbath, when he wouldn’t wash his hands before eating, or when he let his disciples gather food on the sabbath.
Based on these factors, I would argue today that the traditional Christian understanding that I grew up with (and that appears to be obvious on first glance) is in fact incorrect.
To understand the meaning of this text, we need to dig deeper, particularly as it relates to one key word, “fulfill.”
In our English translations, it would appear that Jesus is saying that he is not abolishing the old law because it is bad, but rather that he is fulfilling its function and soon will be inaugerating a new set of teachings.
But if one goes to the original Greek text, it is a bit more complicated. The word used here is πληρόω: (pleroma)
One source says that the word could be defined as “to give the true or complete meaning to something” or to “provide the real significance of”1 Another says that the word literally means “to fill up,” and discusses how non-Biblican sources use the word when talking about filling up a jar with liquid. 2
At the same time, our baggage with this scripture tends to be that we think that Jesus’ fulfillment of scripture is like him being a perfect puzzle piece that finishes the jigsaw puzzle created by prophecy, and that now the puzzle is completed, there is no purpose left for the picture as a whole.
But what if we instead say that Jesus is doing something different? Could we logically read the text like this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Jewish law and prophets. That is not what I am about, rather I am here to fill up these traditions, to amplify, to give them new meaning to dig down deep to the deeper meanings. The words of these traditions are important but so is the bigger picture. And sometimes even the smallest parts of our laws and traditions might have huge lessons to teach us. The religious leaders have it all wrong. My challenge to you is to go deeper than they ever imagined going.”
This is obviously a bit of paraphrase but I think it might help to explain a different and better way of seeing this text.
Understood in this light, I think the set of antitheses that come up make more since. Let’s look at them briefly…
Before we delve into the specifics though, I do want to alert you to one key commonality. In all of the six teachings, Jesus is not saying “in the future times after I have been crucified and resurrected, there will be a new law and that I’m telling you now what these teachings will be,” but rather he is saying that these teachings are valid right here and now. This would provide another clue that the traditional idea of fulfillment is not valid.
OK, to the antitheses…
Antitheses #2: Verses 27-30 – Jesus says that it is not good enough to just refrain from adultery, but that we are also called to refrain from lust. – I should add that what Rabbi Jesus is doing here is something many rabbis did in this day, he is calling on his disciples to build a hedge around the law, to guard our hearts from what might lead us to physical sin.
Antitheses #3: Verses 31-32: – Jesus takes the idea of many Jewish rabbis of his day that a man could divorce his wife for fairly frivolous reasons (even the famous Rabbi Hillel said that a man could rightfully divorce his wife for burning his dinner) and instead says it should only be done on account of unfaithfulness. There are a couple of things worth noting here – the Jewish divorce laws (and especially the idea of the marriage contract) were written to protect women by requiring that husbands pay a monetary penalty for divorce. So Jesus is taking it a step further by now saying that men can’t divorce their wives for frivolous reasons either, even if they think they can afford to pay the financial penalty.
There is debate on what unfaithfulness really means here, but this is another subject we won’t have time to explore today, other than to say that I think abuse is every bit as much a kind of unfaithfulness in my eyes as is adultery. Divorce should never be entered into lightly but there are times that we should also thank God for divorce. – Also it is important to note the fundamental power imbalance in ancient world between men and women. This is a very different context than what we in our times have when it comes to the issue of marriage and divorce (in which either party can initiate the divorce and either party may have to pay alimony or child support depending on the circumstances).
Antitheses #4: Verse 33-36 – Oaths are a part of our culture and was a part of the Jewish culture at the time Jesus was speaking. The Jewish tradition honored the value of keeping oaths no matter what, even if the consequences are downright evil. The best example was the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 who
kept a vow to “sacrifice whoever comes out of my house to meet me” after a great victory and ends up murdering his own daughter to keep this vow. Astonishingly Jephthah is held up as a hero of the faith in both Judges and later even in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament.
Jesus’ teaching is different. Instead of saying “keep your oaths” (no matter what evil consequences may come) and instead says don’t swear oaths at all.
Antitheses #5:Verses 38-42 – An incredibly controversial teaching, Jesus says to give up retaliation. The Mosaic law limited retaliation so that it would be proportional (an “eye for an eye”) but now Jesus says to not even go there at all. Again though, Jesus is not calling on people to violate the law but rather take the merciful principle of proportionality and now amplifying it into even deeper kinds of mercy.
Antitheses #6: Verses 43-47 – Jesus cites the old teaching of love for neighbors and hatred of enemies – Interestingly enough the Torah does not say to “hate your enemy” but Jesus might have been referring to the many examples of divinely ordered slaughters of enemies or even the troubling words of Psalms 139:19-22 where the Psalmist speaks of his righteous hatred for evildoers.
Jesus’ counter message is effectively to expand the definition of neighbor, to see the humanity of one’s perceived enemies and then to treat those folks like family. This is not an abrogation of the old law but rather an amplification of it.
So, I think that when seen in the light of Jesus’ “pleroma” of the law, these supposed new teachings are really a call to deeper faithfulness to the old tradition. The key word here is depth.
So that brings us to the last verse of chapter 5.
Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
I must admit that this verse terrified as a young person. In my familial faith tradition in the Churches of Christ, I was taught that we are called to perfection and that any sin, no matter how small, can separate us from God. I remember often being afraid that I might have unknowingly sinned and hence not asked God to forgive me for it, which might mean I would be going to hell.
As an adult I know longer believe in that kind of god, but I do still bear the terrible internal burden of perfectionism, of thinking that my best is never good enough. Unfortunately this verse has not helped me in being shed of this faulty and hurtful way of thinking.
But the problem is not the verse, but rather our translation of the verse. In Greek, the word used here for perfect is τέλειος(teleios) The word can mean “perfect” but it is probably better translated as “complete,” “full,” or “mature.” In fact, the Greek philosophers sometimes used the word to refer to a fully-actualized person, someone who had truly grown up and had become the person they were always meant to become.3
Often translators chose which word to use based on context, so it might be good for us to see how this word is used elsewhere in scripture…
One example is the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-30 who comes to Jesus seeking the way to eternal life. Jesus tells the man to keep the commandments. The young man says that he is doing this and asks what else he lacks. Jesus tells him that if he wants to be teleios, that he should sell all that he has, give it to the poor and follow me. Our translations generally translate this usage of the word as perfect.
In our next example though, the translated word is normally different.
I Cor. 2:6: “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.” (NRSV) The word we have translated here as “mature” is teleios!
Either word can rightly translate teleios, but it is probably best to remember that the connotations of teleios in Greek really encompass both meanings.
So let’s go back now to the last verse in Matthew 5.
Here are some ways we can translate it…
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
“Be fully formed…”
How this change the meaning of the text? I think very significantly. Jesus does not call us to be perfectionistic legalists (or else he would have told his audience to follow the teachings of the Pharisees and Saducees), but rather is calling for us to grow into holistic wholeness. He is calling us to take the teachings of the past and to dig deeper for even deeper truth. He is calling for us to no longer do the bare minimum to embrace the radical implications of deep mercy, deep generosity and deep peace.
There is one last thing we should remember in considering this text. Jesus likely did not say these words in Greek, but rather in Aramaic. When Jesus spoke about this kind of fullness, wholeness and peace, he may have used the Aramaic word shlama which has the same roots as the Hebrew word, Shalom. 11In both Hebrew and Aramaic, these words mean the same thing – being at peace, being whole, being intact
So to say it another way, Jesus is calling us to something deeper than mere ritual observance and refraining from doing sinful things. Perfection isn’t about our culture’s idea of perfection but is about something different, something better.
What does this mean for us as a church? What do these texts have to do with our story and the tradition we are a part of?
A few weeks ago when I was at AMBS for the seminary orientation week I heard a phrase throughout the week, “God’s reconciling mission.” I think this phrase is a good description of what the church is about. We are called to be about bringing shalom, first to the wounded places of our own lives, then to our families and our communities and finally to our world.
Considering the Sermon on the Mount in the light of the idea of shalom brings out a lot of helpful truth. We are called to be seeking…
A shalom that redistributes wealth and power to the poor and oppressed
A shalom that mends brokeness, heals wounds and ends wars.
A Shalom that brings about God’s more visible presence in the world
A shalom that brings deeper and more genuine understandings of our faith tradition
A shalom that deepens the expression of mercy
A shalom that embraces genuine truth-telling
A shalom that makes radical fidelity possible
A shalom that sustains life rather than destroys it
Most of all, a shalom that makes love our highest value
As a church community, I want to challenge us today to hear the call of Jesus. Like Abraham, we may not tell be told the whole story or every detail of where this journey will take us. Nevertheless we are called to follow Jesus.
In our meeting today, we should rightly talk about practical issues, but we also need to go deeper. We need to ask whether our choices live out shalom values. We need to be ready to be challenged but also to be encouraged and stirred up.
So I’m going to close with a few of these tough questions…
Are children really welcome in our church?
What about gay people?
What about poor people?
What about people of color?
Are we part of a really community that exists seven days a week or are we a group that meets on Sundays?
How does our community work to make the world more sustainable and whole?
Where do we see God at work in our community? What can we do to join in that work?
Louw Nida 33.144
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6, page 288
commentaries on the Logos Bible Research system – will need to
gather exact cites later