bible blog 1152

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:

Rouhani tells UN, “Iran is a peaceful nation.”  Iranian president Hassan Rouhani

Matthew 5:38-48

J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)

38-39 “You have heard that it used to be said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I tell you, don’t resist the man who wants to harm you. If a man hits your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.

40-42 “If a man wants to sue you for your coat, let him have it and your overcoat as well. If anybody forces you to go a mile with him, do more—go two miles with him. Give to the man who asks anything from you, and don’t turn away from the man who wants to borrow.”

43-45 “You have heard that it used to be said, ‘You shall love your neighbour’, and ‘hate your enemy’, but I tell you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Heavenly Father. For he makes the sun rise upon evil men as well as good, and he sends his rain upon honest and dishonest men alike.

46-48 For if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even tax-collectors do that! And if you exchange greetings only with your own circle, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do that much. No, you are to be perfect, like your Heavenly Father.

This is the heart of Jesus’ message as presented by Matthew.  The passage has some obvious features that are sometimes neglected:

1. If the whole “sermon on the mount” is intended by Matthew to rival the Sinai Law of Moses, we can note that Jesus’ commands are positive rather than negative-“you shall” rather than “you shall not.”

2. The antitheses are meant to re- interpret the Torah, not supersede it. It is the old interpretation that is rejected-“they used to say”, “it used to be said”.  As God’s rule enters the world in Jesus, the written commandments are “fulfilled”that is, they are stretched towards God’s

3. The fundamental standard is the undiscriminating  generosity of God, which can be matched by the generosity of human beings to each other. There are two extraordinary things here: the insistence that God is overflowing goodness; and the conviction that human beings are able to live as splendidly as God.

4. The focus of the commandments is how to act when faced with aggression, enmity, oppression, begging. Jesus assumes we know how to treat our loved ones. He tells us we are always to act with the same grace.

A great deal of casuistry has accumulated around these commands in the ethics of the church. What if the enemy hits us again once we’ve turned our cheek? Does this command apply to communities and nations as well as individuals? If we treat strangers and opponents as friends, won’t we devalue our friendships? All these are not really to the point, which is that we should be generous people, imitating the goodness of God rather than the evil of human beings. Evil is mimetic, Jesus suggests. It comes as an imitative response to the evil that is done to us.  We are commanded to resist this by modelling all our behaviour on the good that is done to us by God and by other people. This requires a conversion of the heart, that may never be complete in our lifetime, but which is our destined dignity as children of God.

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