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Matthew 5:33-48

Lesson Focus: To grow up to become like our Father in heaven we must respond to every form of hate, violence, and evil with love that seeks the good of our neighbors, both friend, and enemy.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:

  1. Be encouraged to live lives of utter honesty.

  2. Be encouraged to move from revenge to generosity when confronted with an injury.

  3. Be encouraged to seek the well-being of their enemies.

Catching up on the Story: Jesus is engaged in preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has called a few disciples, reminded them of who they are because they have been called—people who could be described by the Beatitudes—and now has begun to offer specific interpretations of the Law. Jesus hasn’t come to do away with the Law; rather he has come to offer us the fullest understanding of the Law possible. The phrase “You’ve heard it said…But I say to you…” becomes the standard way in which Jesus speaks in this part of the sermon. Each teaching contains three things: a retelling of the old commandment, Jesus’ new command, and then a few little steps toward obedience. The pattern remains the same in this week’s passage.

Matthew 5:33-48 33 “Again, you folks have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not break your sworn oaths, but carry out the vows you have made to others in the name of the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

38 “You all heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you folks, ‘Do not ever try to get even with a wrongdoer. Oh no! Whoever is slapping you on the right cheek, you offer that person the other cheek as well. 40 And the person who is wanting to sue you and to take your shirt, what about them? Let them have even the coat off your back! 41 And, while we’re at it, whoever is willing to force you to carry their bag one mile, you carry that bag two miles. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’”

43 “You folks have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you all, you people, love your enemies and, you people, pray for those who are persecuting you, 45 so that you may really, in word and deed, be children of your Father in heaven; for our Father makes the sun he created to shine on the evil and as well as on the good, and our Father sends rain on the righteous as well as on the unrighteous. 46 You see, if you all just love those who love on you, what reward should you get for that? Aren’t even the extortionist tax collectors doing the same? 47 And if you all only give warm greetings to those like you, your family and your spiritual family, what more are you doing than those godless people? 48 You all, be perfectly mature people, just as our Father in heaven is perfect. *This translation is a mashup of Frederick Dale Bruner’s work and my own

The Text: Once again, in the three separate but related passages we will look at this week, Jesus begins things with “You have heard it said…But I say to you…” Again, we have the format of (1) The Old Commandment, (2) Jesus’ New Command, and (3) Little Steps of Obedience. We examine the passage through an exploration of each of these elements.

Concerning Oaths: The Old Commandment: Don’t swear falsely: The New Command: Don’t swear at all! The Little Step of Obedience: Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.

The old command stresses faithfulness to one’s word. It was acceptable to swear by things in the Old Testament. It was also understood that to take an oath was a way of joining words of promise to something or someone of considerable significance. The higher power would ensure that the promise was upheld, and if it were not there would be repercussions. For Israel, who sought to reveal the name of God, substitutions would be made for God’s name, inserting things like heaven, or earth (Nolland, 249).

Jesus takes things a step further. One is not to swear at all. The intention here is that you and I would live such lives of honesty and integrity that an oath or vow (the same thing in the Jewish thought world) would not be needed. This kind of honesty and integrity is rare. It was rare in the Old Testament, hence the need for oaths, and it is rare in our day. Our legal system is burdened by all manner of cases in which people have been less than truthful.

This commandment of unbridled truthfulness might be the hardest of the lot. In a million little ways, from a wife’s question about how an outfit makes her look to our young children’s questions about where babies come from, tempt us to be less than truthful. Additionally, our society and government make it all but impossible to avoid the taking of oaths or vows. How we live faithfully to this command is a question with which the believing body of Christ must constantly struggle. To be sure, it at least means we must seek to live honestly in our interpersonal relationships. But that’s just the start.

Concerning Retaliation: The Old Commandment: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The New Command: “Do not ever try to get even with a wrongdoer.” Little Steps of Obedience: Turn the cheek, give your cloak, carry the load another mile and lend generously without expectation of return.

This notion, the lex talionis (law of retaliation), was not something particularly specific to Israel. Other cultures in the ancient world had similar codes. The sentiment behind this command for “an eye for an eye” is positive. It checked revenge and taught justice. Retribution or punishment for a crime could not be worse than the original offense. A life could not be demanded in response to the gouging out of an eye (Bruner, 247). To some degree, our own judicial and civil law operate on this principle. Offenders are given punishments that are commensurate with their crime. This command is not bad, but it does not live up to God’s desire for his disciples or for the coming Kingdom of God.

Here Jesus drastically changes the way we respond to injury or insult. Instead of taking what by all accounts seems to be rightfully ours, revenge, we are to respond with acts of generosity. Here the NRSV and NIV’s translations “Do not resist…” are unhelpful. They fail to account for the active nature of the verb. Antistenai, the word translated here, means “to resist by actively opposing pressure or power— ‘to resist.’” (Louw and Nida, 494) Others have translated the phrase l