‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew, like a teacher, presents his material. Here he addresses commandments and regulations placed upon Israel known as the ‘law’. We’re given three of Jesus’ (re)interpretations of the ‘law’ sometimes known as the antitheses: ‘You have heard it said that… but I tell you…’ . Jesus opens up the motives behind the law, strengthening rather than weakening it (‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill’).
The first of Jesus’ comments regards swearing oaths. This is not so much to do with ‘bad language’, as using God’s name to insist on the honesty of our actions or intentions (‘I swear to God that I…’). Cutting through a potential minefield of interpretations, Jesus simply says let your ‘yes’ mean yes, and your ‘no’ mean no. This apparently simple instruction is one we find surprisingly difficult to keep. We keep wanting to qualify or justify our responses to folk (no, its not just politicians who struggle with this instruction).
‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ in common usage justifies the need for revenge. This was not its original intention – which was to limit a counterattack in proportion to the offence suffered. Again Jesus reaches behind a law which could lead to a feud, or at least a permanent breakdown in relationships. He advocates non-violent action, a generosity of spirit which helps disarm the aggressor. How difficult is that, faced with continuing aggression?
While there is no explicit Jewish law to hate an enemy, defining who is your neighbour does imply limiting your love and concern. Jesus goes behind the definition of neighbour, and thoroughly subverts it to mean wherever we find the one in need.
All this is righteousness.
Gracious God how can we possibly be perfect as your Son demands? Yet without the guidance of your Spirit we cannot live in right relationship with you and our neighbours. In these days, where there are so many voices claiming our allegiance, help us to hear your voice more clearly, and feel your love more closely day by day, Amen
The Rev’d John A Young, retired minister of National Synod of Scotland, member Giffnock URC