Monday, July 27, 2009

Matthew 5:38–42

Matthew 5:38–42 (ESV) : Retaliation


In this passage Jesus continues with his sermon, and talks to the Jews about retaliation. He tells them that even though the law talks about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” his listeners are not to use this as a basis for living their life. He makes his point by telling them:

  • They are not to resist someone who is evil
  • If someone slaps them on the left cheek, they should turn and let them slap the right cheek too. (Yes, this is the origin of the phrase “turn the other cheek.”)
  • If someone sues them for their tunic, they should also give their cloak, too
  • If someone forces them to go a mile, they should go two miles (I don’t actually understand this one; it might be a saying that was popular at the time?)

Jesus also tells them that they should give to people who are begging, and that they should not refuse to lend to people who want to borrow.


Modern-day Christians are very capable of taking passages from the Bible out of context, and trying to claim that it says things it really doesn’t say. And the people in Jesus’ day were capable of doing it too. The “eye for an eye” passage that was apparently being used to justify retaliation is, in fact, not about retaliation at all. It’s about how the Old Testament laws were set up; if someone was found guilty of stealing, they would give back what was stolen and more. If someone was found guilty of murder, they would be put to death. But someone who was caught stealing would not be put to death, and someone who murdered would not be let off with a fine. The punishment was set up to fit the crime—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Then, as now, people wanted to use that passage to justify revenge, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with revenge. Jesus uses this opportunity to set them (and us) straight.

When it comes to the parts about giving to the poor, and lending to people who need a loan, I’m not sure if this is part of the general point that Jesus is making on retaliation, or if it’s a separate point altogether, and the people doing the section headings for the ESV just happened to lump this verse in with the section on retaliation. (After all, if it was given its own section, it would just be one single verse.) It sort of seems to fit, in my mind, and yet not really. (Commenters, feel free to comment; I don’t usually make this an interactive blog, but I guess that’s what comments are for, right?)

I have to say, though, that I was extremely disappointed with the ESV Study Bible, when reading the notes on this passage. Read Jesus’ statement, in verse 42:

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (verse 42 (ESV) )

Seems simple enough, right? Now read the study note on this verse:

Give to the one who begs from you. Christians should help those who are truly needy (and therefore forced to beg), but they are not required to give foolishly (cf. 7:6) or to a lazy person who is not in need (2 Thess. 3:10), or where giving would bring harm rather than benefit.

Why did they feel they needed to put that in there? Why did they insist on giving a caveat when Jesus gave none? Jesus didn’t say, “give to the poor unless…” or, “give to the poor, but…” He said give to the poor. He said lend to those who need loans. So why did the person who wrote that ESV Study Bible note feel that s/he needed to take away from Jesus’ statement? “I know that Jesus said to give to the poor, and freely lend to people, but you should think twice before you give to the poor, or lend to people!”

Worse yet, they mention a couple of verses which they seem to feel are relevant. Let’s look at those verses.

First, they say that Christians are not to “give foolishly,” and cite Matthew 7:6 (ESV) . But if you read that verse, it’s the “pearls to swine” verse—which is entirely irrelevant to this context! In that passage, Jesus is talking about giving the Gospel, not giving to the poor. This is poor hermeneutics being used to back up a bad theological point.

But let’s look at the other verse they mention, 2 Thessalonians 3:10:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10 (ESV) )

This passage is relevant—at least, in the context of the larger passage of verses 6–15 (ESV) —but more difficult than it might seem. Actually, let’s see the entire passage:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

(2 Thessalonians 3:6–15 (ESV) , emphasis added)

The part that seems to be relevant is part I’ve italicized, where Paul tells his readers to “keep away” from brothers who are being idle. If you’re keeping away from someone, then of course you won’t be able to give them a loan or a handout, will you? (Since this is the only part of the passage that’s actually relevant, it’s too bad the author of the ESV Study Bible note didn’t cite it, and instead chose to cite a different verse, which isn’t actually relevant.) Does this mean that Paul is contradicting Jesus? Which is it—should be give to beggars and make loans, or shouldn’t we?

The thing is, when Paul is talking about “keeping away” from brothers who are being idle, the first thing to note is who we are to “keep away” from: brothers who are being idle. In other words, believers. What Paul is talking about, in “keeping away” from these people, is church discipline—probably by kicking them out of the church—with the hope that they will see the error of their ways, repent, and come back.

The study note that I have such a problem with is talking about this issue as if giving to a beggar, or giving a loan, is foolish because that person will never learn. (It’s the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality that is so prevent in North America.) But in the 2 Thessalonians passage, Paul is not trying to teach an economical lesson, he’s trying to teach a spiritual one. In no way is Paul teaching the Christians that they should try and avoid being “taken advantage of”—the passage is about the person who is being idle, not the person who is being asked for the loan or handout. Frankly, if such a person has been excommunicated, and needs food, I think you would be heartless not to give it to them. And this passage has nothing whatsoever to do with non-Christians who are begging, or who need a loan.

It is indeed true that we are warned not to be idle, and that we should earn our keep. But that is never an excuse to disregard Jesus’ message to give to the poor, and to lend to those who need lending to. Because of the Godly principle outlined in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, I am urged to earn my own keep. Because of the Godly principle outlined by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in this Matthew 5 passage, I am also urged to lend to those who need lending.

We have some terrible tendencies in North America, and selfishness is one of the biggest. The more we have the less we want to give away. It’s very disheartening to see the author(s) of the ESV Study Bible promoting our natural inclination for selfishness, under the guise of so-called wisdom. They’ve tried to prove their point by citing other New Testament passages, but the passages they’ve cited are not relevant.

Then again, they don’t have to be, I guess. In North America, we really, really want to believe that we don’t have go give to the poor; we’ll take any excuse to believe it that we can find.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Matthew 5:33–37

Matthew 5:33–37 (ESV) : Oaths


In this passage, a continuation of the sermon Jesus has been giving for all of Chapter 5, he talks to the Jews about the concept of swearing an oath. They have been told (in Leviticus 19:12 (ESV) —I didn’t specifically talk to this point in my post on Leviticus 19) that when they swear to the LORD they should not swear falsely, but should do what they say they are going to do, but Jesus says that, really, they shouldn’t swear at all:

But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (verses 34–36 (ESV) )

Instead, he tells them, they should simply let their “yes” be “yes,” and their “no” be “no.”


In this passage, any time that Jesus is talking about “swearing,” he’s talking in the sense of “swearing an oath”—he’s not talking about bad language. Hopefully that’s clear from the context, but I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Once again, Jesus is clarifying an Old Testament rule. The rule said that if you swore to the LORD, you should carry out what you had sworn, but Jesus says that it’s better not to swear at all.

One of Jesus’s reasons for saying this is that when you swear “by” something—by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or even by your own head—you don’t actually own or control the thing you’re swearing by. (That’s right, not even your own head!) The only thing you actually own or can control is your own actions, and even that you don’t completely control, because there can always be outside circumstances that you can’t control. If you’re going to promise to do something, the most you can really promise—as it says in James 4:13–17 (ESV) —is that you’ll try, and if it’s the Lord’s will, it will happen.

There’s a second reason that Jesus also give, here, too, in the last part: You should simply let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no.” In other words, you should be honest all the time, so that people begin to recognize you as such. If you say you’re going to do something, you do it, and people learn that they can take you at your word. As mentioned above, sometimes things that are outside of your control will prevent you from carrying out what you promised, but again, if you’re honest, people will realize that when you promise to do something, only things outside of your own control will prevent you from carrying it out. There’s a big difference between saying, “I was going to clean the garage, but I forgot,” and saying, “I was going to clean the garage, but then there was an earthquake and it was swallowed into the ground.”

If people are always asking you to do things, and you say you’ll do it but then you don’t, the usual temptation, the next time they ask you, is to say, “I’ll do it this time—I swear I will!” But all you’re really doing is trying to be emphatic; you still have exactly the same amount of control over the situation as you had all of the other times you promised to do something.

One final note is that I might be taking Jesus’ words here slightly out of context; take a look at verse 33:

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” (verse 33 (ESV) , emphasis added)

Is Jesus talking specifically about oaths that people would swear to God? Not just general oaths? Does it make a difference here? I don’t think so; I think everything I’ve said here is applicable in our general, day-to-day lives. But context is not something that should never be ignored.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Matthew 5:31–32

Matthew 5:31–32 (ESV) : Divorce


In this passage, Jesus is continuing with his sermon, by instructing his listeners on divorce. He tells them that even though the law permits them to divorce, they should not do so. That a man divorcing his wife for any grounds other than sexual immorality is causing her to commit adultery, and that any man who marries a divorced woman is committing adultery.


Although the passage is worded in a gendered way—it talks about a man divorcing a woman, not a woman divorcing a man, and it talks about it being adultery if a man marries a divorced woman, but it doesn’t mention it being adultery if a woman marries a divorced man—I think that’s because of the culture/society at the time, and not because it’s intrinsically different standards between men and women. A woman wouldn’t divorce a man, at that time, but nowadays, either a woman or a man can initiate a divorce. I’m willing to be corrected, but I don’t think things are different between the genders, when it comes to divorce.

I don’t know if this would have been a harder teaching from Jesus than some of the other things he’d been saying. Divorce in his day (according to the ESV Study Bible) was pretty common, and, as far as the Jews knew, was acceptable. But Jesus tells them that it is not; that with one exception—sexual immorality—divorce is wrong. And if a man wrongly divorced a woman, and she remarried, which would be considered adultery, notice that Jesus is blaming the original husband for that divorce—he is “causing” the adultery.

I should also point out that even though Jesus gives “sexual immorality”—in this case meaning adultery, although it can also refer to prostitution, incest, or fornication—as the only valid reason for a divorce, he doesn’t say that you have to divorce someone if they cheat on you. The main point that Jesus is making is that marriage is instituted by God, and that it should not be torn apart, except in absolute dire circumstances. I think it’s safe to say that He would prefer that a husband and wife work things out, in the case of adultery, rather than get divorced, if they can. However, adultery is a very powerful betrayal, and not everyone can get past something like that. Which is probably part of the reason why God keeps using adultery as a metaphor when His people betray Him.