Epiphany 7: 23 February Matthew 5:38-48
In this passage we have the final two of the six contrasts in which Matthew has Jesus contrast how people have understood God's Law with how it ought to be understood. Most of these contrasts employ graphic and sometimes shocking imagery, from landing people in hell for words of abuse to plucking out eyes and cutting off hands. The fifth contrast is no different. Like the first and the last, it carries the message of not hating. The legislative principle of equivalent restitution is fundamental to our legal system, but eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth could easily become a principle not of justice and restitution but revenge. Many people get a buzz out of hate and find solidarity (communion) in hating common enemies. It can shape national and ethnic identities, as it can denominations, and ideological and theological movements. To live with all people with respect, accepting the need for difficult negotiations and for courageous conflict resolution is demanding. Short-cuts through complexity do violence not only to the truth but also to people.
The exposition focuses on what to do in case of being personally wronged. It should no more be taken as legislation or rules than are Jesus' words about oaths, but respect and regard for other human beings does not hit back. Non-revenge can also disarm the violent and positive engagement can turn around the exploiter. If one understands what underlies these images one will not turn them into rules. They are, of course, not addressing the situation where we observe violence being done to someone else. There, too, hate has no place. There is, however, frequent cause for restraint. Every parent knows that one sometimes needs to restrain rough or violent behaviour. Care for the vulnerable dictates that one must protect them from abuse and exploitation. A decent justice system seeks to care for and respect all citizens. That will sometimes require force and restraint. It never requires hate let alone killing, so has no place for capital punishment or punishment for its own sake as communal revenge. A literalistic treatment of Jesus' words here about retaliation has left people sometimes defenceless and abandoned. It is surely wrong to have these words used to make people feel that they ought to put up with domestic violence and other forms of abuse, for instance. The context of these sayings is the issue of retaliation, engaging in return-hate and return-violence.
The hate theme comes to expression strongly in the final contrast. It is a travesty to read "love your neighbour" as implying: hate anyone else, or,. at least, your enemy, but that was how some then took these words and the practice is alive and well and informs what gives us a buzz in much entertainment at all ages. Whether within the marriage, family, the street, the community, or internationally, choosing to write people off is destructive for us and others. This last contrast neatly matches the first about anger harboured into hate. Matthew has Jesus employ theological argument - even it is about the weather. Jesus, the sage, appeals to common experience, a phenomenon we might not see as theological.at all, except inasmuch as it belongs to the blessings of creation. The appeal has, of course, much else to support it. If we see the being of God as generous, confronting us with our worth, and deconstructing our deceits about ourselves and others, then there is some chance we will find in that a model if not an enabling inspiration, to bear the fruit of the Spirit in all our relationships, namely to walk in love.
Matthew's presentation has passed a censor who did not note its disparities. Why cite Gentiles as people one should not emulate? He does it again in 18:17. And what about the tax collectors? Elsewhere Jesus shows them grace. And what about bad weather? Unevenness lies also in these positive affirmations of love when set beside Matthew's preferred pedagogy: to warn people of how God will torment them forever in hell if they do not respond. This passage provides some threads to pull which can unravel that scheme. Matthew's theology is at times in danger of presenting God as doing what these contrasts declare a failure of righteousness and justice. It is important to recognise just how influential Matthew's pedagogy has been, but also to see the opposite trends which he has preserved from the tradition, such as here. We cannot read Matthew openly without being faced with serious theological choices.
Alas, the call to be perfect like God in 4:48 has rendered the Sermon on the Mount impractical for many and consigned it to the category of utopian ideals, or rules for monks, or, worse still, of a mechanism of guilt designed to shame in preparation for the message of forgiveness though the gospel. It is hard to believe Matthew saw it in any of these ways. When we approach it statistically in terms of quantities instead of quality, we miss the point. The Q version of the saying read: Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Matthew is not abandoning that theme, but portraying a challenge of Jesus to let God be God - God of all. Why anything less than that? Is God not God? Matthew's Jesus calls for a total commitment to a God who calls us to love even enemies.
"Perfect" is not flawless, unstained purity, but integrity and truth. For the young man, later in 19:21, where Matthew introduces "perfect" again, it means, in a fine play on words, grown-up, mature faith which shows itself in a deep commitment to the poor. The same word means "perfect' and "mature". It is about grown-up faith. It is not about partial or part-time religiosity. There is for Matthew only one way for all - being completely open to love, to receive it and give it. In his own and sometimes controversial way Matthew makes this a theme through every main speech of Jesus and in the end makes it the sole criterion of judgement.
See also Turn the Other Cheek: A Reflection on Matthew 5:38-48
Epistle: Epiphany 7: 23 February 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23