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“Attitude Adjustment” Ethics (b)

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Jesus Traditions

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Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke


Contents of Jesus Traditions

In our discussion of the [so-called] Sermon on the [so-called] Mount, we have already looked at three of the six contrasts of Matthew 5:21-47, where Jesus addresses problems of murder, adultery and divorce; we now look at sayings which address problems of perjury, of retaliation, and of the treatment of enemies.
The Problem of Mendacity (Matthew 5:33-37)

Where is integrity to be found? How is falsehood to be remedied? A brave attempt was made in the Mosaic legislation, with the prohibition of false testimony, (Exodus 20:16), or of swearing an oath falsely by God’s name (Leviticus 19:11-12; Numbers 30:2).

  Matthew 5:33  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.”

On the contrary, Jesus makes his plea for plain speech, a Yes or a No.

  Matthew 5:34-37   34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

This response, which is attributed (I think accurately) to Jesus, needs to be approached with some care, to avoid making too much of it—or too little. Some reading between the lines seems justified, but not too much.

   • At the least, Jesus, in a radical move, sweeps away the whole system of oath-taking: “Do not swear at all.”

   • Further, it is arguable that Jesus is implying something more than plain speaking (without oaths), namely, that truth-telling arises from persons who are truth-ful. This may well be an instance of the proverbial point made later in Matthew’s collection of sayings: “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20, KJV; cp. Luke 6:45). Thus, plain speaking is an implicit call for that inner integrity which is the only guarantee of truth-telling; such integrity in turn implies a personal wholeness which flows from an inner reformation.

But of course truthfulness cannot be imposed upon a person who is inclined to falsehood. An oath is no guarantee of truthfulness, as Aeschylus (5th century B.C.E.) recognized: “It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man that makes us believe the oath.”

Jesus surely recognized as much as did Aeschylus the futility of an oath.


5  The Problem of Achieving Harmonious Relationships (Matthew 5:38-42)
The obligation to turn the other cheek or go the second mile is one of the best known—and least observed—of the teachings with which Jesus challenges his disciples.

Matthew uses mainly  [blue] material, with which he has combined his own material [green], whether editorial, or written or oral traditions.

Matthew 5:38-42

Luke 6:29-30

38You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 
39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.
But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 
42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.


The legal stipulations of the Hebrew scriptures were clear: they prescribed the lex talionis, or the law of (equal) retaliation. This rule required “. . . life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21; compare Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:19-20). As severe as this might seem, it did represent a stage of moral development which was more equitable (and thus more humane) than unlimited or capricious retaliation.

Nevertheless, in contrast to this retributive solution for assaults against life or limb or property, Jesus boldly proposes a strategy for achieving reconciliation: turning the other cheek, offering one’s outer as well as inner garment, and going the second mile. 

Our sources do not tell us how Jesus reached his conclusion. One may suppose that he offered this revolutionary approach to human relationships because it was the right thing to do; because it was the loving thing to do (of which more will be said below); and because (surprisingly) it was the prudent thing to do. 

Prudent? If the problem was how people might live in harmonious relationships, the way of retaliation—even equal retaliation—had shown itself to be deficient. Retaliation is deficient in that it easily becomes revenge, and revenge does little to repair human relationships and build community. Blood feuds, whether on an individual or international scale, are notoriously difficult to ameliorate. Hence it is more wisdom than folly to counsel reconciliation rather than retaliation, however costly the reconciliation may seem. 


The Problem of Resolving Enmity (Matthew 5:43-47)

Matthew uses a great deal of  [blue] material, with which he has combined his own material [green], whether editorial, or written or oral traditions.


Matthew 5:43-47

Luke 6:27-28, 32-35

43‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  
44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 27But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; *35band you will be children of the Most High;
for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous *35cfor he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  32If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 
    34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked
     *A different order in Luke


This is surely one of the hard sayings of Jesus. We can hardly imagine a moral imperative which so assaults us as counter-intuitive and perfectionist. This final contrast does however accomplish several things: it provides a theological foundation for Jesus’ new morality; it helps to clarify what Jesus meant by love; and it gives us a fresh approach to the resolution of personal enmity.
A Theological Foundation. If hatred for enemies is not formulated precisely as a commandment in the Hebrew Bible, one encounters sufficient examples of such hatred, as in Psalms 53 to 59, to justify Matthew’s formulation—and if hatred for enemies comes quite naturally, a commandment is hardly needed.

By contrast, Jesus lays upon his disciples the obligation to love their enemies—and breaks the moral sound-barrier. This generous manner of treating an enemy is grounded in an equally generous view of the God who lavishes sun and rain on the evil as well as the good, on the unrighteous as well as the righteous. Those who love their enemies enjoy a special kinship with God, as his children (Matthew 5:45), and hence a certain likeness to God. This God-likeness is already announced in the ancient creation narratives, which tell of humankind’s having “become like one of us” (Genesis 3:22), or of having been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). But here in the Matthew saying the moral kinship with God is identified more specifically as dealing graciously with those who do not deserve it.

A Clarification of Love (agapê). While the command to love one’s enemy seems counter-intuitive, it is less so if we understand that love as used here does not mean a romantic feeling or attraction, or necessarily even liking the enemy, but instead good will toward the enemy, actively seeking the enemy’s best interests. Click on Love (Agapê), for further discussion. We still require a heroic measure of grace to love our enemy, even in this more limited sense.
A New Perspective upon Resolving Personal Enmity. The words of Jesus are an invitation to “think outside the box,” and to explore new ways of conflict resolution, in which there is opportunity to examine the urgent interests of each party and to seek common ground. When we have acknowledged this, we are still confronted with the question whether such an approach is limited to interpersonal reconciliation, or whether it should apply also to public policy issues. 



Revised July 30, 2003


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