Exceptions to Jesus’ teaching

In a previous post I briefly mentioned exceptions to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

Below, I’ll attempt to show that this is true and why it matters.

Thesis: In the New Testament, there are exceptions to several of Jesus’ teachings.

Corollary: The exceptions to Jesus’ teachings demonstrate that they are meant for everyday existence. 

On Exceptions to Jesus’ Teaching

Knowing that the teachings of Jesus include exceptions is important for several reasons:

  1. It helps us move beyond treating Jesus is a deliverer of banal platitudes that he never meant people to practice.
  2. It provides evidence that there is not a dichotomy between taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he said and finding realistic times when those sayings do not apply (kind of like Proverbs). In fact, the dissolution of this dichotomy might be what helps some people to start putting Jesus’ teachings into practice.
  3. It provides evidence that the teachings are terse expressions of a way of life that was actually reasoned through by Jesus and the gospel authors rather than a pastiche of contradictory ideals.
  4. It helps us avoid the trap of making the Sermon on the Mount purely religious. For instance, there are people who teach that the sole purpose of Jesus’ commands is to make God’s law so impossibly hard (nobody could ever practice the Sermon on the Mount) that people are forced to ask for God’s grace.
  5. It reminds us that Jesus himself taught that certain Old Testament regulations were being misunderstood because exceptions were not allowed in their application in his day: Sabbaths, hand washing, contact with leprous persons, etc. Thus, we might infer that Jesus’ own teachings are meant to be applied as general purpose teachings that can be suspended in light of obvious exceptions.

Examples of Exceptions

Well there are two kinds of exceptions: explicit and implicit exceptions. Perhaps the most well known exception to Jesus’ teaching is the exception regarding divorce. It’s an instance where he explicitly says when his rule does not apply. Implicit exceptions to Jesus’ teaching are made known by his own practice or by the other New Testament authors clarifying Jesus’ meaning. Some exceptions are included directly in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a preliminary list:

  1. Teaching: “But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matt 6:6)
    Exception: “And Jesus declared [in front of everybody], ‘I thank you Father…” (Matthew 11:27)
  2. Teaching: “Give to the one who asks of you.” (Matthew 5:42)
    Exception: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’ (Matthew 12:38-39)
  3. Teaching: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
    Exception: ” Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  (22)  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)*
  4. Teaching:  “He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
    Exception:
    “…except for sexual immorality…” The exception to Jesus’ harsh strictures of the dissolution of marriage is included in the teaching.
  5. Teaching: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
    Exception: Jesus told his disciples about his fast in the wilderness.

Conclusion

There are more exceptions to the commands in the Sermon on the Mount, but these suffice to demonstrate that the exceptions exist.

In the appendix below are some quotes that might do more justice to the issue than I can. But it should be said that if the gospel authors and the rest of the New Testament portray certain commands of Jesus as having exceptions, then it is precisely in the normal parts of our life that we’re to make those teachings work. Exceptions imply that a normal exists.

Hand-wringing over whether or not a general principle always applies as a way of avoiding it is unwise. The same goes with math. The Pythagorean theorem does not apply to all triangles, but that is no reason to refuse to use it for right triangles. Similarly, Christians who say, “well, you can’t love Hitler…” therefore I don’t have to love rude people is untenable. 

I would claim that the exceptions to Jesus’ teaching show that the Sermon on the Mount is meant for the day-to-day lives of his followers or anybody else who is curious about what Jesus is all about (he gave the sermon in the hearing of the crowds after all). So if we see Jesus as somebody who has really thought through what it means to walk with God, then we have to suspect that he thought through which of his commands (if any) apply in all cases and which do not.

*This particular teaching/exception works like this, “Be the first to reconcile when you give offense…unless you’re the offended party, then be the first to forgive.”

Appendix

  1. Quote from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien

    Relationships must follow the rules. Our confidence in a stable and orderly universe leads us to prioritize rules over relationships, but it does more than that. The Western commitment to rules and laws make it difficult for us to imagine a valid rule to which there may be valid exceptions. When we begin to think of the world in terms of relationships instead of rules, however, we must acknowledge that things are never so neat and orderly and that rules are not as dependable as we once imagined. When relationships are the norming factor in the cosmos, we should expect exceptions.

    In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time. Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries. The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over (e.g., Hos 1:9). The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken.

    Consider this striking Pauline example. Paul asserts, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal 5:2). He makes a similarly concrete claim elsewhere: “Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised” (1 Cor 7:18). Paul was a vocal opponent of circumcision at the Jerusalem Council, where the early church decisively determined that one need not be circumcised in order to be a Christian (Acts 15). This appears to give us a hard and fast rule you can take to the bank; there seems to be no room for exception. Yet in the verses immediately following the Jerusalem Council, Luke tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). Westerners can’t help but ask, “Didn’t Paul say someone who was uncircumcised should stay that way?” (see 1 Cor 7:18). Isn’t Paul breaking his own rule? If we understand Paul’s exhortation as a fixed and universal rule against circumcision, we are forced to make a difficult decision. Either Luke’s account of Paul and Timothy’s mission (and, by extension, the history of the early church) was inaccurate. Or Paul could do as he pleased, even if that meant contradicting his own teaching.

    There is, of course, another option. Luke tells us that Paul’s rationale for having Timothy circumcised had to do with relationships, not rules. Paul was about to evangelize in Timothy’s hometown of Lystra, and Paul decided it was important that Timothy be circumcised “because of the Jews who lived in that area.” In other words, even in a matter as sensitive as the value of circumcision for Christian faith, relationships trumped rules. (Randolph and O’Brien )

  2. Quote from The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard

    If a government official compels me to carry a burden for one mile to aid him in his work—as any Roman soldier could require of a Jew in Jesus’ day—I will, again “as appropriate,” assist him further in his need. Perhaps he has a mile yet to go, and I am free to assist him. If so, I will. I will not say, “This is all you can make me do,” and drop the burden on his foot. I also will not carry it another mile whether he wants me to or not, and say, “Because Jesus said to.”

    If I know people want to borrow something they need, I will not avoid them and their request, and I may, as appropriate, give to those who ask me for something even though they have no “claim” on me at all—no claim, that is, other than their need and their simple request. That is how God does it, and he invites us to join him.

    Of course in each case I must determine if the gift of my vulnerability, goods, time, and strength is, precisely, appropriate. That is my responsibility before God. As a child of the King, I always live in his presence. By contrast, the way of law avoids individual responsibility for decision. It pushes the responsibility and possible blame onto God. That is one reason why people who must have a law for all their actions lead such pinched and impoverished lives and develop very little in the way of genuine depth in godly character.

    If, for example, I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone. I must say no and leave at the end of the first mile with best wishes and a hasty farewell. I have other things I know I must do, and I must make the decision. I cannot cite a law and thus evade my responsibility of judging.

    If I owe money to a shopkeeper whose goods I have already consumed, I am not at liberty to give that money to “someone who asks of me”—unless, once again, there are very special factors involved.

    If turning the other cheek means I will then be dead, or that others will suffer great harm, I have to consider this larger context. Much more than my personal pain or humiliation is involved. Does that mean I will “shoot first”? Not necessarily, but it means I can’t just invoke a presumed “law of required vulnerability.” I must decide before God what to do, and there may be grounds for some measure of resistance.

    Of course the grounds will never be personal retaliation. And there will never, as I live in the kingdom, be room for “getting even.” We do not “render evil for evil,” as the early Christians clearly understood and practiced (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). That is out of the question as far as our life is kingdom living. That is the point Jesus is making here.

    If someone has taken my coat by lawsuit, I or someone else may well have a greater need of my shirt than he does. If not, I give it with generous love and blessing. Or perhaps the other’s need is so great I should give my shirt even if I suffer greatly. But what if the other doesn’t need it at all? Then I won’t impose it “because Jesus said so” and I must keep this “law.”

    In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?” (Willard)

Bibliography

Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2012.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998.