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)
    “…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.


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.”


  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)


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.

Are you good enough to be Jesus’ disciple?

When asked why he associated with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus answered:

And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The healthy do not need the doctor, the sick do. Go and learn about this, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-13)

There is a hidden logic behind what Jesus was asked/accused of:

  1. The kingdom of God is about purity.
  2. Any messenger of God’s kingdom would be sure to maintain purity by not associating with evil or unclean people.
  3. Therefore, Jesus is not a messenger of God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ response reframes the issue:

  1. The kingdom and purity are now about mercy.
  2. To be a messenger of God’s kingdom is to extend God’s mercy to others.
  3. Therefore, everybody Jesus calls into his kingdom is a sinner (because those whom he calls are sinners to whom he extends God’s mercy).

Are you good enough to be Jesus’ disciple?

The answer is the same as the answer to this question: Do you do bad things?

Dallas Willard on the Beatitudes

Dallas Willard’s understanding of the Beatitudes:

It will help us know what to do—and what not to do—with the Beatitudes if we can discover what Jesus himself was doing with them. That should be the key to understanding them, for after all they are his Beatitudes, not ours to make of them what we will. And since great teachers and leaders always have a coherent message that they develop in an orderly way, we should assume that his teaching in the Beatitudes is a clarification or development of his primary theme in this talk and in his life: the availability of the kingdom of the heavens. How, then, do they develop that theme?

In chapter 4 of Matthew we see Jesus proclaiming his basic message (v. 17) and demonstrating it by acting with God’s rule from the heavens, meeting the desperate needs of the people around him. As a result, “Sick folk were soon coming to be healed from as far away as Syria. And whatever their illness or pain, or if they were possessed by demons, or were insane, or paralyzed—he healed them all. Enormous crowds followed him wherever he went” (4:23–25 LB).

Having ministered to the needs of the people crowding around him, he desired to teach them and moved to a higher position in the landscape—“up on the hill” (Matt. 5:1 BV)—where they could see and hear him well. But he does not, as is so often suggested, withdraw from the crowd to give an esoteric discourse of sublime irrelevance to the crying need of those pressing upon him. Rather, in the midst of this mass of raw humanity, and with them hanging on every word—note that it is they who respond at the end of the discourse—Jesus teaches his students or apprentices, along with all who hear, about the meaning of the availability of the heavens.

I believe he used the method of “show and tell” to make clear the extent to which the kingdom is “on hand” to us. There were directly before him those who had just received from the heavens through him. The context makes this clear. He could point out in the crowd now this individual, who was “blessed” because The Kingdom Among Us had just reached out and touched them with Jesus’ heart and voice and hands. Perhaps this is why in the Gospels we only find him giving Beatitudes from the midst of a crowd of people he had touched.

And so he said, “Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’—when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.”

Or, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.” This, of course, is the more traditional and literally correct translation of Matt. 5:3. The poor in spirit are blessed as a result of the kingdom of God being available to them in their spiritual poverty. But today the words “poor in spirit” no longer convey the sense of spiritual destitution that they were originally meant to bear. Amazingly, they have come to refer to a praiseworthy condition. So, as a corrective, I have paraphrased the verse as above. No doubt Jesus had many exhibits from this category in the crowd around him. Most, if not all, of the Twelve Apostles were of this type, as are many now reading these words. (Willard 99-101)

Works Cited:
Willard, Dallas The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (Harper Collins, 1997)

Don’t resist by means of evil


38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ °καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 * ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλʼ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα [σου], στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν,* ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 * καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν,* ὕπαγε μετʼ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός, καὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς. [1]


38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I am telling you to not resist by means of evil, but whoever strikes you upon the right cheek, turn to him also the left; 40 and to whomever desires to sue you and to take your tunic, give to him him also the cloak. 41 And whoever obligates you to go a mile, go with him two. 42 To whomever asks of you, give, and to him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.


  1. Eye for an eye was an Old Testament legal precedent applicable to situations in which an unborn baby or neighbor is injured by violence. The law was also a precedent for cases concerning false witnesses.
  2. Jesus does not seem to be claiming that courtroom judgments should be abrogated. He uses court circumstances and assumes their enduring relevance in two previous triads. Instead, he seems to be correcting the use of these passages as justifications for using evils suffered as justification for evils done.
  3. The way out of the cycle of returning evil for evil is illustrated in four ways, but I think it’s important not to limit the process to these specifics and indeed, Jesus himself does not treat these commands as absolute rules for all times but as wise ways to avoid resisting evil with evil. So turn the cheek, go the mile, give the garment, and so-on are illustrations.
  4. For instance, Jesus tells people, “No” when they ask him for a sign (Matthew 16). He also criticizes a man for striking him (John 18:23).
  5. So, if there are exceptions, it is perhaps best to think of this teaching as recommending that one do the shocking or disarming thing to create peace in the face of institutional oppression and personal honor challenges.
  6. Jerome Neyrey sees this particular passage as a way out of the tit for tat honor/shame game played in the ancient world. I think that is part of the idea, though probably not the whole idea as Jesus and the apostles in Acts participate in that game verbally.


[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:38–42.

Rhetorical Assumptions in the Sermons on the Mount and Plain

In Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 are the sermons on the Mount/Plain. There is a lot of debate about the relationship between these two sermons, but what interested me the other day when I was sitting in a waiting room (thankfully I took a legal pad) was what Matthew and Luke assumed would be interesting and would be known to the readers/listeners.*

Now I cannot have certainty about those things. But if we assume that like any piece of written rhetoric, the author had an audience who knew certain things in mind, then we can make some inferences. In all of this it’s important to remember that when we construct a speech, we appeal to what we think will interest people in order to help them find interest in what we think will benefit them (or get them to buy our product). But in an extended speech there might be several subaudiences to which we appeal.

Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Assumptions

  1. The readers/hearers were interested in being happy in the sense of flourishing human life. The beatitudes start with the word “blessed” which probably means something more like “in an honored state” or “possessing the best/most desirable life.” In the Greek Old Testament that word seems to function like Aristotle’s word for happiness.
  2. They cared about putting the law of God into practice. Jesus tells the audience not to be afraid of the possibility of him doing away with Moses’ law.
  3. They at least know an oral version of the Old Testament, “You have heard…,” never “it is written.”
  4. They are in contact with the Pharisees (see chapter 6:1-13 especially) or have pharisaical tendencies.
  5. They want honor and rewards.
  6. They find it valuable to “see God.”
  7. They  want to be wise.
  8. They want to be part of God’s kingdom.
  9. Some of them felt spiritually destitute (poor in spirit).

Luke’s Sermon on the Mount Assumptions

  1. Luke’s audience similarly desired “blessedness” or “happiness.”
  2. They may have been more financially successful and willing to infer that they were living the blessed life with God as a consequence of their good fortune.
  3. They knew Jesus was a teacher, but were not themselves as familiar with the law of Moses.
  4. They really wanted to be good people whose lives bore good fruit.
  5. Strangely, in Luke, being like a ‘wise man’ is not a motivation. But the same simile of the builder who uses a firm foundation is used. In this case, the idea is simply of having a life that is not susceptible to the trials of the world. These people wanted unwavering or everlasting life.

I would be willing to say more about Luke’s audience over all, but I wanted to go simply by what we could find in the respective versions of the Sermon on the Mount.

What did I miss?

*I’m of the opinion that by and large these sermons, regardless of the process that lead to it happening, preserve a common public sermon Jesus preached about the kingdom of God before he shifted to primarily using parables before the public. So of course there will naturally be overlap between Matthew, Luke, and Jesus’ audiences desires, interests, and knowledge.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:38-42

Writing about this passage is something I often do with great trepidation because it sounds like I’m deradicalizing it. But here I am, rock you like a hurricane, I guess.

38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα, στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ’ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δόςκαὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς.

38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I am telling you, to not resist by means of evil. Instead: whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other, 40 and to any who desires to sue you to receive your shirt, release to him also your coat, 41 and whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 and give to him who asks of you and concerning him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.


  1. I’m very nearly a pacifist, in the sense that I am almost entirely convinced that violence does not solve problems, but I do not think that this passage teaches out and out pacifism. For instance, Jesus does not say to let violence happen to others on your watch or to take a pummeling when your children are in danger.
  2. The passage is not turning over the judicial principles of the Old Testament because those passages (eye for an eye) are about court room settings and only one place in the passage above is court mentioned. Jesus, instead, seems to be correcting the use of those passages to justify revenge or a refusal to go along with superiors (Roman soldier who could demand you carry his pack for a mile, an apparently superior man challenging you to an honor duel, or somebody rich suing you for something they don’t actually need). The final illustration is for the Christian who is in a superior position: show mercy.
  3. The passage is not a carte blanch check from outsiders to abuse Christians or for Christians to accept interference with their lives. Jesus himself refuses people who ask him for things several times in the gospels, he does not always go along with demands people make of him (although when he does, his death atones for the sins of humanity), and when verbal disputes happen sometimes Jesus hits back twice as hard. So Jesus is not saying that Christians are to never respond to criticism, insults, or outrageous requests. But he is apparently using the examples of generosity in the face of such actions to illustrate his point that he wants his followers not to seek revenge.
  4. One of my favorite interpreters, Jerome Neyrey overstates the case that in these verses Jesus is telling his disciples to stay entirely out of the honor-shame game (see Honor and Shame in Matthew’s Gospel). It seems more coherent to say that Jesus is prioritizing honor with God by means of generosity over honor with man, but he does not seem to be saying that honor with people is always bad. It just constitutes it’s own reward. Again, see Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees in the gospels. Jesus often wins with rhetoric rather than careful argument. This is presumably because he needs to maintain his status as a public teacher until the time of the crucifixion.


Overall, I find that the approaches to this passage often taken make the rest of Matthew’s gospel incoherent. Essentially it is either taken as a list of impossible commands to show how evil we all are and compel us to ask for forgiveness or it is taken as a highly unrealistic social program that Jesus himself only selectively follows. I think it is better to take it as a correction of a misunderstanding followed by illustrations of how to do it. This explains how there are exceptions in Jesus’ own behavior and teaching elsewhere in Matthew.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:33-37

Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ, 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ, μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως, 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν. 37 ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.[1]

Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, “You [singular] will not break your oath, but you will fulfill your vows.” 34 But I am telling you all to not make oaths at all. Not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 nor by the earth, because it is his footstool, nor for the sake of Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king, 36 nor by your head shall you swear because you do not have power to make one hair white or black. 37 Instead, let your word be Yes or No. Anything more than this is from the evil one.

Two of the most important ideas to keep in mind when reading the Sermon on the Mount are that:

  1. Matthew wrote it because he thought Jesus really wanted us to put it into practice.
  2. There are exceptions to many of the commands that are simply assumed without elaboration. So the point is probably not merely that all oaths are bad (Jesus answered under oath in court in Matthew 26:63). There is likely to be something else going on.

There is some evidence that ancient persons were not future oriented in the same way that modern Americans are (note how often Paul cancelled his travel plans in his letters). In this way, it is possible that people would make lofty oaths to gain honor and trust in the present even though they had no intention to keeping their vows in the future. In fact, in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that he wasn’t a man who broke oaths, but that his vacillation between visiting or not was not dishonesty but legitimate frustration with the Corinthians that kept him from visiting (2 Cor 1:16-24).
What Jesus seems to be saying is that grand gestures of fealty and integrity are unnecessary for God’s people. We simply need to say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Oaths taken for honor’s sake in the Old Testament never turned out well. Jesus even tells people to consider whether they will follow him and to weigh the options carefully (Luke 14:26-35). This is a message that is greatly needed in our present culture because lofty promises are made by politicians and millennial types often never show up to things they claimed they would intend. In a real way, Jesus’ teaching here appears to be moving integrity to the locus of personal consistency rather than the external locus of group rapport.

Translation Reflections
There is no reason for the phrase, “μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα” to be translated “nor by Jerusalem.” It carries the force, “nor for the sake of Jerusalem.” In other words, don’t even take oaths for the city.  I’ll have to look more deeply into this expression, but my instinct is that it is related to political zealotry, perhaps oaths to attack Rome when the moment is right. But the point is not the oaths, (which are prohibited with the infinitive, not the imperative), but the point is that that Jesus commands us to simply say yes or no and to do what we say we’ll do.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:33–37.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:27-30

27 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. 28 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ. 29 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. 30 καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.[1]

You heard that it was said, “You will not commit adultery.” 28 But I am telling you that everyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 Now, if your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and toss it from you; for it is better for you that one body part of yours be destroyed and not to have your whole body tossed into the Valley of Hinnom. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and toss it from you; for it is better for you that one body part of yours be destroyed and not to have your whole body go away into the Valley of Hinnom.

Most interpret this passage to be Jesus’ using hyperbole to say, “Do whatever it takes not to sin.” I think it’s more of a metaphor. The eye and the hand are representative of favorite bodily actions or mental dispositions of thought/emotion. The reason this seems less clear to us is probably because we don’t read the Old Testament enough. The right hand/arm of a person is commonly representative of their strength/capabilities/accomplishments. Similarly, the eye is related to somebody’s intentions, internal disposition, and so-on. So, Jesus’ point here is not merely to use hyperbole to help us see how bad sin is, it is to use metaphor to show how much better it is to do without sin than to keep it.

In this case, the sins are dispositional sins regarding sexuality. The wrong way to take this is to think that, “I’ve already lusted, so I might as well have sex with a stranger.” The right way to think of it is, “I don’t get brownie points with God for being lascivious in my thoughts just because I’m too shy or scared to be evil in my actions.” Jesus’ rhetorical goal appears to be rooting out a warped view of other human beings that lurks behind the apparently chaste glances of the people who want to be a part of God’s kingdom.

Another important approach to this passage is that Jesus says that men (and indirectly, women) are responsible for their own lust. In the ancient world, it seems, women were commonly treated as blameworthy for men’s dispositions toward them. Jesus says that in God’s kingdom this is not how it should go. I would add that everybody, to some degree, knows that their actions will elicit certain behaviors from others but when somebody lusts after another, Jesus says that ultimately the luster is culpable, not the lustee. This is important for today because when Christians teach about modesty, I often hear them teach it from the perspective of “people might lust” rather than from the perspective of Scripture itself. For instance, Paul taught that modesty is connected with self-control, frugality, and good works (1 Timothy 2:8-10). Now, just because Jesus, in Matthew 5, primarily addresses men, does not mean that the teaching cannot likewise be applied to women.

Finally, this passage is intentionally limited to a particular aspect of human sexuality that the Bible deals with elsewhere. There is “looking in order to lust,” probably at somebody who is unavailable for marriage to you since the word adultery is used. But then there is looking with desire (same Greek word) because you’re single and they are too. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 7, it’s also all over Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. There is a fine line here, but somebody who is sexually attractive to you could easily become your spouse. It’s not wrong to think, “I must have the attention of this person.” Jesus isn’t talking about that here. He’s talking about something that is a corollary to adultery: looking at a woman solely in order to fantasize about her (or a man). It’s clearly not about the motivation to get married because the whole unit of teaching is connected to a command against ruining marriages. In other words, single folks should not feel evil for thinking that somebody looks good. They also should either ask them out on a date or move on in order to avoid going into full blown pedestal/fantasy/lust mode over them.

Translation Comments:
A great many translations translate, “πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν” as “look with lust.” Προς or εις plus the articular infinitive take the meaning of “in order to” or “with the result that” so often, that translating it as “with” just blows my mind. I’ve never found that translation defended, I’ve only ever found it used. I think that the NIV translation of this passage (from conversations since my teenage years with Christians who read the NIV) makes a lot of people think that normal sexual desire is repudiated by Jesus. This simply is not so. Jesus commends married people and is clear that only some citizens of the kingdom of God will find it advantageous not to be married.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:27–30.

Devotional Thoughts: Blessed are the pure at heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, because they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)

In my opinion, the beatitudes here in Matthew are Jesus’ declaration that “the good life” is available to the people who are not typically seen residents in such an honorable estate. His idea, that those who suffer or are lightly esteemed can be blessed, is rooted in the Old Testament. It can also be found in Plato and the stoics (“Better to suffer injustice, than to commit injustice.”). The difference is that Matthew is making the claim that only through Jesus and his ministry the good life with God is definitively available, or rather through Jesus and his teaching can it be actualized with certainty. For Matthew seems to see several Old Testament figures as blessed in similar ways.

Now, the message of the four gospels is not merely the happy parts of Matthew 5:3-10. Indeed, there is more to being pure at heart than simply being good for a while and then seeing God and enjoying the good-life. Jesus, who would qualify as pure in heart in an exemplary fashion, certainly sees God. But his single-mindedness led him directly to the cross, where Matthew says that Jesus cried:

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)”

Now, I do not think that God the Father literally “turned his face away” from Jesus or anything like that.

But what I do want to point out is that becoming pure at heart and “seeing God” is often accompanied by the worst trials, the most profound temptations to sin, and the most unexpected assaults from evil (personified or not). The gospels are literary wholes, so we must take their promises for pleasure and ecstatic experience of God along with their expectations of pain and exposure to the evils of the god of this age. Indeed, Jesus says that our daily prayers should include, “rescue us from the evil one.” But there comes a time, perhaps not for all Christians, when the answer to that prayer is “My grace is sufficient for you.”

In this respect the good life, with all of its proportions of appreciation for God and his gifts must find its main satisfaction in God himself and his promises that remain unanswered and we have to learn that the eternal weight of glory far outweighs any momentary wasting away of the flesh, dimming of our vision of God, or feelings of abandonment in the face of the periodic crescendos of evil in our world.