The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 5: From preventing murder to opening one’s hand

From nonviolent resistance and retaining personal agency under duress (Part 4), we move on to consider our own violent impulses and our desire to cling to material comforts.

The fence around murder

In  Matthew 5:21-25 (NIV), Jesus expands upon the Torah’s prohibition against murder.  Levine and Brettler explain:

[This extension of the Torah] begins, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…, ‘You shall not murder’” [Matt 5:21]….

“Those of ancient times” as well as Jesus’s audience would have known the Decalogue along with other passages that unambiguously find intentional homicide to be a capital offense….

Jesus the interpreter then asks: Is premeditated murder the only serious offense that the commandment means to cover?

He then offers the extension: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister…, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt 5:22). (186-87)

The authors suggest that these threats may be rhetorical, since Matthew’s community had nondeadly means of discipline (Matt 18:15-17 NIV).

The crucial point, though, is this:  “Jesus’s extension is meant to convey the seriousness of angry words….  If one is not angry, one is less likely to commit murder” (188).  Jesus proposes to his listeners a practical discipline for forestalling violence between oneself and another (see Matt 5:21-26 NIV).

23 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift….

Become aware of one’s own anger, face it, and deal with it nonviolently.  First examine that anger for its triggers, before acting it out.  This self-awareness then gives one the grace to seek conflict resolution with the other person.

In fact, though Jesus does not say so explicitly, taking these steps becomes the real gift that one offers at the altar.  Even if resolution is not possible, a self-aware effort at reconciliation sidesteps one’s own inclination toward violence.  It also leaves the way open for restoring good will.

“Open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need”

At the other extreme of human engagement is the challenge of facing the intrusion of other people’s needs into one’s life.  Following the guidance on responding to physical, judicial, and military violence, Jesus speaks to this sort of challenge.  Levine and Brettler write:

Matthew ends this section with a potentially impractical injunction, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:42)….

[It is] possible that Jesus is extending the Torah’s command…to “open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deut 15:8); the rationale: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (Deut 15:11).

More than giving charitably, the Torah’s mandate, Jesus demands giving without restraint. The verse matches the call to the man who, although Torah faithful, was still attached to worldly wealth: “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor….” (Matt 19:21). (204-05)

The rich young man in the story just mentioned (Matt 19:16-22 NIV) goes away sad, unready to make the sacrifice that Jesus recommends.

“Oblivious,” affluent young couple beside a homeless woman on a bench, Montreal, by Mike Shell (8/8/2013).

A literal reading of Jesus’ words as a command would raise obstacles for every one of us, both because of our own needs and cares and because of our responsibility for the wellbeing of others.  Here is how Levine and Brettler address this concern:

Such a command works in cases where disciples have no familial responsibilities….

The Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) insists that charity without limit “concerns actions done with one’s body (such as visiting the sick or burying the dead).” But total divestment is not permitted, for the Mishnah presupposes its readers have families to support.

However, Jesus’ demand to give without restraint speaks to a deeper sense of who “owns” creation.  The young man in Matthew 19 is not so much fearful of living in poverty as of letting go of the illusory security of his wealth.

A Zen Buddhist saying speaks to the challenge Jesus poses:

Renunciation does not mean giving up the things of this world but accepting that they go away.

When someone approaches us in need, our reflex is to feel the imagined pain of letting go of what we want to keep.  Yet the point of Matthew 5:42 is not that we should give everything away.

Rather, when the needs of another confront us, we might first respect our own feeling of personal loss.  Then it becomes possible to shift our hearts toward the humanness of the ones who need what we are gifted to be able to share.

Jesus is speaking to crowds of people who have families to care for and social and financial obligations to meet.  Similarly, the author of Matthew is writing to people in exile who have themselves and others to support.

How are faithful people to work within the tension between life in this world and eschatological expectation for the coming of God’s realm?

In the first century CE, the first generation of Jesus followers expected the end-times within their own lives.  In the 21st century, how can we still hold life and expectation in balance?  That is the topic for the final section this essay.


Image source

Oblivious [cropped],” Place Bonaventure, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, by Mike Shell (8/8/2013).


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