Righteousness: context

sermon-on-the-mount38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. 40 If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. 41 Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? 48 So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This week’s gospel continues the movement through the first of the Matthean discourses, commonly known as the “Sermon on the Mount” begun on the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time with the Beatitudes. At a broad stroke, Matthew 5-7 are an expose of Jesus’ authoritative teaching; Chapters 8-9 are pericopes of his authoritative deeds. With the chapters dealing with authoritative teaching, there are four primary themes that emerge:

5:3-16        distinctiveness of Christian discipleship
5:17-48      disciples: fulfilling the Law (location of this gospel)
6:1-18        disciples: true and false piety
6:19-34      disciples: trust in God over material security

Jesus continued to teach the disciples with the “You have heard it said…But I say to you” format from last week. It is part of a series of varied examples of how Jesus’ principles, enunciated in vv. 17–20, work out in practice. And this practical outworking is set in explicit contrast with the ethical rules previously accepted. As we have mentioned before, the Sermon is not a comprehensive manual or rule – not an ethos (ethic) of life, but rather the discourse offers a series of illustrations of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The discourse serves to shape the vision and lenses by which a Christian sees the world and the way to be in the world. It describes what it means to be a covenant people.  The Sermon is meant to stimulate the imagination and personal responsibility of freely entering into the covenant relationship with God.  It is meant to help the disciple answer the questions, “Who is it that says these things?” and “What does it mean to truly be God’s people?”

There are some commentators who would group vv.33-37 with vv.38-48.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’34 But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.37 Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.

The reason for this is that these verses represent a transition from situations anticipated in the Law – e.g. murder, adultery, and divorce – to actions and locations not discussed in the OT. There is no precedent in the OT for the absolute prohibition of oaths. The Misnah has entire tractates on oaths (Shebuoth) and vows (Nedarim). Yet Jesus had provided a vision of discipleship and life that is an antithesis to the hierarchy of truth, witness, and relationships – abolishing the distinction between words that must be true (oaths) and words that must be performed (vows). All speech is to be truthful. All promised action to be performed, not just the ones associated with oaths and vows.

One wonders if the early reader of Matthew was perplexed from the beginning. After all, there are many instances in which a person acts contrary to the understanding of the Law (e.g., Joseph taking Mary into his home) – and is commended. But the trajectory of the Discourse (Sermon on the Mount) leads from actions, anti-thesis, to the fulfillment where the disciple will be judged and measured on love. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:20)

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