Prayer

“And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

It should be evident what prayer is all about. Unfortunately, all too often, its primary purpose gets missed.

In the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus addressed the three primary religious practices of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). He does so in light of the theme set forth in Matthew 5:17-20: one’s righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes if they desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, while Jesus is directly addressing His disciples in view of the crowd (cf. Matthew 5:3), He continues to critique the standard of righteousness professed by scribes and Pharisees, elsewhere considered rather hypocritical (Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37-54). Righteousness is not a thing done to be seen by others; if that is one’s motivation, then one gains nothing from his or her heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1).

Jesus began His discussion of prayer by again pointing out the motivation of the “hypocrites”: they stand and pray publicly so as to be seen in both religious venues (the synagogue) and “secular” space (street corners) in order to be seen by men (Matthew 6:5). As with almsgiving, so with prayer: they have their reward; people see them and think they are holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2, 5). Instead Jesus commended going into an “inner chamber,” an inner room, and pray in secret, and the Father who sees in secret would reward them (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus then turned to a concerned rooted in the practices of the pagan nations: the belief that they would be heard by divinity for their battalogesete, literally “stammering,” but here referring to constant repetition of phrases (Matthew 6:7). Jesus assured His disciples and His Jewish audience that God already knows what they would need before they asked (Matthew 6:8).

What are we to conclude from Jesus’ instruction? We do well to note how Jesus brings us back to the original point of prayer: communication with God. When we pray we are making petitions of God; it is not about impressing other people. If in regular conversation with people we prattled on with ceaseless repetition of phrases, those with whom we converse might think us mad. God wants to hear our prayers; God wants to bless us; but God wants us to speak with Him in prayer; God is not some mystic force which requires a certain mantra repeated over and over in order to be summoned.

Is it wrong to pray in public? Jesus does not condemn prayer in the synagogue; prayer will become an important feature of Christian assemblies in the new covenant (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15-19). Jesus Himself prayed in public at times (John 11:41-42, 12:28). Jesus’ concern is less about location and more about motivation: are we praying so as to impress others or to humbly pour out our souls before God? Granted, much prayer, especially intimate prayer, is best done in the inner chamber; plenty of prayer subjects have no place in the assembly or in the public square. If we pray in the assembly, we do well to focus on how we can build up each other by making thanksgiving, petitions for protection, strength, and need, keeping the focus on God (1 Corinthians 14:15-19, 26). If we pray in public, we do well to pray for the needs of the moment, keeping the focus on God. We easily delude ourselves into justifying praying in such a way as to impress men as opposed to really speaking to God. We must stand firm.

Is it wrong to use the thoughts of others, or to repeat ourselves in prayer? Jesus will go on to provide the Lord’s prayer as a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13); God gave us the Psalms to this end; the Psalms themselves sometimes feature a repeated phrase (e.g. Psalm 136:1-26). Jesus condemned a pagan practice which did not respect God as god; we must resist any such pagan practices, vainly imagining that if we repeat a phrase over and over again, however substantive, God will listen to us or give us an ecstatic experience because of it. Jesus exhorts us to maintain prayer as a form of effective and meaningful communication with God. God knows what we need; prayer is for our benefit more than His. We can use the words of others, appropriating them for ourselves, and pray in a way that glorifies God; we can pray halfheartedly and absentmindedly with our own thoughts and thus dishonor God. In life we tend to need the same things; our prayers will most likely seem repetitive since life is rather repetitive. We must not sacrifice meaning in repetition; God is not a genie or force we conjure up through some kind of ritual incantation; He is our Creator and the ultimate Power of the universe, and we do well to speak with Him accordingly.

Humans, then and now, are easily tempted to forget about the purpose and meaning of prayer. It is easy to turn prayer into a ritual incantation or a pretense given to manifest holiness; neither practice honors God. Prayer, first and foremost, is communication with our God, the God of the universe, who already knows what we need. We do well to pray in thankfulness and sincerity, meaning what we say, focused on God in prayer, to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Almsgiving

“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee” (Matthew 6:1-4).

What motivates our righteousness? Love for God? Love for our fellow man? To be seen as righteous?

Jesus addressed motivation for practicing righteousness as He continues His discourse in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whereas Jesus introduced a new subject, and a new chapter has begun according to modern versification, His theme remained unchanged. Ever since Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus has been comparing what had been said in the Law, the standard of righteousness for the scribes and Pharisees with what He had to say, the standard of true righteousness, what would truly be necessary to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 5:21-48). The Pharisees and scribes are no less in view in Matthew 6:1-24 than they were in Matthew 5:21-48; we are to understand that they are these hypocrites who want to seem righteous (cf. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 16:13-31).

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Jesus begun by establishing the principle: do not act righteously to be seen by people (Matthew 6:1). Such is a strong tendency of humanity; one need not travel very far to find some kind of building, park, or other facility emblazoned with the name or names of the people who contributed to it. People love to contribute to causes as long as they get some benefit, normally some publicity, so as to look good and to be seen as a positive asset for the community. It works, at least in terms of humanity; but what about before God?

Jesus applied the principle to the three main realms of what may be considered religious behavior: almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4), prayer (Matthew 6:3-15), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). These three realms cover the whole of one’s service to God: righteous actions for others (almsgiving), development of relationship with God (prayer), and personal acts of devotion and spirituality (fasting). In this way it is evident that Jesus’ principle of Matthew 6:1 applies to Christianity in full. Our motivation must always be to glorify and honor God in all we do, not to be seen by others as holy and righteous.

Almsgiving was expected to be a common practice in Israel; if you had something to give, you gave it to the ill, the infirm, the disabled, the widow, and the orphan (e.g. Job 31:16-20, Isaiah 58:7-12). Such is why Jesus assumes the practice (“when you give”). The scribes and Pharisees gave as well, but when they did so, they had a trumpet blast given, either in the synagogue or on the street (Matthew 6:2).

Such seems too ridiculous to even contemplate; some believe Jesus is exaggerating, but the concept is so clear and compelling that we now speak of someone proclaiming their deeds as “trumpeting” them. These hypocrites, most likely the scribes and Pharisees, are doing their best “acting.” Their standing in society is based upon the commonly held view that they were more studious, righteous, and learned. To maintain that standing they must be seen as performing righteous acts like almsgiving.

Notice that Jesus did not say that these hypocrites internally and consciously intended to do these things to be seen by men; they no doubt justified their behavior by saying that they were doing good and doing what God commanded. No doubt God and benevolence did play into their motivations. But would they have still given those alms if no one was there to notice? Most likely not, and in this way their real intention is made known. It is more important in their minds to keep up appearances than to actually perform righteousness and care for those less fortunate.

Jesus did establish that they did receive their reward: the people continued to think of them as holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2). Yet they have no credit from God. Instead, one is to give so that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:3-4).

We are again confronted with what seems to be a ludicrous situation: both the left and right hands are controlled by the brain, so how can one do anything so that one hand does not know what the other is doing? Perhaps Jesus intended for us to understand that giving should become so reflexive that we do it without having to think twice about it; then again, His whole concern has been regarding intentions with giving, and to give reflexively does not automatically mean one is giving thoughtfully and benevolently. Jesus is most likely using a potent image so that we understand His main point: our giving is to be in secret (Matthew 6:4).

Does Jesus thus condemn all public forms of giving? No more so than He condemns people seeing Christians giving to others. We do well to remember that Jesus’ primary concern is motivation: why are we doing what we are doing? Are we trying to glorify God or look pious before men? If we prove willing to give in secret, we demonstrate that our righteousness is not a show, but sincerely reflects our love for God and for our fellow man. If we only give when we will get some kind of reward or credit on earth, then our motivations are less than sincere.

We do well to stop and reflect about our motivations. Jesus makes it very clear that two people can do the exact same thing but have two very different outcomes solely on account of their motivations. What we intend informs the purpose and thus value of the act.

Needs for benevolence are no less today than then (Matthew 26:11). We do well to help those in need, especially those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We must remember that we will receive our reward no matter what. If we give to be seen of men, then we will be seen of men, receive their commendation, but gain no standing before God. If we give to glorify God, then God will see what we do, and He who sees in secret will reward us appropriately. May we give abundantly to others so God receives all the glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Love Your Enemies

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy’:
But I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Jesus had already said many difficult, challenging things. He had only been warming up!

Matthew 5:1-48 recounts the beginning of what is popularly called Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus set forth a protracted discussion of the ethics of the Kingdom. After overthrowing commonly held expectations about who was fortunate, or blessed (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus established that He came to fulfill, and not abolish the Law, but to enter the Kingdom one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus further explicated the point with a series of contrasting statements, first establishing “what had been said” in the Law, both in terms of what was explicitly written and how it was understood and practiced in terms of righteousness, but then turning by establishing what “I say unto you,” ultimately a more exacting and rigorous standard. The Law said to not murder; Jesus exhorted His followers to not even hate, pursuing reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26). The Law said to not commit adultery; Jesus expected people to not even lust in their heart, turning from temptation (Matthew 5:27-30). The Law granted reasons for divorce; Jesus limited them to sexually deviant behavior on the part of the spouse being put away (Matthew 5:31-33). The Law made provision for oaths; Jesus told His followers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:33-37). The Law enshrined the lex talionis as a means of exacting appropriate recompense for injury; Jesus then said to not resist the one who is evil, suffer the loss and indignity, and prove willing to go further (Matthew 5:38-42). This leads to the final contrast as expressed in Matthew 5:43-48.

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The Law explicitly declared for the Israelites to love their neighbor as themselves in Leviticus 19:18. The Law nowhere explicitly states that Israelites were to “hate their enemy”; this has led many expositors to suggest that this is a Pharisaical addition condemned by Jesus and without merit. So far everything Jesus declared “had been said of old” came directly from the Law or paraphrased an idea that was assuredly in the Law; to turn to a Pharisaical invention without mentioning it would seem strange at this point. “You shall hate your enemy,” especially in terms of loving one’s enemy less, is not an unreasonable interpretation of many elements of the Law of Moses. YHWH explicitly excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from His assembly (Deuteronomy 23:2-3); the Israelites were to entirely eliminate and destroy the seven nations in Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 5). After at least four hundred years after the original offense YHWH made sure that Saul struck Amalek for what they had done to the Israelites during their time in the Wilderness (1 Samuel 15:1-7; cf. Exodus 17:8-16). An exploration into the prophetic judgment oracles against neighboring nations, seen in Isaiah 13-24, Jeremiah 46-51, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, and Nahum, among others, makes plain how little love was lost among the Israelites and their neighbors, and how YHWH was going to judge those who had sought evil against Israel. We can also see what the Israelites do when they get a chance to overcome their enemies in Esther 8-9, and it leads to many, many deaths.

We can see “hate your enemy” at work throughout the Gospels in terms of how the Jewish people viewed and treated those of other nations. The lawyer’s attempt to justify himself in Luke 10:29 was not entirely out of turn; Israelites had no problem loving (at least most of) their fellow Israelites but had very little love for those of the nations, particularly Romans. John’s aside in John 4:9 is understated: Jews not only had no dealings with Samaritans but also despised them, and that gives the Parable of the Good Samaritan its power (Luke 10:26-37). Peter reminded Cornelius that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles (Acts 10:28), and that was the accusation made against him the moment he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3). Jews despised those of the nations, the Gentiles; the Gentiles returned the favor. And, as Peter’s declaration makes clear, Jews found plenty of justification for their position towards the Gentiles in the Law of Moses.

Jesus very deliberately overthrows the whole paradigm in His response in Matthew 5:44. He told His disciples to love and do good to their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Few concepts prove as counterintuitive and contrary to all natural inclination as this; we want to harm those who want to harm us, or at least keep them away. We want nothing good to come upon those who want to do evil to us. It can be physically challenging to even turn the tide so as to do what Jesus says, to do good to those who stand against you and everything you are.

Jesus is aware of that; such is why He appeals to the ultimate Authority. Why should Christians love their enemies, do good to them, and pray for their persecutors? So they can manifest how they are children of their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45). God sends the sun to shine upon the evil and the good; rain falls on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Not only that, but loving those who love you and greeting only those who are your fellow people is not really that extraordinary, for tax collectors (universally hated and reviled as agents of the oppressors) and (those nasty) Gentiles do the same things. Thus, if you really want to be truly righteous, to have a form of righteousness greater than the average person, you need to be more like your heavenly Father and love even those who do not love you and greet those who would have nothing to do with you.

Jesus then concludes this series of contrasting statements, exemplifying the true nature of righteousness in the Kingdom, by declaring that His followers should be perfect as the Father is perfect. “Perfect” is the Greek teleios, “complete, perfect, brought to its end, mature.” If one exemplifies all these forms of righteousness he would prove mature and brought to the complete end of holiness, just as God is.

So much could be said about Jesus’ exposition in Matthew 5:43-48. Through what Jesus says we can see a level of common grace which God provides to all, something Paul will consider as well in Acts 14:16-17, 17:25-30. Jesus’ appeal to the “natural” love and greeting among even sinners is hard to square with any suggestion that humans, in their sinful depravity, are incapable of any good. There are no end to the arguments about Matthew 5:48 and the attainability of perfection, or whether that is even what Jesus is imagining or expecting, or perhaps is showing that all of this is what would be demanded in its exactitude if one attempts to depend on fulfillment of righteousness as the ground upon which one is able to stand before God (cf. Matthew 5:20).

The most important thing is how Jesus lived what He said in Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus came as the one sinless human in a sinful world; all people had turned aside to their own way; all were weak, ungodly, and sinful to some degree or another, and yet Jesus loved them and died for them (Romans 5:6-11). He prayed for Jerusalem while knowing He would be killed there (Matthew 23:37-39); He prayed for those who executed Him while in the very act (Luke 23:34). He visited Saul of Tarsus while he remained a persecutor, and Saul never forgot the greatness of Jesus’ mercy nor the depth of his own sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Paul would become a most forceful expositor of the great power of what Jesus accomplished on the cross: He bore the enmity, He killed the hostility, and now Jew and Gentile were to be brought together into one body (Ephesians 2:11-18).

Jesus had no quarrel with loving one’s neighbor. The difficulty, of course, is that we humans see some people as our neighbor, but not everyone. Jesus points out that to God we are all neighbors; we all receive the beneficence of His abundant provision of the earth. God loves despite our unworthiness; we must love despite others’ unworthiness. God even loved those who actively worked against His purposes; what excuse do we have to do otherwise?

As Christians we are to be continually reminded that the only reason we stand before God is because while we were yet weak, ungodly, and enemies, God reconciled us to Himself through the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). Thus we must love our enemy, just as God did, so that our enemy may become our brother. We must pray for those who persecute us so they may turn from the forces of darkness to which they are subject and join with us in serving the living God (Ephesians 6:12). God loves everyone and wants them to be saved (1 Timothy 4:1-4). If we would be called sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, should we not want the same, and live according to the pattern of our elder Brother Jesus who established the way (1 John 2:3-6)? May we love our enemies and do good to them, pray for those who persecute us, and demonstrate ourselves to be children of our heavenly Father to His glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Do Not Resist the Evil Person

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’
But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:38-42).

It is not surprising that many in history considered Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount as virtually impossible to observe.

Jesus has been contrasting what was written in the Law of Moses, and how it was customarily understood and explained by the Pharisees and others, with what He says (Matthew 5:20-48). Many of Jesus’ exhortations demanded His followers to go beyond concern about behavior and show just as much concern about their thoughts and feelings: they were not only not to murder or commit adultery but should not hate their brother in their heart or lust for a woman in their heart (Matthew 5:21-30). Most recently Jesus has encouraged His followers to maintain a personal standard of godliness and righteousness beyond that demanded by the Law: the Law might allow a person to divorce his wife or to swear oaths, but Jesus’ followers should recognize God’s original intentions, allowing divorce only for the sexually deviant behavior of the spouse, and not swearing, allowing one’s “yes” and “no” to stand (Matthew 5:31-37).

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Jesus continued in the same strain in terms of the lex talionis set forth in Exodus 21:22-27, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:19-21. The lex talionis (Latin for law of talion) enshrined the right of retaliation but only in terms of the severity of the original injury; it is also known in terms of the first example given in the lex talionis, the principle of “an eye for an eye.” In the Law of Moses the lex talionis maintained a restrictive and restraining function: it is not difficult to imagine an aggrieved party, having suffered the loss of an eye or limb or some such thing, retaliating and causing far more significant damage to the person who inflicted the original wound. Such was reckoned (and is still reckoned) as unjust and unfair; therefore, the Law of Moses restricted retaliation or the expectation of the payment for damages to be commensurate to the original offense. Even though we no longer, in general, demand the loss of an eye for having taken an eye, limb for having taken a limb (with the exception of capital punishment, the loss of life for taking a life), the legal idea at the root of the lex talionis remains important to this day: we feel a punishment should fit the crime.

Jesus recognized all of this; His quibble was not with what the Law allows. The Law might have allowed for retaliation, to resist the one who did evil to another; Jesus exhorted His followers to not demand an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc., but should not resist (anthistemi, “stand against”) the one who does evil (Matthew 5:39). Jesus then illustrated the principle with four contemporary and relevant applications: if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also; if any sue and take your coat, give him your cloak also; if compelled to go one mile, go two; give to those who ask and do not turn away borrowers (Matthew 5:39-42).

These four situations would have been very familiar to Jesus’ followers and Jewish audience, yet Jesus’ exhortation would have seemed extremely radical. Striking (rhapisei, sometimes with the palm, often with an object) would normally begin with the left cheek; the right cheek (lit. jaw) is of greater prominence, and thus such striking would have been considered not just violent but also an insult. It is bad enough to be sued and to be deprived of one’s chiton (a tunic; the inner layer of clothing); giving up the himation (the outer garment) would be an even more expensive loss, which normally would take place at the hands of robbers. Compulsion to go one mile features the Greek aggareuse; the word derives from Persian and the Persian public messengers. They were stationed at fixed positions, and any official could demand for any subject passing by the post station to deliver the message to the next post-station a mile away, whether the traveler was going that way or that far or not (Herodotus, Histories 8.98, Xenophon, Cyropedia 8.6.17; cf. also Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were quite acquainted with forced service; Roman soldiers on the march would frequently compel any passing-by subject of the Empire to carry their baggage for one mile, an especially odious burden on Jewish people who already resented and despised what they saw as the oppressive rule of the Romans. Then, as now, plenty of people begged for resources and asked for loans to be given; then, as now, while some such supplicants might be “worthy” of assistance, having fallen into temporary misfortune, and would pay back whatever was borrowed, most would have been considered “unworthy” and most would not pay back. Yet, in all four situations, Jesus exhorted His followers to absorb the loss, suffering, pain, humiliation, or material loss. Injured and insulted with a strike to the right cheek? Do not hit back, but turn the other cheek. Someone sues you for your tunic? Give it, and your more expensive outer garment as well. An agent of an oppressive overlord demands one mile of service? Go two. People want you to give them your money or want to borrow it? Do not turn them away.

Jesus knew well what He was asking; it is not the only time He instructed His followers in this way (Luke 6:27-36, 14:12-14), and He ultimately exemplified the principles in His conduct (John 18:22-23, 1 Peter 2:20-23). This instruction is not unique to Jesus; His Apostles exhorted Christians to do the same (Romans 12:17-21, 1 Corinthians 6:7, 1 Peter 3:9, 1 John 3:16-18). The challenge and radical nature of Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:38-42 is most apparent in how many times and ways those who would claim to be His followers have attempted to countermand or resist it. Some have just written off these demands as impossible to attain ideals; others would like to suggest they only apply to a millennial Kingdom. Even among those who claim to take the Bible seriously as the Word of God attempt to deflect the import of what Jesus exhorted by suggesting He meant it only in terms of “spiritual” and not “secular” or “worldly” opponents, despite the fact that such categories are foreign to Jesus and His context, and the examples all involve very “secular” situations. Resistance is understandable; Jesus is asking us to go against every natural impulse and reaction we have in the face of insult, degradation, and deprivation!

We should not resist Jesus’ exhortation against resisting the evil person. Jesus does not suggest we acquiesce to evil in order to justify it or commend it; as Paul explains, we suffer the indignity because we maintain confidence that God will right all wrongs, and we are called to suffer evil and do good in return (Romans 12:17-21; cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25). Overcoming evil with evil just means evil wins; to truly overcome evil one must suffer it and do good regardless, exemplified by Jesus’ suffering on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Thus Christians are not to resist the evil one, whether “spiritual” or “secular”; we must instead suffer the indignity or deprivation. When insulted, we should not insult in return; when pressed into service we should go above and beyond in our service. We should give to those who would deprive us, and be generous, even to those less than “worthy,” and even if we will not be paid back. No one, not even Jesus, said it would be easy; nevertheless, it is part of the difficult road that leads to life, and we can understand why few are those who find it.

We do well to follow Jesus’ example and exhortation and not resist the one who is evil. God will judge the evil in the end; it is for us, in the pattern of our Savior, to suffer the wrong and do good. Such is one of the most difficult things to do; it goes against every natural impulse, and we are constantly tempted to find some reason to justify resisting the evil. When thus tempted, consider ourselves before God. When we insulted God by our words and deeds, did He insult us in turn? When we deprived God of the glory and honor due Him when we selfishly glorified ourselves and our deeds, did He deprive us of life? How many times have we asked of God and He has given freely despite our manifest unworthiness? If we expect God to love us and provide for us despite our own failings and participation in evil, who are we to deny our fellow man the same mercy? May we take the Lord Jesus’ exhortations seriously, cease resisting the one who does evil to us, and glorify God through our suffering for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Oaths

“Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths’:
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, ‘Yea, yea; Nay, nay’: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

When in the middle of disputes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees, focusing only on the details of the issue at hand. Jesus resolutely maintained focus on the forest!

Jesus declares Matthew 5:33-37 in the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”; it is also the fourth of six declarations whereby Jesus contrasts what the disciples and Israel had heard from what “I say unto you,” and in all six Jesus is contrasting the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with that of God’s full purpose in His Kingdom (Matthew 5:17-48). Previous declarations involved murder, adultery, and divorce; in each circumstance Jesus also condemns giving expression to the desires that lead to those sins and returns to God’s purposes for marriage from the beginning (Matthew 5:21-32).

In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus turns to the matter of oaths and vows. What Israel “had heard” as cited in Matthew 5:33 does not come from one specific passage but represents the substantive message of Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2-16, and Deuteronomy 5:11, 23:23: God commanded for Israel to not swear falsely but to pay what they vow.

In days of old many in Israel took this commandment very seriously. Even though the covenant made between Israel and the Gibeonites was made under false pretenses, Israel decided to honor that covenant because they had sworn to the Gibeonites by the name of YHWH (Joshua 9:1-27). Jephthah made a foolish and rash vow, yet the text makes it abundantly clear that he did exactly what he vowed, even though it meant sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-39). While we might question why such vows should be honored, the Israelites did not. The vows should not have been made; they were rash and foolish; but once made they were obligated to follow through. The Law provided only a narrow provision for a vow to be repealed, and it only involved a vow of a woman in certain circumstances (Numbers 30:1-16).

Yet things had changed by Jesus’ day. We can see from Matthew 23:16-22 that the Pharisees had worked out an elaborate system on account of which some were obligated to keep their vows but not others: those who swore on the Temple or the altar were not obliged, but those who swore on the gold of the Temple or the offering on the altar were obliged. Jesus devastates that logic, asking which is greater, the gold or the Temple that sanctifies the gold, the altar or the One who sanctifies the altar, and making it quite clear that even in the first century, regardless of whether you swore on the Temple, its gold, the altar, its offering, or heaven in reality swears in the name of the One who accepts the gift on the altar, who dwells in the Temple, and who sits on the throne in Heaven. God was not confused nor was He amused: if Israelites swore on anything they were still obligated to pay their vows!

Nevertheless, in Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes even further. Throughout He never denies that if you swear you are obligated to pay your vow; He does not say otherwise here, and in Matthew 23:16-22 He makes His feelings about paying vows actually made quite well known. In Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes a large step further: do not swear at all!

Humans have a propensity toward swearing; yes, we could include the “cursing” kind as well, but we speak specifically of the impulse to make a vow. When we are doubted or challenged we impulsively swear to be telling the truth; not a few in our midst greatly desire for us to vow, or commit, to various projects. Humans show almost equal propensity to break vows as much as to make them; how many times will people swear to be telling the truth precisely when they are trying to pass off a lie? How many have given their word but do not follow through? Such is why God commanded Israel to not take His name in vain, concerned less about cursing and far more about swearing the truth in the name of YHWH flippantly (Exodus 20:7). Such is why God put such strong emphasis on Israelites paying whatever they vowed (Numbers 30:1-16). And this is why so many first century Israelites were trying to find an “escape route” out of their vows!

What good does swearing do, anyway? Is something we say or promise more valid if we swear by heaven? As Jesus says, it is God’s throne, His seat of power, not ours (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). What if we swear by the earth? It is not ours; it is the footstool of God’s feet (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). Jerusalem? The city of the great King (Matthew 5:34; cf. Psalm 48:2). Well, what about on our own heads? Jesus reminds us that we cannot make one hair white or black (and the premise is not contradicted by current hair coloring products; we are still not nearly in as much control of our existence as we would like to imagine but subject to all sorts of forces, Matthew 5:36). Swearing by our own righteousness would prove counter-productive (Romans 3:20, 23). Thus, in the end, we humans really do not have any basis upon which to swear; there is no external force that grounds our words as true.

Instead, as Jesus suggests, we ought to say yes and no; our integrity should be inherent in our words (Matthew 5:37). If we are trustworthy, our yes or our no should be sufficient. As Jesus says, anything beyond “yes” and “no” is of the Evil One, since it comes from a place of doubt, fear, mistrust, and sin (Matthew 5:37). For good measure James repeats the same command in James 5:12.

Whenever Jesus’ command to not swear is discussed many questions multiply about being sworn in as a witness in a trial, making contract commitments in general, and things of that nature. Is the prohibition absolute? The text does not say. Being sworn in as a witness in a trial is a way to observe the civil laws, a commendable thing in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-15, and not the issue regarding which Jesus is discussing. Jesus’ concern is about our propensity to want to invoke other people, places, or authorities to somehow invest our words with greater veracity or authority. Yet, in reality, all we have is our “yes” and “no.” Our words are no more or less true if we swear on God’s name, heaven and earth, the grave of our mother, or anything else. Furthermore, when we make vows, we obligate ourselves to fulfill them, and is that a wise course of action? We do better to live with such integrity that those around us know that our yes or no can be trusted. Living with such integrity is how we may exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and thus enter the Kingdom of God! Let us be true to our word, avoid swearing and vowing whenever possible, allow our yes to be yes and no, no, and speak and live in integrity before God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Divorce

“It was said also, ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement’:
but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).

Jesus addresses a matter controversial in almost every age.

It is no secret that marriage, divorce, and remarriage (MDR) issues are tearing the church and the Lord’s people apart. People prove too eager or not eager at all to discuss divorce and remarriage. Nevertheless, we do well to consider what Jesus is saying in context and to what end He says what He says.

In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus speaks about divorce and remarriage as the third of six contrasts between “what was said” and what “I say unto you” in Matthew 5:21-48; these six statements are framed by Matthew 5:17-20 with the expectation that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to enter the Kingdom. The previous two contrasts both emphasized not only the avoidance of the physical behavior of sin but also the thoughts and feelings that lead to such behaviors: not just to not kill or commit adultery, but not to hate in one’s heart or look upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:21-30). In all these things the Pharisees would stress the letter of the Law and the physical behavior only; Jesus shows how those who would serve Him in His Kingdom must be as concerned about the heart and mind as the behaviors of the body. Yet this section of the “Sermon on the Mount” is not just about thoughts and feelings vs. behavior; Jesus will go on to exhort believers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:34) and to not resist the evil person (Matthew 5:39), behavior matters indeed. The consistent contrast is between what Jesus’ audience understood as not only the Law but the acceptable and approved interpretation thereof by the scribes and the Pharisees versus the greater standard of righteousness necessary to enter God’s Kingdom (Matthew 5:19-20, 23:1-2).

It is worth noting that Jesus only speaks of marriage, divorce, and remarriage when involved in conversations with or about Pharisees (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9, Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18). The reason for this becomes clear in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:1-12: the Pharisees attempt to test Jesus in terms of how to understand Moses’ legislation in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and whether a man has the right to divorce his wife for almost any reason or only for sexually deviant behavior. Pharisaic understanding of the matter was no certain thing as is evident in Jewish sources:

The school of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds in her a matter of lewdness, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing” [Deuteronomy 24:1], but the school of Hillel say: Even if she burnt his food, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing”. Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found one more beautiful than she, as it says, “If she should not find favour in his eyes” (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).

A wide dispute within not just Second Temple Judaism but even among the Pharisees thus stand as a backdrop behind Jesus’ teachings about divorce and remarriage. In Matthew 5:31 He paraphrases Deuteronomy 24:1-2, having the entire scenario in view. He then declares that anyone who would thus put away his wife makes her to commit adultery, and that whoever would marry a woman thus having been put away commits adultery (Matthew 5:32). For many the way Jesus phrases His declaration seems curious: how can it be that a man divorcing his wife causes her to commit adultery? We do well to remember that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is case law based on a particular scenario in which a man might attempt to remarry a wife he had put away who in the meantime had been married to another man. Deuteronomy 24:4 declares such would be an abomination; he cannot have her back since she had been the wife of another. Thus in the legislation as written the assumption exists that the woman will take the certificate of divorce and become the wife of another man (Deuteronomy 24:2). Jesus is saying that in the Kingdom if a woman thus divorced went and became the wife of another, her (ex-)husband has proven guilty of the divorce and has put her in the position whereby she is committing adultery, and the new husband is committing adultery by being married to her as well (Matthew 5:32).

How can it be that marrying another means a person is committing adultery? Many suggest that Jesus is adding a new definition of adultery when in fact He is returning to the simplest definition of adultery: having sex with someone other than your spouse. On the surface Jesus’ statement does seem paradoxical yet is rooted in what He will declare in greater detail in Matthew 19:6: what God has joined man is not to separate. Man can commit the sin of separating what God joined, and God recognizes that he has done so; God does not legitimate that separation unless done because the spouse has committed sexually deviant behavior. Thus, according to the rule, if either spouse has sex with another person, they are having sex with someone other than the one to whom God joined them. This is the case when either the (active) divorcing spouse or the (passive) divorced spouse marry and have sex with another. Jesus’ statements are pretty clear and comprehensive. It is only because of sin that His truths regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage seem so difficult to understand.

Jesus’ contrast is blunt, shocking to His audience, but entirely consistent with what He has been saying. The Law and the Pharisees may justify divorce in many circumstances, but from the beginning it has not been so. God does not want separated what He has joined, either by sexually deviant behavior (which involves one spouse joining themselves to another, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:13-20) or by divorce. It may be a more difficult standard, but it is the standard of righteousness in the Kingdom of God in Christ. What God has joined let not man separate: may this be true of us in terms of both our spouse as well as with God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Dismemberment

“And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

If anyone were not yet stunned and shocked by Jesus’ words they certainly would have been by now.

Jesus makes this startling declaration in Matthew 5:29-30 in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Since Matthew 5:21 He has been making a comparison and contrast between what the Israelites “had heard” in the Law of Moses and its bare minimum standard of righteousness and what “I say to you,” expressing God’s higher standard of righteousness, the one beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). He first compared and contrasted the command to not kill with the higher standard of not only not hating but even seeking reconciliation and terms of peace (Matthew 5:20-26). Most recently Jesus began contrasting what the Law said about adultery with the higher standard of not even looking upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:27-28). Then He starts talking about personal dismemberment: if the right eye or hand causes a person to stumble, they should remove them, for it is better for one part of the body to perish rather than the whole to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:29-30)!

Jesus’ illustration here in Matthew 5:29-30 has been one of the most abused and distorted of all the things He said and did. Some people have gone to the extreme of actually blinding themselves or chopping off their hands. Others use this passage to mock Christians in their devotion to God, declaring that if they really took Jesus literally and seriously, they should be dismembering themselves! Is Jesus serious here? Should people really dismember themselves in order to avoid hellfire?

Let none be deceived: Jesus is not actually suggesting that His followers should dismember themselves. While there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust, and the unjust will be cast into the lake of fire, actually tearing out the eye or cutting off the hand will not effectively help a believer avoid stumbling and temptation (cf. John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). Paul puts the challenge well in Colossians 2:20-23: asceticism does not intrinsically help us avoid the indulgences of the flesh. Furthermore, neither our right eye nor our right hand cause us to stumble; they are but servants of the mind, and the stumbling into sin which would occur is on account of the mind and its decisions (James 1:13-15). A blind man or armless man can still stumble into lust.

So if Jesus does not actually intend for anyone to dismember themselves, why does He speak as He does in Matthew 5:29-30? He speaks so as to shock people. He speaks so as to make clear the severity of stumbling and the temptations of sin. Does the right eye, on its own volition, compel us to lust and covet and thus sin? No, but it is easy to give into the temptation to look upon a woman to lust and to do so frequently. Does the right hand, on its own volition, lead us to take what is not ours? No, but once we have seen with our eyes and have lusted in our hearts it is much easier to reach out and grab what is not for us to have.

These are easy sins to have. Lust has become no less of a problem 2,000 years later; modern man has no lack of opportunity to commit adultery in his or her heart. We are becoming too easily sexually desensitized; what once was recognized as sexual deviance is far too often becoming acceptable or even the norm, and many forms of sexual behavior once generally deemed sinful is being accepted and normalized as well. Pornography and romance novels abound as channels of escape. “Hookup culture” provides easier access to opportunities for sexual behavior. To stand firm for sexual purity and holiness requires profound effort from both men and women, husbands and wives; it is always far easier to give into lusts and desires just like everyone else.

Yet sexual sin has always been easy to pursue; such is why Paul must speak of it constantly (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). And in His own way Jesus is also trying to make this clear in Matthew 5:29-30 by setting forth the severity of the consequences of giving in and following the prevalent sexual currents of society. Lusting might be easy; it might seem fun; yet it condemns the whole body to Gehenna, a vivid illustration of hell based upon the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. If it would be better for us to dismember ourselves than to find ourselves cast into Gehenna, then we really need to take these challenges, temptations, and causes of stumbling very seriously!

One thing is for certain: few if any have forgotten Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:29-30. It is a very memorable illustration! We should not miss the point: no, Jesus does not want us to dismember ourselves, but Jesus says what He does as He does for very good reasons, and we should not so downplay a literal application that we diminish the force of the illustration. Sin comes with serious consequences, and lust and other sexual sins are certainly no exception. If it is better to pluck out our eye than to give into looking at a woman with lustful intent, then we should recognize how important it is to make the decision to keep our thoughts pure. If it would be better to chop off our hand than to reach out to take what is not ours, then we should certainly understand how important it is to make the decision to be blameless in our interaction with our fellow men and women. Let us strive to serve the Lord Jesus and avoid Gehenna!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Adultery in the Heart

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus is working through a theme, and it is getting more uncomfortable.

In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus presents the second contrast between “what was heard” and what “I say unto you.” The first such contrast in Matthew 5:21-22 involved murder and hatred, insult, and derision of one’s brother; Jesus extended the principle to discuss the significance of reconciliation and the need to find grace before judgment (Matthew 5:23-26). While He quotes Exodus 20:13 from the Law of Moses in Matthew 5:21, He has no quarrel with the substance of the teaching, but insists that there is greater application and deeper concern than just the surface matter of the actual killing of another human being. The mental and emotional conditions of separation, alienation, judgmentalism, anger, hostility, etc. are just as wrong as the action when committed. Such instruction was in contrast to the standard of righteousness of the Pharisees which is under critique throughout this section (cf. Matthew 5:17-20).

This second contrast involves the next of the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). As before, Jesus has no quarrel with the command itself; when making His contrast He is not attempting to justify or commend adultery in any way. Yet, as with murder, so with adultery: the final action is but a realization of previous thoughts and desires. Jesus’ declaration means that it is not enough to just not commit adultery: to look at a woman with lustful intent is to commit adultery with her in the heart, and Jesus declares such thinking as its own form of covenant betrayal (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus’ theme has become apparent: to observe the letter of the Law and avoid the outwardly sinful behaviors is well and good, but true righteousness demands not just a reformation of behavior but also a reformation of thought and feeling. Under the Law, and certainly in the Pharisaic system of thinking, one might be justified if they did not commit adultery even if they secretly harbored fantasies of doing so; in the Kingdom of God the fantasy is a transgression as well. Since how you think and feel dictates how you act, if you would act righteously, you must also think and feel righteously; if you sin in behavior, you have most likely already sinned in thought and feeling beforehand (Mark 7:14-23, James 1:13-15).

Jesus’ main point is fairly clear and understandable, yet many questions are asked in modern times about how we might apply it. For instance, what about single people? Jesus does not speak in terms of “fornication” in action or in the heart (understood as “sex before marriage” or “sex by unmarried people” in thought or action) since most people, by the age of sexual maturity, would have already been married. Nevertheless, on what basis would this principle not apply to those who are unmarried, who remain just as much under the commands to avoid lascivious behavior and to keep their vessel in sanctification as those who are married (Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)? They must take care to not allow lustful thinking to overtake them. Likewise, many ask whether this means that it is wrong for a man to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a woman whom they see, or vice versa for females. To this we emphasize what Jesus says: He does not make a blanket statement saying that any man who looks at a woman commits adultery in his heart, but it is those who look at women with lustful intent who commit adultery in their heart (Matthew 5:28). Men well know the moment where the thought process goes from aesthetic appreciation toward something darker; one can have the aesthetic appreciation and then work diligently to keep the mind away from where it might go under such circumstances. These days some are willing to justify divorce on the grounds that a husband has viewed pornography and thus has committed adultery in his heart and thus the wife can divorce him for sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). While lustful thoughts toward other women and pornography are absolutely sinful and have no place in a marriage such viewing is not actual contact with another person or creature and therefore does not fit the definition of the term porneia and it is dangerous to justify a divorce for such a reason!

Yet we do well to take seriously what Jesus says about the dangers of adultery in the heart. It is its own form of betrayal, either of one’s present spouse or the spouse one intends to have one day. Humans have always yearned for fantasy realms in order to escape the challenges and difficulties of their present reality, and that is also true in terms of relationships. One can always imagine a better relationship with another: for men the focus tends to be on sex and that is why pornography has become such a large business. For women it tends to focus on other aspects of the relationship and such is why romance novels have become such a big business. Such escapism easily leads to separation and alienation in the marriage relationship, and it is a small step from thinking about what it would be like to be with someone else to actually committing the act of adultery. Not for nothing does Solomon say the following:

Drink waters out of thine own cistern, And running waters out of thine own well. Should thy springs be dispersed abroad, And streams of water in the streets? Let them be for thyself alone, And not for strangers with thee. Let thy fountain be blessed; And rejoice in the wife of thy youth. As a loving hind and a pleasant doe, Let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; And be thou ravished always with her love. For why shouldest thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? (Proverbs 5:15-20)

Let us take Jesus’ instruction to heart, finding satisfaction in our spouse and not in fantasies about others, maintaining not only our bodies but also our minds and feelings in sanctification and holiness to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Settling Out of Court

Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou have paid the last farthing (Matthew 5:25-26).

Today we would call this type of scene “settling out of court.”

In the middle of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus provides a bit of wisdom in Matthew 5:25-26. He seems to presuppose a situation in which a person owes money to another and has not fully repaid. Jesus encourages such a one to come to an agreement with their adversary, their legal opponent, the one to whom something is likely owed, lest that adversary deliver the person up to the judge, and then to the relevant officer who will imprison the person until they have paid the last kordantes, the smallest unit of Roman money.

Jesus provides wise counsel here for those who find themselves in such a situation. At first glance its placement seems strange; Jesus has begun a series of declarations contrasting “what was said” with what He “sa[id] unto you,” a declaration of the way of the Kingdom which goes far beyond the narrow standard of righteousness expected in the Pharisaic tradition (Matthew 5:20-48); Jesus has just uttered the first such statement regarding murder and hatred (Matthew 5:21-22), and followed up with a man needing to reconcile with his brother before he could properly make an offering before God (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus will go on to speak about adultery and lust (Matthew 5:27-28). Why, then, does He provide this particular piece of counsel? Is His concern really about settling out of court rather than before the judge?

To understand Jesus’ saying we must consider the force of His teachings so far in Matthew 5:21-24. All would agree that murder was wrong (cf. Exodus 20:13), but Jesus went on to declare that the entire process that would lead to such first-degree murder–hatred, insult, degradation–was just as wrong (Matthew 5:22). In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus shows how religious behavior cannot be divorced from everyday living and still remain effective; one cannot be reconciled with God while he intentionally remains unreconciled with his brother. Therefore, in His initial contrast Jesus declares the Kingdom way of avoiding hostilities: we are not to hate, degrade, or insult one another, and we must maintain reconciled relationships with our brothers if we want to maintain a reconciled relationship toward God. Whatever Jesus is attempting to say in Matthew 5:25-26 must flow from these principles.

We can immediately discover some parallels and some contrasts. We can see that Jesus continues the theme of coming to agreement, but the “other person” in this situation is far different from those who have come before. Previously Jesus spoke of not insulting one’s “brother” or needing to reconcile with one’s “brother”; this time Jesus is speaking about coming to terms with one’s “adversary.” Jesus finds some virtue in coming to terms with this adversary without going through the whole legal process which will not end up well for the person under discussion. But what does this type of agreement have to do with what Jesus has said before? What is He critiquing, and why?

Jesus’ concern has been about healthy relationships. Murder, of course, is the complete breakdown of a relationship. Hatred, insult, and degradation are corrosive and toxic for relationships. Relationships suffer when someone has something against the other. Likewise, two people going to court indicates a breakdown in communication and agreement in a relationship, especially when the court case involves owed money. At some point the relationship between the parties was sufficiently cordial so that one person felt confident enough to lend money to the other; if such a one must take the other to court in order to get satisfaction, that relationship has clearly broken down. By the time the matter is brought before the judge, the situation is now all about justice and there can be no expectation of grace or mercy. The time for grace and mercy had past; the opportunity to receive that was “on the way” to the courthouse, either literally or figuratively. By the time the case reaches the judge the person will be held accountable for the debt and has no reasonable expectation of having a restored relationship with the one to whom he was indebted.

When seen in this way, Jesus’ counsel here makes much more sense in context. The counsel remains useful for those indebted but is by no means limited to those in debt; it is an appeal for all to agree with those who either are or who might quickly be our adversary on the way, to find agreement so as to find more grace and mercy then as opposed to experiencing nothing but justice at the end. When an agreement is made, a relationship can be restored; when no agreement was made, and justice was demanded, the relationship is in tatters. Jesus wants us to take healthy relationships very seriously: it is not enough to just not murder people but remain insulting, derogatory, full of hate, flippant about unresolved offenses in relationships, and unwilling to find agreement. Instead, we are to seek reconciliation with our fellow man and find agreement so that grace and mercy can triumph over judgment.

Yet, in light of what Jesus will have to say in Matthew 18:21-35, 25:1-46, we would be remiss to miss the connection between relationships between people and the relationship between God and man. God expects people to come to agreement with those to whom they are indebted lest the time of grace and mercy is exhausted and they experience justice before the judge (Matthew 5:25-26); in the same way God appeals to all people to come and make agreement with Him while He extends grace and mercy to receive forgiveness of sin through His Son Jesus Christ before it is too late, for the day is coming when the time of grace and mercy has passed and all that remains is to experience justice before God as our Judge (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). We do well to “settle out of court” with our fellow man so as to preserve some sort of relationship, yet we all must make sure we “settle out of court” with God by trusting in His Son, the Lord Jesus, so as to receive grace and mercy through Him, the forgiveness of sins in His blood, so that we do not have to experience justice on the day of judgment! Let us all put our trust in the Lord Jesus and maintain reconciled relationships both with God and with our fellow man!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relationships and Sacrifices

“If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Authorization is one thing; proper prioritization is quite another.

The book of Leviticus describes the sacrificial system established for Israel under the Law of Moses: the Israelites were to bring sacrifices to atone for sin and guilt or as a thank offering or peace offering to God. The Israelites were most assuredly commanded to bring these sacrifices and to have them properly offered by the priests and Levites. Failure to do so was reckoned as disobedience.

Yet there was much more to the relationship between God and Israel than sacrifices. Many Israelites throughout history, however, proved content with a sacrifice-based relationship: they would offer the requisite sacrifices at the requisite time and thereby felt as if they had secured the goodwill and blessings of God. The prophets had quite a different message for Israel: sacrifice by itself could not atone for sustained, perpetual disobedience to God’s commands, especially as they related to others. Samuel made clear to Saul that obedience was better than sacrifice, and to listen to Him better than the fat of rams (1 Samuel 15:22); through Amos God decries those Israelites who seek the day of the LORD, offering sacrifices despite perpetuating injustice, and rejected their sacrifices until justice rolled down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:18-24); in the days of Isaiah God could no longer tolerate the sacrifices of Judah because of their persistent pursuit of injustice (Isaiah 1:10-20); Jeremiah was told to go to the Temple and warn the people of Judah to not put their trust in it and its sacrificial system, hearkening back to the days in the wilderness when God did not yet demand sacrifices but yearned for Israel to listen to Him (Jeremiah 7:21-27). All of the sacrifices in the world would not atone for persistent rebelliousness and the perpetuation of injustice!

Jesus returns to this critique in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:23-24. He has begun to demonstrate the insufficiency of the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by contrasting statements made in the Law of Moses and how they were understood with His declarations about God’s full intentions for His people. He began with the command to not kill, demonstrating that it was not enough to avoid physically killing another, but also involved not degrading or insulting one’s brother (Matthew 5:21-22). Since one’s actions flow from one’s thoughts and feelings, if one avoids having derogatory thoughts and feelings toward others, then one will also avoid killing others.

Jesus continues His discourse by positing a situation: if you are making your offering at the altar, and remember your brother has something against you, leave the gift, first be reconciled, and then offer the gift (Matthew 5:23-24). We do well to remember that Jesus is Jewish and is preaching to Jewish people; we also should not imagine that Jesus is suggesting that non-Levites should be themselves offering gifts directly to God, for the scenario throughout assumes that the gift is being offered to God according to all of the proper protocols. Nevertheless, what does Jesus mean by this scenario, and what is it doing here in the midst of the discussion about killing or hating one’s brother?

The choice of sacrifice is deliberate: throughout the history of Israel sacrifice remains the paradigmatic religious activity. Offering proper gifts to God at the proper times in the proper way was important; no one in Israel would deny that, neither Sadducee nor Pharisee. Yet, to an extent, the same temptation that bedeviled their ancestors remained alluring: since sacrifice was a God-directed, “holy” and “spiritual” activity, it would be tempting to give it priority over interpersonal, “common” and “secular” matters. To provide a charitable example, let us imagine a conscientious Jewish man who came to make an appropriate peace offering before God at the Temple, and just as he was about to hand over the offering, he remembered that he had unintentionally insulted his neighbor who remained embittered toward him. In such a circumstance, it would be easy to imagine that this Jewish man would feel that his obligation toward God should take priority over his relationship with his neighbor and thus should first offer the sacrifice and then go and reconcile with his neighbor. We could imagine many other less charitable situations: a man making his gifts while he continues to exploit or oppress the poor and marginalized among him; the Pharisees themselves, who continue to offer sacrifices and yet treat their fellow Israelites contemptuously; and so on.

Yet Jesus insists that the sacrifice should wait. Reconciliation with one’s brother should come first, and then the sacrifice. In so doing He perpetuates an important message in the prophetic tradition: while sacrifice can atone for sins in life, sacrifices without any consideration of the rest of life are ineffective. Reconciling relationships has a holy, sacred, spiritual aspect to it; God here is prioritizing reconciliation, seeking forgiveness, de-escalation of situations, and the pursuit of justice and righteousness over the offering of sacrifices. Does that mean that sacrifices are unimportant and should not be offered? By no means; neither Jesus nor the prophets ever suggested that the Israelites should stop offering sacrifices. Instead, Jesus makes a sobering truth crystal clear: an Israelite who does not maintain appropriately reconciled relationships with his fellow Israelites cannot expect to offer sacrifices and maintain a reconciled relationship with God. This theme will play out often in Jesus’ preaching: you cannot expect your relationship with God to be properly maintained in reconciliation while you remain unreconciled and in hostility toward your fellow man (Matthew 6:14-15, 18:21-35, Luke 10:25-37). Therefore, it is not enough to just not hate or want to kill your brother; you must also maintain a proper, restored, reconciled relationship with him.

Christians today will not be found offering gifts at altars, but we do well to consider Jesus’ message. We have our own paradigmatic religious activities: assembling with fellow Christians, studying the Bible, telling others about Jesus, praying, and so on. As we go about our lives, if for whatever reason we have acted in such a way as to cause hurt, pain, division, or dissension between ourselves and another or among many, we must stop and seek to reconcile those relationships. We cannot gossip, slander, or engage in backbiting against others yet continue to act as if we are truly representing the people of God. We cannot participate in arguments or fights between ourselves and our parents, children, spouses, friends, fellow Christians, or others, and then act as if we can just pray to God and everything will be fine between us and Him. We cannot treat people with contempt and perpetuate all sorts of injustice and then go assemble with others of like faith and imagine that we are really, truly, and actually faithfully representing the people of God. No: in all these things we must strive to heal relationships, reconcile with others, and seek justice and righteousness, and then we can pray to God, study the Bible, tell others about Jesus, and assemble with fellow Christians, and be able to share in relationship with God and with one another without fear.

We cannot choose sacrifices over relationships; to maintain our relationship with God, we must also give thought to how we maintain our relationships with one another. Let us be reconciled to God and through Him to one another, and seek to maintain reconciled relationships through the power of God in Christ to His eternal glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry