Welcome to Part 3 of our Lenten series on the Sermon on the Mount. In the Prologue, Part 1, and Part 2 of this series we have been reimagining the teachings of Jesus from Matthew 5-7 from the perspective of a 1st Century Jewish resident of the northern Galilee region of Palestine. Join us on a weathered hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee as the Teacher continues to deconstruct his audience’s worldview:
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a few people had turned and started back down the hillside. Offended, perhaps, at what the Teacher had implied about the Pharisees’ self-righteousness.
Or maybe all of it was just too much to take in. None of us had ever heard anyone teach this way before. It was no small challenge to hear things like this.
I tried to retrain my attention on him even as I was still processing what he had just said. He had barely taken a breath before he continued:
“You have heard that it was said by the teachers of old, do not commit murder, or you will be subject to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you are already subject to judgment.”
It was a common pattern for the rabbis to use. “You have heard it said…but I say to you….” It was how they taught their yoke, their understanding of our sacred writings, to their disciples.
But what he was saying was anything but common. We all knew that murder was against the Law, but was he suggesting that we’re to be judged just for having angry thoughts? Where was he going with this?
“If you bring your gift to the altar and remember that you have angered someone, leave that very minute and reconcile with them. If someone takes you before a judge be sure to earn their friendship and settle matters, or you will face the consequences.”
First, he tells us that he has come to fulfill Torah…to give us a proper interpretation. Then he says that the Pharisees’ righteousness is nothing but self-righteousness.
Now he says that we should control our angry thoughts and reconcile our differences. He seems to be taking the idea of righteousness to a new level….
“You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery. But I say to you that if you look at someone with desire to possess them, your heart has already committed the act. If your eye or your hand cause you to break Torah, cut them off…it is better that you lose those parts than for it to be for you as if your whole body was thrown into the valley of Gehenna.”
“You have heard it said whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate to allow her to remarry. But I tell you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except infidelity forces her to commit adultery and makes an adulterer of whoever marries her.”
I thought maybe I was beginning to understand. It wasn’t quite clear yet, but he seemed to be saying that if you think that life is all about how you behave, you’re missing the point. You might as well be blind or maimed, because that’s basically how you’re going through life. Was that it?
Don’t murder, yes. But what leads to murder? Anger, condemnation, unforgiveness.
Don’t commit adultery, yes. But what leads to adultery? An attraction triggers a thought, a thought triggers a fantasy, a fantasy triggers objectification.
Divorce? You indulge your selfishness and dehumanize your spouse. Has she no more value than your crops or livestock? Do you care so little for her as to drive her to a life of poverty and indignity?
“And those vows you make? Why must you swear by heaven or earth, or anything else for that matter? Is your word not enough? Are you so insecure that you need to manipulate others’ opinions by the power of your oaths? Have they no humanity of their own?”
Was that it? That it wasn’t enough to just follow the letter of Torah…to just avoid the behaviors? That we must examine the motivations that lead us to those behaviors?
That it is the thoughts we indulge that set us adrift of Torah?
Maybe that was what he meant.
We indulge anger and we murder.
We indulge lust and we commit adultery.
We indulge selfishness and we objectify.
We indulge insecurity and we manipulate.
It was so easy to let that kind of dehumanization creep in. To see those around us as “other,” as “less than.”
“You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, don’t return harm for harm. If someone asks for your shirt, give them your coat also. If they force you to walk one mile for them, walk a second mile as well.”
“You have heard your teachers for generations say that you must love your neighbors and hate your enemies. But I tell you, love your enemies. Pray that good comes to them. Yahweh makes the rain fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Even the tax collectors and Gentiles love those who already love them.”
We were all stunned at what he had just said. He was thoroughly re-interpreting everything we had ever been taught…not just about what the Law was, but what it was for.
To get to the heart of it, to get beyond the behaviors we had always avoided, and to examine our motivations meant we had to stop indulging our tendencies to dehumanize. We had to embrace everyone—even our enemies—with loving kindness.
It was massively counterintuitive. But there was something about it that we knew was true. It wasn’t just the words he said, but the way he said them. The authority embedded in his voice that I had noticed the first time I saw him.
Where did it come from?
And what would he say next?
Next week: In secret