Religion is not ethics. In fact, it can be argued that as religion declines, ethics ascends to take its place. From Taoism we learn that religion is a mode of connectedness with the creative force of life. When one is thus connected one’s actions are responsive to the needs of life; when one is truly part of the body of humankind, then a hurt in one part of the body will trigger remedial action in other parts.
But when we lose this connectedness with life, with one another, then we need a code of ethics to tell us what we ought to do. When life is fragmented and disconnected, our organic relations with one another are replaced by “oughts.” And eventually these oughts, these ethics, become an abstract system of thought far removed from human needs, a creed to be defended rather than relation to be lived. The spiritual life teaches wholeness, integration with all being, and out of that wholeness come true power and true action. Life beyond ethics s no libertine life, no denial of moral discipline; on the contrary, to live a life of true connectedness is a spiritual discipline of the highest order. John Middleton Murry has said it well, I think: “For the good man to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path compared to which his previous rectitude was flowery license.”
Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.
The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now.
We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time.
Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time. In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct.
The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency.
What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.
The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.
The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.
In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept.
Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.
Matthew 5:17-48, part one
“Inside-outside” is a game we all play. It seems to be taught to us from the beginning of life. Some folks are inside the circle (good); others are outside the circle (bad). This past week we started looking at a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seeks to obliterate those circles we draw, boundaries between ourselves and our friends and the dreaded “others” who are somehow not like us.
This section of Matthew, 5:17-48 is made up of 6 antitheses introduced with the common, “You have heard…But I say to you…” The antitheses are responses to (more or less) Torah-based pronouncements on killing, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and attitudes and behaviors toward one’s enemies. [Note: When Jesus states, “You have heard…” the following predicate is not necessarily a quote from Jewish law, but it probably was what passed for conventional wisdom and practice at the time.]
The section begins with a short passage (17-20) which situates the antitheses that are to follow. Lest anyone get the idea that Jesus is proposing a radically new teaching, he makes the case that what he is about to address is consistent with the best of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition in Judaism. The “Do not think…” that opens verse 17 points to what is probably a common reaction his teaching has already raised among his disciples and others: that his teachings are a challenge to or even a repudiation of the Torah. But while his teachings may question the what is passing as legitimate interpretation of Torah and certainly the authority of the teachers and interpreters of Torah in his day (Pharisees, scribes, others), his teachings should not be understood as inconsistent with or counter to the highest expressions of justice and morality already revealed in the tradition.
Another concern Jesus seems to have is that the misunderstanding of his teachings will lead not to a more rigorous practice and higher level of integrity among those who hear him, but rather some might be thinking his teaching allows for greater relaxation in matters of justice and morality. His acknowledgement of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 20) points to a more challenging discipline and a greater integrity to be the rule for his disciples. Making these things clear, Jesus turns to several examples of this “higher righteousness” in the following passages.
In verse 21, Jesus begins with the injunction against killing (Ex 20:13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). The truth of the matter is that the injunction against killing really only encompasses a very small number of us. Few of us will actually kill another human being (at least directly, but that is for another time…) during our lives. The injunction thus draws a small circle, encircling and setting apart a small group for whom the rest of us suppose the injunction is intended. But Jesus decides to draw the circle larger. He pushes the boundary out, including inside the circle all those who experience anger toward another, who ridicule others with taunts like “Raqa” (imbecile or “blockhead”) or “fool”. He connects that impulse—the impulse toward an anger directed at other humans, an anger that “dehumanizes” another human being through ridicule or disdain—with the most extreme of actions which flow from that impulse, namely, killing.
Killing happens because we have learned to dehumanize the other—to no longer see the other as human. This happens all the time in war. To get a soldier to kill, the soldier must devalue the enemy’s humanity, to see them as less than human. But killing is only the most extreme expression of the impulse. Jesus pushes that circle out until we are all inside of it, cognizant that each day all of us move along this same spectrum of dehumanization (of which killing is at the far end) in our actions and behaviors. And so the injunction against killing becomes not an indictment of a few who are somehow set apart from the rest of us, but rather an indictment of all of us and a warning to take seriously our own attitude and actions in our daily interactions.
The interesting second part of this passage is the prescription of reconciliation as an antidote to the anger that leads to dehumanization and severs our relationships to other human beings. In verses 23-24, Jesus recognizes that we all will fall into the very type of anger he cautions us about, so he offers a practice to heal the rift that dehumanizing anger causes: the practice of reconciliation. But the rub here is that he connects right worship with right relationship, and asserts then the converse: there is no true worship where there is division caused by anger within the worshipping community. As the prophets before him said again and again, the neglect of mercy, justice and reconciliation individually and communally nullifies our worship of God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Those who dehumanize their opponents, worship falsely.
The same widening of the circle of indictment takes place in the next two passages (verses 27-30, 31-32) as well, this time regarding the injunctions against adultery and the process of divorce (tied together by their common reference to adultery). Again, the adulterers among us may be relatively small in number compared to the number of us that have looked on others as simply objects for us to use to satisfy our desires. The lust referred to here has the same end as the anger referred to above: dehumanization. Objectification of another human being is dehumanization; their value is reduced to how they can be used. If adultery is the result at the far end of the spectrum, the motivation for adultery—to see others for their value to us and not their value in and of themselves—broadens the circle until we all find ourselves within its boundaries. The injunction takes on new life and is directed at all of us, not simply those few who commit only the most extreme act of what lies in all of our hearts.
Additionally, adultery, especially in Jesus’ time but in our own as well, cannot be simply understood in the sense of “unchastity” but also incorporates an element of justice, or right relationship, as well. Adultery in Jesus’ time placed women in particular in a state of jeopardy—one simply thinks of the situation of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, surrounded by a crowd intent on stoning her. A patriarchal society run by and for men elevated a man’s value and denigrated a woman’s value. And so women often bear, unfairly, the greater punishment or consequences of adultery. The indictment of the interior process of dehumanization over the act of adultery itself leaves all of us, like the crowd in John’s story, examining our own precarious sense of being “sinless” rather than focusing on the sin of another.
Perhaps most importantly, in examining the first three of these antitheses, we notice that Jesus’ widening of the circle changes the focus of our attention as well. If the injunction is simply aimed at killers and adulterers, then our eyes focus outward on and toward the others encompassed by those injunctions. But Jesus’ turns our eyes away from others and squarely back on ourselves. While we were intent on the sins of others, Jesus erased and moved the line so that we suddenly find ourselves in the circle too. Now we ask why it is that we are here in the circle too. We stop considering others sinfulness and we start considering our own. Such consideration is perhaps the first steps to learning how to live more fully this higher righteousness that Jesus called us to back in verse 20.
UPDATE: Being Salt, College Students Take Over the Roundtable, Youth Group Takes Over the Cafe, New Living Local Blog
Busy week at the House, please check out the schedule HERE, and join us if you can. Highlights include an invigorating scripture study, Lenten Morning Prayer, a Roundtable featuring some of our most active college students, and a Cafe run by high school youth group members.
Also, we started a spin-off “blog” for any of you who mght be interested in learning along with us to live more locally here in Gainesville: What We Need is Here: Learning to Be Local. As many of you know, a primary goal of the GCW has been to support local farms and businesses with what we do at the house. We’ve learned some things and have a lot more to learn in how to live more deeply here in Gainesville, using and appreciating the resources available to us and being more conscientious about how our decisions affect others. We would love to hear your insights and ideas as well, so jump in and add a comment.
And we are still waiting to get the new listserv set up. Hopefully you’ll get an email soon asking if you want to remain on it. Have a good week. Hope to see you!
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