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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Scripturing—Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount unsettles many biblicist ways of understanding Scripture. It may even be better to move from speaking of ‘the Scriptures’ as a noun, to speaking of ‘Scripturing’ as a verb.

This post originally debuted on the site on February 6, 2017.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:21-37

This portion of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel contains the first four of what are called “the six antitheses.” In each antithesis Jesus will posit what has been said (from the law), and then answer with a response that begins, “but I say to you ….”

The theses are in verses 21, 27, 31, and 33, with the antitheses beginning in each of the following verses. This is not a Hegelian form, with the thesis, antithesis, then synthesis. It is more akin to, but not quite the same as, the form that Thomas Aquinas will follow in his Summa Theologica.

There, Thomas raises a question and posits an answer (thesis), then introduces an objection (antithesis) with the words sed contra (on the contrary). After that, Thomas goes to the “but I say to you” portion with his respondeo, where he typically agrees with the antithesis, but not always or at least not always entirely. Jesus’ form is much simpler, with the theses/antitheses, but, because the theses are from Scripture, Jesus’ form raises a host of questions regarding the “authority of Scripture.”

The first thesis is in v.21, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’” The prohibition of murder was stated in the Decalogue, notably in Exodus 20:13 and again in the reiteration of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:17.

The second thesis is in v.27, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Again, this prohibition comes from the Decalogue, in Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18.

The third thesis in v.31 is, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” Note that this thesis begins differently than the others. It is not a reference to the Decalogue and it refers to a permission, not a prohibition.

The permission to write a certificate of divorce is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, but curiously referred to there, not introduced there. The point of those four verses is that a husband who takes advantage of this permission is not permitted to re-marry his divorced wife after she has been through a marriage and divorce to another man. Jesus will re-visit this matter in Matthew 19:1-12, in response to a question about the permission to divorce.

The fourth thesis is in v.33, “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’” This may be a way of stating the prohibition in the Decalogue found in Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Or, it may refer to swearing falsely more generally, as prohibited in Leviticus 19:12.

My guess is that Jesus has Deuteronomy 23:21-22 in mind, which demands that whatever one swears in God’s name must be carried out, but notes in verse 22 that “if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt.” It is this latter point that Jesus will emphasize, with theological reasons.

In these antitheses, Jesus is quite willing to take the Scriptures and to re-form them—sometimes expanding the meaning, sometimes re-focusing the point, and in the last two cases (in next week’s reading, verses 38-48) simply overturning them.

What I find fascinating is that Matthew, in writing this gospel for his audience, is quite willing to show Jesus taking Scriptures and re-forming them. In our age, many Christians have been trained to think that “biblical authority” means saying, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” or “where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” In this text, Jesus does not share that view of biblical authority.

Jesus’ willingness to state the Scriptures, not as ending points that “settle it” but as beginning points from which to re-form them, lends new meaning to “biblical authority.” It moves the word “authority” away from slavish devotion to the written letter to honoring the authorial power that produces the texts. That authorial power was present when “it was said to the ancients” as well as when Jesus says, “but I say to you.”

Of course, one might argue, “Well, this is Jesus and he has greater authority than the Old Testament.” I assume that even if it is rare to hear people state it so baldly, this kind of Marcionite thinking is what enables many “biblical fundamentalists” to say, “Every word of the Bible is from the mouth of God and must be regarded as true just as it is written” and also to read the antitheses without holding Jesus in violation of that standard.

Jesus himself would have none of that argument, because he did not see his teaching in this sermon as being contrary to the law and prophets but as a fulfillment and accomplishment of them (5:17-18). That is to say, he discloses the fullness of the theses by stating his antitheses, even if the antitheses fundamentally re-forms the theses.

I believe what compels Matthew’s Jesus to take up the scriptural tradition and re-form it is not that he lacks respect for the Scriptures, but that he believes strongly in the real, ongoing presence of the God of the Scriptures. What I am positing is a distinction between the authorial God who speaks and acts, as witnessed in the Scriptures, and the writings of the Scriptures themselves. One can see this distinction by imaging what difference it would make if God were dead.

If God were dead, if God were never really real in the first place, or if God had somehow retired or withdrawn from active interaction with humanity, then appealing to the ancient writings about God would be a final word. That was the temptation of the Biblicists of Jesus’ day, just as it is the temptation of the Biblicists of our day.

A question that these antitheses raises is “What does it mean to be faithful to the Scriptures?” I suspect Jesus would respond, “The point is not to be faithful to the Scriptures, but to be faithful to the living God who continues to be present among us.”

I even wonder if the point is to move “the Scriptures” from being a noun to thinking of “scripturing” as a verb—a witness to how God’s is really present among God’s people. The accounts of creation, the Ten Words on Mt. Sinai, the stories of the people of Israel, assorted types of Psalms, proverbs, and prophetic utterances, as well as the words that Jesus is speaking in this text, are all ways of “scripturing” God’s presence in differing times and contexts.

It is not the written accounts themselves, but the real incarnation of God’s word through God’s people that is the point. “Scripturing” is the act of giving witness to that presence. As such, Jesus’ words here do not signify the ‘final revision’ of old Mosaic laws. They signify a way of “scripturing” God’s presence, which will always be a way of being faithful as long as God is living among us.

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