Historical Cultural Context
Proper and Honorable Relationships
Matthew summarized Jesus’ activities on his first tour of Galilee as teaching, healing, and preaching (Mt 4:23). He expands on Jesus’ teaching in chapters 5-7, on his healing in 8-9, and on his preaching in 10 and the following chapters.
After redefining truly honorable behavior in the beatitudes, Matthew’s Jesus announces his sermon’s theme: the righteousness of his followers (or disciples, Mt 6: 19-7:27) must surpass that of the scribes (Mt 5:21-28) and the Pharisees (Mt 6:1-18).
Righteousness means proper and honorable relationships with other people, understood in this sermon to be other followers of Jesus and God. Matthew calls these people “brothers.”
The Sermon-Part One
In today’s verses, Jesus takes aim at the scribes by reinterpreting the commandments. He offers his followers an honorable way out of situations that could lead to feuds and death. If it follows his interpretation, Jesus’ faction will survive and attain its goals.
Murder (Mt 5:21-26). Jesus forbids anger and insults that could escalate to murder. He forbids calling another “fool,” though he hurls the word at the scribes and Pharisees in Mt 23:17. For Jesus, squelching the feud even takes precedence over Temple worship!
Adultery and divorce (Mt 5:27-32). The rigid and strictly enforced separation of men and women in this society made adultery almost impossible to conceal when it happened. Actually, adultery was less a result of passion than a deliberate attempt by one man to shame another.
Dt 22:22-24 called for the death of both parties, but the man often escaped while the woman’s father and brothers would kill her for shaming their family. If the aggrieved husband took no action against his wife, he was considered a cuckold. If he took no action against the man, his own manhood was further questioned. Jesus says forget adultery as a means of challenging other men. The consequences are too devastating.
Divorce is equally disruptive to a tight-knit community like that of Jesus’ followers. Since the ideal marriage partners were first cousins (Peter’s mother-in-law was also his aunt), divorce could tear apart the villages in which these families lived and tried to make a living. Jesus says: “Forget divorce. Learn to live with your difficulty for the sake of family unity.”
Matthew’s community, however, seemed to allow divorce for reasons of “sexual irregularity” (Mt 5:32). The Greek words here and their Hebrew counterparts were matters of intense debate in the first century. Matthew’s Jesus sides with the conservative school of Shamai which recognized sexual misconduct on the woman’s part as the only reason for divorce, against the more progressive school of Hillel which allowed other reasons (e.g., if the wife spoils a meal).
Lying (Mt 5:33-37). The context here is selling. There was no food and drug commission to insure honesty. A seller would indirectly call God to witness his claim for his wares. Never mentioning God by name, the seller would swear “by my head, by my beard, on my life, by Jerusalem, etc.” When he refused to make God explicit, conflict erupted. Jesus advised his followers to be honest and direct with one another at the market: yes or no.
Modern believers should keep two things in mind about these reflections. First, Jesus directs his interpretations solely to members of his in-group; his honor and shame society would disintegrate if everyone lived like this. Second, Jesus did not reject his society’s honor-based system. He rather reshaped it to a more humane form.
American society is rooted in economics rather than honor and shame. How might human relationships in this system be reshaped to a more humane form?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From St. Louis University