On forgiveness, Sermon on the Mount

(Matthew 5: 38-48)


In contrast to Mark, Matthew contains far fewer miracles and a great deal of teaching, including the famous collection of sayings called "The Sermon on the Mount," some of them quite extreme. As we saw earlier, Jewish law required the fair treatment of enemies, and by no means called upon all crimes to be punished by "an eye for an eye;" but it did not require forgiveness to extend as far as this.

In your opinion, which of these is the most extreme commandment? Why?

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." (1) But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. (2) But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (3) Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, " You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." (4) But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (5) And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles (6) do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (7)

New Revised Standard Version


(1) See Exodus 21:23-25.

(2) This statement is so strong, seeming to leave no room for police, judges, or even self-defense, that some scholars have argued that it must envision a very near end of the world. In that case, civil society need not be maintained because all will shortly be judged by God. A more traditional view applies Paul's theory that salvation by works (good deeds) is literally impossible. These commandments would then be uttered because they are impossible to obey, in order to force the hearer to accept that only faith can save.

(3) This commandment has been explained by some as an extension of the much-resented Roman law which required subjects to carry the spear and shield of a soldier for one mile whenever requested. The early church was anxious to avoid any appearance of being hostile to Rome, unlike the Jews who rebelled against the imperial government. "Going the second mile" has come to be a popular expression for making an extra effort.

(4) This saying occurs nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. It may be simply an expression of popular attitudes.

(5) Tax collectors were hated representatives of Rome, all the more so because their income depended on charging taxpayers more than was actually due the central government.

(6) Non-Jews.

(7) With the exception of some saints, few Christians have taken this commandment literally, seeing in it an inconsistency with Paul's doctrine of original sin. Jewish law, of course, expected perfection in that the worshipper was supposed to be able to observe all of God's law without superhuman efforts.



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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

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