Sunday, February 12, 2017

Be Perfect as Nature is Perfect

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 5:38-48, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany.

This pericope continues the readings from the “Sermon on the Mount” and contains the last two of the “six antitheses” which began in last week’s text. Your comments are both welcomed and appreciated.

38  Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 
You have heard that it was said, “Eye against eye and tooth against tooth.”
Ἠκούσατε: AAI 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
ἐρρέθη: API 3s, εἶπον, to utter with the mouth, to say, speak
1. Since there is no indefinite article in ancient Greek, it is often added in English translations. So, this could be smoothed out to say, “An eye against an eye …”
2. ἀντὶ is often used to mean ‘over and against something.’ It will serve that role in the next verse as the prefix to ἀντι/στῆναι, to ‘stand against’ or ‘resist.’ It is usually translated “for” here, to mean “in return for.”  

39 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ: ἀλλ' ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν 
δεξιὰν σιαγόνα [σου], στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην: 
Yet I say to you not to resist in the evil; but whoever strikes you on the [your] right cheek/jaw, turn to him also the other;
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀντιστῆναι: AAInf, ἀνθίστημι, 1) to set one's self against, to withstand, resist, oppose  2) to set against
ῥαπίζει: PAI 3s, ῥαπίζω, 1) smite, to rap or strike with a stick, to beat with rods, scourge; then, to slap in the face, box on the ears, cuff
στρέψον: AAImpv 2s, ) to turn, turn around  2) to turn one's self 
1. The verb “not to resist” (ἀντιστῆναι) is not an imperative, but an infinitive. It may take on the feeling of an imperative, but I think “do not resist” may be too strong. The imperative will come in the word “turn.”
2. The noun “evil” is in the dative case, hence the indirect “in the evil,” instead of the expected accusative, which would have made it a direct object of the verb. It could be a substantive noun, “in the evil one,” but that would seem to work better in the accusative case than in the dative.
3. The verb “turn” is the imperative in this verse. 

40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ 
and to the one wanting to sue you and to take your tunic, give up to him also the coat;
θέλοντί: PAPart dms, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend 
κριθῆναι: APInf κρίνω, 1) to separate, put asunder, to pick out, select, choose  2) to approve, esteem, to prefer  3) to be of opinion, deem, think, to be of opinion  4) to determine, resolve, decree  5) to judge … to bring a law suit
λαβεῖν: AAInf, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it
ἄφες: AAImpv 2s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  1a) to bid going away or depart  1a1) of a husband divorcing his wife  1b) to send forth, yield up,  … to give up
1. I have no insight to 1st century Mediterranean sartorial habits, so I’m just looking for words to indicate different layers of garments.
2. Exodus 22:6 already put some limits on taking a cloak as a pledge for a loan. It must be returned by sundown because the borrower will be cold and that cloak may be the only covering s/he has. In Exodus, the law pertains to the lender. Here, it would seem that the borrower has been unable to meet the terms of the loan, so the lender is using the power of the court to enforce the terms. By adding the extra garment, the borrower has taken power away from the lender.

41 καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ'αὐτοῦ δύο. 
And whoever will compel you one mile, go with him two.
ἀγγαρεύσει: FAI 3s, ἀγγαρεύω, 1) to employ a courier, dispatch a mounted messenger, press into public service, compel to go   
ὕπαγε: PAImpv 2s, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under 2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
1. I suppose we’re obligated to pass along that a Roman soldier was entitled to compel someone from a vassal state in the Empire to carry a burden for up to a mile (like Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross when Jesus was too weak to do so). I have grown a little suspicious of some explanations (e.g. “the eye of the needle” thing) that seem to explain things like this quite so neatly. One reference for this practice of impressment, that looks reliable, is Stephen Mitchell’s, “Requisitioned Transport in the Roman Empire: A New Inscription from Pisidia” in The Journal of Roman Studies, 66, 106–131 (1976).
2. If the practice of impressment is at work here, the act of going the extra mile might serve two purposes: It would disarm the soldier who is no longer empowered to coerce; and it would relieve the next person whom that soldier might conscript for more distance. It seems to me that the first effect is what is meant here, similar to turning the other cheek/jaw and disabling the striker to have the power over the moment.
3. As an aside, my son used to be an expert at the psychology of these verses. If we sent him to his room, he’d tell us how much he wanted to go to his room for a while. And when his timeout was over, he’d stay longer because he “wanted to.”  

42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός, καὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς. 
To the one who asks you give, and the one wanting to borrow from you you may not turn away.
αἰτοῦντί: PAPart dms, αἰτέω, 1) to ask, beg, call for, crave, desire, require 
δός: AAImpv 2s, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone  2a) of one's own accord to give one something, to his advantage
θέλοντα: PAPart ams, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend 
δανίσασθαι: AMInf, δανείζω, 1) to lend money 2) to have money lent to one's self 3) to take a loan, borrow
ἀποστραφῇς: APSubj 2s, ἀποστρέφω, 1) to turn away  1a) to remove anything from anyone  1b) to turn him away from allegiance to any one  
1. My last name is secretly hidden in this verse. That won’t preach, but it’s cool.

43  Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου καὶ μισήσεις τὸν 
ἐχθρόν σου. 
You have heard that is was said, “You will love your friend and will hate your enemy.
Ἠκούσατε: AAI 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
ἐρρέθη: API 3s, εἶπον to utter with the mouth, to say, speak
Ἀγαπήσεις: FAI 2s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly  2) of things  2a) to be well pleased, to be contented at or with a thing
μισήσεις: FAI 2s, μισέω, 1) to hate, pursue with hatred, detest  2) to be hated, detested 
1.  This dictum is not a quote from the Hebrew Bible and I think it is a mistake to suggest that it is an allusion to Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor as yourself). As Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan suggests, the teaching in Leviticus to love one’s neighbor is not necessarily confined to only loving one’s own kind, even if the original verse in Leviticus was addressing how the Israelites were to act toward one another. And that verse does not say anything about hating ones’ neighbor as a corollary to loving one’s friend.
2. Some of the older Christian commentaries try to attribute this dictum to Jewish rabbis or Greek philosophers. I do not know where, exactly, this dictum is written, except that it appears to be the most common code of ethics throughout time and space. And the Christian community has been/is just as adept at believing in it and practicing it as any other.
3. The fact that Jesus is using the phrase, “You have heard that it was said” to refer to something not explicitly in the Scriptures, but a popular thought generally, should make us re-think the mad scramble to try to piece together various fragments of Old Testament verses to fit each of the six antitheses in Matthew 5:21-48.
4. Like some of the other theses, the verbs here are future indicative, not imperatives: You will love … and will hate. I think “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” or “You shall love … hate” imply otherwise. 
5. The verbs here are also singular. That changes in the next verse.

44 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν καὶ προσεύχεσθε ὑπὲρ 
τῶν διωκόντων ὑμᾶς, 
Yet I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who mistreat you,
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀγαπᾶτε: PAImpv 2pl, , ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly  2) of things  2a) to be well pleased, to be contented at or with a thing
προσεύχεσθε: PMImpv 2pl, προσεύχομαι, 1) to offer prayers, to pray
διωκόντων: PAPart gmpl, διώκω, 1) to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away  …  3) in any way whatever to harass, trouble, molest one  3a) to persecute
1. The dictum that Jesus cites in v.43 has ‘you’ in the singular, whereas his instruction in v.44 is addressed to plural ‘you.’
2. Here’s that imperative voice that we’ve been looking for: love, pray.

45 ὅπως γένησθε υἱοὶ τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς, ὅτι τὸν ἥλιον αὐτοῦ 
ἀνατέλλει ἐπὶ πονηροὺς καὶ ἀγαθοὺς καὶ βρέχει ἐπὶ δικαίους καὶ ἀδίκους. 
That you may be children of your father in heaven, because he raises his sun on evil and good and rains on just and unjust.
γένησθε: AMSubj 2pl, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
ἀνατέλλει: PAI 3s, ἀνατέλλω, 1) rise  1a) to cause to rise  1a1) of the earth bring forth plants  1b) to rise, arise, to rise from, be descended from  1b1) of sun moon and stars) 
βρέχει: PAI 3s, βρέχω, 1) to moisten, wet, water 2) to water with rain, to cause to rain, to pour the rain,  to send down like rain
1. This strikes me as the key verse in this pericope. It is in the nature of God, as evident in nature itself, that the sun rises with no respect to whether one is good or evil; the rain falls with no respect to whether one is just or unjust. Not only does this go against the superstition (both ancient and present) that God sends weather events in order to punish or reward, but more importantly it goes against the dictum of v.43 by showing that God’s gifts (“his sun,” “[God] rains”) on all, regardless of good or evil.
2. I believe this indiscriminate rising of God’s sun and God’s raining is the basis for the following verses on which love should be meted out indiscriminately in v.46, welcome should be indiscriminate in v.47, and one should live fully in v.48. I also suspect it is the basis on which one can not retaliate (v.39), avoid a court trial by giving clothing (v.40), going the extra mile (v.41), and giving to the one who asks (v.42).

46 ἐὰν γὰρ ἀγαπήσητε τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας ὑμᾶς, τίνα μισθὸν ἔχετε; οὐχὶ καὶ οἱ 
τελῶναι τὸ αὐτὸ ποιοῦσιν; 
For if you love the ones who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 
ἀγαπήσητε: AASubj 2pl, , ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly 
ἀγαπῶντας:  PAPart ampl, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly 
ἔχετε: PAI 2pl, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
ποιοῦσιν: PAI 3pl, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) to produce, construct,  form, fashion
1. A tax collector, Gentiles, and anyone who follows the dictum of v.43 would send the sun to the good, but not the bad, and rain on the just, but not the unjust.

47 καὶ ἐὰν ἀσπάσησθε τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς ὑμῶν μόνον, τί περισσὸν ποιεῖτε; οὐχὶ 
καὶ οἱ ἐθνικοὶ τὸ αὐτὸ ποιοῦσιν; 
And if you welcome your brothers only, what advantage have you done? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
ἀσπάσησθε: AMSubj 2pl, ἀσπάζομαι, 1) to draw to one's self  1a) to salute one, greet, bid welcome, wish well to  1b) to receive joyfully, welcome

48 Ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς  πατὴρ ὑμῶν  οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν. 
Therefore, you will be complete as your father in heaven is complete.
Ἔσεσθε: FMI 2pl, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Back to describing God as the one “in heaven,” from which the sun shines and the rain falls indiscriminately.
2. The words τέλειοι (pl) and τέλειός (sg) have a much wider and a much narrower meaning than the word “perfect” in most translations suggests. It is wider in the sense that it takes the indiscriminate nature of God and implies that it is the way of being for all of God’s children. It is narrower in that “perfect” in our culture implies ‘absolutely without error’ and I don’t think that kind of impossibility is really what is implied here.
3. My own understanding of this text is really summed up well in an article by Robert H. Smith, “The End in Matthew (5:48 and 28:20): How to Preach It and How Not To”, (Word & World, Volume XIX, Number 3 Summer, 1999). Among other gems: “It means being children of God, sharing in the divine nature that is marked by stunning and indiscriminate acts of generosity to all.”
4. This quote is similar to Luke 6:36: Γίνεσθε οἰκτίρμονες καθὼς [καὶ]  πατὴρ ὑμῶν οἰκτίρμων ἐστίν. Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful. Both are renditions of Leviticus 11:44-45: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming creature that moves on the earth. For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.”  


  1. I've always tried to talk about "perfect" as we use it in grammar: the past "perfect" tense is not more flawless than the past tense, but indicates "completeness" of action. Complete and whole, over flawless.

  2. Mark, this quote brings up lots of thoughts for me:

    "Yet I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who mistreat you,..."

    I'm struck by how we espouse this as Christians, but that much of our society (including many Christians) does not buy into this in practice.

    The most vivid example I remember of this was on September 11th, when people were out on my street corner in droves, waving American flags in the air.

    At first, I was very moved by this show of unity and thought that it was quite something that so many strangers got together with no planning to show support for others. Yet, in dialogue with people in my community in the weeks following, I learned that much of this solidarity was driven by a hated for the enemy. I was discouraged that the only thing that seemed to be able to unite Americans was anger towards a common enemy.

    Much of our popular media, music, and discourse that followed this time (and still does) reflected this too.

    I know I need to be an example of this first (as God knows, I have fallen short many times) but I do find it discouraging that so much of our national discourse turns to what we hate or who we are angry at.

    I'm excited to hear your sermon and perspective on this. No answers here from me - just questions. But, good news is that I go to a church that likes questions a lot. =)

  3. Mark,
    Thank you for this post. It was part of the discussion today in our ecumenical minister's meeting. Your work enhances our sermon prep. Although some thought that the focus of the pericope is vs 45 and others 48 your input is appreciated. By the by, I will make mention of your name in verse 42 in my sermon this week.

  4. Dave: The crux of the "love your friends, hate your enemies" dictum is that one seems to imply the other: Since mutual 'love' is part of the definition of friendship, then mutual 'hate' is part of the definition of enmity. There are, then, 4 moments in the common dictum: My friend loves me; I love my friend; my enemy hates me; I hate my enemy. It seems to me that Jesus is overturning just one part of that equation and arguing that my hate is not necessarily part of the definition of enmity. And I suspect it was as unpopular then as it is now, because we cannot conceive what it means to have an 'enemy' if s/he is not someone whom we hate.
    I appreciate your reference to 9/11 because our national mourning so quickly devolved into expressions of rage and bigotry.
    Oh, this would be a great conversation! Let's make a date for it!

  5. Vic: That is a great way of thinking about "perfect," which I've never put together before. Thanks for sharing it. And be ready to hear it again one of these days because it makes so much sense.

  6. Pierre,
    Always good to hear from you.
    μαρκ δανίσ

  7. It looks like, for some reason, my comment never got posted. I'm trying again...

    I'm wondering why the NRSV uses the imperative in verse 48 if that is not indicated by the Greek. Your translation sounds more like the process of sanctification (God driven) than an order to be perfect/complete.


  8. V. 48 ‘telioi': I appreciate your translation of "complete". As I understand it, the Greek word suggests an endpoint, an arrival, a finish, a completion -- a natural and logical conclusion toward which an individual, a community, a nation or even the world has been reaching, striving, journeying (or, in the stop-go-backup-detour sort of progress we human beings generally make, perhaps ‘telios' could even refer to the conclusion toward which we've been "muddling"). At any rate, it's not exactly the pervasive state-of-being "wholeness" represented by ‘shalom' but the finishing touch of a process of maturation. Giving thought to the significance of ‘telioi' sheds new light on this passage and all that leads up to it.

    Mark, thank you for your weekly (more or less) translations of the RCL Gospel. I loved Greek as an undergrad and a seminarian, and believed as I entered ministry that translating at least the Gospel reading would form the foundation of my preaching. Urgent competing priorities quickly crowded it out, and it has been many years since I've bothered with my Greek Testament. I am grateful to find someone for whom this process is a high priority, and am particularly grateful that you post your work online for any and all to freely access. Your weekly translations have been a breath of fresh air.


  9. Kirsten,

    This is my second attempt also. I don't know where that first comment went.

    I'm not sure why the NRSV translates the future active indicative as if it were an imperative. However, they are following a long tradition in doing so, since the words "You shall not murder" etc. from last week's pericope are also in the future active indicative. The practice goes back a long way, since the LXX translates the 10 Commands into the future active indicative as well.

    I don't know if Hebrew had a different kind of nuance that gets lost when translated to Greek; or if Greek has a different kind of nuance that gets lost when translated to English; or if this is just a habit because the future active indicative and the imperative are interchangeable. It reminds me that what we call 'The Ten Commandments' are routinely called 'The Ten Words' in the Hebrew text and much of the Jewish tradition. But, by the NT times, they were called 'commands,' as far as my Greek can tell. So, maybe this curiosity goes way back before English translations came along.

  10. Barry,
    Thanks for the explanation. I do think this sense of completion, wholeness, or maturity is where the latter part of this chapter - or perhaps the whole chapter - is going.
    And thanks for your kind remarks. I really don't see myself as anything more than a working pastor, doing what I was trained to do in Seminary as a disciplined way of approaching the text each week, and posting the first few moments of that process to generate discussion with others. I'm glad that you are finding it helpful.

  11. As always, very helpful... the richness of Greek (which I do not know) really deepens this passage. I sense some echoes of the non-dualistic approach to life in this passage, and in your glosses.

    1. Thanks, ubicari. As God is one, life itself is essentially one, even if we experience existential dualisms along the way. IMHO.

  12. I'm interested in your interpretation of v. 39 and the idea that we are not to resist evil 'in the evil." I wonder if that implies we are not to resist by participating with the evil that is being turned on us. What other possible translations might be appropriate for the dative here? I seem to remember "to, by, for" in which case "do not resist evil by evil" makes a lot of sense to me.
    BTW, I really appreciate your rough translations, I'm no Greek scholar, but I usually look at your blog and Bibleworks for illumination of the texts. So, thank you!

  13. Hi Susan,

    Thank you for your very kind words.

    V.39 is hard to discuss because, frankly, it is easier for me to think of it theoretically than for someone who is actually being bullied, abused, or oppressed. So, I will speak to it as best I can, understanding that I am enjoying peace and privilege at this moment in my life.

    My sense is that "to resist in the evil" carries the idea of joining in the fray, becoming part of the ever-widening circle of violence. It seems so rare that "an eye for an eye" ends there, but rather perpetuates itself into some kind of ongoing feud that simply grows with each round of revenge. My reading is that "to resist" would mean to "fight back."

    I am re-thinking whether "resist" is strong enough for ἀντιστῆναι. Perhaps "fight back" is a better phrase.

    If "to resist" means "to fight back," then "not to resist" would not mean "stand there and let someone abuse you," but to find other ways to resolve it. "Turning the other cheek" is one way. While it sounds like we are to avail ourselves as a punching bag - which I think is immoral to suggest to a person who is being abused - I think it would mean something else in Jesus' day. Striking someone on the cheek - as I understand it from readings that may or may not be valid - was a public humiliation or a challenge. It was not a simple assault that would be followed by a pummeling, but a public display for which a guilty person would react with shame, but a not guilty person might respond in kind. To turn the other cheek would be a way of neither admitting guilt or retaliating, but would put the onus on the other person. They accuse, you do not admit guilt, but neither will you resort to violence, so now they have to decide whether their accusation is so certain that they would be willing to strike again, knowing that you would rather endure it than to admit to guilt.

    Something like that seems to be afoot here, with 'turning the other cheek' as an alternative to striking back.

    BUT, I am assuming that the person struck is actually innocent or undeserving of the public accusation. That may be a stretch.

    So, what if the person striking actually has a case. (Like the persons who has the right to order you to carry a load. It may not be morally good, but it is legally permissible. Or, like the person to whom one really does owe money, as in vv. 25-26. Then what? In that case, I could see turning the other cheek as a way of "settling the account" without escalatory violence.

    So, I am seeing "strike you on your right cheek/jaw" as something other than simply someone getting angry and hitting someone else. I think it is fraught with meaning, legally and culturally. While this verse may have some wonderful meaning regarding more common forms of personal violence, such as kids on the playground, or communal violence, as in Gandhian aggressive nonviolence, I think it is grounded in a form of cultural and legal punishment.

    Well, that's either me mansplaining badly or simply thinking aloud. Please see it as the latter.

    Thanks again for your note. Blessings on your ministry. MD


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