Matthew 5: Blessed and Perfect

The New Testament records a similar sermon in both Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 (with pieces in other chapters of Luke). Matthew’s is called “The Sermon on the Mount” because Matthew 5:1 says he delivered it on a mountain. Luke 6:17 says he gave it “in the plain” so it’s usually called the Sermon on the Plain. Luke’s is much shorter and of different content. Though it’s an area of mild disagreement, most believe that these are instances of similar teachings delivered in different circumstances. In fact, some view Matthew’s as given to disciples close to Jesus and Luke’s as given to the public, due to the more personal nature of Matthew and its higher level of commitment. It could also be that Matthew’s sermon is an aggregate of several teachings given on different occasions but organized by Matthew in this manner, according to his theme of Jesus as the new law giver.

Latter-day Saints are fortunate to have yet a third account of this sermon in 3 Nephi 12-14, delivered to the Nephite and Lamanite peoples gathered at the Bountiful temple shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. It is clearly based on Matthew, not Luke, yet with substantial and fascinating differences compared to both texts. This version has been dubbed the Sermon at the Temple. Finally, the JST is, in essence, a fourth version of the sermon, with yet more insights into the meaning of Jesus’ words; though similar to 3 Nephi 12-14, fifty-eight of the eighty-six verses changed in the JST version are different from those of 3 Nephi, some in small ways and some in significant ones.

Comparison of all four is a valuable endeavor, though well outside the scope of this simple blog. One scholar notes that the Sermon at the Temple is clearly a covenant-making and temple text, which not only lends strength to the Matthew/Luke contrast, but adds vast amounts of clarity and richness to the Sermon on the Mount.[1] Some scholars see the Sermon on the Mount as a hodge-podge collection of sayings that don’t tie together very well, but seeing it as a temple text unifies it and pulls it together into a single message with one aim—to prepare the listener to enter the presence of God.

Consider this outline of all three chapters as it relates to the Sermon being a temple or covenantal text:

  1. The Sermon opens with blessings promised to those present if they are obedient to the principles taught.
  2. He invites them to be like salt and light, setting them apart from the world.
  3. He shows how he fulfills the Law of Moses and prohibits anger, disagreement, adultery, and evil thoughts, and confirms the sanctity of marriage.
  4. He counsels them about the seriousness of oath taking.
  5. He enjoins them to love all, even their enemies.
  6. He invites them to be like their Father in heaven, to achieve their full potential.
  7. He advocates private devotion over public display, in three specific activities: alms giving, prayer, and fasting.
  8. He teaches how to pray in private and leads them in a group prayer.
  9. He speaks of a consecrated attitude, taking our minds off the things of the world and staying focused on eternal rewards.
  10. He talks about God providing for us, including clothing.
  11. He condemns hypocrisy and enjoins them to secrecy about sacred things.
    He advocates asking the Father through prayer for special blessings.
  12. He counsels against false teachings and teaches how to judge truth.
  13. He describes an encounter with the Lord with judgment and blessings.

There are more pages of commentary written about the Sermon on the Mount than any other New Testament text, including one article I authored as part of the 2010 (39th) Sperry Symposium that focuses on the JST changes. The whole Symposium is online here and is well worth reading in conjunction with any personal study on the Sermon.

Some overall insights from these sources are included below.

Honor, Shame, and Patronage

Amy Hardison[2] noted two aspects of Jesus’ society that have special relevance to his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: honor and shame, and patronage. Both of these societal traits are very foreign to modern, western societies (though not in other cultures in the world today), so making an extra effort to understand them yields great benefits in appreciation for Jesus’ message. Honor and shame have their root in a culture that values personal honor above all other values. Honor determined social standing, whom one could marry or do business with, and what roles in society one could play. Honor is a group identification as well, both in terms of your family (the most important group) and other groups you might be a part of, and your honor is determined by the judgment of others.

Shame could be both positive and negative. Positive shame is a meritorious trait, a feminine virtue related to concern for reputation and sensitivity to disgrace. Negative shame is not the act of having shame, but being shamed. Honor is attained both by status at birth (ascribed) and acquired, or ascribed by the public declaration of an aristocrat, a king, or a god (such as Jesus experienced at his baptism in Matthew and his position on the right hand of God after his resurrection). Honor could also be acquired through publicly known good works, such as public charity, sponsoring festivals or performances, or other gifts to a city. Public recognition of such beneficence was a key to increasing honor.

Honor could be challenged and must be either defended or lost. Such challenges were public and required a response. Some challenges were positive—in the form of compliments or praise—while others were negative—insults, dares, verbal or physical threats, or injury. Wealth didn’t bring honor, though how it was used could. Likewise, poverty didn’t decrease honor, since the majority of people were living at a subsistence level at that time. The poor that had no honor were those who could not provide for themselves and were reduced to begging. In the sermon, “Jesus does not challenge the construct of honor but makes some significant changes in who constitutes the court of opinion. It is God’s assessment, not man’s, that matters.”[3]

Patronage was another critical element in their society that is somewhat foreign to us today, though like with honor and shame, some of the concepts carry over into our world today. In their world, everyone was either a patron or a client, or both. A patron was a person of higher status and a client one of lesser status. The patron enters into a relationship with the client, giving him perhaps land, work, food, a position, protection, or money. In exchange, the client worked hard with the gifts from the patron, and successful clients increased the honor of the patron. Having two patrons was very challenging, as their requests on the client could be competing. Public praise of the patron was also an obligation of the client, with gratitude being the common refrain. Sometimes a patron could present his client to a higher patron, being an advocate for that person so both parties were mutually benefitted.

The Beatitudes (5:1-12)

seek-kingdom-of-god-1222339-tabletJesus’ use of the formula found in the Beatitudes was not unique in his day; in fact, examples are found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and apocryphal literature. But Jesus added stylistic elements not found in this other literature, such as including specific blessing with each pronouncement and tying those blessings to a benefit at an “undisclosed future time and linked with salvation and eternal life.”[4] The Psalms contain many phrases using this same formula: “Blessed is . . .” and are a reflection of the character of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.[5]

Leaving the huge crowds following him (4:24-25), Jesus “went up into a mountain,” which usually signifies a bit of an escape from the crowds for him. Only his closest disciples were there, and his message was what to say as these disciples went out to teach others about him (see JST Matthew 5:2).

“Changes made in the JST version make the audience and purpose of the sermon more apparent. For example, JST Matthew 5:2 clarifies the initial audience of the sermon, speaking of ‘they who shall believe on your words, when ye shall testify that ye have seen me, and that I am.’ The audience consists of converted disciples being sent out to teach Jesus’ message of salvation to others. This differs from the audience for the initial part in 3 Nephi, where Jesus was speaking to “the multitude” (12:1). The command to those at Bountiful was to heed the words of the chosen twelve disciples, be baptized by them, and receive the Holy Ghost.”[6]

“The sermon begins in KJV Matthew 5 with nine Beatitudes. In the JST, there are three more, making a total of twelve, a significant symbolic number in the New Testament. The first two additions refer to those who believe in Jesus and who believe in the disciples’ testimony of Jesus. The third added beatitude puts the entire sermon in a covenantal orientation: those “that shall believe on your words, and come down into the depth of humility, and be baptized in my name” shall receive the Holy Ghost and a remission of their sins. This resembles the opening in 3 Nephi 12 but lacks the more detailed explanation in the Nephite account about the calling of the twelve disciples and Jesus’ endorsement of their teachings; in Matthew, he had not yet called the Twelve, so he could not make similar statements.”[7]

These initial pronouncements in the Sermon are the promised blessings of obedience. “Blessed” in the KJV is ‘fortunate’ or ‘well-off,’ often translated ‘happy’ by modern Bibles (also the root meaning of ‘beatitudes,’ which comes from the Latin beatus).[8] Some of the Psalms start with this same formula (e.g., Psalm 1:1; 2:12; 32:1-2; 33:12; 40:4), so it was a familiar way of speaking to Jesus’ audience. If you compare the text of Isaiah 61:1-2 that Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth and told them was fulfilled in him (Luke 4:16-21) with the first few beatitudes, there are interesting similarities (e.g., Isaiah said the Messiah would come to preach to the meek and the brokenhearted). “Pronouncing a person ‘blessed’ (makarios) is a declaration of honor. What is particularly interesting about these declarations is the great paradox Jesus introduced: those he pronounces as honorable are they who would not rank high on the honor scale of the ancient Mediterranean world.”[9]

Consider for example “the poor in spirit.” The Book of Mormon and the JST add, “which cometh unto me,” signifying that just being humble is insufficient if it doesn’t lead us closer to God. Amy Hardison explained about this beatitude specifically:

The poor (see Luke 6:20; Matthew 5:3) would also not be considered honorable. To understand this we must first know that “the poor” were not those who had few worldly goods. Such was the condition of the vast majority of the people of the ancient Mediterranean world. Although most peasants labored to exhaustion and had barely enough to live, as long as they had enough to survive they were not poor. The truly poor were those who were destitute of all resources and were reduced to begging. Even more to the point, they were poor because in such condition they had lost their honor and had plummeted on the social scale. Thus, the word “poor” is connected with but is not primarily about economics. It is about honor. Christ’s beatitude “blessed be ye poor” (Luke 6:20) is an oxymoron. It says in essence, “How honorable are those who suffer a loss of honour.’” Essential to understanding this enigmatic statement is determining why those whom Christ blesses have lost their honor.

She goes on to explain that because family was everything in that time and place, to leave those things to follow Jesus could make a disciple a lost soul to his or her family, which could cause they “a tragic and total loss of honor.” This is reflected in this saying as well as the two of the next three: “Blessed are they that mourn” and “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst.”[10]

Most of the beatitudes are given in the third person—words that the disciples can share with others. But one is given in the second person in all accounts: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” This would happen directly to his disciple-listeners, so Jesus warned them—but also reassured them—that as a result of their service, they would have “great joy” and a great reward (JST 5:12).

Salt and Light (5:13-16)

The JST adds at the beginning of this section: “I give unto you to be the salt of the earth” (with a similar addition in v. 14, “I give unto you to be the light of the world”). Jesus was calling them to become something “of the earth,” meaning in the world in which they live.[11]

Like today, salt had a variety of usages and therefore potential meanings in this context. Salt was considered a necessity of life, which could mean that the disciples are critical to the welfare of the world. Technically salt cannot lose its savor—sodium chloride by itself is a stable compound. So what did Jesus mean? Here are some thoughts.

  • Like today, salt’s primary use was flavoring, so the disciples were being called to ‘season’ the words of eternal life throughout the world.
  • Salt was also a preservative, which could be likened to the Saints preserving the world by teaching the gospel of repentance to others.
  • Salt was sometimes harvested in rock formations then packed around meat and fish to preserve them. Eventually the salt would leach out of the rock and into the meat, thus making the rocks useless.
  • Sometimes salt collected from the Dead Sea was also found mixed with other compounds similar in appearance, such as gypsum, thus making it visually similar to pure salt but not usable.
  • Some bakers lined their ovens with salt blocks. Over time the intense heat would cause the salt to crystallize and change composition, making them not useful for that function.
  • Priests used salt at the temple to put on the ground under the sacrifices to provide traction on the bloody floor. But they wouldn’t use good salt—that was too expensive for such a task. They would only use salt that was not fit for human consumption—was somehow contaminated and had thus ‘lost its savor’—because it would “be trodden under foot of men”—the priests in the temple performing the daily sacrifices to the Lord.
  • “Savour” is Greek mōrainō, meaning ‘foolish.’ Because the metaphor is spreading the words of Christ, disciples who are foolish in their stewardship are useless to the Lord.
  • Salt was associated with sacrifice because sacrifices to the Lord were heavily salted as part of the ritual. That’s what created “a sweet savour” (Leviticus 2:13; Genesis 8:21)—it was the salt cooking with the meat. In that sense, salt can represent covenant which when presented to the Lord, should cause him to smell a sweet savour.

With these many options, one additional consideration is Luke’s version of this teaching. In the JST, an addition there gives Jesus the opportunity to teach about the scriptures testifying of him, then ties the metaphor of salt to the scriptures being fulfilled (JST Luke 14:33-35). This makes good salt represent those who believe in Jesus’ words and mission, which ties back to the invitation in JST Matthew 5:13. “The commandment is to believe on Jesus’ words and ‘salt’ the world by sharing them. If the disciples do not do that, they are salt without savor (Greek mōrainō, “foolish”) and of no use to the Lord. This ties directly back to the opening words of the Beatitudes just preceding this teaching in Matthew, the charge to the disciples to teach the message to the world.”[12]

The city set on a hill in v. 14 likely refers to Jerusalem, which sits on a hill or ridge and is visible for many miles in some directions. Another possibility is a town in Galilee, such as Hippos, situated on a rounded hill and easily visible from Capernaum during the day or at night when torches and lights were burning.

Verse 15 mentions a candle. There were no candles in Jesus’ day. The word here is luchnos or lamp, usually made of clay with holes for adding oil and holding a wick. Since the light was dim, it would be set on a lampstand or shelf so as to maximize its benefit. “Bushel” is modios or bowl, which would be placed inverted on the lamp to extinguish it.

To be a light is to do good works, but not with the goal of making ourselves look good. Rather, our works cause the light to be seen from its true source, which is Father in heaven.

Six Antitheses (5:21-48)

christ-teaching-foolish-rich-man-parable-1401835-tabletThe rest of the chapter covers six comparisons Jesus made about fulfilling the law of Moses. Eric Huntsman[13] wrote of this next section, capturing the purpose and meaning of the six statements Jesus gave his disciples about fulfilling the law of Moses. With each, Jesus gave a Mosaic thesis and then a gospel antitheses from his own teaching.  Jesus ‘fulfilled’ the law of Moses not by doing away with it, but by being the sacrifice that it all pointed to. His sacrifice thus ended the physical sacrificial acts but not the principles on which the law was based, which are eternal.

The six statements are often divided into two groups of three; in the first three, Jesus responds with a similar set of words, while in the last three, he uses different constructions. There may even be some chiasmus involved, with the first one speaking of hate and the last of love.[14]

1 – Murder and anger (5:21-26)

Quoting Exodus 20:13, Jesus reminded them the law said not to kill. In the KJV, he teaches not to be angry “without a cause,” but in the JST and the Book of Mormon, that last phrase is deleted, which is in line with the oldest Greek NT manuscripts, which don’t have this phrase either. This means that Jesus condemns anger of any level, which makes him unique among the teachers of his day.

Jesus gave an example of a person who was about to offer a gift (sacrifice) at the altar and remembered he needed to reconcile with another, so left the altar and went back to take care of that first. This is not a trivial effort: Jesus was speaking to a group in Galilee, and the “altar” mentioned is in Jerusalem. To stop in the middle of the offering, return to Galilee, then return to Jerusalem to finish the sacrifice is a delay of several days.[15] Like other things in the sermon, it is an intentionally extreme example. Speaking of a ‘worst case’ situation lets Jesus emphasize the importance of it in daily life.

In an honor society, there were many adversaries who attacked your honor on a regular basis (see introduction above). Jesus advocated not resisting such attacks and potentially surrendering your honor to the attacker, but resisting the greater shame of being taken before a judge (typically the city elders) and having more honor be stripped publicly.

2 – Adultery and lust (5:27-30; compare Mark 9:43-48))

Jesus taught that adultery was not just an act but also a thought, one that turned women into objects to take and possess. Note that the word used for “lust” does not mean a passing thought but a deliberate act of “continuing to look in order to arouse further lust.”[16] See also D&C 63:16.

The JST changes in this section are significant. In Mark, when Jesus talked about plucking out the eye or cutting off the hand or foot (Mark 9:43-48), the JST added text to turn the metaphor towards a church member or leader in sin, who might need to be cut off. Here (which chronologically in the translation effort came first), the meaning is about individual sins because cast away (or as the JST says, are “a parable concerning your sins.” Since the context is adultery in the previous verses, these verses appear to speak of that type of sin. We are to remove sin from our lives (“deny yourselves of these things”), even if such a sacrifice may seem as painful as losing an eye or a hand, otherwise we will be “cast into the fire.” (See JST Matthew 18:8-9 where the same metaphor has yet another meaning.)

3 – Divorce (5:31-32; compare Luke 16:18)

The law of Moses permitted divorce (from Deuteronomy 24:1) if a husband “found some uncleanness” in his wife. Though the original intent was likely adultery or other sexual sins only, some Jews of Jesus’ day had interpreted that quite broadly and allowed for divorce if a woman did not please her husband in some way, including being a poor cook.[17] While Jesus’ declaration that Moses’ intent was only to allow divorce in cases of immoral behavior (“fornication”), he also teaches a higher law of marriage that respects the covenant and declares that a husband who divorces for lesser things is essentially forcing her to commit adultery when she remarries. In other words, divorce is a result of a hard heart and disobedience (cf. Matt 19:8)

4 – Oaths (5:33-37)

Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:12 and Deuteronomy 5:11, 10; 23:22. “You shall not make false vows” (NASB). Wrote Amy Hardison of this passage:

Old Testament law did not prohibit the swearing of oaths but did require that a person fulfill the oaths he had taken. By the time of Christ, there was a concern “about the devaluation of oaths through their indiscriminate use and a growing tendency to ‘weasel out’ of oaths by swearing by less sacred things.” Christ categorically denounced all such loopholes. He declared that a person’s word—a plain yes or no—should be so reliable that no oath was necessary. This is the heart of the matter. However, it is worth noting that swearing an oath is equivalent to giving a word of honor. Thus, even though integrity is the core issue, honor is involved.

In an honor-shame society, oaths are important because telling the truth is not an absolute virtue. Lying and deception can be honorable and legitimate if the person lied to is an outsider, one who has no right to the truth. “The right to the truth only exists where respect [honor] is due (in the family, to superiors, and not necessarily to equals with whom [one] compete[s] or to inferiors).” To be misleadingly ambiguous, to hedge the truth, and even to brazenly lie to a member of an outgroup is to dishonor and humiliate him, but it is not morally wrong. In a society where lying is not categorically wrong, an oath would be an important attestation.[18] In other words, Jesus is saying, ‘Quit pretending to make a promise when you don’t really mean it.’ In terms of their day, it means to make each thing you say so honest that you don’t need an oath to confirm it.

5 – Retaliation (5:38-42; compare Luke 6:29-30)

jesus-christ-consider-the-lilies-1402591-tabletThe concept of “an eye for an eye” comes from Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though harsh sounding to our ears, the point of this law was to limit retribution after damages; the injured person could not extract any more from the person that injured him than the law allowed. It was supposed to halt the escalation of a revenge cycle.

Again, Amy Hardison:

A physical assault is a most serious challenge to one’s honor. Unless the assaulted person publicly retaliates, his honor is permanently lost. Even the slightest injury must be avenged or honor is severely impugned. Once again, Jesus’ directives in the Sermon on the Mount would be astounding to a person in an agonistic society. If someone smites a person on the right cheek, which would require a doubly insulting backhanded slap, the aggrieved person is to offer the left cheek for another blow (see Matthew 5:39). To understand the enormity of Christ’s directive, we must remember that challenges are “never, ever, under any circumstances, run from or ignored.” Thus the assaulted disciple is not simply to return hostility with humility; he is to willingly capitulate in the honor game. He is to forfeit his honor, his most important asset, for the sake of peace.[19]

Regarding the coat and cloke phrases in v. 40, the KJV “coat” is a tunic, the dress-like garment that typically came down to the knees and was the main form of clothing, under other layers. “Cloke” is an outer coat, worn in cold weather. Quoting again from Hardison:

It was highly dishonorable to go to court for it was a tacit admission that the persons could not deal with the situation through the normal channels of challenge-riposte and were thus lacking in honor. This was especially the case when the two parties were of the same social status. Thus, legal procedures were primarily used to dishonor someone perceived to be of higher, more powerful status. Jesus told those who were sued at the law (presumably someone of higher status) to willingly give the plaintiff (presumably someone of lower status) his coat and his cloak, indicating he has lost the honor challenge. This concession would be almost unimaginable to a New Testament audience.[20]

6 – Love your enemies (5:43-48; compare Luke 6:27-28, 32-36)

Jesus said that the people had heard to love their neighbor but hate their enemy. The first part is from Leviticus 19:18 (also Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16; 23:4, 7). The second part is not found in scripture and was likely just a proverbial saying or oral interpretation. Jesus’ final counter-cultural, superseding command of the law of Moses was to love everyone, including people who might attack, plunder, rape, or even kill you. God loves each of us (v. 45) and asks that we do no less.

The sum of it is “Be ye therefore perfect” (or as it is brilliantly rendered in Thomas Wayment’s translation, “Therefore you will be perfect” [emphasis mine]). God is indeed perfect in the way we understand the word today (“morally flawless”), but the Greek word here is teleios meaning ‘complete’ or ‘fully developed.’ It has the sense of something that has reached its full end, is full-grown, or mature, and is the model after which we strive. (The Hebrew term translated ‘perfect’ in the OT has a similar meaning.)

We do need to keep all of God’s requirements to achieve perfection someday, but the focus of this commandment is to recognize our eternal nature and heritage as children of God and strive to reach that full potential in all that we do so that one day we will be fully developed offspring of God. We will be perfect in the intents of our hearts—our own offerings to the Lord. Then, through repentance and the atonement of Christ, by his grace and love, he will take our perfect hearts and render us guiltless before the Father, making us whole and complete. See Psalm 18:30; 3 Nephi 27:16; 3 Nephi 12:29-30; D&C 67:13.

The next chapter in Matthew goes on to outline some of the things that we have to give up to have a perfect heart.[21] But that’s a topic for another blog.

——– Notes ————————————

[1] John W. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount.

[2] Amy B. Hardison, “The Sociocultural Context of the Sermon on the Mount,” in Strathearn, Wayment, and Belnap, The Sermon on the Mount, 24-41.

[3] Hardison, ”The Sociocultural Context,” 32.

[4] Valérie Triplet-Hitoto, “Audience Astonishment at the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon at the Temple,” in Strathearn, Wayment, and Belnap, The Sermon on the Mount, 42-43.

[5] Andrew C. Skinner, “Israel’s Ancient Psalms: Cornerstone of the Beautitudes,” in Strathearn, Wayment, and Belnap, The Sermon on the Mount, 59-66.

[6] David A. LeFevre, “The Sermon on the Mount in the Joseph Smith Translation,” in Strathearn, Wayment, and Belnap, The Sermon on the Mount, 284.

[7] LeFevre, ”The Sermon on the Mount,” 285-286.

[8] Skinner, “Israel’s Ancient Psalms,” 65.

[9] Hardison, “The Sociocultural Context,” 30.

[10] Hardison, “The Sociocultural Context,” 30-31.

[11] For this section, see Matthew O. Richardson, “Salt and Light: Being in the World but Not of the World,” in Strathearn, Wayment, and Belnap, The Sermon on the Mount, 76-92.

[12] LeFevre, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 287.

[13] Eric D. Huntsman, “The Six Antitheses: Attaining the Purpose of the Law through the Teachings of Jesus,” in Strathearn, Wayment, and Belnap, The Sermon on the Mount, 93-109.

[14] Huntsman identifies other structural elements that support the three-three symmetry, “The Six Antitheses,” 96-99.

[15] Hardison, ”The Sociocultural Context,” 37.

[16] Huntsman, “The Six Antitheses,” 100.

[17] Clinton E. Arnold, ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, 1:117.

[18] Hardison, “The Sociocultural Context,” 29-30.

[19] Hardison, “The Sociocultural Context,” 29.

[20] Hardison, “The Sociocultural Context,” 29.

[21] Frank F. Judd, Jr., “’Be Ye Therefore Perfect’: The Elusive Quest for Perfection,” in Strathearn, Wayment, and Belnap, The Sermon on the Mount, 123-139; also Huntsman, “The Six Antitheses,” 104-106.

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