Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

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Matthew 5:38-48/Luke 6:27-36: Oral-Scribal Intertexture: Analysis 2

The Gospel of Matthew

For Citation Purposes: HCSB=Harper Collins Study Bible and CG= The Complete Gospels

Many readers would mistake the passages in Luke 6:27-36 and Matthew 5:38-48 to be the same. It is presumed that that both texts use the Q document which was believed to have been composed around 50 C.E. by an unknown author before the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. Obviously, the Luke and Matthew accounts overlap. They put the sayings of Jesus, first recorded in Q, into a narrative context, and they both elaborate on the abstract concept of love with concrete examples. Yet it appears that the two books were written for two different audiences. Luke made a universal appeal to the heart for a more enlightened way of thinking, while Matthew advocated a New Torah for traditional Jews. Matthew's logic appears legalistic, almost like a lawyer's, designed to link new thoughts with old patterns. Consequently, where Luke simply recites the sayings of Jesus, Matthew interweaves Hebrew Scriptures with Jesus' words.

The passages about loving one's enemies illustrate this contrast. The Gospel of Luke states:

But to you who listen I say, love your enemies, do favors for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers. When someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well. If someone takes away your coat don't prevent that person from taking your shirt along with it. Give to everyone who begs from you; and when someone takes your things, don't ask for them back. (Luke 6:27-29, as quoted in The Complete Gospels [CG], by Robert Miller, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 257)

While Matthew and Luke both promote the concept of loving one's enemies, they address the issue in different ways. It is supposed that Luke's version is closer to the original Q, because of its simplicity and consistency. However, the author of Matthew places the phrase "love your enemies" in his second paragraph while keeping Luke's examples in the first. By attaching the Old Testament scriptures to the Q sayings, Matthew strategically constructed an argument whereby Jesus' words produce New Torah. In the process, Matthew built a contrast between the limitations of the old law -- which only regulated one's outer actions -- and the new law -- which holds one accountable for his thoughts and demands a higher standard of morality. According to Matthew, Jesus has now put more constraints on one's heart and mind than the law put on one's behavior.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43, 44 as quoted in The Harper Collins Study Bible [HCSB], ed. Wayne Meeks (San Francisco, Harper Collins 1993), p. 1867))

In these verses, Matthew summarizes parts of the Old Torah from Leviticus and Psalms:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18, HCSB, p. 182) I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:22, HCSB, HCSB, p. 929)

Here, the phrase "you shall love your neighbor" is recited exactly from Leviticus 19:18. However, the recitation omits the rest of the sentence, because it is irrelevant to the emphasis.

Matthew restates Psalm 139:22 substantially in his own words. The narrator in Psalm 139 hated those who did wrong, and as a result he counted them as his enemies. However, the author of Matthew transforms this idea by stating that the Old Testament allowed people to hate their enemies. The God of the Old Testament authorized the Jews to hate and kill their enemies who were deemed as utterly wicked. Matthew's version throws up a red flag for the reader that Jesus is making a new standard of morality.

Matthew begins 5:38 with another recitation of Hebrew scripture, followed by a section that mirrors portions of Luke 6.

"You have heard that it was said, ' An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you 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. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (Matthew 5:38-42, HCSB, p. 1867).

Again, the words of Jesus have roots in the Hebrew Bible:

eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (Exodus 21:24, HCSB, p. 119);
fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered (Leviticus 24:20, HCSB, p. 191);
Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:21, HCSB, p. 299).

Matthew recites the essence of the Hebrew scripture where it uses "eye for an eye" and "tooth for a tooth." By splitting the scriptures up, Matthew changes the focus of Matthew 5:38 from "loving your enemies" to "not resisting evildoers." As a result, he changed the Judaic ideology concerning revenge. And he has created a new Torah statement ("Do not resist evildoers," which was not in Luke's version) to emphasize the principle involved, and he adds another example of generosity that was not was not in Luke's version -- going the second mile. It was no longer acceptable to "keep score" of wrong doings. Instead of revenge, through love, one is to help his enemy get what he wants. The end result is the same as in Luke, i.e. love and help your enemies, but Matthew's version reminds the reader of the facts that this is a change from their traditional way of thinking.

The gospel of Luke continues:

Treat people the way you want them to treat you." (Luke 6:30,31, CG, p. 257).

Here the author of Luke introduces a rationale for loving one's enemies and giving to everyone who begs. "Treat people the way you want them to treat you." This is the "golden rule." This theme appears in many different religions, and it suggests that the author of Luke wished to give the readers universal wisdom upon which they can act: one must treat people the way he/she wishes to be treated. He is teaching people to view the world from their neighbors' perspective. Others might say that Luke was instructing us to act like Jesus, who was a role model of giving and selflessness. Matthew, on the other hand, did not mention the "golden rule" in chapter 5; he saved that thought for 7:12. However, he attached the passage about giving to beggars, found in Luke 6:30, to his discussion of not resisting evildoers, as seen above in chapter 5. Yet giving to beggars doesn't seem to fit with not resisting evildoers, unless beggars are considered evil (not likely considering Jesus continually associated with the poor and outcast). The author of Matthew may have kept this saying of Jesus in his gospel, although it didn't necessarily fit. One could argue, however, that Jesus was asking people to go against their natural instinct of revulsion and annoyance for those who beg for help, just as people today cringe at the begging of homeless people.

Luke continues with a confirmation of his rationale that elaborates his thesis that one should love one's enemies:

"If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners do as much. If you lend to those from whom you hope to gain, what merit is there in that? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to get as much in return." (Luke 6:32-34, CG, p. 258).

Here Luke is elaborating his argument concerning love by posing questions that challenge the reader to reflect. Whereas Matthew mentions giving to everyone, Luke elaborates on the subject of lending. Lending to those who cannot pay is another example of loving. The point is to give generously with no thought of reciprocity -- a common expectation that resulted from social interactions. Although Luke does not outline the historical context of revenge and reciprocity (for example "an eye for an eye"), like Matthew, he is showing how Jesus' prophetic wisdom raises the level of consciousness beyond a score-keeping mentality. When one loves as Jesus did, he gives to those who can't repay their debt. Matthew follows this same reasoning as Luke, but he tailors it to a Jewish audience.

"For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and your sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:46, 47, HCSB, p. 1867, 1868)

Instead of Luke's broad term "sinners," which can appeal to all cultures and regions. Matthew makes reference to specific groups of people despised by the Jews: tax collectors, men who were viewed as "sell-outs" to the Romans; and Gentiles, all those who were not Jewish, most often considered uncircumcised, unclean, and heathen.

Both Matthew and Luke show Jesus concluding his discourse by summarizing the rationale for his admonitions: doing good deeds to bad people is the way God acts. This summary motivates the reader to walk on a higher plane. By identifying their actions with God's, the ultimate role model, the follower who does good to the undeserving will attain the high status of being a child of the Heavenly Father (Matthew) or being a child of the Most High (Luke). In Luke, Jesus promises a great reward although he doesn't say what this is.

"But love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you'll be children of the Most High. As you know, he is generous to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate as your Father is." (Luke 6: 35,36, CG, p. 258)

Matthew's version affirms only the status of being a child of the Heavenly Father. He also implies the connection that people should be kind to their enemies because the Father sends the sun and the rain on the good and bad alike.

"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 the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:44, 45, HCSB, p. 1867)

Both Luke and Matthew use the same proverbs and examples to define Jesus' new definition of love. Both show that the normal pattern of reciprocity (you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours; or an eye for an eye, you hit me, I'll hit you back) lacks moral authority. It is not God-like to keep score and merely give back (good or bad) what people give to you. Luke's version, however, promotes new wisdom. People leave thinking that this discourse must be divinely inspired and that the speaker must be some sort of a prophet: only a human with a special relationship with God could give them such insights. His appeal is moral but also emotional. In fact, he challenges the reader to be compassionate: a feeling that is attainable for sinners. In those days love was not demonstrated through displays of gushy emotions, but through actions did one show love. Consequently, Luke's choice of the word "compassionate" had more of an emotional appeal. One could say that Luke made three points in this passage: love your enemies, treat people the way you wish to be treated, and give freely expecting nothing in return. But the rest of the text is really thematic elaboration of the first point. Luke states the new radical proposition that one should love their enemies (verse 27). He explains his new ideology by giving examples (28-30). He provides an initial rationale by arguing that one should treat others like they themselves want to be treated (verse 31). The he confirms his initial rationale for this proposition with a series of rhetorical questions that ask: how are your actions better than what sinners routinely do? (verses 32-34). He embellishes his point by offering followers a reward (verse 35a), and he concludes his argument with an assertion that God is generous to the ungrateful and wicked (verse 35b) and an exhortation for everyone to be like God (verse 36).

Matthew's concluding commandment is more demanding, yet less emotional. This fits with his logical approach to his argument.

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48, HCSB, p. 1868)

Matthew's Sermon on the Mount attempts to prove that Jesus' words transformed the Old Torah. Twice he sets up his argument by introducing a widely known Hebrew Scripture, but instead of supporting it, he uses Jesus' words to reconfigure the meaning. He then supports his argument by giving practical examples and by reciting the rhetorical questions from Q with his own terminology. Matthew ends by commanding people to be like God, perhaps a harder standard to reach than merely being compassionate. This makes the ending more authoritative, just as law is authoritative.

In both the Luke and Matthew accounts, Jesus challenges people to treat others better than they were treated, to look at things from others' perspectives, and to love those deemed unlovable. Both leave no doubt that love is shown through acts of kindness. In both versions, Jesus concludes his discourse by motivating his audience to become greater than they have been, to identify with the divine, and to raise their aspirations beyond the familiar.


Written by Stuart W. Young, Emory College (freshman) on February 24, 1999, for Religion 210: Classic Religious Texts. Minor revisions by Vernon K. Robbins.

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