Pursuing Righteousness

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:6,10-12

Prison Cell

What did Jesus mean by saying that those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness possess the Kingdom of Heaven? Knowing more about the biblical language will allow us to dig deeper.

The Greek word for “persecute” is dioko, which can also mean “pursue.” The parallel word in Hebrew is radaf, which also conveys both meanings — to pursue and to persecute. As a result, this passage could be just as easily rendered, “Blessed are those who are pursued because of righteousness.”

Interestingly, in Hebrew, if a person is “pursued” by something, it can be an idiom expressing eagerness, anxious expectation, or a passionate desire for something — like saying that we are “consumed” by a passion or goal. (1) So, this sentence could speak about being consumed by the desire for righteousness, as much as it expresses the idea of being persecuted by others because of righteousness.

If this alternative meaning is true, then this verse is a close parallel to Matthew 5:6, which speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (tzedakah), and it would be a strong allusion to two passages from Jesus’ scriptures:

Justice, and only justice (also tzedakah), you shall pursue (radaf), that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:20

Listen to me, you who pursue (radaf) righteousness (tzedakah) and who seek the LORD… Isaiah 51:1

Of course, the very next verse of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:11) is definitely about persecution – about insults and libel and ill-treatment by others. But yet “pursued for the sake righteousness” is ambiguous, whether it speaks of the person’s passion, or of mistreatment by others.

Could it be that Jesus was actually combining the two ideas into one? Will those who are passionate about righteousness face persecution because of it? Certainly Jesus’ first followers faced no end to persecution for their great commitment to him, and in our own century, many Christians have experienced great persecution for his sake. All those suffering for the Lord’s name can take comfort knowing that their dedication and faithfulness does not go unnoticed. He says, “Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven!”

(1) R. Buth, Pursuing Righteousness, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.(Premium Content Membership needed for access)

Photo: Sathyan Velumani

The Other Cheek

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. Matthew 5:38-40

Many of us struggle with Jesus’ saying about turning the other cheek, and how it fits with the phrase “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” Although to us it sounds barbaric, in Jesus’ time this law was always interpreted as a monetary fine for bodily injury – never injuring the offender in return.1 They understood the idea of “eye for eye” as meaning that the fine for injuring another exactly compensated the victim for all of his or her losses. The rabbis had set up a system of five kinds of monetary damages for injuring others: for permanent impairment, for temporary incapacity, for healing expenses, for pain and for shaming.

Ashamed Man

One scholar believes that Jesus is referring to this system of fines in the passage above, and the laws about shaming a person by slapping him on the face.2 The offense of slapping someone was often a subject of discussion of the “eye for eye” laws because it did not actually cause any lasting injury – just momentary pain and embarrassment. But nevertheless, the shame that it caused was a major offense in that culture, because one’s honor was extremely important in that time. So there was a fine that could be demanded of another for being shamed in this way:

If a man slapped his fellow, he gives him 200 zuz; if with the back of his hand, 400 zuz. (Mishnah, Baba Qamma 8.6)

The fact that a fine is involved makes the idea of “turning the other cheek” fit with the next statement about letting someone sue you too. It appears then, that Jesus was saying that rather than insisting on compensation down to the last penny for every insult, his followers should be ready to suffer persecution yet again. It also fits with Jesus’ many teachings about not seeking one’s own honor.

Regarding the idea of demanding compensation for shaming, Paul says something very similar:

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 1 Cor. 6:7-8

In looking past sin and forgiving others, we are showing people the love of Christ through our own actions. We are being true disciples when we imitate our rabbi Jesus, who died for the sins of those who hated him.

See an “An Eye for an Eye.”

David Daube, “Appeasement or Resistance” And Other Essays on New Testament Judaism, (University of California Press, 1987), pp. 19-23. Also available online.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334

Yes Should Mean Yes

by Lois Tverberg

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your `Yes’ be `Yes,’ and your `No,’ `No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. – Matt 5:33-37

Many are confused by Jesus’ saying about taking oaths from Matthew. In the Old Testament, God commanded the people to take their oaths in his name, not in the name of other gods (Dt. 6:13), and that they should not swear falsely in God’s name (Lev. 19:12). But in Matthew 5, Jesus commands people to not take oaths at all. Later, James quotes him almost verbatim:

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. James 5:12

Yes Should Mean Yes

Interestingly, other Jewish teachers are recorded as saying the same thing. Around 200 AD, the Babylonian Talmud records Rabbi Yossi ben Judah as saying: “Let your “yes” be yes, let your “no” be no. (Bava Metziah 49a). Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the first century also said, “The bare word of a virtuous man should be like an oath, steadfast, inviolable, and true. Should necessity absolutely require an oath, let a man swear by his father and mother . . . instead of by the name of the highest and first Essence.” (1)

What was the rationale for avoiding oaths all together? In Jesus’ time, the practice of taking oaths became more and more common; eventually it reached a point where a person’s promises were not believed if he had not done so. In ancient times, God himself was invoked as the witness who would guarantee to punish the oath-taker. But people started to search for other ways to guarantee their words so that God would not be dishonored if what they said did not come true. Swearing by the Temple, the altar, or by heaven was common, and Philo suggests swearing by one’s parents. But still people didn’t feel that their words were binding unless they included some oath.

Jesus pinpoints the necessity of an oath as an issue of integrity. If you have a tendency to break promises and don’t want to profane God’s name, the solution isn’t to swear by something else. Rather, it is to change your attitude so that you become a person who always lives out what you say.

(1) As quoted in “Oath,” Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1905-1906), in public domain at www.jewishencyclopedia.com.

Photo: https://www.hiscox.co.uk/business-blog/dont-make-promises-you-cant-keep-the-politics-of-business/

Imitating Our Father

by Lois Tverberg

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:44-45, 48)

When Jesus instructs us to have unlimited love for one another, he presents God himself as our model for living. We should seek to have the same love that God has for us for one another. He says that we should strive to be “sons of our Father in heaven,” implying that somehow our “genetics” as God’s children should enable us to act like him.

Imitating our father

Later rabbis shared a similar sentiment in a commentary on Genesis. They imagined what the conversation might have been like in heaven right before man was created: (1)

When creation was all but ended, the world with all its grandeur and splendor stood out in its glorious beauty. There was but one thing wanting to consummate the marvelous work called into existence by the mere ‘let there be.’ That was a creature with thought and understanding that was able to behold, reflect and marvel on this great handiwork of God, who now sat on His Divine Throne surrounded by hosts of angels and seraphim singing hymns before Him. God said, ‘Let us make man in our likeness, and let there be a creature not only the product of earth, but also gifted with heavenly, spiritual elements, which will bestow on him reason, intellect and understanding.’

Truth then appeared, falling before God’s throne, and in all humility exclaimed: “Deign, O God, to refrain from calling into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!”

Peace came forth to support this petition. “Wherefore, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of Thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”

Whilst they were pleading against the creation of man, there was heard, arising from another part of the heavens, the soft voice of Mercy: “Sovereign of the Universe,” the voice exclaimed, in all its mildness, “vouchsafe Thou to create a being in Thy likeness, for it will be a noble creature striving to imitate Thy attributes by its actions. I see man now in spirit, that being with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him now in spirit, approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to His Maker.’

The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.

In this vivid illustration, the rabbis expanded upon the implications of being created in the likeness of God, just as Jesus did in Matthew. Because God breathed his own breath into us to give us life, and because we bear his image, we are capable of love and mercy to one another. As long as we resolve to imitate our Father, we cannot fail to love as he loves.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 14, “God’s Image Stamped in Dust” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 180-91.

(1) Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD/CE.

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