This is where we really start seeing moral pronouncements laid down. First, a sequence of “Blessed are the X: for they shall Y” lines, where X is generally something that’s good (or, at least, causes your life to be difficult), and where Y is a reward for that. In general, I support the X’s (sometimes more so in Lattimore’s translation than in King James: in particular, contrasting their versions of Matthew 5:5, I have nothing against meekness, but I actively like gentleness.) I have more mixed feelings about the Y’s: sometimes, it’s a simple “it gets better” vibe (Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted”), but sometimes there’s a sort of passive aggressiveness with a real edge to it (the aforementioned Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”).
Then the gloves start to come off: Matthew 5:16 “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven”, and Matthew 5:18-20, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Clearly, God is not messing around: jump when He says jump, or (as we see in Matthew 5:29-30) you’ll be “cast into hell”. And these verses support a narrow moralism that I’m not at all comfortable with: the “break one of these least commandments” bit quoted above, or “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” from Matthew 5:28.
Though even here, there are bits that I wholeheartedly get behind: e.g. Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” In other words, while prayer is all well and good, you should get your actual actions in order first.
I actually rather like the bits against swearing, from Matthew 5:33-37: a sense of letting your actions speak for you. And then we come to the whole “turn the other cheek” bit (Matthew 5:38-48, e.g. 5:39 “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”) This is absolutely my favorite part of the moral pronouncements so far, a very strong statement indeed: don’t fight evil with evil, respond instead with compassion. I only wish that God would take Jesus’s advice on that score earlier on in this chapter, instead of threatening everybody with hellfire!
From a philological point of view, I really wonder what’s going on here. The different parts of the chapter seem to me to be in rather different styles and from rather different points of view; maybe I’m just reading my own biases into something that’s not there, but maybe the text is an agglomeration of different points of view.
This post has not been revised since publication.