“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
This saying uses a rabbinic technique known as kal vachomer, meaning “light and heavy”. What this really means is that if a minor thing is true, then so would a major one, but more so. Or, if something light is true (e.g. owing someone £100 is a problem), then something heavy is also true (e.g. owing £200 is a bigger problem). So, if lusting (“light”) after someone is a sin, then how much more a sin would be the actual act of adultery (“heavy”).
Jesus uses kal vachomer a lot and nowhere does it need to be understood more than in the following verses.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)
The essence is that if a sin can be nipped in the bud while it is still in its “light” stage (just your right hand) then you can be prevented from the implications of the “heavy” stage (going to hell). It is important to see these verses as a figurative example, rather than being taken literally, otherwise there would be a lot of Captain Hooks in heaven!
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
The behaviour of the religious Jews at the time of Jesus is by no means typical. In the Talmud it states that Rabbi Eleazor taught, “he who gives his charity in secret is even greater than Moses our teacher.” It also tells us that Rabbi Chana used to secretly leave grain outside his door at night so that the poor could hide their shame in the darkness.
There’s an interesting background to the use of trumpets in this passage. In the Women’s Court of the Temple during the first century were thirteen trumpet shaped collection boxes for alms that made a specific sound as the coins entered. These containers were wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, resembling a trumpet. Often the Pharisees that wished to boast would drop a large number of coins in at one time, which was called “sounding the trumpet.” It was this practice of letting everyone know how much they were giving that Jesus was speaking against.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:5-7)
In the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazor taught that anyone whose prayers were just routine or who considered praying itself as a bit of a bother, was not genuiningly praying at all. As an example of the ostentatious manner of some religious Jews, The Talmud tells us of Rabbi Akiva who was so frantic in his bowings and prostrations that the whole process would take him from one corner of the synagogue to the opposite corner!
“… for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen” (Matthew 6:13)
The Mishnah notes that the response to the High Priest pronouncing the Divine Name was “Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever”. Apparently this response was delivered in a whisper but later “they ordered that men should say it in a loud voice, because of the carping of the heretics”, a reference to those Jews who followed Jesus and were not afraid to admit as much during the synagogue service!
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”. (Matthew 6:16-18)
This disfiguring of their faces was done with ashes and the act of fasting is described in the Mishnah. First, you stop work, then no eating, drinking, sex, washing or bathing, though you could eat at night. At the time of Jesus, Jews were expected to fast on the second and fifth day of the week, at least.
It is amazing what insights we can get on the Gospels from other Jewish writings such as the Talmud and the Mishnah. They may not be divinely inspired, but it doesn’t mean they are as valueless as the historical Church has believed.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book ‘Jesus Man of Many Names’)
How Jesus used Midrash.