Matthew 5:38-6:18, not bearing a false witness
In delivering it's Antitheses, the Sermon on the Mount first cites the sixth of the ten commandments (concerning murder) and then interprets it, it then cites the seventh commandment (concerning adultery) and then interprets it. It then moves on to address the eighth commandment, taking theft as its central theme (throughout Matthew 5:33-37).
Having dealt with commandments six, seven, and eight, in sequence, those listening to the Sermon would have been alert for the sign that it had moved on to deal with number nine (the command not to bear false witness against your neighbour). Although those with a Christian upbringing might easily miss it, for those living under the Mosaic legal system that signpost comes in Matthew 5:38-42. The topic has changed, just as anticipated, to that of false witness. For, whilst the eye-for-an-eye principle was used in cases of direct criminal damage and personal harm, the Mosaic law also applied it to cases where harm was caused by the false testimony of a perverted witness.
Having identified this change of focus, it is easy to see how some of the subsequent text relates to false witness. Yet understanding that this section relates to the ninth commandment raises some interpretive challenges. In particular, what then has Matthew 5:43-48, the command to loving your enemies, to do with false witness? The answer is to be found in the nature of God’s love and the expectation that His servants should emulate it.
This section concludes with teaching on the so-called ‘three pillars’ of Judaism - alms-giving, prayer, and fasting. Here the repeated mention of hypocrisy links Jesus’ words more obviously to the ninth commandment, as the sermon brings personal piety under its spotlight. Up until now, the emphasis has been on the false witness that people can bear concerning the nature of the creator God. Now the focus shifts to the false witness people can bear concerning their relationship with God.
Within first century Judaism, as within many religions, charity, prayer, and fasting were
seen as important disciplines for the development of the personal spiritual life.
Sometimes seen as the three pillars of piety, the extent to which a person engaged in
these activities might be thought a reflection of the fervour of their spiritual life.
Yet, as Jesus takes each in turn, he challenges those who undertaken such practices
overtly and thereby bear a false witness to that individual's righteousness.
Once you home in on the recurring pattern, the threefold repetition within this section is easily seen. Each has the following elements:
- Identification of a spiritual discipline that hypocrites performed in a publicly visible manner;
- A statement that they desire men to recognise their deeds,
- An assurance “Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward” (WEB);
- An exhortation to embrace the same discipline but in a covert manner;
- A promise that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (WEB).
Breaking into this repetitive structure, almost as if it were an afterthought, comes the Lord's Prayer. Yet this prayer is very deliberately placed, such that it provides the core of one of the trinity of structural patters that, as surely as the strands of a three-fold cord, bind the Sermon on the Mount into a single indissoluble unit.
As this section's three repetitive blocks each conclude with a similar statement, to the effect that 'your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you,' Matt 6:7-8 falls outside the pattern and is therefore best seen as an introduction to the Lord's Prayer.