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“Attitude Adjustment” Ethics (a)

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Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke


Contents of Jesus Traditions


“Attitude Adjustment” in the
Jewish Bible

Jesus was not the first to show the importance of attitudes, if people were to enjoy harmonious relationships. Jeremiah, at the turn of the sixth century B.C.E., urged upon the people of Judah the circumcision of their hearts [i.e. minds], an inner conversion that would remedy their many-splendored idolatries and flagrant injustices.

Jeremiah 4:4  Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings.

The psalmist also recognizes that the problem was with the heart [= mind].

Psalm 51:6, 10  6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. . . . 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Already in the Ten Commandments, traditionally attributed to Moses, the covenant people are warned against coveting what belonged to the neighbor, in recognition of the fact that such an attitude could lead to violation of other commandments.

Exodus 20:17  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.


“Attitude Adjustment” in the
[So-called] Sermon on the [So-called] Mount

In the six contrasts of Matthew 5:21-47, Jesus is represented as applying this inwardness principle to a fairly broad range of moral problems: murder, adultery, divorce, perjury, the proliferation of violence, and dealing with enemies. (For a discussion of how this set of antitheses came to us, click on origins; click on Jesus and Torah for thoughts on reconciling these antitheses with Matthew 5:17-20.)

These six contrasts may be summarized, as follows:


Beyond Legalism



Prohibition of murder Warning against anger and hate 5:21-26


Prohibition of adultery Warning against lustful thoughts 5:27-30


The regularization of divorce (marriage as exploitation) The permanence of marriage (equal respect of persons) 5:31-32


Oaths, as assurance of truth telling      No oaths: integrity, as assurance of the truth 5:33-37


Lex talionis: equal retaliation as the way of resolving disputes Reconciliation through creative use of suffering 5:38-42


Loving one’s neighbor and hating one’s enemy  Loving one’s enemy


1  The Problem of Murder (Matthew 5:21-22)

The Ten Commandments specify, “You shall not kill [RSV],” usually understood as, “You shall not murder [NRSV].” No one will take exception to this commandment. But it does not address satisfactorily the problem of preventing murder. While there are a number of reasons why a person might commit murder, surely if people could avoid anger and hatred a major source of murder would be eliminated and human relationships would become more harmonious. And so it is that the teaching of Jesus affirms, 

Matthew 5:22  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Something is needed in place of this anger and hatred, namely, love (agapê), as we shall discuss in more detail later.


2  The Problem of Adultery (Matthew 5:27-28)

The Ten Commandments also specify, “You shall not commit adultery.” Again, no one will take exception to this commandment. But it does not address satisfactorily the problem of preventing adultery. While there are a number of reasons why a person might commit adultery, surely if people could avoid lustful thoughts a major source of adultery would be eliminated. 

Matthew 5:27-28  27You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


Matthew 5:27-32

Mark 9:43-48

27You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  

[lacking in Luke]

29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,  
  48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  
30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. . . .  

It is the heart [= mind] with its fantasies which is the source of adulterous actions, and which needs renewal. The remedy would be to move beyond erôs to agapê

Matthew’s editorial insertion of material dependent on Mark 8:43-48 [unless it is a doublet derived from Q or from Matthew’s special source] is somewhat beside the point; removing the offending eye or hand is no solution, since it is a mental problem. (Matthew also uses this material from Mark in Matthew 18:8-9.) 


3  The Problem of Divorce (Matthew 5:31-32)

Marriages fail. Divorce is almost always an unfortunate event, especially in circumstances where (a) one of the persons is unjustly treated, and (b) the grounds for divorce are specious . It can be fairly said that both conditions prevailed for women who were victims of exploitative divorces in Jewish society of Jesus’ time. (a) Men could divorce their wives, but there was no provision for women to divorce their husbands, no matter how miserably they were treated. 

Deuteronomy 24:1  Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house . . . .

What is more, (b) the grounds for divorce were stated broadly enough that there was opportunity for treating women in a prejudicial way. Rabbinical opinion varied from serious reasons for divorce (adultery) to trivial ones (burning a dish of food). The man who wished to be rid of a woman who was perhaps no longer attractive did not have far to look to provide justification for a divorce. 

Whatever the advantages this system provided for the man, the woman was left in a desperate situation, bereft of financial support and without any hope of reasonable and respectable personal fulfillment.

Jewish law required only that the husband give the woman a certificate of divorce, a provision which only regularized and seemed to sanction a sexist and sometimes exploitative situation.

Click on divorce for a note on the stages of transmission of the relevant synoptic sayings.

Women may not find much satisfaction in Jesus’ declaration of the permanence of marriage. He does not advocate equalizing the right of divorce, so that women might divorce the husband; nor does he liberalize the grounds of divorce—in fact, if there is to be no divorce, then there will be no grounds for divorce. His teaching does end a potentially exploitative situation, and does give a measure of formal respect to the woman. But he recognized that the solution was not legal, but personal:

Mark 10:2-9  2Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The Mosaic legislation was thus a concession to human weakness and willfulness, and (by implication) the remedy was to be found in some kind of inner reformation. Whatever usefulness rules may have when a marriage has failed, rules will hardly prevent marriages from failing.

In summary:
   •  We may reasonably suppose that Jesus affirmed the permanence of marriage. In so doing, he was raising the bar significantly.
   •  We may observe that the effect of his teaching the permanence of marriage was to establish some parity between husband and wife, at least insofar as the one-sided privilege of the husband to divorce the wife was rejected. 
   •  While Mark and Q, and especially Matthew, provide evidence that early Christians were obliged to deal with cases of failed marriages within the community, and that they were formulating rules for divorced persons, it is doubtful whether Jesus himself was inclined to get into the business of establishing his own system of case law (click on casuistry) to replace the existing rabbinic system.

Jesus makes it clear enough that divorce is wrong. But in cases where marriages have in fact failed, we wonder whether (a) he would have refused to make exceptions, even if continuing in a failed and perhaps abusive relationship would have left the woman without any recourse; or (b) he would have counseled, Go, and sin no more? This writer has difficulty in supposing that Jesus would have been willing to reject the legalism of Jewish divorce law and at the same time to impose an absolute ban on divorce.


Revised September 22, 2003


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