Matthew 5:17-48 gives us a series of sayings about the Law of Moses or Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Then as now, this was a cornerstone of Jewish life and thought. For Matthew, this is a central topic. We’ve seen that he was prepared to point out the irregularities in his story—in Jesus’ genealogy and in the visit of the Magi. Still, he continued to be fully committed to his religion as a Jew.
Why is Jesus even concerned about it? Wasn’t he founding a new religion?
Christianity certainly turned into a separate religion in its own right as Christian and Jewish communities split apart in the second, third, and fourth centuries. But such division is a familiar result of internal efforts at reform within a religion. Think of Luther and the Lutherans. There is nothing to suggest that Luther thought of himself as anything other than a good Catholic (more Catholic, in fact, than the Pope). But the pressures of politics and history have produced parallel groups that we call “Roman Catholic” and “Lutheran.” For Matthew and his intended audience, in the first century, the notion that “Christian” and “Jew” were mutually exclusive definitions was unintelligible. There were many varieties of Judaism, each regarding itself as the truest expression of Jewish faith. The Jewish followers of Jesus could easily have wound up simply as another of these.
However the division of Christianity from Judaism came about, exactly, Christians of all sorts, Jewish and Gentile, held onto many aspects of Judaism, especially the scriptures of Israel. And Matthew clearly expected his readers to be well acquainted with them—able, for example, to recognize his many citations of scripture and understand his emphasis on fulfillment of prophecies. He also included some reference to the controversies between Jesus and other contemporary Jewish teachers—controversies about the meaning of the Torah.
The Torah was not only a sacred book but also the written constitution and law of the Jewish nation. Since it was now centuries old, it needed skilled interpreters—a role that scribes, priests, and the leaders of Jewish sects were expected to fulfill. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, steps into this role, too. He demonstrates a particular way of understanding it and interpreting it for his place and time.
Hence the emphatic insistence that nothing is going to replace the Law?
Exactly. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. . . . until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (vs. 17-18) But what does Jesus mean by this? It could mean that he will provide a detailed interpretation of the Torah, comparable to that of the priests or the leaders of the Pharisaic and Essene parties—a way of making the ancient provisions of the Torah applicable in a changed world. Jesus even says to his hearers that their righteousness will have to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if they are ever to get into the kingdom of heaven (vs. 20). A daunting prescription: you’ll have to be more righteous than these people who have given their whole lives to understanding and living out the Torah.
But then he seems to switch direction entirely in vs. 21 and start replacing the actual provisions of Torah with new and more stringent requirements.
Yes, this is a particularly daunting part of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough to refrain from murder; you mustn’t even insult another person. (“Brother” and “sister” here probably mean “fellow human beings,” not literal close kin.) It’s not enough to refrain from adultery; a man mustn’t even desire a married woman. Does this sound impossible? Yes, it is. Desire isn’t always amenable to voluntary control. And Jesus drives the point home with the appalling language of tearing out the eye or cutting off the right hand. If this is his new list of rules, it’s not working. It certainly can’t serve as a literal list of demands, and Christian tradition has uniformly rejected the idea that Jesus meant vss. 29-30 literally. But they do make a powerful metaphor. Jesus is teaching that it’s not enough to obey the letter of the Law. We are to become new people with a very different way of relating to the world around us and even to the Law itself.
Jesus even treats divorce, something allowed by Torah, as a sin (vss. 31-32). Notice that he treats this as a purely male sin, since the Torah gave the power of divorce only to men. In Jesus’s time women might also gain this right through the marriage contract; still, he was seeing it as primarily a male sin. (We’ll return to this topic later in Matthew’s Gospel.) Again, oaths have official standing in the Torah, but Jesus forbids them. Revenge is permitted within certain limits, but Jesus forbids it—almost going to the opposite extreme of insisting that we assist everyone without question. And Jesus expands the commandment to love your neighbor into a commandment to love your enemy.
It’s all bewildering. It leaves the head spinning. What happens to ordinary, orderly social convention here? Isn’t God interested in righting wrongs any more? What about the justice of God?
Isn’t that implied in the threat of judgement, such as vss. 25-26 or 29-30?
We certainly find it there. God, apparently, is not resigning altogether from the job of judge. But Jesus pushes a very different aspect of the divine to the fore at the end of the chapter, where he tells us that we must be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (vs. 48). Think of how he has just described God’s perfection: “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (vs. 45). God’s perfection consists not in judging and condemning but in loving all people alike. God’s love for us is not a response to our worthiness, but an expression of God’s boundless grace.
So Jesus is really invalidating—or at least replacing—the whole idea of law?
Actually, he doesn’t resolve the matter for us. As so often in Jesus’ teaching, we find that what has disappeared is the absolute either/or. We think that God must either be just or be merciful. Jesus refuses to reject the justice in order to gain the mercy—or to reject the mercy in order to shore up justice. It’s not that he rejects Torah. He insists rather on translating it into an internal reality; it is to become not a series of rules but a disposition, a way of being in the world.
One reason why the Sermon on the Mount has exercised such influence on readers for almost two thousand years is that it resolutely resists our hankering after a rigid oversimplification. Just reading it makes us begin to face up to the fact that true human goodness is something more inscrutable, more beautiful, and more costly than we are accustomed to think—and not simply a matter of obeying the current set of rules. In fact, as we’ll see, goodness can became a cause of evil.
Next up: A YES AND A NO TO RELIGION (6:1-18)