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Leading question: Does the Sermon on the Mount make keeping the law harder or easier?

Introduction to the Issue: Jesus’ treatment of the law in Matthew 5 (Sermon on the Mount) raises acute questions, not only about the relationship between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament, but also between law in the New Testament and law in the Old. Here are Jesus’ introductory comments that lead into the six antitheses:

Matthew 5:17: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

These are the salient points:

  1. However one interprets “fulfill,” it stands in contrast with abolish. In short, Jesus affirms the law.
  2. Fulfilling the law includes “doing” the commandments.
  3. Fulfilling the law means exceeding the righteousness of the Jewish leaders.

From the content of the comparisons that follow, it is clear that Jesus is internalizing laws that previously could have been treated as external commands. The first comparison prohibits murderous anger, for example, not just murder. And one of my New Testament colleagues has noted that the Greek conjunction linking the two halves of the “antitheses” is much closer to “and” than to “but,” suggesting that Jesus is enhancing, not replacing the external command.

The focal point of the six comparisons becomes clearer if one can see the word “fulfill” in the sense of “filling full” – of richer meaning, for example – not in the sense of “fulfilling” requirements” and then putting them out of mind. To illustrate the point from academia, “fulfill” typically refers to something like graduation requirements. Once these have been checked off the list, one can ignore them thereafter. Clearly Jesus intends to enrich our understanding of law, not just abolish the law and put it out of mind.

Summarizing the six comparisons that Jesus fills full of richer meaning reveals how different these comparisons actually are. Two, murder and adultery, are based on the ten commandments and are very troubling for the idealist who seeks to obey God’s law. Staying clear of murder and adultery is one thing, but how does one eliminate anger and lustful thinking? The other four comparisons are based on the additional Mosaic legislation: Divorce (cf. Deut. 24:1-4), oaths (cf. Lev. 19:12; Deut. 23:21-23), lex talionis [law of revenge] (cf. Exod. 21:23-25), and love for a neighbor (cf. Lev. 19:18).

Here are some brief notes on each of these four comparisons that should trigger further study and lively discussion:

  1. Divorce. Both Matthew 5:23 and 19:9 include the exception clause, “except for fornication.” Luke 16:18 offers no exception: it is simply wrong to put away your spouse and marry another. Liberal Jewish spokespersons had interpreted law of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) very loosely, allowing males to divorce a spouse for the most trivial of reasons. In Luke, Jesus closes all loopholes. What did Jesus really say? You have a choice.
  2. Oaths. Jesus went a step further than the Old Testament which affirmed the use of some oaths, albeit rather cautiously. Jesus argued for no oaths at all.
  3. Lex Talionis. The so-called lex talionis, the law of revenge, seems to point in the opposite direction from Jesus’ call for turning the other check. But the contrast is not that sharp, for most biblical scholars agree that the purpose of lex talionis was to limit revenge, not encourage it. Thus it could be seen as a half-way house to the full pacifism of Jesus.
  4. Loving your neighbor. The last comparison is the most radical one. In Matthew 5 Jesus quotes the Old Testament as saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The command to love one’s neighbor is a direct quote from Leviticus 19:18, but it applies only to one’s Jewish neighbor, not to everyone. And it is simply one command in a long series of laws, not the pinnacle of a hierarchy of laws as it is in the New Testament. In Matthew 22:35-40, it is Jesus’ second great command; but in Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14 it stands alone as the command. Finally, in Matthew 7:12, all qualifications are dropped. God’s people are called to treat everyone the way we would want to be treated.

The Old Testament falls far short of that ideal. Deuteronomy 23:3-6 in the legal code prohibits Israel from having anything to do with Moab and Ammon, two of Israel’s tribal enemies. In the psalms and prophetic books, the hatred is open to public viewing. There is no command to hate one’s enemies, but examples of hatred abound, with Psalm 139:21-22 being the most vivid:

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Jesus is much more radical. He calls us to fulfill the law by loving our enemies.

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