In my last post, I began talking about Jesus’ teachings on the Law (the Old Testament Law of Moses, not necessarily Roman or other statutes). As I stated there, it appears from the context and his statements that he is speaking primarily to the “teachers of the Law,” who were seemingly obsessed with who was or wasn’t doing what. But Jesus is also talking to those “poor in spirit” that he mentioned at the beginning of Matthew 5, those who were burdened under the religious teaching of the day.
Obviously, Jesus drew some attention from both sides, with both leaders and common-folk seeing Jesus as one of many revolutionaries that came and went. Jesus is quick to clarify that he is not anti-law; in fact, he supports the entirety of the Law, and that he doesn’t want one iota taken from the Law until it is “accomplished.”
Furthermore, he makes it clear that “ordinary” righteousness is not enough, and neither is that of the scribes and Pharisees. Connecting the dots between Jesus’ statements, he is saying that to be “poor in spirit” (theirs is the Kingdom) is to be more righteous than those who claim to keep the law.
Now he starts giving examples, the “You have heard it said … but I say …” series of statements found in Chapter 5 verses 21-48 (quote from the ESV):
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Love Your Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This, of course, presents an interesting twist on the teaching of the Law. Up until this point, presumably, the thinking was that literal keeping of the Law was what mattered. After all, you can only regulate behavior, not intent or emotion. Unless, of course, you’re God who can see into the hearts of men.
Let’s take anger as an example. There are laws about killing and intentionally causing bodily injury to one another, but no one would even conceive of a law against hate. Sure there are “hate crime” laws, but even so, these laws apply a presumed intent after the fact of an actual injury. If you hate but do nothing about it, there’s really nothing anyone can do, and you’ve broken no laws.
Obviously, when Jesus taught this, he didn’t realize the stresses of driving in traffic, or he would have made some allowance for momentary urges to kill. Is anyone out there not guilty of at least wanting to inflict some sort of pain on someone else? And what’s more, now we’re supposed to love them, not just avoid hating them.
Jesus seems to be making a couple of things clear. First, even if you could do a cursory job of keeping the written Law, these internal laws are beyond the realm of possibility. Find someone who claims to be free from all evil intent, and I’ll show you a liar or a sociopath. Second, righteousness is not a matter of the written Law; we’ve moved beyond the reach of Law into an area that no one has yet considered.
Chances are, everyone in the crowd is thinking the same thing we are: We’re toast. If God—who can see into our hearts—expects us to really be perfect (as He is perfect), we’re all dead men walking. (And yes, this is precisely the point Paul will make a few years later.)
What if there was a means to righteousness that was beyond keeping the law? If the sin is beyond reach of the Law, then it logically follows that the righteousness is also beyond the Law.
New Laws, anyone?
It has been suggested that Jesus brought a new, much more stringent law than that which came through Moses, and there is some support for this thought; certainly he is talking about a higher standard. However, thinking of this standard in the same vein as the Law of Moses doesn’t mesh with the discussion of the New Covenant Law in Jeremiah 31, the goal of which is not to create a higher standard for sin:
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (ESV)
So trying once again to connect the dots, we have:
- The Law of Moses, which is to remain in force until such time as it is fully “accomplished.”
- A new standard for righteousness that is even more unattainable, except to be “poor in spirit.”
- A new covenant law, written on our hearts, by which we will know God (as opposed to knowing rules) and which brings forgiveness where God will no longer remember our sin.
Are not hating, not lusting, and loving our enemies the heart of God? Of course. Jesus makes it quite clear, that the goal is for us to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And if unattainable by keeping rules, then how?
That, of course, is where Jesus is taking this discussion.
About this study
While I have a certain understanding of what is called “Law and Gospel” in Lutheran circles, I have no agenda here but to work my way through some key passages discussing the Law and how we are to see it from a New Covenant perspective. This is really my own personal Bible Study, worked out as I write.
Feel free to jump in with comments and questions, as long as they are in the spirit of Bible study.
It’s truly amazing how different I have to read these verses now vs. a couple of years ago. Rather than the Sermon on the Mt. primarily conveying a list of “do’s and don’ts” it is a list that shows my guilt and inability to avoid or perform what God requires.
I’m finding it to be a great place to start with those in my congregation to displace any pretense of righteousness. Amazingly a few are actually seeing it. Good posting.
Fascinating point, Steve, about fulfilment now – when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, He’s always anchoring this , even in parables, in our world, in living and knowing something profound and rich regarding God and the life He gives (reconciliation) in amidst this present, broken world – this is where eternal, meaningful life begins! What an amazing truth – God meets us amidst our misery and poverty and through Jesus Christ, brings us back to what we were intended to be.
“Jesus makes it quite clear, that the goal is for us to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And if unattainable by keeping rules, then how?”
It’s even worse than that.
Perfection is not “the goal”…it is the unrelenting demand…to be fulfilled NOW. Not at some point down the road, or up the ladder a ways.