Fulfilling the Law: teachings

beatitudes1A Teaching About Anger. As will be evident, the following comments use Boring’s model as a way to think about the text at hand.

21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you,24 leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.25 Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.26 Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

The Law Reaffirmed. Jesus begins with a direct quotation of the com­mand in the Decalogue against murder (Exod 20:13; Dt 5:18). The supplementary “whoever kills will be liable to judgment” is not found exactly in the Old Testament, but presents a paraphrasing summary of several texts in the Torah (Exod 21:12; Lev 24:17; Num 35:12; Deut 17:8-13). It is likely Matthew composed it in order to introduce the word judgment, which plays a decisive role in Jesus’ pronouncement.

The Law Radicalized. Some rabbinic text nuanced OT texts to distinguish between “justified” and “unjustified” anger (others declared such anger the same as shedding blood).  Jesus declares that anger makes one subject to judgment, without distinguishing be­tween “justified” and “unjustified” anger.  One school of scholarly thought holds that the three-part escalation in severity ultimately leading to fiery Gehenna is a parody of a legalistic casuistry among overly zealous/pious Pharisees which Jesus mocks and rejects.

Evidence of such a rejection is seen because (a) there is no clear escalation in the offenses cited, (b) and because Jesus’ demand is difficult or impossible to carry out—becoming angry is not usually a matter under one’s control—and from the ab­surdly disproportionate punishment, not to men­tion the fact that taken literally the Jesus violates his own injunction (“fool” in 23:17, 19). Verse 22 is not literally an escalating scale from local courts to the judgment bar of God, but a declaration of the absolute will of God, who wills not only that persons not kill each other, but also that there be no hostility between human beings. “This is not an injunction merely to avoid certain abusive expressions (that would be another form of legal­ism) but to submit our thoughts about other people, as well as the words they give rise to, to God’s penetrating judgment.

Situational Application. Despite their commitment to live by Jesus’ command, the disciples find themselves involved in hostil­ity. What then? Jesus offers selects two illustrations that guide the disciples in applying Jesus’ radical demand to their situation of imperfect people living in an imperfect world. They are to consider reconciliation, overcoming alienation and hostility to be even more important than worship at the altar (vv. 23-24); thus they are to work for reconciliation in the light of the eschatological judgment toward which they are journeying (vv.25-26). Simply put: “do not allow bad relationships to remain unresolved” (France, 2000, p.203) – there is an urgency here.

Neither picture is to be taken legalistically as a literal case. The worshiper before the altar can not literally leave the sacrificial liturgy half completed, find the offended or offending brother or (which may require a round trip of several days to Galilee and back), then return to the Temple and complete the liturgy. Corresponding to the antithesis of 5:22, this is not a realistic “case” but a pointer to the kind of greater righteousness appropriate to those who belong to the kingdom of God. Disciples are responsible for using this example creatively to apply Jesus’ teaching in their own situations. As such it is a frontal attack on legalistic system as an approach to the righteousness God demands. As well it is a pointer to the divine judgment on those whose earthly relationships do not conform to the values of the kingdom of heaven

A Teaching About Adultery.  27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust 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. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.30 And 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 to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

Reaffirmation. The Decalogue’s absolute prohibition of “adultery” (moicheia; see Ex 20:14; Deut 5:18) refers specifically to a married woman’s having sexual relations with a man other than her husband, and it is to be distinguished from “fornication” (porneia; illicit sex general). Adultery was considered a violation of the husband’s exclusive right to his wife and the assurance that children born to her were his own. Both the woman and the man involved were considered guilty of adultery, whether or not the man was married. Jesus’ teaching does not abolish the Decalogue’s command against adul­tery, but reaffirms it.

Radicalization. Jesus then goes to the root of the thing: the intent of the Law. He proclaims that every man who looks on the wife of another for the purpose of sexual desire is already an adulterer in his inmost being. Although both men and women can be guilty of adultery, Jesus presup­poses the patriarchal setting of both the original Decalogue and his own time by explicating his own command in terms of the man. This is remarkable, since the woman was often consid­ered the offending party (cf. John 7:53-8:1). Strictly interpreted, this text does not deal with natural sexual desire and its associated fantasy, but with the intentional lustful look at the wife of another. This observation, however, should not be used to domesticate Jesus’ radical demand. As in 5:21-27, not only the physical deed, but the intention of the heart as well makes one guilty before the Law of God.

Situational Application. Jesus exaggerates to make his point with the shocking metaphor of self-mutilation (cf. Mk 9:43, 47; Mt 18:8-9). Matthew likely mentions the eye first since that is the gateway to the sexual objectification that is present in this sin. Beyond that people speculate about associating body parts with specific sins, but the point of the text is likely the comparison of a body part to the whole of the body. Again, it is a pointer to the divine judgment on those whose earthly relationships do not conform to the values of the kingdom of heaven.

A Teaching About Divorce. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’32 But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The teaching of the Jesus (here in Matthew) in relation to the Law may be clarified by considering the following history of the tradition of Scripture regarding divorce.

(1)   There is no Torah command against divorce. There is no specific verse that makes clear divorce is within the intention of God. On the other hand, God’s intention is clear in other places: For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel (Mal 2:16). In the NT Jesus gave the authentic interpretation of this text: “Moses, by reason of the hardness of your heart, permitted you to put away your wives; but it was not so from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8,9).  The intent seems clear in Matthew: Moses allowed divorce – but it was never intended by God

(2)   Rather than being a law that allows divorce, Dt 24:1-4 assumes the existence of divorce. This text is directly concerned only with forbidding divorced couples to remarry each other, and indirectly with checking hasty divorces, by demanding sufficient cause and certain legal formalities. Divorce itself is tolerated as an existing custom whose evils this law seeks to lessen (Dt 22:19,29; Malachi 2:14–16).

(3)   The evils arose surrounding the issue of remarriage. Divorce had to be official and regulated by the community, thus offering some protection to the divorced woman by granting her legal status and permitting her to marry someone else. Yet, the decision to divorce was strictly the prerogative of the husband, who did not have to go to court, but could simply make the decision himself in the presence of certified witnesses.

(4)   Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was the locus of the scribal discussion in Jesus’ day.  The issue between the rabbinic schools being how strictly the grounds for divorce (“something objectionable”) should be defined. The strict school of Sharrimai interpreted this to mean sexual sins or perhaps gross impropriety, while the liberal school of Hillel argued that it could be anything that displeased the husband (burning his dinner, m. Git. 9:10, is often cited as the illustration).  In either tradition, divorce was relatively easy to obtain and frequent in occurrence, encouraging a lax attitude toward marriage.

(5)   Against both Dt 24 and later tradition, Jesus proclaimed the absolute prohibition of divorce as the will of God. Mark 10:2-9 and 1 Cor 7:10-11 still reflect this oldest tradition, in which Jesus functions as a prophet who proclaims the unqualified will of God, without making any adjustments for the demands of practical necessities; such an absolute prohibition of divorce is unprecedented in Judaism.

Reaffirmation. What is reaffirmed? In reality, it is the previous command regarding adultery – and since divorce is the precursor to adultery insofar as a 1st century woman in Palestine would have sought to remarry because of the protections it afforded her – then divorce must be considered aligned with adultery.

Radicalization. As noted above Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce is unprecedented.

Situational Application. Matthew preserves Jesus’ saying about divorce, but reintroduces the issue of remarriage, a practical necessity in the case of the divorced woman. In the Gospel according to Mark, the sacred author adjusts the saying to his Gentile context by adding the provision for a woman to divorce her husband (Mark 10:12). This provision was unknown in Jewish society except in exceptional cases, such as for royalty.

A Teaching About Oaths. 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’34 But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.37 Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.

One commentator labeled this section “Love Is Unconditionally Truthful;” perhaps that is what Jesus demands of his disciples: a truthfulness that makes oaths unnecessary.

That being said, there is no explicit precedent in Judaism for the absolute prohibition of oaths. What Jesus cites is not an exact quotation of any Old Testament text (but see Exodus 20:7; Dt 5:11; Lev 19:12). In general, the purpose of an oath was to guarantee truthfulness by one’s calling on God as witness

Jesus formulates an antithesis that summarizes and paraphrases the Old Testament’s teaching about oaths (Lev 19:12; Ps 50:14), then rules it out by his command that his followers take no oaths at all. Matthew 5:34b-36 is explicitly anti-casuistic (cf. 23:16-21), rejecting oaths that use substitutes for the name of God and those that avoid it altogether. Jesus abolished the distinction between words that must be true and those that must not, between words one is compelled to stand behind and those one must not, and calls for all speech to be truthful. As with divorce, Jesus’ original prohibition was absolute, rejecting not only false or unnecessary oaths, but any effort to bolster our statement’s claim to truth beyond the bare statement of it. It is a demand for the truthfulness of all our words.

Instructed by the models in the preceding antitheses, Jesus’ disciples are called to make their own situational applications as they attempt to be guided by his call to speak the truth. There may, indeed, be situations when utter candor violates the greatest command of love to God and neighbor.  Someone once said the all our words need to be true, necessary and helpful. Sometimes it is best not to speak at all.  Jesus disciples have to take on the theological responsibility to determine if a lie can ever be told in the service of love and truth.  What is clear is that Jesus refuses to give legalistic sanction or casuistic examples, casting the disciples on their own theological responsibility.


Matthew 5:22 but: The Greek word used here (de) is a rather weak word; it can also be translated as “and.” The word alla is the strong form of “but” meaning a point of strong contrast – and is notably not used here.  In other words, it is not a contrast to the law, but a strengthening of the law.

Matthew 5:22 raqa: an Aramaic word reqa’ or reqa probably meaning “imbecile,” “blockhead,” a term of abuse.

Matthew 5:23 brother: adelphos – literally meaning blood brother or sister, here more likely referring to the relationship within the community.

Matthew 5:27 commit adultery: moicheuseis The verse accurately quotes Exodus 20:14 and Deut 5:18 which concerns a man who has sexual relations with a married woman (another man’s wife)

Matthew 5:27 adultery: moicheia is understood to involve married persons

Matthew 5:31-32 [general comment]: See Deut 24:1-5. The Old Testament commandment that a bill of divorce be given to the woman assumes the legitimacy of divorce itself. It is this that Jesus denies. (Unless the marriage is unlawful): this “exceptive clause,” as it is often called, occurs also in Matthew 19:9, where the Greek is slightly different. There are other sayings of Jesus about divorce that prohibit it absolutely (see Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; cf 1 Cor 7:10, 11b), and most scholars agree that they represent the stand of Jesus. Matthew’s “exceptive clauses” are understood by some as a modification of the absolute prohibition. It seems, however, that the unlawfulness that Matthew gives as a reason why a marriage must be broken refers to a situation peculiar to his community: the violation of Mosaic law forbidding marriage between persons of certain blood and/or legal relationship (Lev 18:6-18). Marriages of that sort were regarded as incest (porneia – a general term for illicit sexual relations), but some rabbis allowed Gentile converts to Judaism who had contracted such marriages to remain in them. Matthew’s “exceptive clause” is against such permissiveness for Gentile converts to Christianity; cf the similar prohibition of porneia in Acts 15:20, 29. In this interpretation, the clause constitutes no exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce when the marriage is lawful.

Matthew 5:33 oaths: The purpose of an oath was to guarantee truthfulness by one’s calling on God as witness. Judaism seems to have created and elaborated the system of oaths and vows developed in the Old Testament to guarantee (some) words as especially true. The Mishnah has an entire tractate on oaths (Shebuoth) and another on vows (Nedarim). In both the Gentile and the Jewish worlds, an oath invoked the deity to guarantee the truth of what was said, or to punish the one taking the oath if what was affirmed was not true. Oaths involve communication between two parties, with the name of God (or a valid substitute) invoked as guarantor. Vows were made directly to God. What was confirmed by an oath had to be true; what was vowed had to be done. This is somewhat analogous to the legal distinction made in United States courts between statements made under oath and other statements that are not. To testify falsely under oath is a crime. Other false statements may be considered morally wrong, but the oath system is considered necessary in order to guarantee the truth of at least some statements, and to tell when guilt has been incurred by falsehood and when not.

Matthew 5:34-36 by heaven…by earth … by Jerusalem … by your head: The use of these surrogate oath formularies (kinnuyim) avoid the divine name is in fact equivalent to swearing by it, for all the things sworn by are related to God.

Matthew 5:37 Let your `Yes’ mean `Yes,’ and your `No’ mean `No’: literally, “let your speech be ‘Yes, yes,’ ‘No, no.’ “ Some have understood this as a milder form of oath, permitted by Jesus. In view of Matthew 5:34, “Do not swear at all,” that is unlikely. from the evil one: i.e., from the devil. Oath-taking presupposes a sinful weakness of the human race, namely, the tendency to lie. Jesus demands of his disciples a truthfulness that makes oaths unnecessary.


  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007) 21-26
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 183-98
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 140-50
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 177-217
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 118-30
  • Scott W. Hahn, Kinship By Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven, CN: Yale Anchor Library Press, 2009) 25
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 77-90
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 870-71
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 175-95
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 45-55
  • D. Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 84-98
  • The New American Bible

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