But I say to you: patterns

sermon-on-the-mountA Framework of Understanding. Matthew 5:21-47 is clearly designed to be read as a whole, consisting of six units of teaching each introduced by ‘You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …’, and rounded off with a summary of Jesus’ ethical demand in v. 48. It is neither a complete ethic, nor a theological statement of general ethical principles, but a series of varied examples of how Jesus’ principles, enunciated in vv. 17–20, work out in practice. And this practical outworking is set in explicit contrast with the ethical rules previously accepted: it is in each case more demanding, more far-reaching in its application, more at variance with the ethics of man without God; it concerns a man’s motives and attitudes more than his literal conformity to the rules. In this sense, it is quite radical.

The Introductory Phrasing. The formula with which Jesus’ demand is made is unvarying: “But I say to you.” The other side of the contrast varies from the full formula “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors” (vv. 21, 33) to the more abbre­viated forms “You have heard that it was said” (vv. 27, 38, 43) and even sim­ply “It was also said” (v. 31). But there is no discernible difference in intention: the full formula, once introduced in v. 21, does not need to be repeated in or­der to make the same point.

Two aspects of the wording of this formula are important. First, “it was said” represents a relatively rare passive form of the verb errethe, which is used in the NT specifically for quotations of Scripture or divine pronouncements. This means it is not likely that we can simply assume Jesus’ reference is the teaching of a group such as the Pharisees.  The rare errethe points to a divine declaration. Secondly, this declaration was made to the ancestors; the reference cannot then be to any contemporary or recent tradition. These features suggest strongly that in the first half of each contrast we should expect to find a quotation of the Mosaic law, as it would be heard read in the synagogues.

This construction seems to imply that Jesus is setting his teaching in opposition to the divine law – as noted before Jesus claims not to abolish the law (v.17), insists that even the least of the commandments remains important (v.18) and that the community is to “obey and teach these commandments” (v.19).  The intent of the construction may become clearer when we consider the peculiar nature of the “quotations” of the Law.

The Old Testament passages cited. The first two are straightforward quotations of two of the commandments – although the first (You shall not kill) is augmented by an additional principle (whoever kills will be liable to judgment, v.21) taken from the Pentateuch.  The third (Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce, v.31) is significantly different from the text of Deut 24:1 and seems to take a different trajectory than the OT text. The fourth quote (Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow, v.33) is not a quote but rather a summary of various OT guidelines on oaths and vows. The fifth (An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, v.38) is quoted accurately, however what develops from it seems to have a different intent and context that the original use. The sixth (You shall love your neighbor [Lv 19:18] and hate your enemy [addition], v.43) adds something new. There is no OT command to hate one’s neighbor, even if the “neighbor” of the love commandment was understood as one’s fellow countryman.

We will return to each of these passages, but one can intuit a general impression that perhaps Jesus is not addressing the Law per se. The use of errethe is appropriate as Jesus is citing a series of “legal” principles based in the Law.  But in several cases there is an addition that distorts their intention. In other words, the “opponent” here are those who began with the OT law (hence errethe) but then began to add and interpret it in a way that by Jesus’ time the OT law was understood and applied in a manner that misled the people from the Divine intent.

Jesus’ reading of the OT Law. The way in which Jesus’ reading of the OT laws differs from an and goes beyond current understanding varies from one example to another. In the first two examples (murder and adultery), while there is no suggestion that the literal ethical ruling is set aside, Jesus goes far beyond its outward observance (which can be seen and judged) to the thoughts and attitude which underlie the action, whether they are carried into effect or not. In the third and fourth examples (divorce and swearing) Jesus declares that the actions which the OT law presupposes and for which it provides regulation should never have occurred in the first place; where the law recognized and attempted to mitigate human failure to maintain the standard of life God requires (marital fidelity and truthfulness), Jesus goes to the root of the issue and challenges the initial actions themselves. In the fifth example (retributive punishment) an OT judicial ruling is stated to be inapplicable to personal ethics, to which it was presumably being applied by Jesus’ contemporaries as a justification for retaliatory action; in its place Jesus declares a principle of nonresistance which leaves no room for the calculation of proportionate retribution. In the sixth example Jesus extends the principle of love far beyond the explicit purview of the OT law and in direct contradiction of what was presumably a contemporary “corollary” from the love of neighbors, the hatred of non-neighbors.

Common pattern. R.T. France (2007, p.197) writes: “If there is a common pattern to these varied examples of ‘going beyond’ both the OT law and the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, it might be characterized in a number of ways. (1) It promotes an ‘inward’ concern with motive and attitude above the ‘outward’ focus on the visible and quantifiable observance of regulations. (2) It goes behind specific rules to look for the more far-reaching principles which should govern the conduct of the people of God. (3) It is concerned not so much with the negative goal of the avoidance of specific sin but with the far more demanding positive goal of discovering and following what is really the will of God for his people. (4) It substitutes for what is in principle a 100 percent achievable righteousness (the avoidance of breaking a definable set of regulations) [for] a totally open-ended ideal (being ‘perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ – v.48) which will always remain beyond the grasp of the most committed disciple. Such a radically searching reading of the will of God in the light of the OT law establishes a righteousness of the kingdom of heaven which is in a different league altogether from the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees —and of any other religious traditions which understand the will of God in terms of the punctilious observance of rules.”


  • 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

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