A Framework of Understanding

This coming Sunday is the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The gospel reading is from the discourse popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount. In yesterday’s post we extended the idea of covenant, the arrival of the Messiah in the person of Jesus, and the controversial opening passage of the longer reading of the gospel. In today’s post we consider how Jesus expects his disciples to act as representatives of the Kingdom.

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 to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (v.48). It is neither a complete ethical construct, or a summary capstone of general ethical principles, but a set of varied examples to offer principles for the disciples to work out the practical implementation. 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 way it stands in contrast to the simple meeting of the demands of a list of rules and asks more of the disciples.

The formula Jesus uses is consistent: “But I say to you.” This stands in contrast to “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors” (vv. 21, 33) – including the more truncated versions  “You have heard that it was said” (vv. 27, 38, 43) and even “It was also said” (v. 31). However stated, the two aspects of the wording of this formula are important. First, “it was said” points to a divine declaration. Secondly, this declaration was made to the ancestors suggests that in we should expect to find a quote of the Mosaic law with a current understanding of the law as might be heard in the synagogues.

This seems to imply that Jesus is setting his teaching in opposition to the 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 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 directoin 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 than 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.

Scholars seem to agree that perhaps Jesus is not addressing the Law per se but rather principles based in the Law in which there has developed a distortion to the divine intention. In other words, the “opponent” here are those who began with the OT law 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.

The way in which Jesus’ reading of the OT laws differs from 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 law is set aside, Jesus goes far beyond its outward observance 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 scope of the OT law for love of neighbor to ensure that hatred of non-neighbors is not operative.

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.”

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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