The Christian life is full of contrasts. Across the broader church, those contrasts can seem like outright contradictions. It’s confusing for both young and mature believers within the fold, I can only imagine the confusion for outsiders looking in. For those in traditions similar to mine, you’ve likely heard an appeal to live the Christian life in the following manner: take a string, 3′ long, draw a circle, and endeavor to live within it. The metaphor is pretty clear, don’t see how close to ‘sin’ you can get without ‘falling’, but live close to the center, close to Christ. I like the point, I don’t like how many apply it (usually accompanied by finger-pointing and looking down the nose & the inability to engage the world lovingly with the Good News). The view often embraces what I believe is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of holiness (another subject for another day). On the other hand, we sometimes get statements like the following: wine is proof that God loves us. The person I heard this from is very serious Christian – devoted to personal holiness, and a Biblically conservative scholar who would disapprove of drunkenness. The good professor is not some 22 yr old, recently converted ‘bar hop,’ out to prove just how messed up the rest of the church is (although I’d like to see a few more like this in my church, ideally with at least the willingness to engage in open conversation, not just monologue). In the end, however, both statements are actually a product of some serious theological refection (although the second is a lot more fun to throw out there).
Matt 5:17-20 begins a familiar section that looks like a ‘second law’ (intentionally drawing parallels to the Law of Moses). How we understand this passage is likely to determine how we understand the rest of the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ It determines whether we understand the rest of Jesus’ statements in this section as a declaration of freedom and life or a tighter set of restrictions to follow. For the sake of background, the remainder of chs 5-7 contains touchstones to the wider range of issues covered by the Law and later expounded by the Prophets and Writings. They cover a cross-section of life concerns within this New Kingdom, especially as they might relate to the old ‘provisional kingdom’ (life as national Israel under Torah). We find relational ‘hot button’ issues (anger, adultery, divorce, etc – the rest of ch 5), expressions of personal piety (generosity, prayer, etc – ch 6) with a few cautions and a mini ‘blessings and curses’ section (wise & foolish builders) in ch 7 (an intentional reference to Deuteronomy and the establishment of ‘national Israel’). These are statements intended to help a first century near-eastern Jewish audience, with all its distinct underlying assumptions, to understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. How well they help us gain insight into the Kingdom is in no small part related to how well we’re able to get inside their mindset (a task the church has struggled with from very early on and one I don’t claim to have nailed down, but we try nonetheless).
Before we try to unpack Matt 5:17-20, a few suggestions that may help you read what follows better (as 21st Century Americans) with or without extensive knowledge of 1st century CE Palestinian-Jewish culture.
- Read (or listen to) them together, as if they were part of a single unit (which they are) rather than as individual, unconnected bits (as our Bible headings, most sermons I’ve heard, and Lectionaries arrange them). Take time to consider how they relate to one another. How are they similar? How do they contrast? What are some common threads or progressions in the material? How do they sound similar (or different) from other things that come across in Scripture (think OT)?
- While reading consider stylistic concerns. Consider that ‘Law and Prophets’ is shorthand for the whole of the Scriptures (what we generally call the OT) Meaning ….
- While these statements are not strictly ‘Law’ as Moses presents, they are related in that they cover similar concerns and are representative in nature and not exhaustive.
- Consider that Jesus’ delivery at some points looks like the Prophets in that his brief statements often focus on a shortfall in the application of Torah.
- Furthermore, the Prophets have a distinct take on the ultimate ‘objective’ of the Law – keep this in mind (we’ll get to this momentarily).
- Finally, many of these statements look and sound like something out of the ‘Wisdom’ tradition (things like Proverbs). As such they are a stylized form of communication that presents truth and guidance for life, but NOT in a ‘absolute without exception’ kind of way (this does not let us explain away what Jesus is saying, but merely acknowledges that how something is stated is directly related to how we are to understand it).
Now concerning the verses at hand… First, even though most (if not all) of Paul’s writings preceded the writing of any of the Gospels (possible exception of Mark with respect to Paul’s final letters) I think we rightly read Paul (or James or John) in light of what Jesus says (to include how the Gospel writers present him). While the epistles were written first, the stories about Jesus, and the way in which the disciples portrayed him certainly were around beforehand (they just weren’t compiled into the kinds of packages we now have). And, of course, without this Jesus, Paul never writes anything. That said, whatever Paul or John, or James (or whomever) writes is not going to contradict what Jesus is saying, and may very well give us insight as to what Jesus is getting at. All that to say, what Paul says in Romans or Galatians or Philippians, or what Luke writes in Acts is going to shed light on how we understand what Jesus is getting at here – there won’t be a contradiction (which might appear to be the case at first glance – IF we read words in a wooden manner without context). It’s because of my fundamental belief in the consistency of Scripture that I reject the idea that Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven employs a more rigorous form of do’s and don’ts as such (not only don’t murder, don’t even call someone a fool, etc). Given this kind of reading, which some are prone to take, Paul’s statements in Philippians (with respect to the Law, blameless …. I count it all loss …) are meaningless (let alone the arguments built up in Romans or the church’s instructions to the Gentiles with respect to Torah after the ‘Jerusalem council’). So, what are we to do?
One possible way to look at some of these passages is to consider them in light of the final clause of Jesus’ statement (unless your righteousness exceeds…) and read what follows in that light. Here, Jesus would not be prescribing what we ought to do, but rather, would be looking at things with a degree of sarcasm. OK folks, you want to do this like the Pharisees – you need what they’ve got and then some… (at the very least, you need to consider commands for love and mercy with equal vigor as the commands to ‘do and don’t.’). I think this is an uncomfortable solution for most, although there may be a bit of that going on. But it would highlight the fact that that kind of solution just isn’t workable (which is something that Jesus and the epistle writers get at quite a bit).
Another possible solution might be to consider that murder (or adultery, etc.) is simply the long-term fruit of anger (or lust). Dealing with the problem at the fruit stage is much harder than dealing with the issue early on, at its root (note, I AM NOT saying that anger and murder are the same, nor do I believe that Jesus is, they’re simply part of the same stream/tree). I think this approach has a lot of pastoral value, has good practical application and rightly places the focus on the need for a transformed heart. However, I don’t think it a wholly adequate explanation.
Although my thinking on this matter is still a work in progress, it goes something like this…
- Law and the Prophets – note Jesus is referring to the whole of Scripture, both the Law and how it has been expounded and applied through both the Prophets and Writings (the latter implied). This will become important.
- Abolish/fulfill/accomplished – abolish seems clear enough, fulfill and accomplished sound like they’re somehow related, but how? Fulfill deals with a purpose being completed, having arrived at a destination. What is the purpose of the Law? Ultimately it is to serve as a guide, a tutor until the arrival of the Kingdom – the rule and reign of God. And, if I read the Prophets rightly, the clearest indication that the Kingdom has arrived is the outpouring of God’s Spirit. Our hearts of stone being transformed into hearts of flesh on which the law will be inscribed. A reality not fully realized for everyone when Jesus spoke the words, but certainly was part of his own experience. And, in just a few short years … Furthermore, accomplished likely refers to the establishment of God’s Kingdom (here now), not necessarily requiring its ultimate fullness (still to come).
- As the arrival of the Spirit for all is still something they are awaiting (while Jesus himself is speaking), the Law is still in force (with respect to his immediate audience). But not simply as displayed through outward signs of personal piety, but also through engagement with the weightier issues of compassion and mercy which ARE ALSO addressed – by Law, Prophet and Writing AND largely ignored by the scribes and Pharisees (and are the clearest sign that one’s innermost being has been touched by God) – this also gets at the heart of some of Jesus’ later comments like the rich man and the eye of the needle.
- The ‘laws’ that follow are described in a manner consistent with what we might expect from a heart that’s been made flesh and upon which the law has been inscribed – one that has been transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
- The picture of holiness that follows is not one that can be defined merely by outward display. Holiness is a matter of what’s inside. As Jesus will address later in the Gospel, holiness is really an inside job – not a matter of what goes in, but what comes out. Holiness is a matter of the Spirit and Life of God indwelling an individual – period.
I know that there are likely some holes here, but in the end it seems that Jesus is saying that the ‘new laws’ of the Kingdom of Heaven are not a matter of policing the outer edges of our lives and communities – dealing with behaviors just before they hit their worst. Rather, it’s a matter of making sure that the heart of our lives and communities are well centered and re-formed by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit – the ultimate sign that the Kingdom of Heaven has been established among us, now.
– Pastor Jim Kushner