• The BaptistWay lesson for Jan. 3 focuses on Matthew 5:17-48.
This passage continues the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus fully embodies his role as the new Moses. Yet, this new Moses does not eliminate the work of his predecessor: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). He continues by stating our final judgment will be tied to our faithfulness to the law (vv. 18-19). While this may confuse us initially, it is a crucial point we will return to later.
After the sermon is over, Matthew remarks, “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (7:28-29). In other words, throughout the sermon, Jesus offers not a commentary on the law, but statements that have legal force of their own. Thus, Jesus’ teaching is not simply a sign pointing back to the law. Instead, he speaks of the law directly, as though his relationship with it is different than the relationship held by the other first-century rabbis.
A monumental challenge
Often, contemporary readers will see Matthew 5:20 as a bit of sarcasm on Jesus’ part. That is, when he says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” we imagine Jesus is critiquing the righteousness of these people. Such is the common reading of the scribes and Pharisees by contemporary Christians. However, in Matthew’s Gospel, with its emphasis on following the law, it is likely the case that Jesus’ audience—the disciples and the crowds—saw the Pharisees and teachers of the law as exemplary in their faithfulness, and they would have received Jesus’ statement as a monumental—and perhaps impossible—challenge.
This leads us to consider the rest of the Sermon. Jesus begins to offer teaching in segments that open by saying, “You have heard that it was said …, but I tell you … .” In each case, an intensification occurs that moves the measure of faithfulness from externally accomplishing the law to internally orienting one’s life according to the law. For instance, the command not to murder shifts to avoiding anger altogether (vv. 21-26). The command not to commit adultery becomes a command not to have any lustful thought (vv. 27-30). The doctrine of retributive justice—“an eye for an eye”—which initially was designed to limit violent escalation of conflict, is now insufficient. Now, one must “turn the other cheek” (vv. 38-42). Finally, Jesus threatens the existence of war and hostility by commanding not only love of friends, but also love of enemies as (vv. 43-48).
Several 20th-century scholars have read these words of the Sermon as evidence of the need for grace. In other words, Jesus is setting the bar of fidelity so high no one can reach it. While it certainly is true we continually need divine grace infused into our lives, the Sermon on the Mount does not seem to let us off the hook so easily. That is, Matthew’s Gospel does not say anything about the sermon functioning as a hyperbole or only being applicable in personal situations. As one New Testament scholar writes, “The assumption is that these commands not only can be done, they must be done.”
Two aspects of Jesus’ teaching deserve more discussion. First, in telling his audience—and all readers—adultery begins with lustful thoughts, he opens the possibility adultery can apply to both parties. In the first century, only women were held to the bond of marriage fidelity, and only women could be guilty of adultery. Here, Jesus states men can be guilty of adultery as well. Moreover, he touches on a temptation present today—not only lustful thinking but absolving the man of responsibility for these thoughts. That is, the man cannot blame the woman for activating his lust by calling for the woman to dress more modestly. He is morally culpable for his own actions and thoughts, and he needs to view women not as potential objects of lust and desire. Instead, women should be welcomed as fellow disciples within God’s kingdom.
Striking at the heart of our world
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Second, when Jesus requires love of enemies, he is striking at the heart of our world. In our geopolitical worldviews and our personal relationships, we make divisions and draw boundaries. Many of these boundaries create “others,” those from whom we are different and towards whom we are sometimes unloving. These “others” can occasion fear and anxiety, and we even call them enemies from time to time. In effect, then, when Jesus says, “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he is demanding more than our usual behavior (v. 44). He wants us to cross boundaries and welcome strangers, ultimately turning them into friends.
Overall, the result of Jesus’ teaching in this section of the Sermon on the Mount is to place himself at the center of the law, its interpretation, its practice and its fulfillment. In a previous generation of Christians, it was fashionable to ask, “What would Jesus do?” In many ways, we find an answer to that question here—a picture of what Jesus would do and has asked us to do. We may understandably protest this seems very difficult, and we would not be wrong. In fact, Jesus knows this. He wants our righteousness to exceed the scribes and Pharisees, encouraging us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).