“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
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 for your whole body to be thrown into hell.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 for your whole body to go into hell.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:17-37 – NRSV)
The whole of the above text or just the parts in blue may be proclaimed this Sunday
For Matthew, “the law or the prophets” is the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. Later, the Jews will come to refer to their Scriptures under three headings: The Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.
It is clearly of the utmost importance for the disciples of Jesus to see how and where he fits in the overall scheme of Jewish history and tradition.
There are beliefs about history implied here. In the first place, for the Jews, history is moving towards a final consummation or fulfilment. It was, on the other hand, typical among the peoples of the ancient world to think of history cyclically, as an ongoing series of returning seasons and events.
Matthew sees the fulfilment of history in the reign of God ushered in by Jesus – “the kingdom of heaven”.
unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven
There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus was in conflict with the Roman occupiers. However, throughout all the Gospels, there are frequent references to the conflict Jesus has with the religious authorities. By way of contrast, Jesus seems to have quite an affection for the those on the margins, “the tax collectors and sinners”.
What are we to make of this? I think the answer to that question holds a key to most of the teachings of Jesus that we find in the Gospel. In particular, it holds a key to the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s Gospel is taken.
I suggest the answer lies in the emphasis given by the religious authorities. It was an emphasis that preceded the more obvious emphasis on law. The emphasis was on human beings and what they must do rather than on God and what God had done and was seeking to do. It is exactly the same misplaced emphasis that has plagued Catholicism for centuries and, if the truth be told, is still too prevalent. Concretely this misplaced emphasis highlights right behaviour over right relationships, will and discipline over gift and grace.
The contemporary scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan writes:
“It is hardly news that there was a very profound clash between Jesus and the Pharisees and that Paul’s conversion instigated a dialectic no less violent. But later Christian animosity has badly distorted the true nature of this confrontation. Pharisees are described as hypocrites or as uncaring legalists and inhuman externalisers who imposed on others burdens they themselves would not bear. Most of which is inaccurate, unhistorical, and purely polemical. If Pharisees were such, how is one to explain their tremendous power over people for whom they had only the authority of competence? In fact, the Pharisees were superb moral guides. But there precisely lay the problem which Jesus and Paul saw so clearly.
“Apart from the damage such caricatures have done to Judaism and the relationship of Christianity to it, there is another very serious result within Christianity itself. When Christianity is no longer aware of what Jesus and Paul were fighting against in Pharisaic Judaism, it can hardly be conscious of a similar presence within itself. The debate did not concern good law as over against bad law or even internal and sincere law as over against external and hypocritical law. The challenge of Jesus and Paul was this: obedience does not lead to God, but God leads one to obedience. The question is not God or law, covenant or commandment, faith or works, but, granting both, in which direction does the arrow fly from one to the other? It must be emphasized that this is not a debate between Judaism and Christianity but a conflict within them both, and a conflict ever ancient and ever new. So, according to Jesus and Paul, it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible, not a good life that made the reward of God’s presence inevitable. …. as Ernst Käsemann has said so succinctly: “The righteousness of God does not presuppose our obedience; it creates it.” The problem was not so much that one might not be able to obey the law’s excellence but that one might actually do so to perfection and thereby be unable to tell one’s own perfection from God. What exactly were Jesus and Paul fighting? In a final quotation from Käsemann: “the community of ‘good’ people which turns God’s commandments into the instruments of self-sanctification.” The enemy was neither stupidity nor hypocrisy but sincerity all too sincere and perfection all too perfect.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 80-81.)