The Good Law
How has the Jewish scribe who penned Matthew’s Gospel re-shaped Mark’s portrait of Jesus? One of the ways is by exploring the relationship between the Messiah’s work and the Jewish law, the Torah of Moses. For many of us today this makes Matthew a difficult book to read well. In the religious sphere we usually think that “laws” are a bad idea. Whether it is through a church tradition or through the pervasive influence of European culture, many of us have grown up to assume that “legalism” is a bad thing, that we should get rid of “rules” and instead work with “guidelines” or “principles.” In fact, many Christians define their faith in terms of an overall opposition between law and grace. Yet in Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus declare up front “I have not come to do away with the law!” (5:17).
To understand Matthew’s perspective on Jesus and the law it might be helpful to start by thinking about our own attitudes toward laws in other spheres of life. How often do we say “there should be a law against that!” A father who has worked on the factory line for thirty years sees everything he has scraped together disappear when his financial advisor skips town. A girl walking home from the school dance is raped. We know that these things happen. Just as human beings are capable of tremendous compassion, we are also capable of unspeakable brutality and viciousness. We are, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, the “angel beast.” So we rest more peacefully knowing that a framework of laws envelopes us in its protection. Hence our love affair with crime dramas and murder mysteries. Our anxieties about life in a violent world are soothed when we watch the law and its agents protect us over and over again.
The law of Moses offered just this sort of protection to Israel. The law as it is encapsulated in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy was likely never meant to be a complete civil code. It lays out, however, the outlines for such a code that will protect the people from one another. If someone kills a traveler and seizes her small pouch of coins, the murderer and thief will themselves be killed. If a neighbour creeps out on a starry night and shifts the boundary stone, taking a few feet of the field that must feed your family, that violation will be stopped and the wrong will be put right. The law offered a measure of safety and security from the beast that the Israelites knew very well could lurk in the breast of their neighbours. We might be shocked at times by the severity of the penalties or by the tolerance of unjust institutions like slavery. For those who settled the high valleys and ridges of the promised land, though, this legislation promised a life in which the family farm could be worked in safety, free from the fear that everything would be taken in one brutal moment by someone who happened to be stronger or smarter.
What is more, Israel’s law was not just a practical measure. The narratives in which Torah is set make it clear that this law was a key part of God’s plan to set his creation right again. Israel’s life in the promised land was supposed to be a return to Eden, a real approximation of the life human beings were meant to live. For some Jews in Jesus’ day this was meant that the law, including all its ritual and festival requirements, was actually the pattern of behaviour that God had expected of humanity from the beginning. Even the angels are said, in some Jewish texts, to keep the Sabbath and the festivals (Jubilees ???). Other Jews, often under the influence of Hellenism, saw the law as a course in moral education. The regulations governing food, purity, etc. were not themselves part of God’s universal will, they suggested. But by following its detailed commands Israel was taught the way of life that God intended for all human beings, the way of life for which we were made. The food laws, for example, might symbolize the justice for which human beings were always to strive. Despite wide differences in Jewish understandings of the Torah’s more obscure elements, then, all agreed that the law was more than a practical convention for getting along. It was where God had uncovered for Israel the moral order built into his cosmos.
The law was not only rooted in creation, it was also foundational to Israel’s worship. It was this law which would allow Israel to live a lifestyle that would allow them to stand God’s presence in their midst. Just as Adam and Eve walked and talked with their Creator in the first garden, the Israelites would also be able to live together with God in the land. Hence it includes a range of topics that were rarely wedded in other legal codes. Not only did the people need guidance in how to treat one another, but they also needed to learn how to relate with the God who lived in their midst. So Torah included extensive instructions about proper sacrifice, the rituals in which they could meet God and express their gratitude for his goodness, receive his forgiveness for their sins, and share with their Creator a meal of intimate friendship. The purity regulations, restricting what Israel could eat, how they handled bodily fluids, etc. were understood as a gift that allowed Israel to come close to God’s immediate, unveiled presence in the Jerusalem temple. The sheer holiness and glory of God would not strike them dead. They could make the approach up the “holy mountain” of Zion and into the sacred courts of God’s own house because the owner of the house had taught them the way.
Finally, God’s Torah was given to the people in the context of a covenant. On mount Sinai Israel accepted a sacred relationship with YHWH as their king. He would provide them with life, peace, and abundance, with all that had been lost when humanity had been exiled from the garden (Gen 3). Although covenants are not very familiar institutions in modern Western society, there are enough remnants to help us grasp the idea. Marriage is the covenant that has survived most clearly. There is something like a contract here, since wife and husband each make commitments and it is only when they both honor those commitments that the relationship will work. At the same time, the marriage vows are not conditional in the way that a contract usually is. If the husband falls down in his role, this does not mean that the wife is simply released from the promises she made – though contemporary marriages often seem more and more tentative and conditional. In a marriage, then, there is an element of one-sided promise which stands in tension with the element of two-sided contract. Finally, a marriage is not merely a practical agreement between business associates. It involves for each spouse a global commitment to seek the other’s welfare, come what may. The promises made on the wedding day are not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, they are representative of the fact that the two are giving their whole selves to one another, even though they cannot know as they pronounce their vows exactly what that gift will cost. Much of this bears a close analogy to the covenant formed on Mount Sinai between God and Israel. There was an element of sheer promise here, in which God committed himself to the people’s welfare no matter how they might turn their back on him. The people, for their part, would sometimes be asked to follow their King in situations where he seemed to have abdicated his own responsibilities to care for them. They would be asked to carry on, committed to YHWH as their God. On the other hand, there was also something conditional about this relationship. God warned in Deuteronomy ??? that if their commitment failed the relationship would no longer be a life-giving one.
Within this covenant relationship between Israel and God, the Law of Moses was the core of the people’s responsibility. In committing themselves to God, they committed themselves to follow this law with their whole heart. Of course, the Old Testament recorded the memory of what had happened when Israel strayed away from her covenant commitment. The violence and pain of the exile in Babylon was understood to have been the covenant curse that fell upon the nation when she had lost any will to obey Torah and be faithful to the covenant relationship. So when small bands of Judeans began to make the trek from Babylon back to the holy city, they realized that their new life would have to be founded on a new, unshakable commitment to keep God’s Torah. The defining moment of the re-establishment was, in Jewish memory, the moment when Ezra stood before the rag-tag collection of returnees, in the midst of the city’s ruins, and read to them the scroll of the law. He read the entire thing, we are told, every word. And when he was finished the people wept with grief at the failures of the past and renewed the covenant vow to obey. It was as if the Judeans were standing again at the foot of Mount Sinai, saying to God “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exod 19:8). They knew now that their very existence as a nation depended on their faithfulness to their covenant Lord.
Of course, centuries of relative peace and prosperity can erode even this kind of devotion, and by 200 BC we hear from Jewish writers that their obedience to Torah had deteriorated once more. The elites in Jerusalem, mainly the aristocratic priestly families, were enticed by the new Hellenistic culture that had become a common currency among the city-states and provinces of the Mediterranean and the middle-east. Not only did they learn Greek, but in the third-century BC this tiny circle at the apex of Judean society seemed determined to break Israel’s cultural isolation and join the same cosmopolitan circle that ruled the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. By the early second-century BC a small party even made a bid to transform Jerusalem into a standard Greek polis, a city-state with its young men trained in a Greek gymnasium and the traditional God of Israel re-named Zeus Hypsistos. What followed simply reinforced the survivors’ conviction that their obedience to the covenant was a matter or life and death. The Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who had control of Judea, issued a decree in 168 BC banning the practice of the Jewish law. The people were forbidden from circumcizing their children or keeping Sabbath. Gentile soldiers desecrated the altar of the temple in Jerusalem by spilling a pig’s blood across its holy surface. Men and women were forced to burn copies of Torah and offer incense to the pagan gods. Those who refused were tortured without pity, impaled, even burned alive. The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees record the incredible story of the small band of Jewish fighters who, in four short years, drove back the military might of Syria and re-dedicated the temple. The lesson for later generations was clear. Israel had been brought into being by God’s mercy to be priests to the world. If they would not play that role, they would not survive. In an even more immediate sense than before, ordinary Jews knew that the Law was their life.
Far from being a burden, then, the Law of Moses was understood by Jews in Jesus’ day as a precious gift. It was an expression of God’s mercy, grace, and desire to be reunited in committed relationship with a healthy, thriving creation. It was the instrument through which Israel could begin to be re-shaped into something like a restored humanity, so that the people could invite the whole cosmos to join in a life of communion with their Creator. It was also the path for which so many Jews had spilled their blood, the way of living which they must embrace if they were to expect God’s blessing to return.
A New Moses
Against the backdrop of this commitment to Torah, Matthew introduces Jesus as a new Moses. Far from declaring the end of the law, Jesus is understood in Matthew to play a role very much like the law’s first mediator. This theme emerges in striking ways right at the beginning of his narrative. Following Jesus’ genealogy we begin immediately to see conspicuous parallels between Jesus’ early life and the early years of Moses. Like Moses, Jesus is pursued by a hostile king, and that king slaughters children to avoid a threat to his power (Matt 1:16-18). Moses was forced to flee for his life to Midian and then returned to Egypt to liberate his people. In an ironic play on this theme, we see Jesus flee for his life to Egypt and then return to Galilee (1:13-15, 19-23). Matthew underlines the connection with Moses’ life here by quoting Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The “son” of whom the prophet was speaking was, of course the nation of Israel, called by God out of her Egyptian slavery through the acts of Moses. Although Jesus is still a child when he returns to the Promised Land, the narrative skips over the intervening years and moves directly to the beginning of his liberating work in the next verse (3:1). Like Moses, Jesus seems to return from his exile and immediately begin the work of setting God’s people free.
These parallels between Jesus and Moses in chapter 2 build, of course, on the Exodus imagery which was already present in Mark’s account. The quotation from Isaiah 40 depicts Jesus’ work as a new Exodus (3:3), beginning at the Jordan river where the people originally entered the promised land in a re-enactment of the Red Sea parting (see Josh 3). Here Jesus passes through water in his baptism (3:13-17) and is identified (like Israel) as God’s son (3:17). Just as Israel followed Moses into the Sinai peninsula, Jesus is then led into the desert wilderness (4:1). Just as the people were tested in that wilderness (e.g., Exod 15:22-27; 16:1-36), so Jesus faces testing at the hands of the devil (4:1-11). Finally he begins to lead this new Exodus, just as Moses lead the first one, proclaiming the imminent dawning of God’s reign (4:17).
At this point, again, Matthew supplies more imagery of his own that suggests a connection between Jesus and Moses. When Moses lead the people out into the wilderness, their first destination was Mount Sinai. Here, at the summit of the mountain, Moses received Torah on behalf of the people (Exod 18ff.). It is striking, then, that Jesus’ first act after calling the disciples to follow him is to go up a mountain and offer teaching which interprets that same Torah. We will look, in a moment, at the way in which Jesus approaches the Mosaic law. What is crucial here is simply to recognize how Matthew depicts Jesus as repeating the Sinai event at the outset of his career. The continuity between Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount is clear. Jesus does not bring a new law to replace the old one. Quite the opposite; he begins the sermon body by declaring: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). As the New Moses, then, Jesus is not bringing a completely new law. He is helping Israel to hear again the first one, the same Torah handed to the first Moses.
At the same time, there is a sense in which Jesus’ place in this mountaintop scene surpasses Moses’ role at Sinai. For here Jesus is not the receiver, bowing a trembling knee as the Lord speaks out of the flashing storm. Instead, Jesus is the one who sits down on the mountain’s summit, assuming the posture of a teacher. It is Jesus who is giving the law, occupying the place of Yahweh himself in the original story. Here we meet the same emphasis that we found implicit in Mark’s account. Jesus is, somehow, the presence of the Creator God. He takes up the role of Moses as the mediator between a holy God and the people God has called. Unlike Moses, though, this mediator does not stand entirely on the side of the people, standing between them and their Maker. Though he is a human being and an Israelite, Jesus also represents God’s voice to the nation and the world. He is a new Moses, but he is also something more than Moses.
A Renewed Torah
As we have already seen, one of the main ways in which Jesus takes up the role of Moses is in giving God’s Torah to the people once again. In Matthew’s understanding Jesus does not come to free humanity from the law. On the contrary, he comes to renew the life of the law in Israel and beyond. One of the constant dangers in reading Matthew is that we will force him to sound like Paul. We need, instead, to begin by letting Matthew be Matthew and only then ask how his vision of the Gospel can be reconciled with the Apostle to the Gentiles. And what we hear in Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus has come to usher in a new age marked by a new kind of commitment to God’s Torah.
Hence, while Mark’s image of Jesus was primarily one of a powerful exorcist and a willing sacrifice, Jesus appears in Matthew largely as a teacher. Mark often tells us that Jesus taught, but we very rarely hear what he taught. Matthew’s Gospel is roughly twice the length of Mark, and yet he adds very few new stories. Where he re-tells a pericope from Mark he will often shorten it, stripping out what he judges to be unnecessary details. Almost all of the added material consists of Jesus’ sayings and parables, conversations and warning speeches.
This emphasis on Jesus as a teacher of Torah is also reflected in the structure of the Gospel. Matthew keeps Mark’s broad geographical structure, along with Mark’s basic plot line. Jesus moves from a mission of wonder-working and teaching in Galilee, through his journey down to Jerusalem, and finally into his last week in the holy city. Since Matthew is so much longer than Mark, his passion narrative no longer stands out as the overwhelming focus of the account. Instead, Matthew has deliberately structured the book around five long speeches, each of which ends with some version of the formula: “After he had said these things, Jesus . . .” The decision to include five of these speeches is hardly accidental, particularly when we keep in mind Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ re-enactment of Moses’ role. As every Jewish boy or girl knew, the Torah consisted of the “Five Books of Moses.” Hence it would seem that in laying out his Gospel around these five major speeches, Matthew wants to characterize Jesus’ teaching as a sort of renewed Torah. In case there might be any confusion about this connection between Jesus’ speeches and the law of Moses, Matthew opens the first and greatest speech with a declaration about the law’s permanence and a series of teachings about how popular aspects of Torah should (and should not) be practiced (5:17ff.).
So what was Jesus’ approach to Torah? How did he understand the Old Testament law, and what continuing validity did he suggest it should have in the lives of his followers? We should pause here for a moment to consider that declaration about Torah with which Jesus opens his sermon on the mount:
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 (5:17-19).
This is one of the passages that Protestants often read past in hurried silence. We simply do not know what to do with it. If we are a little more ambitious, some of us might look for a way around the straightforward meaning of Jesus’ words. “Surely he can’t mean that we should keep every single commandment of Torah,” we think. So we look for some way to limit the law’s application. The most common approach has seized on Jesus’ words “until all is accomplished.” Maybe this is a reference to Jesus’ cross and resurrection, which was “accomplished” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. In that case, the law would have been in force only until that first Easter day. Once the resurrection had been “accomplished,” the law’s time was at an end. There’s a problem with this suggestion, though, appealing as it might be. In the same sentence Jesus also says that the law will not be changed “until heaven and earth pass away.” That certainly did not happen when Jesus was raised, and it suggests that he saw Torah governing human life right until the eschaton, the final day when God’s rule would be fully established in his creation. So when Jesus says, in Matthew, that the law will not pass away “until all is accomplished” he seems to mean that Torah will remain binding until the future day when he returns in power. Although the definitive moment in God’s work of restoration took place in the cross and the empty tomb, “all” his purposes will not be “accomplished” until the Kingdom is a reality throughout the cosmos. In fact, Jesus may not mean that the law will pass away even on that final day. He could just as easily be emphasizing that the whole present age is governed by Torah, without meaning to imply what things will be like in the next era. In that case, the connection between Torah and “heaven and earth” here suggest that Jesus, like most Jews, sees in the law an eternal pattern for human life, built into the very fabric of creation.
So we seem to be stuck with a Jesus who demands that his followers keep every last command of Torah. In fact, that idea fits well with what Jesus says about the law elsewhere in Matthew. In his long accusation against the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus tells his disciples “do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3). In the “woes” that follow we often assume that Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees’ concern with the law’s fine details, things like tithing “mint and dill and cumin” (23:23). It is true that Jesus accuses them of having neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23). But Jesus goes on to explain “It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (23:23). His criticism of the Pharisees is not that they tithe their spices. It is that they do not practice justice and mercy and faith. He does not call his followers here to abandon their tithing. Rather, he calls them to keep on tithing and to act out of faith. Where Jesus is critical of Pharisaic law-keeping in Matthew it is never because they focus on details, on the small things. It is because they focus on the small things and ignore the big ones.
In fact, when Jesus gets into arguments with Pharisees or Scribes about points of legal practice in Matthew, he never says that a law may be set aside. He certainly never attacks or repeals the written command itself. Indeed, when Matthew came to the dispute about hand-washing in Mark 7 he was careful to leave out Mark’s aside about Jesus “declaring all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). As far as Matthew is concerned the story does not show Jesus revising the kosher rules. Jesus’ point was, rather, that hand-washing before meals did not have any scriptural basis. It was not really part of Torah at all, and so it should not be treated as if it were God’s command. Jesus was opposing the Pharisaic tendency to treat certain traditional customs as equivalent to Scriptural law, a tendency which would later be formalized in the Rabbinic notion of an “oral Torah” given to Israel alongside the written text. So, far from undermining Torah, Jesus ends up emphasizing the unique authority of the written law in Matthew’s version of the debate. Similarly, when Jesus is pressed to justify his healing on the Sabbath, he does not suggest that the Pharisees should be less concerned about Sabbath-keeping. He does not turn Sabbath into a mere “principle” or a “good idea” rather than a command from God. Instead, he does what a good Jewish interpreter would do: he looked for precedents in Scripture that would provide analogies for his action. Jesus suggests that David and his band provide evidence that some flexibility with Sabbath observance is allowed when someone’s life is at stake (Matthew 12:3-8). He then employs a standard scribal argument “from the lesser to the greater case” (Qal wa-homer):
(11) He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? (12) How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12).
There is no indication here that Sabbath-keeping should be taken less seriously. Rather, Jesus engages in a scribal debate over what constitutes a proper interpretation of the Sabbath regulations in Torah. Certainly Jesus claims to be “Lord of the Sabbath” (12:8), but as its Lord he shows no signs in Matthew of abolishing the practice.
A Greater Righteousness
What is it, then, that the Pharisees are missing when Jesus pronounces his “woes” on them? At the opening of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares:
“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” (Matthew 5:20).
What is the “greater righteousness” for which this new Moses looks in his disciples? This is, it seems, what the Matthean scribe intends to teach us when he assembles Jesus’ teaching into this first and longest of Jesus’ speeches. So what pattern of life does that sermon lay out for the reader?
A Just Community
To begin with, this righteousness is not defined in terms of the practices that were usually the focus of early Jewish teaching: Sabbath-keeping, ritual purity, celebrating the festivals according to the right calendar, avoiding any forbidden foods. Again, Matthew’s Gospel gives no suggestion that Jesus rejected these practices. They are all mandated by Exodus and Leviticus. Still, they are not, for Jesus, the primary focus. Instead, Jesus’ sermon calls the audience to focus on the aspects of he Law that regulate human relationships–our relationships with one another and our relationship with God. In the “antitheses” of 5:21-41 Jesus himself assumes the role of a scribal teacher, correcting misinterpretations of Torah and offering the correct reading. His focus, though, falls on marriage and divorce, murder, adultery, the oaths which bind us to God. In each case, Jesus seems to be pointing us away from a mere superficial adherence to the written regulations. He points beyond the technical requirements to the inner dispositions, the attitudes, that these laws were meant to encourage. It is not enough merely to avoid killing people. The “greater righteousness” of Heaven’s Kingdom demands that we not even call another human being a fool. It is not enough to stay out of other people’s beds. A husband must keep his sexual desires focused on his wife.
This is not merely a matter of elevating the “moral” laws above the “ritual” laws. This distinction, which became popular in later Christian thinking, was unknown among first-century Jews. To the men and women that pressed around him on high slope in Galilee, keeping Sabbath would have seemed just as “moral” an issue as their refusal to worship idols. Their faithful tithing, sending a tenth of their produce to Jerusalem to support the temple, would have seemed just as “moral” as their honesty when they gave witness in court. Indeed, in Malachi the prophet had blamed the people’s continued struggle on their failure to give a proper tithe! So it was no “simple” matter of prioritizing the commands that were obviously “moral.”
Instead, Jesus places at the centre those commands that encourage just, compassionate, and harmonious relationships within the community of Israel. It is important to recognize here that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is not directed toward private individuals. He is not giving instructions for individual morality. He is, on the contrary, telling God’s people what their life together ought to look like if they want to live up to God’s design. Israel was meant to be a “nation of priests,” who would model for the rest of the world the kind of community God always intended for human beings. Although Jews after the exile had worked long and hard to live up to this calling, Jesus was pointing out that in practice they had often missed the real spirit of that ideal society. They were like a child who has learned to play notes on the piano in the correct key and at the correct times, but has not yet caught the “feel” of the music. The harder the child works to get things right, the further he will often get from really playing the song. What Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount is – if we extend the metaphor – to play a few measures of the song and ask “Do you have a feel for the music now?” He holds up a smattering of common situations and shows them how people out to respond if they catch the basic “rhythm” of Torah. This is a rhythm whose driving beat is compassionate help for one another, whose tempo is set by each person’s concern for the other’s welfare, which is not over-cluttered by frantic efforts to win God’s favor but rather leaves enough space for the counterpoint of divine faithfulness. This is, in essence, the same message that had been shouted out by the prophets centuries before: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, says the LORD!” Amos did not mean that sacrifices should no longer be offered, any more than Jesus did. What he meant is that when Israel stopped being a community of of kindness, of generosity, of hospitality, of faithful keeping of promises, of just distribution of wealth and honour, then the rituals of the temple become pointless. The people, who were meant to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, have been reduced to one more degenerate pseudo-community of violence.
Raising the Stakes
So what distinguishes this true righteousness from the lifestyle of the Pharisees is not, for Jesus, a greater attention to detail. It is not even just a re-ordering of priorities, so that commands governing human relationships trump the laws connected with temple ritual. The lifestyle Jesus sets out is “greater” because it recognizes that Torah is merely the starting point. Israel was never meant to simply keep the letter of the commands and stop there. The law was meant to train them, to give them a “feel” for the lifestyle God intended for humanity. But Israel was meant to then go further and find even more ways of being a just, a merciful community. The Pharisees are Jesus’ point of comparison here, not because they were particularly wicked, but because they were in many senses the best of Israel. They were not content to merely keep the letter of the law, but reflected on its underlying principles and were always asking how those principles could be lived out more fully. The problem was, Jesus implies, simply that they had not grasped those principles properly. They had not caught a true vision of God’s righteous community. Hence their explorations beyond the law were often expeditions in the wrong direction.
So what direction does Jesus want his followers to go as they push past the letter of Torah. One of his emphases is a push inward. Jesus seems to say that the commands of Torah are just points along trajectories in human behaviour, trajectories that move from subtle motivations out to gross violence and idolatry. Like a bowstring released to drive an arrow forward, certain thoughts and attitudes impel us toward certain acts. Allowing one’s gaze to linger on the body of another man’s wife feeds the desire for more, and desire unchecked will-all-too often push one into action. Small seemingly insignificant acts, like venting our frustration at a co-worker with a well-chosen expletive, are pushed by the same impulse to violence that under enough pressure becomes murderous rage. All too often, Jesus seems to say, Israelites would move as far as possible along these corrupt trajectories without actually committing the act named as transgression in Torah. By contrast, this “greater righteousness” is one that works to avoid the whole trajectory of fallen thought and action. To be more righteous than the Pharisees means, here, to abandon those whole tendencies of thought and action that lead to idolatry or violence. His followers will grasp that these rules for behaviour were meant to point beyond themselves, to a whole different pattern of life, a whole different way of thinking and feeling. This is why Jesus does not offer a new Torah in Matthew’s Gospel. He does not come with a more exhaustive or corrected list of commands. Instead, he shows his hearers a vision of the righteous community that God always meant for human beings, a society of mercy and justice, and invites them to explore for themselves how they might follow the hints in Torah to make that community more of a reality.
This is why, at times, Jesus sounds like he is overturning the stated regulations of Torah. In none of these cases is he really repealing the law. He is radicalizing that law. Where the written rule sometimes left room for some evil and violence in Israel, only brought the people part of the way toward God’s intention, Jesus points us ahead to the full and complete restoration of human society. So Moses’ code said “An eye for an eye” to keep Israel from the bloody spiral of ever-increasing retribution. The principle called the people to learn that our lust for vengeance cannot be given free reign. What Jesus does, in the Sermon on the Mount, is to radicalize that call. We cannot be content with simply reigning in our vengeful instincts. Instead he says: “Do not resist and evildoer.” The impulse to revenge and violent retribution should be rooted out of us so completely that we do not even try to avoid the harm in the first place. “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:39-40). The “greater righteousness” of God’s reign is a way of existence that lets go entirely of the impulse to guard our own wellbeing by harming those who threaten us. It abandons the tools of a fallen world and says that they cannot be used in the new world God is bringing. Instead, we learn to live in reckless kindness and generosity, orienting all that we do toward the good of those around us–even those who go on beating us down. Jesus tells us to “Give to everyone who begs from you” regardless of whether we trust them. “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,” regardless of whether we think they will return what they took. It is not even enough to grit our teeth and force ourselves to help the people who have done us violence. No, the “greater righteousness” means coming to actually desire their good. We must be so transformed at our core that we want them to flourish: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Why? “So that you may be children of our Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Israel was called, in Torah, to let her character be re-made into God’s character. They were to “be holy” precisely because “God is holy.” What Jesus declares is that this God is a God of foolhardy generosity, who gives good things regardless of the response, who strives for the healing of human beings even when we have spit in his eye. This is the God whose endless love we were created to reflect in our own lives. Hence Jesus says we must become “perfect,” just as God is “perfect.” This poor translation has led many readers to precisely the wrong conclusion–that Jesus’ focus is on meticulous obedience without slip or failure. Jesus’ term here (teleios) is better translated “complete” or “whole.” We are called to become “whole” human beings by reflecting the nature of God, a God whose reckless goodness shows us what “wholeness” means.
An Impractical Vision
It is important to acknowledge here that Jesus’ “greater righteousness” is completely impractical. If I lend to whoever asks I will probably end up poor myself. If I am beaten up and offer no resistance, I will quite likely become a target for violence. It is understandable that readers since the late third century AD have looked for ways of controlling the Sermon on the Mount, of toning down its demand, of domesticating it. Early on it was suggested that this ethic was only intended for “saints,” for those few with a higher calling to leave the world of ordinary life and become monks or nuns. Those of us who must remain “in the world,” are held to a lower standard. There were, of course, many who were uncomfortable with such a tidy solution. Their voices went largely unheard, though, until the Protestant Reformation. One central tenet of the European Reforms was that there were no such different “ranks” of Christian discipleship, that all were held up to the same standard of life. Yet Protestants quickly found other ways of insulating themselves from this Sermon. Some suggested that Jesus was presenting an “interim ethic” that was only meant to be followed during Jesus’ earthly lifetime–a reading that leaves one wondering why Matthew devotes such a long a prominent passage to a teaching that does not apply to his audience. Another approach, particularly popular with Lutherans, was to say that the demands of the Sermon on the Mount were meant to be impossible. Jesus intended this impossible teaching to drive us to despair of every achieving righteousness, thus clearing ground for genuine faith in Christ by eliminating any option of “legalism.” As we will see, though, this approach seems to import a Protestant theology of faith and works that is quite foreign to Matthew. Meanwhile, though, there have been significant communities of Christians who did try to put the Sermon on the Mount into practice. Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups have often practised a consistent non-violence and non-retaliation, to the point of not defending themselves from military attacks. Monastic communities through the centuries have often practised a similar ethic, even giving up all possessions and living a communal lifestyle. Although this was often a life pursued in geographic isolation, it was just as often practised in peaceful symbiosis with nearby “secular” towns and villages.
This is not to deny, though, that this Kingdom ethic remains highly impractical. Anabaptists were burned and butchered in large numbers (by other Christians!) and have continued to be driven around the world by governments intolerant of their pacifist stance. Monasteries and convents were often favorite targets for bandits and soldiers. Even in modern countries like India or Nigeria it is common in some districts to hear of another church burned, another convert beaten to death, in part because the hostile groups know there will be no violent response. The temptation, especially in our society full of activists and outrage, is to find ways of turning Jesus’ instructions into a backwards aggression. So we sometimes read the suggestion that “turning the other cheek” will force the person who strikes us to hit again with the back of the hand – bringing shame on our attacker. This kind of reading misses the point entirely. Jesus had to show these Israelites how the righteous life was supposed to look because it was not a path that Israel, or anyone else, had been willing to entertain. It made no sense.
I would suggest, though, that Jesus knows he is presenting an impractical ethic and calls his followers to embark on this life anyway! He is not unrealistic. He is hardly naive. He knows that relating to people with this kind of righteousness may well open us to be abused and even killed. And he practiced what he preached. When the soldiers come to seize him at night, in the garden, Jesus does not offer any resistance. He went with them, even though he knew his fate would be to hang naked, shocked, and bleeding for everyone to spit at as they walked past. We often focus so much on the sacrificial significance of Jesus’ death that we miss the simple fact that his non-resistance at Gethsemane demonstrates exactly the way of life Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. As in Mark, so too in Matthew Jesus shows his realism when he calls his followers to pick up their cross and follow him, carrying their own instrument of torture just as he would in Jerusalem. Again, the point here is not at all that we should seek out suffering. Neither are we supposed to say that such brutality is good. It is not. It is, though, what will often happen when people in this world act the way Jesus calls them to in the Sermon on the Mount. Far from being unaware of these realities, Jesus tells his followers up-front what they must be prepared to face. Following him means embracing this “greater righteousness” and sticking with that lifestyle even when it brings pain and suffering. The disciples of Jesus are invited to live the life of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now. They are called to treat everyone around them with the reckless compassion, forgiveness, and mercy that will mark the restored human community when God puts a final end to evil. But they are called to live that way in the midst of a world that has not yet been restored, in the midst of a society that is often violent and perverse. The greater righteousness for which Matthew’s Jesus calls, then, is not just a radical commitment to reflect God’s own mercy. It is a commitment to live this life even though we will likely be injured in the process. As a community of disciples, Jesus invites these Jews to begin living as an outpost of the New Creation in the midst of the brutality of the old.
Salvation and Reward
His Yoke is Easy?
But if this is the “greater righteousness” required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, who can possibly hope to make it in? How can Jesus set the bar so high in Matthew’s Gospel, and then shout out that his “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30)? To begin with, Matthew’s Jesus seems not to demand perfection. Oh, he does end his radical call to love with the command: Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:47). Yet if we understand the Greek word that is translated here by the English “perfect,” we discover that this New Moses is not thinking of a mathematical perfection. It is not a matter of avoiding any mistakes, or having a spotless record. Being “perfect” (teleios) is, rather, a matter of being “complete” or “whole.” Jesus is inviting his audience in Galilee, no matter where they have come from, to truly “repent.” He is inviting them to make a decisive choice to follow his renewed Torah and learn the radical way of the Kingdom, to become what we were meant to be as a reflection of God’s own face to the world. They will learn to re-define what “complete” human living looks like and so reflect again the “wholeness” that God celebrated when he looked at the fresh creation and said “It is very good!”
Jesus does not require that his followers learn this new life before they can join him. On the contrary, he welcomes anyone who will hear his call and begin to follow. Are we to imagine that the hardened prostitutes and tax-collection extortionists he called his friends would suddenly, overnight, grasp what this greater righteousness meant? Still less would their old habits be re-shaped all at once. Even Jesus’ core group of 12, who already seem stubborn and dense in Mark’s account, seem in Matthew’s re-telling even slower to understand this greater righteousness. As in Mark we still see them arguing, late in the Gospel, about who should be given the honoured seats in the Messiah’s royal court. Even as Jesus is standing silent in front of Caiaphas, Peter is desperately trying to save his own hide by denying any association with this crazy Galilean. Yet it is to these women and men – slow to change and hard of hearing – that the risen Christ appears. It is these beginners in the “greater righteousness” to whom he entrusts the task of teaching the rest of the world how to live it out. Far from demanding perfection (or even goodness at first), Jesus offers a kind of total forgiveness, a kind of patience with the failures of fallen people, that shocked the “propriety” of the scribes and Pharisees.
Still, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel pulls no punches in his demand that this repentance, this change of direction, must produce a real change in lifestyle. He may emphasize the internal attitudes that move us to action, but this does not mean the action is optional. Jesus’ final sermon, in Matthew 25-28, is really one extended warning that there is no way into the Kingdom without a transformed life. There the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-12) ends with the groom’s sobering rejection of the foolish women left unprepared: “I do not know you” (25:12). To them the door remains closed. The story of the Sheep and the Goats paints the judgement of humanity in even starker colours. With “all the nations” waiting for his verdict, Christ describes how the royal “Son of Man” will send some into blessing and others into outer darkness (25:32-46). Why? What is he looking for when he turns them to the right or the left? It is not their words, their mere confession of faith. Neither, though, is it their simple faith or their good intentions. It is their actions in this life: “. . . I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you dressed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (25:35-36). To those who saw his need and passed him by, the king says “Go away from me . . . into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels” (25:41). They are “cursed,” bearing the curse of Deuteronomy on those who violate the covenant with God (25:41). What is particularly disturbing to Protestant sensibilities is that these cursed ones are surprised. They recognize the eschatological king and acknowledge him as “Lord” (25:42). These words, though, are not what matters. It only matters how they acted before this judgement.
How do we make sense of this emphasis on Jesus’ demand for “greater righteousness”? How do we reconcile this with Paul’s dictum that human beings are accepted by God “because of faith, not because of obedience to the law” (Gal 2:16)? We will have to leave this question hanging for a while, until we come to Paul’s letters. What is crucial, though, is that we not ignore or silence Matthew’s testimony. Jesus’ core message is the same here as it was in Mark: “repent and believe.” Matthew emphasizes, though, the that the “belief” is not enough if it does not give birth to a transformed lifestyle, new decisions and new habits that manifest the lifestyle of God’s restored world in the midst of the fallen state.