In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made six statements that took old moral laws and re-examined them from God’s point of view. In so doing, Jesus looked at the interior disposition of the person, what we think, rather than what we do. Jesus taught us that it’s not enough to simply avoid evil actions – we must also avoid the evil thoughts that typically lead to such action, even if such thoughts do not lead to action.
This is difficult for some to grasp. We think of morality in terms of actions only: murder, theft, adultery. These things result in injured people; in contrast, no one gets hurt by my thoughts. This is how the world views morality – in terms of justice, in terms of people getting hurt. If I have angry thoughts against another, but do not act on them, then no one gets hurt and justice is secured.
I am, however, a Christian, and as such I am following a special path, living a special way of life, that will lead me to a better place. This path requires more than justice, it requires charity. Christ taught that from an interior vantage point, a thought is as bad as an act. If I get angry at another, it is no personal triumph that I did not murder. Let’s look at these six “antitheses” of Jesus. They all begin with “You have heard it said…” followed by an OT law, after which Jesus prefixes His commentary by saying, “But I say to you…” Jesus begins this series with an introduction:
17 "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Mt 5:17-18)
Jesus is not cancelling these laws; He insists they be maintained. He then comments on each of these six moral laws with a new view for Christians.
21 "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; 26 truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. (Mt 5:21-25)
Jesus here elaborated on one of the ten commandments (Dt 5:17). He explained this in terms of Jewish law: anyone who gets angry is “liable to judgment,” that is, to a local court; anyone who insults is “liable to the council,” that is, to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. But finally, anyone who calls another a fool is liable to hell fire, that is, to eternal damnation. Anger and disdain are thoughts, feelings, part of our animal nature. It is an interior disposition. And this disposition can lead to damnation.
27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Mt 5:27-29)
Another of the ten commandments (Dt 5:18). Looking at someone lustfully implies a desire, so the interior disposition is no different than fulfilling the desire, from an interior point of view. Like no. 1, lust is a feeling derived from our animal nature. Most common exegesis identifies Jesus’ shocking directives (cutting off body parts) as allegory, not to be taken literally. The idea is that there are things or people that can trigger lust and we should remove them from our lives, no matter how important they are to us.
31 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Mt 5:31-32)
This OT law is taken from Dt 24:1-4. A common understanding by exegetes is that Moses knew some men would not be able to remain faithfully married for life, and would murder their wives to end the marriage, so he granted an allowance for divorce, to avoid a greater sin. Here Jesus clarifies that marriage is for life, therefore re-marriage after divorce is like adultery; i.e., divorce may be a social reality, but it is not an interior reality.
33 "Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil. (Mt 5:33-37)
The OT law is taken from Dt 23:21. This law concerns honesty. It was a custom in Jesus’ day to swear oaths to declare honesty. A Christian’s speech should be, however, innately honest; our interior disposition should be honest. I should not limit honest speech to only special moments of authenticity.
St. Jerome noted the four things Jesus uses as examples (swearing by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and your head) are all creatures. Another law of Deuteronomy says we must swear only by God’s name, which is the Covenant oath.
13 You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name. (Dt 6:13)
Swearing by creatures implies desiring a covenant with them as if they were gods, a kind of idolatry.
38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. (Mt 5:38-42)
This OT law is from Dt 19:21. If someone does a bad thing to you, then you should be able to do a bad thing back to them, for that is justice, right? No. Not only is it not justice, but charity demands that we extinguish our retaliatory feelings by doing good in return for evil. Retaliation is shown here as a desire to avenge; again, a feeling, an interior disposition.
43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:43-48)
This OT law is from Lv 19:18, however that law only directed Israel to love their neighbor; there is no OT law directing Israel to hate their enemies.(1) One theory is that Israel believed “neighbor” to mean only fellow Israelites. Then Gentiles could be counted as non-neighbors and so there was no commandment to love them. In some cases, certain nations were counted as enemies, such as Canaan or Philistia. Dt 20 describes warfare laws to be followed against Israel’s “enemies.” Some exegetes believe these add up to hatred of enemies and is the source of Jesus’ quote. (For more commentary on this 6th antithesis, see HERE.)
An interesting point of these six commentaries of Jesus is that He drew laws only from Deuteronomy, the Second Law which was authored by Moses, not by God. The Law which God gave to Israel, which He dictated to Moses, was enumerated in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers only. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, was Moses’ farewell speech to Israel before they entered the Promised Land without him. The laws he taught here were his own words, many paraphrased from Exodus and Leviticus, but many of his own device (e.g., see commentary on no. 3 above). Jesus, who gave the Law to Moses on Sinai, here points out a few of Moses’ moral directives and explains how the interior disposition of a person is at the heart of these moral laws. He does not say the laws are wrong. It seems that He was noting that these human laws established a morality based on justice, on the external actions. Jesus’ commentary was an elevation of these just laws to Divine law, which is based on charity and the interior disposition of the actor. We Christians want to live a life based on charity, so these explanations are very helpful.
Another interesting point is that Jesus chose six laws. We know from another commentary that the number six represents “not-the-covenant.” From our Christian perspective, we see that Jesus here declared the old Law to be no longer covenantal. However, Jesus said, “… I say to you…” seven times, if we notice v.26 in no. 1 above; then we see our covenantal number – and is associated with the words of Jesus. Moreover, that special 7th declaration in the original Greek uses the word “amen” instead of the RSVCE translation, “truly.” That amen is an expression of the covenant in both Hebrew and Greek (which is why we end our prayers with it). Its as if Matthew is specifically pointing out this 7th, special use of “… I say to you…” conjoined with covenant terminology. Our takeaway is that the New Covenant looks at the interior dispositions behind the Old Covenant moral laws, and not only the external actions. And we know this because it is Jesus who says so to us, He who gave the OT Laws in the first place.
(1) Interesting: The commandment to love your neighbor in Lv 19:18 is immediately preceded by Lv 19:17, which states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Not only does the law command we must not hate, but it clarifies that hate is a thing of the heart, of the interior disposition. (back)