The Sermon on the Mount – Law

In Matthew 5:1-14 we hear Jesus describing the qualities of the new community. It is populated by the “poor in spirit,” those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and who are “persecuted.” But the members of this community are also salt and light who preserve and illumine their world. 

In verse 17, Jesus turns to consider the morality that will govern this community. He takes up the question of what status the laws of Torah will hold. Read verses 17 through 20 carefully. Here Jesus treats the law as a concept. What does he say? Why would this have been so important for Matthew’s audience? Think back to the writings of Paul. What status does the law have in, for instance, Galatians or Romans? Does Matthew agree?

Next Jesus considers four specific provisions, three of them from the ten commandments. Remember, this is apodictic law, which lays out universal principles (do not murder), as opposed to casuistic law, which applies to specific circumstances (is it murder if you kill a thief who broke into your home?). Jesus considers murder, adultery, divorce (not one of the commandments), and the swearing of oaths.

Jesus’ commentary on the law is very much what you would expect of a Rabbi/Pharisee, except that he claims more authority than simply that of the commentator. He modifies and expands the law using the formula “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In each of the four cases, what does he do to the law? Does he make it easier or harder to follow? 

In the final two pericopes of chapter 5, Jesus continues the “you have heard…but I say” theme, but these interpretations begin to shift direction.

We’ll treat verses 38 through 42 in class following a theory offered by theologian Walter Wink. These verses have often been used to argue that oppressed communities and persons ought to accept their lot, but we’ll see that they in fact offer a powerful, nonviolent means of resisting oppression. We might think of these verses as Matthew’s (or Jesus’s!) strategy for coping with persecution.

Verses 43 through 47 begin with an admonition not actually in the Torah, the command to hate one’s enemy, and conclude with a summary of what Jesus expects of his followers with respect to the law: “Be perfect.” Hmm…we’ll have to think about that! 

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