Jesus Amends the Law in the Sermon on the Mount

Returning to a Gospel theme of Christ’s kingship, we consider how Jesus both teaches and amends the laws of Leviticus in regard to six matters. Let’s keep in mind that a rabbi is supposed to preserve and teach the law, not to amend it. By modifying the law, Christ is laying claim to his special relationship with God. Of course, we know that Jesus is the Son of God.

So where does Jesus amend the law? In the Sermon on the Mount, which is chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew. An Evangelical friend of mine told me that Christ could not amend the law, as the Book of Leviticus is God-given Holy Scripture, and therefore inerrant. He also cited Matthew 5:17, where Jesus tells the crowd: do not think that I have come to abolish the law, … not the smallest letter nor the smallest part of the letter will pass from the law.

Not so fast.  In Matthew 19:8, Jesus tells us that ” Because of the hardness of your hearts, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” According to Jesus, Moses introduced this particular law.  This precept was not introduced by God to stand for all of eternity, it was introduced by a man – Moses.

Getting back to the Sermon on the Mount… which laws does Jesus modify?  He goes beyond three of the ten commandments.  And he overturns three Levitical laws introduced by Moses or Jewish tradition:

1) On murder and anger.  The law states, Thou shalt not kill.  Jesus expands the prescript, stating that unchecked anger is opposed to salvation.  Jesus further states that we are to settle, or make peace with our brothers before we find ourselves are judged by God. Note that this is commentary on the sixth (fifth) commandment.   Mt. 5: 21-26

2) On an impure heart.  Jesus expands a second prescript.  He says it is not only wrong to commit adultery, but it is also wrong to look upon a woman lustfully. This advice is an elaboration on the tenth (ninth) commandment – thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.  Mt. 5: 27-30

3) On divorce.  Jesus overturns the Levitical custom of allowing for a divorce.  He says that one who divorces and marries again commits adultery, as does the one who marries a divorced person.  He does make an exception for unlawful marriages, which I do not want to get into as that subject is fodder for a post on its own.   Mt.5:31-33

4) On deceit, and invoking God as a witness.  Jesus overturns this prescript, stating that it is wrong to swear by God.  He says, let your “yes” mean yes, and your “no” mean no.  Jesus implicitly forecloses any sort of verbal deceit.  Jesus is thus elaborating on the ninth (eighth) commandment, widening the definition of “to bear false witness” beyond testimony to include any sort of verbal dishonesty.  Do you notice that Jesus is instructing on personal Christian ethics, and not just amending the law?  Mt. 5:33-37

5) On revenge.  Here Jesus comments on a gap in Old Testament Semitic thinking, as the ten commandments do not prohibit revenge.  In fact, the Levitic law allows such punishment, from a juridic point of view.  In this case, Jesus says emphatically “Forget it!”  Revenge is not acceptable.  Thus we have the very difficult prescripts from Christ to a) offer the other cheek when struck on the first side of the face, and b) to cooperate with someone who forces us into service, indeed, to go the extra mile.  What Christ is saying is that confrontation and conflict are not Christian approaches to settling disputes or even injustice.  Tough pill to swallow, for many Christians.  It helps to read the entire Gospel of Matthew to put the phrase turn the other cheek in to context. But then again, Jesus did just that. He was beaten and suffered crucifixion, though he committed no crime.  Mt.5:38-42

6) On the treatment of an enemy. Actually, it is a Semitic custom to be welcoming of strangers.  However, enemies were not, in the Old Testament, generally accorded hospitable treatment.  This is another social custom that Jesus suggests ought to be tossed out the window.  He makes an interesting argument, stating that, from God’s point of view, “If you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? So be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”   Mt. 5:43-48

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