Legal obedience is not enough

After his explanation concerning right and wrong attitudes to the law, Jesus gives a number of examples. He introduces these examples with statements such as ‘You have heard that it was said in the past’. This is not the same as ‘It is written’. Jesus is not quoting from the Old Testament but from the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. He is not contradicting the law but the interpretations of the law that the scribes taught. In so doing he explains the real meaning of the law and the necessity for more than mere legal obedience. He is not writing a new law, but showing his people that they must have a new attitude. The Jewish religious leaders used the law to govern outward actions, but Jesus wants to control the heart.

In his first example Jesus shows that to refrain from murder is not enough. The spirit of anger and revenge that leads to murder must be removed from the heart (Matt 5:21-22). Besides controlling their anger, disciples of Jesus should try to make peace with those who are angry with them. Even in worldly affairs an offender would be wise to reach agreement with his opponent quickly. Otherwise he may find himself in worse circumstances by receiving an unfavourable judgment in court (Matt 5:23-26).

Like murder, adultery is the final fruit of wrong thoughts and uncontrolled feelings. The eye sees, the mind desires and the body acts. Therefore, the eye, as well as the rest of the body, must be brought under control, whatever the cost. Temptation must be cut at the source (Matt 5:27-30).

Another common sin that resulted from a misunderstanding of the law was divorce. In a time of widespread social disorder, Moses had introduced a law to prevent easy divorce and protect innocent partners (Deut 24:1-4). Certain teachers then twisted the meaning of Moses’ law to allow easy divorce. Jesus rejected such use of the law and referred them back to God’s original standard (Matt 5:31-32).

Many Jews considered that if, in swearing an oath, they did not use God’s name, they were not bound by that oath. If they swore ‘by heaven’, ‘by earth’, ‘by Jerusalem’ or ‘by the head’ and then broke their oath, they felt no guilt, because such oaths did not use the name of God. Jesus says they should not need to swear oaths at all. Everything they say should be true, honest and straightforward (Matt 5:33-37).

When Moses laid down a law code for civil governments, he established the principle that the punishment had to fit the crime. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a scratch for a scratch’ meant that there had to be a heavy punishment for a major offence, and a light punishment for a minor offence (Exod 21:23-25). But once again people took a legal regulation of civil government and twisted it to suit their purposes. They now felt free to take personal revenge on anyone who did them wrong. Jesus shows that his followers must not demand their rights every time they are wronged, but show loving forgiveness (attitudes that also were taught in the law of Moses; Exod 23:4-5; Lev 19:17-18). The spirit that rules in their hearts must not be the same as that which rules in the code of legal justice (Matt 5:38-42).

The saying that encouraged Jews to hate their enemies did not come from the law of Moses, as the above Old Testament references clearly show. It came from the traditions of the scribes. God’s people must love their enemies. They are doing nothing exceptional if they love only those who are friends, for even the ungodly do that. The Christians’ example is found in God, who gives rain and food to those who love him and those who hate him. He makes no distinctions, and as Christians follow his example, their character will become increasingly like his (Matt 5:43-48).

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